“A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking” by T. Kingfisher

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This is young adult book with a fourteen-year-old protagonist opens with a dead body on the bakery’s floor. Young Mona is a baker with an ability to magically affect dough, and her power becomes crucial to save her city. The book is plot-driven, and also emphasizes Mona’s relationships with others (without a romance!) and her embodied experience.

This quick read resonates with current events and also provides a satisfying distraction. Recommended!

Available at Powell’s Books.

“The Politics of Trauma” by Staci K. Haines

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Subtitle: Somatics, Healing, and Social Justice

Recommended to me by: Darryl C.

This book rang true to me from beginning to end. Staci Haines combines embodied trauma work with social justice, and everything she says fits with what I already know and takes it further.

Many healing modalities view trauma and abuse as individual problems. Instead, Haines puts trauma and abuse in the context of our abusive social structures that put individuals in harm’s way. White supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and environmental destruction divide us from one another and keep us from learning the skills we need to treat each other with care. They keep us divided from ourselves as we try to heal.

Safety, belonging, and dignity are core needs that should be met together for everyone. Traumatic and abusive situations put one in conflict with another – we can choose either safety or dignity, either dignity or belonging. Our bodies deeply learn traumatized ways of responding to the world.

We can form declarations and commitments: statements about our core beliefs and goals that guide our healing. For example, “I am a commitment to be in my skin without apology.” (Lisa Thomas-Adeyemo) We can discover what commitments and declarations we have unconsciously adopted or had imposed upon us. Declarations can be personal or community-oriented or both.

We can find what supports us and practice resilience, reminding ourselves to come out of trauma mode. Social justice organizations can also collectively practice resilience. We can rebuild safety and trust at the embodied, physical level. We can relearn boundaries and requests.

To help someone heal, we blend with the patterns that are already true for them, and help them notice what the pattern has been taking care of for them. As the body is supported and honored, the underlying physical and emotional memories and holding patterns can be released. We can help someone feel allied with, exactly as their body needs to feel it.

For example, make a fist with one hand. With the other hand, try to pry it open. How does that feel? Instead, let your other hand support the fist with curiosity and kindness. How does that feel? What happens with your fist? With the rest of your body?

Trauma is held in the body through bands of tension, or absent slackness. A healthy body has relaxed presence. Somatic opening is encouraged by blending with what is there and allowing it to release and transform. While emotions often arise during a release, cathartic emotion is not the goal.

We can discern what shame is ours and what belongs to others. We can blend with shame, hearing its messages, and look underneath to what it is hiding or protecting. Often shame is preferable to feeling powerless, helpless, or abandoned. We can learn to take centered accountability rather than being over- or under-accountable for our actions. We can sit with the complex questions around our responsibilities. We can learn about forgiveness of others and self-forgiveness. “Even if … [shameful act or belief], I am forgivable.”

We can learn to be present with ourselves and with others at the same time. We can learn to hold contradictions and conflict. We can learn how to have generative rather than destructive conflicts.

Personal healing and social justice organizing can support and serve each other.

I loved this quote at the beginning.

The Church says: The body is a sin.
Science says: The body is a machine.
Advertising says: The body is a business.
The body says: I am a fiesta.
—Eduardo Galeano, from “Window on the Body”

Highly recommended for activists and healers!

Available at Powell’s Books.

“In an Absent Dream” by Seanan McGuire

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Recommended to me by: Reading Every Heart a Doorway

This is book 4 in the Wayward Children series, and it stuck with me more than the others. Katherine Lundy finds a doorway to the Goblin Market world, where everything has its price, but unlike in our capitalism, the Market ensures that the bargains are fair. Children find their way in, and the rules are more gentle for the younger ones.

To me, the ending does not seem fair. Of course, a lot of things happen to children and young adults in this world that are horrifically unfair, and sometimes we also make it look like the children had a free choice, when they did not fully understand the consequences of their choices.

Thought-provoking. Highly recommended.

I also read “Beneath the Sugar Sky” and “Come Tumbling Down” in this series. They were more plot-driven.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Every Heart a Doorway” by Seanan McGuire

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Recommended to me by: Tor.com giveaway

What happens to the kids who go through a portal to another world, and then get stuck back in this one? They might get grouped together at a school for wayward children where they can tell each other about their worlds and try to re-acclimate.

There was some unexpected violence in the plot, but there is also a deep vein of kindness in this book, as well as a deep vein of understanding for children feeling completely at sea in the world they find themselves in – this world.

Highly recommended.

The sequel, “Down Among the Sticks and Bones” has more violence and less kindness (although still some) with strong opinions about children being people, not paper dolls.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Invisible Women” by Caroline Criado Perez

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Subtitle: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men

Recommended to me by: Dave C

This is an engagingly written, data-driven compilation of all the ways women are left out of important scientific and civic decisions, to our serious detriment. Often data isn’t even collected in a way that shows relevant differences between men and women. Men are considered the default, “typical,” “normal” person, while women (51% of the population) are the atypical awkward exceptions. It includes language (does “Man” mean everyone, or not?), budgeting decisions, bathrooms, safety equipment design and size, public transit, cleaning chemicals, medical treatments, political expectations and judgments, etc.

Despite its calm, matter-of-fact tone, it is infuriating to read.

I usually don’t add books here that I haven’t read in full, but I want to keep track of this one as a reference and highly recommend it even though I don’t have the emotional stamina to read it now.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Bodyfulness” by Christine Caldwell, PhD

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Subtitle: Somatic Practices for Presence, Empowerment, and Waking Up in This Life

Recommended to me by: Darryl C

“Bodyfulness” is the embodied version of mindfulness, presence without leaving the body behind. Caldwell brings in Tibetan Buddhism, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, and her own experiences with movement and presence. The different modalities felt awkwardly pushed together in places, with superficial coverage of anatomy and neurology. Perhaps she came to the topic from an academic perspective and forgot to talk with bodyworkers and others who make a lifelong practice of body awareness.

There are practices to try out in each section to explore body awareness.

8 principles of bodyfulness:

  1. oscillation – movement through a range, with a preference to stay mostly in the middle of the range. Our cells, our organs, our whole body, all have oscillations.
  2. balance – pausing, like balancing on one leg, and also being centered, not getting stuck at the far end of an oscillation
  3. feedback loops – sensing and moving, trading information back and forth. Also cross-connections between different systems.
  4. energy conservation – habits conserve energy by not having to figure them out every time. Movement plans (such as reaching, or standing) do the same thing at a body level.
  5. discipline – practice leads to grace. “Use it or lose it.” This was a brief section and felt grafted on.
  6. change and challenge – our bodies change under the challenge of new needs or a new environment
  7. contrast through novelty – when something is new, it gets our attention and perhaps elicits change.
  8. associations and emotions – guide our actions, memories, experiences.

4 themes

  1. breathing – this book, about awareness of the body, says that gravity does the work of the outbreath. Which moves up. No. The diaphragm relaxing up into a dome shape lets the outbreath move without additional effort. This error alone made me lose all confidence in this book.
  2. sensing – add kinesthesia to the usual 5 senses. Balance the amount of sensory awareness, and the amount of attention inwardly or outwardly.
  3. moving – motor plans and motor development, probably from Sensorimotor Psychotherapy. Some basic exercises to address trauma held in the body.
  4. relating – borders, boundaries, and coregulation.

Bodyful Applications included material on oppression, activism, and bodily authority. It also explores the contrast of bodylessness: ignoring the body, seeing the body as a problem or project, hating the body, and making one’s own or other people’s bodies wrong.

Unfortunately there is an ongoing theme of “curb your addictions” and “fix your eating habits” in the examples. It seems strange to have judgmental examples in a book about body awareness and acceptance. Also there is a non-ironic positive use of “trickle-down economics.”

This is such a great topic, addressed in an oddly skewed way, as if it’s trying to match up modalities that don’t quite fit. It has interesting information, but I can’t trust any of it when basic facts about breathing are simply wrong. It would be a good start for someone who hasn’t thought about body awareness at all and needs a step by step introduction to the idea.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Victory Over Verbal Abuse” by Patricia Evans

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Subtitle: A Healing Guide to Renewing Your Spirit and Reclaiming Your Life

Recommended to me by: Reading Patricia Evans’ earlier books about verbal abuse many years ago

Patricia Evans named the severity and prevalence of verbal abuse and offers validation and healing for survivors. Her earlier books “The Verbally Abusive Relationship” and “Verbal Abuse Survivors Speak Out” focus on describing verbal abuse and coping with it. This book focuses on healing from the aftermath once the abuse is over. She recommends no contact with abusers.

She states clearly and repeatedly that verbal abuse is not the survivor’s fault. The abuser has projected their self into their victim and is not recognizing the victim as a separate person. Healing involves recognizing that and rebuilding one’s self.

The book includes a summary of what verbal abuse is, including survivor stories, brief descriptions of trauma healing modalities, and a set of 52 affirmations such as “I am confident even as I confront the unknown,” with a page or two of accompanying text.

The trauma healing modality called “Healing the Spirit” had some victim-blaming quotes, but the rest of the book is wonderfully free of that.

Recommended if you are in the process of healing from verbal abuse and would like an understanding guide.

Patricia Evans’ website.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“My Grandmother’s Hands” by Resmaa Menakem

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Subtitle: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies

Recommended to me by: Naomi Ardea

Resmaa Menakem is a Black psychotherapist and teacher. He addresses the ways white supremacy, which he calls white body supremacy, is perpetuated through trauma in Black, white, and police bodies. He says we each have to learn to settle our bodies, individually and collectively. He distinguishes the clean pain of addressing and healing trauma from the dirty pain of avoiding it.

I appreciate the insights and settling practices in this book. African-Americans have a history of trauma from slavery, as well as the day-to-day trauma and stress of racism. White people also had a history of trauma before colonizing the Americas. This trauma is passed down the generations through epigenetics and patterns of traumatizing behavior. He brings up the trauma of inflicting or witnessing violence, which afflicts police bodies.

He says white bodies and police bodies reflexively feel threatened by Black bodies. He talks about police saying they “couldn’t help it” and “feared for their lives” when talking about shooting and killing unarmed Black people, often in the back. He adds “annihilate” to “fight, flight, or freeze,” but never discusses it directly as a trauma or nervous system response.

He asserts that white bodies have generational trauma from historical conflicts in Europe. He does not address the trauma of immigration itself, abandoning all that is known for a wholly unfamiliar place, leaving behind family and social connections. In addition, his emphasis on generational trauma elides individual present-time trauma, letting individuals off the hook.

There are some metaphors and simplifications that don’t work for me. Calling the vagus nerve the “soul nerve.” Saying it causes or holds emotions that are held in the whole body. Saying that it is responsible for activation responses in the body, when those are caused by the sympathetic nervous system. Saying it makes us human. No, reptiles and mammals have vagus nerves.

Most of the suggested exercises in the book are intended to settle the body, or to mindfully and gently address an activating memory. And then, on page 199 of the hardcover edition, at the beginning of the chapter on Mending the White Heart and Body, a sickening, violent act is described with the specific invitation to put yourself in the scene. It is not even marked as an exercise in the same way as the other exercises, and there is no content warning.

I had a teacher in a massage class once who similarly ended a guided meditation in a shocking way. I think some people imagine that they need to show people what trauma feels like, when many of us have plenty of experience with it already. I am disappointed that the book was published with this mistaken assumption included.

The final chapters contain concrete advice for creating cohesive and resilient social justice groups and events.

Overall, this is an important book with important ideas. It takes a step forward into addressing the trauma of slavery, racism, policing, and white supremacy.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Drowned Country” by Emily Tesh

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Recommended to me by: Reading Silver in the Wood

I loved the unusual aspects of the previous novella, “Silver in the Wood.” This one was also well-written, but more stereotypical (selfish young white man protagonist) and plot-driven rather than character-driven. Oddly I found it had less tension and horror, perhaps because it moved faster. The ending is warm and fuzzy, but leaves me concerned for the non-selfish characters. I was not convinced that any redemption arc had occurred, even if I were interested in redemption arcs of selfish young white men.

When I love the world-building and character-building of a first book, I’m noticing that the second book tends to be less satisfying for me, because the author seems to say, “Now that we got all that out of the way, let’s do things.” The characters get moved around rather than developed.

On the positive side, I was pleased by the matter-of-fact inclusion of queer characters. This novella is a good diversion while stuck inside due to pandemic + atrocious air quality from wildfire smoke. I got this as an ebook from the library, and that’s a good way to read it.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“The Inner Work of Racial Justice” by Rhonda V. Magee

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Subtitle: Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities Through Mindfulness

Rhonda V. Magee is a Black woman law professor at the University of San Francisco. She has studied mindfulness in depth, and uses it to get through difficult conversations about race with students as well as live with ever-present microaggressions. She teaches mindfulness to help people pause before reacting, increase inner tolerance for strong emotions, and to stay connected with themselves and others.

The first half of the book very gently and slowly encourages the reader to admit that racism exists and might be part of their lives. This is the opposite of Layla Saad’s direct approach in Me and White Supremacy. I can see that different approaches work well for different people.

The strongest message of the book is that we need to stay in mindful, non-violent conversation with each other (and ourselves) about race. Not until the last chapter does she add a caveat about retreating from people who threaten violence. I would add a second caveat about people who are simply not listening or engaging in good faith. Most of her examples include students or workshop participants who have chosen to learn from her, or community members who have an existing motivation to stay connected.

With the addition of those caveats, I agree that we are all in the racist soup together, each learning at our own pace, and we can do our best to be kind to people who are not as knowledgeable as we are, just as more knowledgeable people continue to be kind to us. I wanted to see more about reaching one’s limits and reacting with anger and frustration. There is a place for that, as well as a lot of good work to be done in the world with mindful listening.

Highly recommended for people who are new to anti-racist work, or new to meditation, but not both. I think it would be difficult to learn both from a book at the same time. I have some experience with both and the pace felt slow, but I still got a lot from the book.

Meditations and articles at Rhonda V. Magee’s website

Available at Powell’s Books.