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All Religion & Spirituality Coverage

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The Mennonite community is at once an evangelizing religious group and a “tribe.” As novelist Sofia Samatar (A Stranger in Olondria) explains, the tribe consists of the white descendants of its Swiss, German and Dutch founders, but the religion is growing fastest in Africa. Samatar embodies that duality: Her white American mother met her Black Somali father on a church mission. They raised their family in the United States, where Samatar went to Mennonite schools.

So how does Samatar make sense of her identity? To answer this question, she set out to explore how Mennonites have interacted with other cultures and chose an extreme example: The 1880–84 trek of a small, sturdy group of “Volga” German Mennonites led by minister Claas Epp Jr. Inspired in part by an 18th-century German novel, he thought Jesus would return to Central Asia in 1889. The trekkers landed in what is now Uzbekistan, and while the world didn’t end the way Epp expected it to, the Soviets did eventually force his community out of the country.

The White Mosque is Samatar’s thoughtful, gorgeously written account of a tour she took retracing the trekkers’ challenging path to their new settlement, where they lived for some 50 years. But her pleasantly digressive book encompasses much more: Central Asian culture, the memoirs of teen trekkers, Mennonite martyrs, doomsday beliefs, her father’s disillusionment, her own searching adolescence at a Mennonite boarding school. She even includes a beautiful reverie on how the settlers must have felt on the day that Jesus did not return. (Epp just kept moving the date until he suffered a mental collapse.) 

Samatar’s trip culminates in what remains of “White Mosque” village, where current Muslim residents have established a museum commemorating their odd but fondly remembered former neighbors. Back in 1935 when the Soviets rounded up the Mennonites for exile, their distraught local employees wept.

Understandably, when Samatar embarked on her pilgrimage, she was seeking a kind of self-understanding as a brown girl in a Germanic tradition. Instead, she learned to love the trekkers’ “wrongness.” After all, fragmentation can make a lovely mosaic.

The White Mosque is Sofia Samatar’s thoughtful, gorgeously written account of a fringe Mennonite group in Central Asia, and her own search for self-understanding as a brown girl in a Germanic tradition.
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Escape, by definition, is rarely easy, and in Uncultured, Daniella Mestyanek Young illustrates just how difficult it can be. Leaving the Children of God, the cult she was born into, and surviving the U.S. Army, a group she chose to enlist in as a young adult, have both left many scars. Lucky for readers, she found her way through both experiences and then wrote it all down.

The Children of God, founded in California in 1969 by “failed fifty-year-old preacher” David Berg, appealed to members of the counterculture as a spiritual path to inner peace. The author’s mother grew up in “the Family,” as their cult was known, and became pregnant at 14, but Mestyanek Young didn’t learn who her real father was until she was a teenager herself. By then, she had been beaten and sexually abused by various “Uncles,” who were aided and abetted by “Aunties,” who disliked Mestyanek Young’s constant questioning of and growing resistance to their many rules—including “sharing” sex as a form of God’s love. Women and girls were expected to serve men’s demands, and education for children was minimal, which made it especially difficult to transition to the wider world at age 15.

As hard as it is to absorb the grotesque details of her childhood, so unflinchingly disclosed, reading about Mestyanek Young’s life after leaving the cult behind is no easier on the heart. Her career as one of the first female combatants in Afghanistan helped elevate her to a captain, while making her an easy target for soldiers unused to such parity. As the Army slowly learned to accommodate women, she was repeatedly warned, “Don’t get raped.” But what, she wondered, were the men being warned about?

Mestyanek Young ponders not the differences between these two groups—God’s Army and the U.S. Army—but their similarities. Uncultured vividly cautions readers to choose a group in which you can be yourself—and be free.

In her debut memoir, Daniella Mestyanek Young ponders not the differences between the cult she grew up in and the U.S. Army, but their similarities.

A Hat for Mrs. Goldman

Sophia’s next-door neighbor, Mrs. Goldman, knits hats for just about everybody she knows, and Sophia helps by making the pompoms that go on top. “Keeping keppies warm is our mitzvah,” Mrs. Goldman tells Sophia, explaining that “a mitzvah is a good deed.” When Mrs. Goldman gives her own hat away, Sophia wants to knit her something special, but knitting turns out to be harder than she realized. I love this sweet introduction to the Jewish concept of mitzvot. Author Michelle Edwards’ text has lots of delightful little details, like when Sophia notices that a hat she and Mrs. Goldman began knitting together many years ago still smells like chicken soup. But what gets me every time is Edwards’ description of Sophia’s emotions when she realizes the perfect solution to her knitting woes: “Sophia feels her heart grow bigger and lighter, like a balloon.” If ever a book were a mitzvah, it would be A Hat for Mrs. Goldman.

—Stephanie, Associate Editor

America

Jean Baudrillard was a French philosopher whose obsessive analysis of the effects of unchecked consumerism becomes more prescient with each passing day. In his 1988 essay collection, America, Baudrillard follows Route 66 across the United States toward Death Valley, California, as he seeks to answer a seemingly simple question: What makes an American? The thing that synthesizes American identity, he finds, is faith: from the evangelical fervor of Salt Lake City, to Las Vegas’ ascendant belief in the dollar, to the ever-elusive future of San Franciscan tech lords. Everywhere he looks, Baudrillard finds sprawling cities not built on trade or natural resources but suspended on dust clouds, spinning rivers of capital and an unshakable belief in American mastery over nature, by whatever means. Even if you disagree with Baudrillard’s funny, sometimes biting analysis of the United States, his surprisingly nuanced poetry, complex worldview and foreign perspective still make for a unique and engaging read during these dynamic times.

—Anthony, Editorial Intern

Open Book

Growing up in the 1990s and 2000s, I knew that Jessica Simpson had started out singing in church. What surprised me when I read her memoir, Open Book, however, was how much Simpson’s Christian faith still matters to her all these years later. The book opens with the day she decided to stop drinking, after years of using alcohol to quell her anxiety through tough relationships and even tougher career breaks. As she gets honest with friends about her dependency on alcohol, the group decides to pray together to validate Simpson’s decision. This moment of honesty and faith is a good entry point, since these values are Simpson’s guiding lights throughout her memoir. She’s honest with readers about childhood sexual abuse, the demands of record labels, her marriage to Nick Lachey, her relationships with family and the wild ups and downs that have shaped her life’s terrain. At every point, Simpson’s Baptist roots ground her and keep her from straying too far from her authentic self.

—Christy, Associate Editor

The Sparrow

First published in 1996, Mary Doria Russell’s science fiction classic The Sparrow examines organized religion and faith on a cosmic scale. Spanning the years 2014 to 2060, the novel follows an interstellar mission led by skilled linguist and Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz to discover the source of hauntingly beautiful music that was detected on a planet four light-years away. Accompanied by a motley yet qualified group of friends, Emilio feels called by God to explore the planet and make contact with its alien inhabitants, the music makers. But as the trip unfolds, the group’s well-meaning intentions have catastrophic consequences that cause Emilio to have a crisis of faith. Raised Catholic, Russell left the church at an early age, identified as an atheist for several years and later converted to Judaism. This background, combined with her skills as a multilinguist and her career in paleoanthropology, provide a unique perspective from which to tell such a rich, multifaceted story.

—Katherine, Subscriptions

Hana Khan Carries On

Uzma Jalaluddin’s enemies-to-lovers romance Hana Khan Carries On is a joyful homage to the classic 1990s rom-com You’ve Got Mail, with an Indian Canadian family’s halal restaurant subbing in for the Shop Around the Corner. Hana is our leopard-print hijab-wearing heroine, and she dreams of someday telling true stories that honor her Muslim culture and community. The local radio station where Hana interns is hyperfocused on Muslim stereotypes, so she creates an anonymous podcast to express her true thoughts. Meanwhile, her family’s business has run up against a competing restaurant, with an attractive man named Aydin leading the charge. But as romance grows and the restaurants duke it out, the heart of the novel remains with Hana. Despite microaggressions at the radio station and outright racism on the streets of Toronto, she remains strong in her culture and religion, never abandoning these parts of herself. She finds happiness by being her whole wonderful self—a lover, a fighter, a devout Muslim woman, an open-hearted storyteller and a heroine to believe in.

—Cat, Deputy Editor

Whether your own approach to religion is devout, irreverent or somewhere in between, you’ll find characters to relate to within these narratives.
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Ten-year-old Tad Lincoln loved the theater, especially one animated performer he watched at a Washington, D.C., playhouse in 1863. “I’d like to meet that actor,” he said. “He makes you thrill.” Tad quickly got his wish: After the performance, the stage manager escorted him and his friend into the actor’s dressing room, where John Wilkes Booth greeted them warmly. “The future murderer of Tad’s father gave a rose to each child from a bouquet presented him over the footlights,” writes historian Terry Alford in his endlessly fascinating book In the Houses of Their Dead: The Lincolns, the Booths, and the Spirits.

Alford knows his subject inside and out, having written Fortune’s Fool, a landmark biography of Booth that Karen Joy Fowler has praised as a major resource for her novel, Booth. In the Houses of Their Dead explores both the Lincolns’ and the Booths’ enthrallment with spiritualism, the belief that living people can communicate with deceased people’s spirits. Members of both families were shattered time after time by a litany of heartbreaking, often torturous illnesses and deaths, which inspired a desire to communicate with their dead loved ones. The two families even sometimes turned to the same mediums, which is just one of many historical threads that tie these two tragedy-bound families together. And yes, there were numerous White House seances, one of which was said to have levitated Abraham Lincoln in the Red Room as he sat atop a grand piano!

Alford seamlessly tells the two families’ stories, starting with the major players’ childhoods and continuing until their deaths—and after. He’s a fair-minded narrator of these complicated historical figures, never casting judgment but rather letting the historical record speak for itself through his riveting, elegant prose. He presents, for instance, Lincoln as a young man playing a prank on a friend by persuading two other friends to dress as ghosts as they walked home one dark night. “Never have I seen another who provoked so much mirth and who entered into rollicking fun with such glee. He could make a cat laugh,” wrote one admirer. That characterization certainly contrasts with the more common portrayal of a brooding, whip-smart but sometimes awkward Lincoln.

Alford sets the historical stage well, allowing readers to understand the emotional underpinnings of Lincoln’s assassination, which he memorably describes. Particularly fascinating are the details of its aftermath—how, for instance, Mary Todd Lincoln was left with restricted funds, living in boarding houses and rented rooms as she tried to deal with the deaths of her husband and, ultimately, three of her beloved sons. In 1872, a noted “spirit photographer” produced an image of her that supposedly showed Lincoln standing behind her, hands on her shoulders, with one of their lost sons nearby.

The history of Abraham Lincoln and his enthrallment with spiritualism has never been more surprising than in Terry Alford’s In the Houses of Their Dead.
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The losses continue to mount as we enter year three of the COVID-19 pandemic. While this grief is still new, weathering sorrow is as old as humanity. Four authors offer hidden paths toward healing.

Bittersweet

Like Quiet, Susan Cain’s bestselling book on introversion, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole eschews American cultural norms like mandatory happiness and productivity in favor of other more fertile traditions, such as Aristotle’s concept of melancholia. Cain asks provocative questions like, “What’s the use of sadness?” and seeks answers through academic studies, insightful interviews and vulnerable self-reflection. A standout example is her interaction with Dacher Keltner, a psychologist who helped Pixar understand the crucial role of sadness in Inside Out. Sadness, he says, is what brings people together and adds depth to joy.

Bittersweetness is both a feeling and a disposition. (The book includes a quiz for readers to determine if they are bittersweet by nature.) Experiencing bittersweetness heightens life’s poignancy, opens the door to transcendence and helps people acknowledge the impermanence of existence. It is reasonable to be sad, Cain explains, when one is deeply aware that life can change in an instant. Grief and trauma may even be inherited. But when we explore these bittersweet feelings, we begin to see ourselves and our world a bit differently, with more depth, and can finally find new paths forward. As one of Cain’s sources Rene Denfeld put it, “We have to hold our losses close, and carry them like beloved children. Only when we accept these terrible pains do we realize that the path across is the one that takes us through.”

Read our starred review of the audiobook, read by author Susan Cain.

Grief Is Love

Marisa Renee Lee focuses on how grief is actually a painful expression of love in Grief Is Love: Living With Loss. When Lee was 25, her mother died of cancer in her arms. Afterward she held a beautiful memorial and started a nonprofit in her mother’s honor, yet she found herself unable to deal with the gnawing grief that clouded her inner life. Every big moment reminded her of her mother’s absence, especially her wedding and her miscarriage. Healing came, but all too slowly.

Grief Is Love is organized around 10 lessons related to grief, touching on topics such as safety, grace and intimacy. Lee carefully considers the impact of identity (gender, race, sexuality, class and so on) on mourning, noting at several points how society’s expectations of Black women—that they’ll be strong and keep their pain to themselves—slowed her own grieving process. Readers of this memoir will get a clear sense of how Lee’s grief rocked her world at 25 and continued to reverberate well into her 30s, but they’ll also appreciate the ways of coping she’s found since then—ones she wouldn’t have allowed or even recognized during those early days. Lee describes the long haul of loss and speaks directly and compassionately to those who are experiencing it. She also takes comfort in her faith and even imagines her mother and unborn child meeting in heaven.

The Other Side of Yet

Media executive and former television producer Michelle D. Hord explores the twin griefs for her mother and her child in The Other Side of Yet: Finding Light in the Midst of Darkness. Hord pulls the word yet from the book of Job, which was a lifeline following her daughter’s horrific murder by Hord’s estranged husband, the child’s father. The Bible describes how Job lost everything and yet still believed. This describes Hord, too, who treasures her “defiant faith.”

In The Other Side of Yet, Hord offers readers a framework for facing life after a traumatic event using the acronym SPIRIT (survive, praise, impact, reflect, imagine, testify). Though Hord’s book is not organized around these directives, her own story does follow this path. To read Hord’s memoir is to witness a mother who lost everything and yet stood to tell the tale and dared to remain vulnerable.

Take What You Need

Jen Crow’s life also fell apart, but not because she lost someone beloved. Instead, the sudden tragedy of a house fire provided the impetus for Take What You Need: Life Lessons After Losing Everything. Crow, a Unitarian minister, may seem an unlikely candidate for a spiritual guide: She loves tattoos and the open road and spent years defying anyone who got in her way as she ran from her difficult childhood. After settling down and finally feeling safe, a literal bolt of lightning changed her life in an instant.

Almost immediately after the fire, Crow realized that the way she and her wife talked about the tragedy would impact their children. “I wanted them to hear our gratitude, not our fear,” she writes. So they took special care in framing the story they told about the fire, never describing it as a form of punishment or “proof that hardship never ends.” As Crow searched for a better way to interpret their situation, she found herself learning from her children, who comforted each other instinctively, crawling into bed together and crying. Observing them, Crow considered that grieving might be as natural to people as any other process in life, and that they might already possess what they need to persevere.

Across these books about suffering and healing, there is a practical and poetic need to surrender to what is overwhelming. Each book points to the power of faith and spiritual traditions to guide people outside of their own perspectives, where they can finally see themselves with lovingkindness, accept their losses and keep going.

Four nonfiction titles offer comfort, empathy and wisdom to those who are reeling from loss.
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In our conspicuously consumer-oriented culture, we can sometimes lose sight of the deeper roots of the holiday season. The minute October ticks over into November, a dizzying array of tantalizing items are dangled before us, reminding us of a December 25th deadline. Here, we offer an antidote: a calming tonic in the form of four new books that reflect segments of America’s rich diversity of spiritual traditions.

A YEAR OF PRAYER
Germaine Copeland is passionate about prayer. The author of Prayers That Avail Much, this dedicated counselor and prayer advocate has crafted a day-by-day devotional, 365 Days to a Prayer-Filled Life, that aims to move the human perception of prayer as an act of asking-waiting-receiving into a more powerful vision: a deeper and more intimate relationship with God. Beginning with a herald to the New Year, Day 1 invites us to begin anew and let go of the past through a small conversational essay, followed by a thoughtful prayer—a direct conversation with God—along with related Scripture references and a suggested Bible reading. Each day of the year presents a different topic—on a Tuesday, it could be a snippet about marriage, and Friday might prompt you to think about what really constitutes an abundant life. Gentle and steadfast, Copeland’s kind presence and true devotion to a merciful Divine Father shine from each page of this guiding “prayer book.”

THE BASICS OF JUDAISM
Tradition! Yes, that familiar refrain from Fiddler on the Roof kept running through my head as I hummed “If I Were a Rich Man” and chuckled (very hard to do simultaneously) while reading The Big Jewish Book for Jews: Everything You Need to Know to Be a Really Jewish Jew by humorists Ellis Weiner and Barbara Davilman. The authors of Yiddish with Dick and Jane are back with everything everyone—Jews and non-Jews alike—needs to know about how to be “really Jewish.” All of their wisecracking humor aside, Weiner and Davilman have a clear concern: that Judaism is becoming endangered within today’s modern American culture. “There is not one facet of American life in which Jews have not made significant contributions. . . . But this very success threatens to bring about the undoing of American Jewishness itself.” Their solution is to reassert the sense of what “it really means to be Jewish” by “preserving practices and beliefs . . . lest they atrophy . . . or become entirely forgotten.” Fifty-three “lessons” (what, you wanted more?) instruct us on the essentials: how to make chopped liver, how to use the Bible to tell if your wife is cheating on you, how to make pickles, how to worry and how to give back-handed compliments. There’s a lot of information here (plus enlivening illustrations), maybe even a surfeit, but not enough to make you meshugeneh.

BLESSED MOTHER
Writer Judith Dupré (author of Skyscrapers, Bridges, Churches and Monuments), who has a longstanding interest in the beauty of and deeper meanings inherent in architecture, has carefully built a luminous book: Full of Grace: Encountering Mary in Faith, Art, and Life. If compared to an edifice, this would be a simple, intimate yet soaring light-filled space—an apt dwelling for a woman whom many call the Queen of Heaven.

The wonder and mystery of Mary, the mother of Jesus, has long captivated our culture and collective imagination. To this day, hordes of pilgrims converge upon holy sites, places where Mary is said to have appeared, to receive her gentle but powerful wisdom, healing and grace. Dupré explores these locales and the overall fascination with the young girl from Nazareth in 59 exquisite essays (the number of beads on a rosary) that are by turns personal, historical and meditative while they focus on the epochs and experiences of Mary’s life, from her immaculate conception through to her death. Along with Dupré’s keen insight into her own faith and thorough research, the text is enhanced with meticulously chosen artwork, both classical and contemporary, and “marginalia,” consisting of poems, prayers and historical notes.

Dupré takes us along on a journey of faith toward understanding Mary’s universal embodiment and allure, and how this tender, tragic and brave woman’s life still resonates powerfully with women and men the world over. Says Dupré of this power: “Mary’s experiences as a mother, her intense joy as well as her unfathomable grief, shed light on the unavoidable fate of all parents—to love but lack the ability to ever fully understand, or protect, their children.”

SPIRITUAL SELF-PORTRAIT
Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama and the spiritual leader of Tibet who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, often comments that he is “no one special.” He says this to emphasize our common humanity and the “vital need for affection” that exists within us all. This simple statement, which gives a fathoms-deep glimpse into the heart and mind of the Dalai Lama, leads off a new memoir (collected by his translator and friend Sofia Stril-Rever), My Spiritual Journey.

Organized into three parts, the book follows the Dalai Lama’s life experiences “as a human being,” “as a Buddhist monk” and “as the Dalai Lama.” A compilation of his memories, personal reflections, dharma lectures and public presentations, the book is a series of short essays, which are accompanied by commentary from Stril-Rever. Here are peeks inside the Dalai Lama’s experiences as a child, exploring the vast spread of rooms and spaces in the Potala Palace, along with remembrances of persecution and his flight into exile. He gives a loving portrait of his mother (“a compassionate woman”) and declares his vow to, with his last breath, “practice compassion.” The book is a treasure trove for both those who are well-versed in the Dalai Lama’s teachings and those new to this “simple Buddhist monk.” His reminiscences and perceptions about humanity’s need to collectively care for one another and the Earth shine with humor, honesty and kindness—all the while exhorting us gently to “never lose hope!”

In our conspicuously consumer-oriented culture, we can sometimes lose sight of the deeper roots of the holiday season. The minute October ticks over into November, a dizzying array of tantalizing items are dangled before us, reminding us of a December 25th deadline. Here, we offer an antidote: a calming tonic in the form of four […]

Are you ready to make a fresh start in the new year? We’ve lined up a bevy of guidebooks to help you launch 2011 with a renewed sense of purpose and effective new strategies for dealing with life’s challenges. Choose the approach that best suits your lifestyle and take those first steps toward a new and improved you.

LESS IS MORE

Dave Bruno was a success: booming business, loving family, nice home and solid Christian faith. He owned lots of stuff, which led to wanting more stuff, leading to a blog called Stuck in Stuff, where he complained about consumerism but continued to buy—wait for it—more stuff. Finally, all that stuff started to take its toll, and in a quest to examine his consumption more closely, Bruno decided to pare back to just 100 personal items for one year. He chronicles that journey in his inspirational new memoir, The 100 Thing Challenge.

Bruno’s book is often funny, as when he finds a pair of cleats he will never use again but had kept “in case I started to age in reverse.” One-liners like those sometimes steal focus from the project, which is only described in detail halfway through the book. By that time, our attention has been diverted down so many side paths it’s hard to remember what we came for. Thankfully, a detailed appendix will assist readers inspired to try the 100 Thing Challenge themselves, as many apparently have.

After reading about Bruno’s experience—which he says helped him to regain his soul—you’ll never look at the contents of your junk drawer the same way again. And don’t feel too conflicted about buying the book: Bruno counts his whole “library” as one item, a form of cheating any avid reader would wholeheartedly endorse.

—Heather Seggel

CHANGING THE STATUS QUO

Guides to sustainable living bend the shelves at bookstores these days, but David Wann takes sustainability farther than most. In The New Normal, he maps out a future without dependency on fossil fuels, cheap goods or processed food. Because we are all faced with a warming world, he offers steps to deeply transform our resource-dependent routines to self-reliant, more fulfilling lives that are easier on our planet.

Changes in population, technology and available resources have outdistanced our cultural ideals, says Wann. For our “new normal,” we should ditch old status symbols, such as huge McMansions in the suburbs, and instead value actions that build local communities, such as bike-friendly thoroughfares, energy-efficient housing and shorter food and energy supply lines. Wann describes how meeting our needs locally will make life not only sustainable but more meaningful, through closer ties with our family and neighbors.

The New Normal provides both the vision and the actions needed to change the status quo. It is an excellent resource for people who want specific information on creating a sustainable culture where they live—and beyond.

—Marianne Peters

FROM ANXIOUS TO PEACEABLE

Dr. Henry Emmons’ new book, The Chemistry of Calm, offers natural solutions to overcoming anxiety, maintaining that there is an alternative to panic attacks and Prozac. Emmons, a psychiatrist, laid the groundwork for a holistic path to wellness with his last book, The Chemistry of Joy. In this follow-up, Emmons outlines what he calls the Resilience Training Program.

Meditation, diet, exercise and supplements comprise the program. What Emmons lays out is a very doable regimen for readers that begins with self-care and acceptance. Although many other self-help books center on fixing the problem(s), Emmons takes the position that individuals are innately healthy and simply need to refocus.

The shift from anxious to peaceable takes seven steps. Emmons walks readers through each in The Chemistry of Calm, from how to choose better food options at the grocery store, to using dietary supplements linked to brain health, to integrating a routine of meditative exercises.

For Emmons, “Mindfulness” is the key to corralling the thoughts and emotions that ratchet up our anxiety, and The Chemistry of Calm is an in-depth how-to guide that can benefit us all.

—Lizza Connor Bowen

A NEW PERSPECTIVE FOR FINDING PEACE

Fifteen years after the phenomenal success of Simple Abundance, which spent a year at number one on the New York Times bestseller list, author Sarah Ban Breathnach admits, “All the money’s gone.” Her new book, Peace and Plenty, explains how she hit bottom and offers an approach perfectly timed for the new year: “a fresh start for all of us: living well, spending less, and appreciating more.”

Ban Breathnach’s writing is therapy on a page as she copes with her monumental losses: multiple homes, nine assistants, extravagant purchases (Isaac Newton’s prayer chapel in England, Marilyn Monroe’s furs) and a thieving husband. In dealing with the aftermath, she uncovers the emotionally volatile relationship women have with money.

Instead of writing another dry investing how-to, Ban Breathnach gives women a guide to finding spiritual and emotional peace after financial loss. Anyone who has suffered financial catastrophe—losing a home to foreclosure, losing a job to the recession, losing it all in a messy divorce—will find reassurance and compassion. With gentle advice, Peace and Plenty helps readers face their guilt about past money mistakes and move forward.

Ban Breathnach brings her Victorian sensibilities to plain-Jane finance; her budget includes a Christmas Club, her cash system creates a pin money stash. Readers rediscover the “thrill of thrift” by cleaning out purses and closets for a fresh start, and pampering themselves with poetry and early bedtime routines.

Ban Breathnach, who popularized the Gratitude Journal, now recommends several more tools for inexpensive self-reflection. The Journal of Well-Spent Moments, the Contentment Chest and the Comfort Companion all focus on finding the positive without spending much money.

Advice and anecdotes from famous women who’ve dealt with their own reversals of fortune are included throughout, but Ban Breathnach is at her best when sharing the deeply personal stories of her own financial foibles. And perhaps her greatest lesson came from the treachery of her English husband: Protect yourself first, she advises.

Sharing tears, laughter and many cups of tea with Ban Breathnach, readers will come away with a new perspective for finding peace.

—Stephanie Gerber

FOLLOWING THE GOLDEN RULE

Everybody knows the world lacks compassion, yet it’s something we deeply desire. To care about others, we must set aside our own egos, which is hard. Toward this end, self-described religious historian Karen Armstrong has written Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, calculated to mirror other 12-step programs and help us “dethrone ourselves from the centre of our worlds.”

Armstrong is the 2008 TED Prize winner and creator of The Charter for Compassion, crafted in 2009 by prominent religious leaders of many faiths and the general public. She believes that all religions are saying the same things, albeit in different ways, and that we must restore compassion to the heart of our religious practices. Considering that her narrative draws from the myths and precepts of many disparate faiths, including Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism, her prose is clear and her concepts surprisingly easy to follow; it’s a warm and, yes, compassionate book. Yet she is still able to convey a sense of urgency: We are hardwired for compassion as well as cruelty, and it’s time to take the high road.

Armstrong’s genius is her ability to distill an impressive amount of information into just over 200 pages, making complex concepts easy to understand. In the end, living compassionately means following the Golden Rule: Always treat others as you yourself would want to be treated. With Armstrong as a guide, we can learn to do just that.

—Linda Leaming

YOUR PERSONAL MONEY TRAINER

If getting your family’s financial house in order seems like an overwhelming task, then Ellie Kay’s The 60-Minute Money Workout is for you. Every topic is broken down into chunks that make paying down debt, planning for retirement and even college planning doable in just one hour a week. From warm up to cool down, Kay acts as your money trainer as you discover your money personality and get on the same page with your partner.

Kay is called America’s Family Financial Expert for good reason. She brings real wisdom from supporting seven children on an annual income of just $55,000. The Kay family pays cash for cars, has no college loans and even paid off $40,000 in debt.

Her head-of-household experience shines in chapters like “Cha Ching Guide to Paying Less” and “Travel and Fun Guide Workout.” She shares loads of family-friendly ways to shop smarter for groceries, clothes and gas, saving time and money that can then be spent on more meaningful family vacations. She addresses other common family money matters with “workouts” for situations from launching a home-based business to determining children’s allowances.

Kay admits to being born thrifty, but she balances it by giving generously. Her 10/10/80 spending budget allocates 10 percent to giving and 10 percent to savings. That’s a hefty chunk for someone overwhelmed with credit card debt. But her Giving Guide Workout challenges you to strengthen your generosity muscle by doing more to share your time, resources and money, promising that you’ll feel and live better. And if you don’t have a dollar to spare, she includes 25 gifts that don’t cost a cent.

—Stephanie Gerber

Before you can start using your brain most effectively, you must understand it. This is the thinking behind Your Creative Brain, which contains the most up-to-date research-based exercises and rules to help you deliver your creative potential. For those who consider themselves “uncreative types” or are too attached to tried-and-true concepts, Your Creative Brain acts as an interactive guide to determine your weaker points and put them to work.

According to Harvard psychologist and researcher Shelley Carson, creativity is not an attribute reserved only for crafty types or inventors. Carson is the first researcher to frame creativity as a set of neurological functions, and Your Creative Brain lets you discover her findings for yourself.

Carson’s research explains the seven “brainsets” of the mind and how you can use those brainsets to increase creativity, productivity and innovation. Quizzes and exercises help you understand how your brain works, determine where your creative comfort zone lies and pinpoint the areas in your creative process which need some beefing up.

From Rorschach tests to association exercises, Your Creative Brain doesn’t simply teach you how to be more creative—it actually starts the process for you.

—Cat D. Acree

THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE

When John Kralik was a boy, his grandfather gave him a silver dollar, along with the promise of another if Kralik would send a thank you note. He wrote the letter and got the second dollar, but Kralik didn’t get the lesson behind it until midlife.
Overwhelmed one New Year’s Day by a series of personal and professional setbacks, he decided to focus on gratitude by sending one thank you note per day for a year, to anyone and everyone: his children, clients of his law firm, an on-and-off girlfriend, even his regular barista at Starbucks. And things did change in Kralik’s life; his work life and home life both improved, he reconnected with old friends and boosted his health and self-esteem, and his focus shifted from the problems in his life to the things that were going right, and deserving of recognition and thanks.

For a small story predicated on a seemingly minor activity, 365 Thank Yous is told with impressive humility, heart and soul. It’s touching when the Starbucks worker explains his reluctance to open Kralik’s note, anticipating another complaint from an entitled three-dollar-latte drinker, only to be pleasantly surprised by the gift of simple appreciation.

Readers will forgive Kralik for taking 15 months to write all 365 notes, and thank him for sharing the fruits of the project in this sweet and uplifting book.

—Heather Seggel

 

 

Are you ready to make a fresh start in the new year? We’ve lined up a bevy of guidebooks to help you launch 2011 with a renewed sense of purpose and effective new strategies for dealing with life’s challenges. Choose the approach that best suits your lifestyle and take those first steps toward a new […]
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As Easter approaches, churches and believers around the world place a special emphasis on the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah—events that are the cornerstones of modern Christianity. As reading selections for the season, we’ve chosen five new books that offer messages of faith, resilience and hope and expand on the promise of Easter.

FILLING A VOID

Pete Wilson’s Empty Promises: The Truth About You, Your Desires, and the Lies You’re Believing examines the many things we chase in the quest for fulfillment. Some are obvious—wealth, success, appearance—but others are surprising, including religious practices like trying to pray more or do good works. Wilson’s point is that even though we try many solutions for the emptiness we feel, if God isn’t at the heart of our journey, we will find only empty promises. As in his previous book, Plan B, the Nashville pastor writes in a conversational style that’s easily accessible, while still offering moments of great challenge, like a tap on the soul to say, “This is you, pal.” If you’ve been chasing after “the next thing” that will finally make your life worthwhile, I highly recommend Empty Promises—you might discover you’ve bought into a few dead ends yourself.

SPIRITUAL POWER

Also calling us to re-evaluate our lives and our religion is Jim Cymbala’s Spirit Rising: Tapping into the Power of the Holy Spirit. The pastor of Brooklyn Tabernacle, Cymbala believes that the true power of faith is found not in prayer and worship songs, but comes only from the gift of the Holy Spirit. Cymbala acknowledges that many Christians today hear the term “the Holy Spirit” and picture emotional church services dominated by bizarre behavior. As a result, they become cautious and withdrawn from what the Spirit really is—the presence of God as a guide and comfort. Using examples from the teachings of Christ and the writings of Paul, Peter and more, Cymbala reveals how fundamental the Holy Spirit is to Christian faith. He also shares effective accounts from friends and members of his own church who have experienced the Holy Spirit’s power to transform lives. Spirit Rising is a thought-provoking call to Christians to set aside “to-do list” religion and seek the power of God as a real and active presence in every moment.

A PRESIDENT’S DEVOTIONAL

During his time in office, President Jimmy Carter displayed a candor about his Christian faith that until then was remarkably rare in a modern president. Others had kept their faith largely private, but Carter spoke readily about both his faith and his personal failings as he strove to live by it. Through the Year With Jimmy Carter: 366 Daily Meditations from the 39th President is a reflection of that life of faith, offered as a guide for other believers. Drawn from Sunday school lessons Carter taught throughout his life (a ministry he followed even while president), each daily devotion offers the insight of a man trying to connect with God and understand his place in the world, not as a leader or politician, but as a child of God and a follower of Christ. The passages are brief—a Bible verse, Carter’s personal thoughts on the passage and a closing prayer—but the thoughts are often rich and surprising. Neither politics nor history nor memoir is the point here; this excellent devotional is all about looking at life and faith and learning how to live them together.

LOST AT SEA

The Fourth Fisherman, by Joe Kissack, is a story about men lost at sea—one lost in the sea of worldly success and excess, and the others lost in the actual vast waters of the Pacific Ocean. The story begins in 2005 as three day-laborers gather to act as hands for a small fishing boat captain in the remote Mexican village of San Blas. Their fishing trip goes awry when an unexpected storm and their captain’s misjudgment set them adrift in the powerful currents of the Pacific. As the fishermen struggle to survive exhaustion, dehydration and lack of food, Kissack contrasts their story with his life as a driven television executive headed for his own personal storm. The stark hardships the fishermen face and Kissack’s life crumbling under the weight of his material success serve as effective counterpoints. The fishermen, who have never had anything, find a faith that sustains them against unbelievable odds, while Kissack, who has everything, must almost lose it all in order to come to the realization that what he really needs is Christ. In the end, Kissack suggests, all of us are lost at sea, and the only thing we can do is place our faith in the One who can bring us safely home.

FROM GRIEF TO HOPE

The worst fate most parents can imagine is to live through the loss of a child—especially a child lost to murder. This is the tragedy that has weighed on John Ramsey for more than 15 years. The murder of his daughter JonBenét was a media sensation, sparking a frenzy that saw accusations raised against John, his wife Patsy and even JonBenét’s nine-year-old brother. For Ramsey, it felt as if he had entered the life of Job, going from successful business owner and happy family man to a shattered father hounded by paparazzi and cynical policemen. The Other Side of Suffering is Ramsey’s story of his struggle, compounded by the death of Patsy from cancer and the loss of all he thought he was.

One might expect such a story to be bitter, with railings against a heartless media and incompetent investigators, not to mention JonBenét’s killer (whose identity remains unknown). The Other Side of Suffering, however, is instead a beautiful and soul-wrenching account of a man’s struggle to find God’s grace in the midst of tragedy and injustice. Ramsey’s growing faith through mounting grief and disappointments is moving, stirring the heart with both the pain he has felt and the love he has experienced. Amid crushing sorrow, Ramsey finds uplifting peace; through sadness and loss, he learns the real promise of God’s joy. As he puts it himself, he has survived to reach “the other side of suffering” and discover hope again. And in the end, isn’t that the very heart of Easter?

As Easter approaches, churches and believers around the world place a special emphasis on the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah—events that are the cornerstones of modern Christianity. As reading selections for the season, we’ve chosen five new books that offer messages of faith, resilience and hope and expand on the promise of Easter. […]
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Whether interested in religious history or prayer, heaven or the Holy Land, readers will find in these four books a wealth of information and personal stories to enrich their own spiritual journeys.

Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers is a book for just about anyone who has felt compelled, at one point or another, to raise her eyes to the heavens and murmur some words to a Higher Power. Never one to get caught up in religious specifics, Anne Lamott offers a variety of hilarious titles by which her friends have referred to God, such as “Howard,” “Mother” and “H.P.” She celebrates the divine, and poetically explains why we frail humans are in such desperate need of it. Of the three essential prayers, help seems to be the one closest to Lamott’s heart. Fans of her previous books such as Bird by Bird will again enjoy candid conversation from a writer who feels like a friend.

While Lamott’s book may be characterized as a book about faith for doubters, Heaven Changes Everything by Todd and Sonja Burpo is a book about faith for believers—and a follow-up to the best-selling Heaven Is for Real, which related the story of their four-year-old son’s visit to heaven. Here the Burpos share more about Colton’s miraculous experience and what it’s been like for their family since making it public. Organized into 40 short, devotional-style readings that open with a quote from Colton and close with an action point, it is sure to please readers eager for the next chapter in the Burpos’ story.

In What Would Jesus Read?, Joe Amaral takes readers through the Scripture in the way Jesus might have read it: in short portions that combine a selection from the Torah (the first five books of the Christian Bible) and the prophets (a number of Old Testament books). Each week, Amaral assigns a portion of the Bible and offers daily insights on the reading. These insights are very brief, conversational and theologically non-denominational. As a Christian who lives in Israel and guides tour groups through the Holy Land, Amaral is in a unique position to help American readers understand the perspective of the Middle East and the traditions of the ancient Jewish world.

For readers interested in learning more about the world of Jesus, In the Footsteps of Jesus is another good place to begin. Published by National Geographic, this full-color and visually impressive book offers a more scholarly perspective on the world Jesus walked through and how we experience it today. The scope of the book—which combines political history, anthropological context, biography and an exploration of the contemporary Holy Land—is truly ambitious. Illustrations include photographs of artifacts, paintings, pull-out quotations and richly detailed maps. This worthy book could be read alongside the Gospels or could stand alone as a historical work.

Whether interested in religious history or prayer, heaven or the Holy Land, readers will find in these four books a wealth of information and personal stories to enrich their own spiritual journeys. Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers is a book for just about anyone who has felt compelled, at one point or another, […]
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As we greet the new year, many of us are not where we’d like to be in life. Whether that means personal relationships that could be improved or bad habits that need to be broken, progress begins when we lace up our shoes and take the first step. A handful of new books each have a different subject in mind, but share a common endorsement of mindfulness as the key to a happier, healthier life.

FRIENDS FOR LIFE

Bette Midler’s signature song used to be “You’ve Gotta Have Friends,” back before she got all wind-beneath-my-wings-y. Carlin Flora’s Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are seconds that emotion, noting the enormous health benefits of friendship along with the idea that our friends shape our personality and choices even more than families do. Flora, formerly the features editor for Psychology Today, discovers that one unexpected benefit of friendship is that it allows us to be altruistic and care about others. This may be why the kids who make friends most easily are those who can quickly change gears and empathize with a wide variety of personality types. (It also helps if their names are easy to pronounce.) If you’ve been thinking of starting a book club with your BFFs, here’s your first assignment.

COMPASSION IN ACTION

A professional relationship with a religious leader led to a great friendship for Victor Chan. He traveled with the Dalai Lama for many years, recording talks and meetings with everyone from sick children to two men on either side of the long-standing “troubles” in Northern Ireland. In The Wisdom of Compassion, Chan recounts a variety of these encounters as they relate to “Overcoming Adversity,” “Educating the Heart” and “Compassion in Action.” We get a good sense of what Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader experiences on a typical day, and his personality, which can be fiery but is more often full of effusive giggling, comes through nicely. Chan inserts himself into the narrative more than is warranted, but the overall message of the book is uplifting and inspiring: If we generate compassion within ourselves, then extend it to all people (not just the ones we like most), we hold the potential to alleviate much of the world’s suffering.

BOOST YOUR BRAINPOWER

If you think attention and mindfulness are just for the spiritually inclined, you may be shortchanging your own intelligence. Sandra Bond Chapman’s Make Your Brain Smarter leads with the advice to stop multitasking and utilize what she calls the “brainpower of none,” emptying the mind to allow your thoughts to sort and settle. From there, focusing on just one thing intently or working only on your top two priorities lead to increased productivity and a healthier brain. While it’s disappointing to learn that crosswords and sudoku do less for brain health than previously thought, Chapman’s program encourages thinking broadly and creatively to stimulate the frontal lobe. Considering that she created a program designed to sharpen the minds of Navy SEALs in the same way their elite training hones their bodies, you may want to toss the crosswords and give this a try.

FOCUS ON SUCCESS

The new year is when we often resolve to take up better fitness habits and put down some of our vices; after all, if you can stick with it for three weeks it locks in, right? Actually, no, says PsyBlog creator Jeremy Dean. In Making Habits, Breaking Habits he argues that one of the keys to changing a habit is—don’t say you weren’t warned—mindfulness. Despite the slew of books raving about the power of intention as the key to personal success, research finds that intention creates false expectations and leads more often to disappointment than to thin thighs or an Aston Martin. Instead, the practice of mindfulness helps us act on our intentions consciously, which reinforces new habits and makes it easier to break old ones despite the social cues that can trigger them. Thinking both abstractly and analytically can also develop the mind’s capacity and flexibility. Begin with the mind, then get on the treadmill, and you’re well on your way to self-improvement.

A PATH THROUGH THE DARK

Sometimes the urge to care for ourselves is slow in coming. When Katrina Kenison’s second son left home, she was confronted with an overwhelming sense of loss. It wasn’t just the empty nest or uncertainties of middle age, but also the shifting terrain of her marriage and the long shadow cast by the death of a friend that weighted her days. Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment follows Kenison for a year in which she gently plumbs her intuition to find new purpose and resilience in the face of sorrow. When her life seems most empty, she realizes, “I do at least know this: . . . I can either run away from my loneliness, or I can practice tolerating myself as I am.” Yoga proves central to her healing, and its focus on mindfulness helps even the darkest places to reveal their beauty.

DOWN TO THE ROOTS

Garden blogger (and Kenison’s writing partner) Margaret Roach pulls together the scientific and spiritual in The Backyard Parables: A Meditation on Gardening, but it doesn’t feel like work when you’re out getting your hands dirty. A year spent in her garden includes a glimpse of her “new spiritual practice—a moving meditation aimed specifically at dandelions, a ritual that brings me into touch with my own powerlessness, and also my own power.” By turns wise and witty, the book is also jam-packed with practical tips for gardeners, from the basics of succession sowing to winning a showdown with chipmunks. Roach, former editorial director for Martha Stewart, followed a passion, cultivated it devoutly and turned it into a career. She doesn’t need to discuss the how-to of mindfulness; her life is the best example of the way love and attention will make things bloom.

As we greet the new year, many of us are not where we’d like to be in life. Whether that means personal relationships that could be improved or bad habits that need to be broken, progress begins when we lace up our shoes and take the first step. A handful of new books each have […]
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For five writers from varied points on the Christian spectrum, God transforms dramatic circumstances into spiritual gain. From moving across the country to facing death itself, these authors amply illustrate that resurrection stories—far from being a thing of the past—are happening all around us.

LIFE-CHANGING SURGERY

For Steve Sjogren, author of Heaven’s Lessons: Ten Things I Learned About God When I Died, a near-death experience in 2000 led to an unexpected destination in his faith. Sjogren’s story is a humbling one. While pastoring a megachurch in Cincinnati, he went in for a standard hospital surgery that went horribly wrong. On the operating table, God told him that from now on he would “walk with a limp.” Following the surgery, Sjogren lost his position at the church, faced severely diminished health and was forced to re-examine some of the fundamental things he believed about God. He’s divided this book into 10 resulting lessons. “Though my experience with God in my near death experience was life changing, what followed it was depressing to me,” he writes. “If there is an option for a fast route, it seems I still always end up being placed on the l-o-n-g way forward.” This book offers readers the opportunity to benefit from Sjogren’s journey and to see how God turned a tragedy into a transformation. Sjogren, ever the pastor, is quick to provide applications of the book’s lessons to the reader’s life.

A PARENT’S STRUGGLE

In Beautiful Nate, Dennis Mansfield explores how his son’s drug addiction forced him to confront unwelcome truths about evangelicalism. Even though Mansfield tried to raise his son “by the book,” relying on experts like James Dobson, his boy still repeatedly rebelled and ultimately—in his 20s—died after an adverse drug reaction. Mansfield, a former Focus on the Family employee and lobbyist, loves Reagan, rhetoric and his family. His passions come through clearly, as does his pain. As Nate faced prison and life beyond, his father describes a softer side of their relationship: impromptu visits, staying up all night to watch movies and (most movingly) writing a novel the pair jointly penned during Nate’s incarceration. To his father, Nate was a follower of Jesus Christ forever torn by competing desires. While Beautiful Nate is certainly a sad story, Mansfield is consistently grateful for his son and the lessons learned about faith, parenting and life. He writes, “My hope is that you found [this] to be a poignant account of the realization that . . . things often turn out very wrong—and yet can turn out eternally right.” This is a good book for parents of faith who want to heal imperfect circumstances through the mercy of a perfect God.

NEW DIRECTIONS

In Landmarks: Turning Points on Your Journey Toward God, author Bill Delvaux describes a series of unexplainable choices that yielded satisfying results. He left a ministry position for teaching, and left his teaching position to write and speak about faith. A thoughtful writer, Delvaux was asked by a colleague to explain how his spiritual journey developed through these counterintuitive decisions. Delvaux responds that though he never knew he was going in the right direction, his Heavenly Father provided certain “landmarks” along the way. For frequent readers of evangelical nonfiction, the landmarks may seem unsurprising—giving up idols, addressing old wounds, seeking sexual purity. Yet Delvaux’s way of addressing these topics gives this slim book both gravity and purpose. When discussing idols, for instance, Delvaux shares his own former insistence that the details of his life be in order, right down to his junk mail. He realized that grasping toward perfection was ultimately idolatrous. As he reveals his own story, readers are gently guided to consider their own. A movie fan, Delvaux situates many of his lessons within the context of popular films. A small book that leaves a big impression, Landmarks tells how one man was transformed by embracing the principles he’d been teaching his whole life.

HEALING JOURNEY

For spiritual seeker and standout writer Beverly Donofrio (author of the memoir Riding in Cars With Boys) the pursuit of faith led to life in a small Mexican town replete with margaritas at sunset, yoga and plenty of time for writing. Yet Donofrio, a Catholic, felt herself drifting from God. Committed to rededicating herself, she planned an ambitious tour of monasteries around the country. Then a man broke into her apartment and raped her at knifepoint. In her new book, Astonished: A Story of Evil, Blessings, Grace, and Solace, Donofrio ponders the significance of the timing. What does the rape reveal about God? How do trials figure into God’s plan for our lives? What does it mean to heal and grow? Donofrio spends much of the next year completing her monastery tour and offering tentative answers to these questions and more. A nontraditional thinker who accepts parts of the “Jesus myth” and rejects other parts, Donofrio’s journey around the country and into her inner life is compelling material beautifully written. Perpetually humble, searching, honest and wry, Donofrio is a fine companion for a spiritual journey.

THINGS UNSEEN

Jack Perkins, best known as a longtime reporter for NBC News, left a successful journalism career to move to a remote island in Maine. In Finding Moosewood, Finding God, Perkins traces the spiritual lessons he learned, recounts favorite stories from his journalism days and offers a wholly appealing personal glimpse into his family life. In the wilds of Maine—reading the journals of Thoreau and following his spiritual impulses—Perkins’ personal journey with God truly begins. By rejecting the consumerist culture of Los Angeles, Perkins and his wife Mary Jo find what seems to be an incomparable happiness in island living and creative pursuits. Both read voraciously and explore their new home with enthusiasm. By embracing the blessings of God—in a sunset, in the view of the water at night, in spotting a passing lobster boat—the couple begins to appreciate His divine character. This fresh and invigorating story will help the reader appreciate her own life and, better yet, feel that anything is possible.

While these books vary in points of view, trials faced and solutions suggested, they share a common belief that God is in the midst of our circumstances. This divine God who resurrects new life from death is, they agree, more real than the world before our eyes. As Perkins writes in one of his poems: “Henceforth this is my plan: / Believe much more in what I can’t see, / Much less in what I can.”

For five writers from varied points on the Christian spectrum, God transforms dramatic circumstances into spiritual gain. From moving across the country to facing death itself, these authors amply illustrate that resurrection stories—far from being a thing of the past—are happening all around us. LIFE-CHANGING SURGERY For Steve Sjogren, author of Heaven’s Lessons: Ten Things […]

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