The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts || #SJBC

X Bienal de Nicaragua by Abraham Cruzvillegas (source) - an exhibition exploring the relationship
between individuals and their environment
The second pick for the Social Justice Book Club (#SJBookClub) was again a contemplation about capital punishment and who deserves it. Unlike our first read, Just Mercy, which focused on the completely innocent or those who clearly don’t deserve the death penalty, The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts hovered on a man who, with his wife’s help, stabbed his three toddlers to death in the border town of Brownsville, Texas.

John Allen Rubio, the father of the children, has issues: an abusive childhood home, low IQ, extensive drug use, poverty, and mental illness (including what appears to be schizophrenia). He says he killed his children because they were possessed, which he had confirmed when he performed a folk-healing ceremony.

Author Laura Tillman spends much of the book expatiate about how to decide if someone deserves to be killed for their crime, if we should judge psychotic-John-at-the-time-of-the-murders or a competent John who had emerged from his psychotic episode. Although this type of mulling and re-visiting thoughts trying to understand your own position on the death penalty might interest some readers, I have to say that at many points in the book it was very clear that Tillman lacks a guiding compass that Brian Stevenson (author of Just Mercy) uses to make everyday decisions about his life, work, and spirituality.

The persistent wondering about questions of life, death, mercy, and justice without seeking input from any of the world’s recognized philosophers, deities, or spiritual guides bothered me because it came across as a very American idea of naively going on a one-woman journey to find profound answers that one will be able to uncover within oneself. As in, the conclusions that Tillman reaches through talking to neighbors, visiting the haunted apartment where the murders happened, writing about her feelings, being skeptically curious about Mexican witchcraft/folk-healing, etc, will guide her to a place where she will decide for herself, based on her emotions, if she thinks someone deserves to die: “I, and you reading this, we are compelled to decide if we want to kill John. I need to look him in the face.”

I believe that only God has the right to decide if, when, and how someone dies. The whole argument of “Was John crazy or not at the time of the murders, and thus deserving of capital punishment or not?” becomes immediately irrelevant if you don’t believe in capital punishment. John could be the most cruel and calculating sociopath ever, he could have done far worse than stabbing his kids, and I still would say that he gets to die when God decides.

X Bienal de Nicaragua by Abraham Cruzvillegas (source)
It’s hard to know how far Tillman’s journey led her on the subject of capital punishment, because she doesn’t clearly state her starting position in the beginning. But near the end of the book, in a particularly eloquent passage comparing the destruction of the historical building where the murders took place and the reason the US uses capital punishment, she writes:

“To kill another person exists on another plane from the act of dismantling bricks and wood beams. The parallel is found in the satisfaction promised by destruction: to lend the weight of tangibility to the ephemeral. You can take a mallet and bust into the wall of a building. You can load poison into a syringe and inject it into the body of a human being. You can see them both reduced to absence. Then, we are left with nonexistence, a blank space. A piece of earth can host another structure, and though it will be different than what came before, it can serve a new purpose. But when a life is gone, it is not replaced.”

The various times that Tillman brings up the role of architecture and place in shaping history and communities is where she really shines. What relationship did the claustrophobic, windowless apartment have in provoking Rubio’s madness? And what effect does the knowledge of the existence of a still bloodstained room have on the neighbors? Like much of the book, these questions have less tangible answers, but they remain fascinating to me.

Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe

Provocar Urbanos, Vinicius S.A.

I’m not a commitment phobe, and you would think that after being in churches my whole life, there is no place that I would feel like I belong or fit-in more. I feel solidly about my core beliefs that are common across all major Christian denominations. I’ve visited more styles of Christian gatherings than the average seminary student, thanks to my parents experimenting with different theologies, lots of travel, and my birthright from the ‘Show-Me State’ (Missouri).

What attracted me to Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe was a creeping feeling that after living only a quarter of my life I’m already getting burned out on church. I was looking for some strong words that would make me wince but not sting (a complete stranger is sometimes best for this), and point out that yes, church is worth the effort.

Erin S. Lane did not disappoint. She and I have a lot in common: grumpy introversion, haters of small talk, good at justifying excuses to ourselves, curmudgeonly feminists… and I underlined most of the book, not because 100% of it was SO GOOD IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE, but because I recognized myself in her. Like this sentence that is not only my physical reality about my presence in church, but my mental one as well: ‘An increasing number of folks my age are choosing to live on the edge of belonging; we may not be fully in or fully out, but we are not “nones.”’ (‘Nones’ is the current buzzword to describe millennials that believe a higher power exists but aren’t interested in participating in organized religion.)

Part memoir, part advice, Lane writes about how her fear of commitment led her to hopping around the country and wrestling with herself about trying to become part of yet another church full of stale platitudes, alienating patriarchal language, and awkward meet-and-mingle sessions. At the same time, she was working for a Quaker retreat organization, so many of her lessons stem from attitudes of honest acknowledgement and acceptance of reality that are common in Quaker teachings.

Belonging, she decided, is not about conforming with what other people do, say, or believe. You can have different opinions, interests, backgrounds, education, and languages. ‘Belonging didn’t chiefly depend on whether a community accepted me but whether I was able to offer myself to them.’

Becoming disillusioned is part of the process of belonging--disillusioned in the sense of tearing down the illusions that we construct in order to ‘fit in’. It’s being honest about what your resources and talents are, and offering those. It’s about acknowledging what other people are good at and accepting what they are offering. It’s about revealing weakness in order to accept others’ gifts. It’s shifting the responsibility of belonging from other people to yourself. It’s showing up, being present, and serving others.

P.S. If you are tired of other Christians preaching at you, gag a little when you hear the word ‘relevant’, are annoyed by petty theological discussions, and couldn’t care less if the entire Christian celebrity industry with all of its books got taken up to the heavens in a chariot of fire (which would hopefully burn said books) tomorrow, then this book will probably be fine for you to read because it has none of those things.

I received an e-ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. Words and opinions are my own.

Things You Should Know Before Reading Outlander

I was in the mood to read a fantasy series, but I had some requirements to meet:

1. The series should be four books or more.
I was itching for such a long series--maybe because trilogies are so common, and one-off’s are my usual, so I wanted something that stretched on and gave me returns for my investment into that fantasy world.

2. The author should be a woman.
I’ve been making an effort to avoid reading books by men, so yay womanpower!

3. The main character should be a woman.
Yay womanpower!

4. A romantic relationship should be an important part of the story.
Raise your hand if you think Tolkien should have written a lot more about elves making noble sacrifices for love instead of so many pages of scenery descriptions. *raises hand*

So, I asked the internet, and the internet gave me the Outlander series! Yay Scotland! It does indeed meet all the requirements: fantasy, female author, female MC, lots of books, and romance.


The fantasy is minimal. Apart from one (1) short time-travel episode, one (1) loch ness monster sighting, and one (1) scene in which the MC Claire ‘heals’ someone from PTSD using psychological methods that are so ill-advised that I will call its success a fantasy element, there is NO FANTASY. This is historical fiction, which I also love, but no dragons, no magic, no dice.

There are a lot of sexy times. Do you ever have the problem where you want to read a novel with romance, but not necessarily a romance novel? And then it’s really hard to comb through google results because it’s hard to explain the difference to a computer? (side note: the word for ‘novel’ in Portuguese is ‘romance’, so just add more layers to that confusion.) I am not one of those people who is going to diss anyone for reading books with covers depicting buxom ladies making out with Fabio. But just be aware, unlike I was, that a sex scene happens about every 50 pages, and the book is 900 pages.

There is a violent male-male rape. And partner abuse. So, warning.

Despite being written by a woman and the mc being a woman, this story is anti-feminist. Let me tell you how all but one of the adventure scenes happen.
Sexy Jamie: Claire, don’t do THE THING. 
Claire: *does THE THING* 
Claire: *needs to be rescued* 
Sexy Jamie: *rescues Claire* 
Sexy Jamie: See, I told you! 
Claire: You were right!!!


There are really good pictures of how tough life was on the Scottish highlands in the 1740s. A lot of work, dirt, cold, disease, animals, and skirmishes.

Diana Gabaldon is from Arizona (*waves excitedly*) but she has clearly done her research: she frequently describes medicinal plants found in the highlands (she has a PhD in ecology) and uses many words of Scottish origin that I had never heard before.

Carlisle Castle, the site of many a Jacobite battle and the filming location
for an important part of the Outlander TV series.
The Jacobite risings and politics is explained through the narrative, so I am bound to remember it. When I went to Scotland a couple years ago, I had never heard of the Jacobites and had a hard time understanding some of the museum displays… it’s a wee bit complicated to keep everything straight.

The characters are really fun. They make jokes, they are passionate, they are quick to forgive, and they are courageous. I kept cheering for them the whole time.

So, have you read any fantasy series that meets all of my requirements? Give me the goods, people!! Stop being bad dragons and hoarding the treasures all for yourself!!