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Sassy Peach Goes to Kindergarten: Happy 5th Birthday!

Wow! We made it! Half a decade! That's crazy talk. I said to a friend the other day how much I couldn't believe how far I've com...

Thursday, January 12, 2017

How Not to Read: Harnessing the Power of a Literature-Free Life

I had been waiting to read this book for some time, and one day this fall I saw it at The Strand, so I decided to pick it up. I have been following Dan Wilbur's blog Better Book Titles for a while, so I was interested in what he had to say in How Not to Read: Harnessing the Power of a Literature-Free Life

Reading is a pain for most people. I know this – when I tell people that I love to read they look at me as though I am some sort of saint. I'm not, I'm just slightly intelligent. Dan Wilbur's blog allows readers to submit book covers with hilarious and snarky new titles describing their contents, and it's been quite a joy for many years. Dan himself is also a comedian, so the success of his blog let him to write a book with quippy anecdotes. The best part of this book, however, is the middle section filled with some of the "best of" book covers.

The rest of the book, however, is just a little "trying too hard." I enjoy Dan's Twitter feed immensely, but early on this book just felt as though it were trying to hard to be funny. I ended up skipping a few paragraphs because it felt as though it were forced and not casual enough to just giggle at. I also get where the jokes are coming from – that no one likes to read – but I also wish that this book has been a little more earnestly tongue-in-cheek as opposed to elitist. It is, after all, being read by people who enjoy reading, a good bit even, and who enjoy reading so much that they find the jokey titles made up for the new covers to be swoon-worthy. 

I'm going to keep enjoying the original website, because that's where the crux of humor regarding a love of literature lies.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman

I picked this up at Book Expo 2015 with the full intention of reading it as soon as possible. I loved Phil Hartmnn (Newsradio, anyone?), and I remember his death as part of the zeitgeist. I read it very recently because my boyfriend's brother was talking about Hartman's genius, and I realized that I could pass this book on to him. This is Mike Thomas's You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman

Phil Hartman seemed, at times, to be larger than life. How could a man so handsome and charming also be so damned funny? While he seemed like a break out talent on Saturday Night Live, the truth is that he worked for years to make it there. Through his time with the Groundlings through his work on The Simpsons and NewsRadio, Phil was known for his impressions, his heart, and his talent. His third wife, Brynn, shot him before turning the gun on herself in 1998. This book follows Phil through his life, his career, and ultimately, his death.

I was one of those fans of Hartman's, as I grew up in that particular era of SNL. All of his sketches stay with me, and while I would have liked for this book to go further, I do think it did a good job of painting Hartman as more than the circumstances behind his death. It's easy to get lost in the details surrounding his murder, especially if you are anything like me and love a good, salacious murder. I appreciated that this book went farther and spent time talking about what Hartman went though on his journey to experience success.

Thomas was quite sympathetic toward it's characters, and he was particularly kind to Brynn. He spent time talking with Hartman's family about the night they lost their son and brother, and no one appears to be bitter or angry. There is only sadness surrounding the circumstances. The focus of the book is really on Phil's childhood and his rise to fame, all of which encompasses many years of struggle and feeling lost. It's an interesting read, as it portrays Phil as a full-bodied human with flaws like the rest of it. I certainly appreciate that.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Guest Blogger Charlotte: Sarah's Key

I will start this review by saying this is one of my absolute favorite books. Is there fault to be found with it? Probably. First of all, it's incredibly sad, so if that isn't your thing, don't read it. Seriously. It will be one of those books you never forget. Second of all, there is no second of all because this book will change your life.

The book includes parallel stories, one during Nazi-occupied Paris and one in present-day Paris, which eventually connect. The modern story, about an American journalist in Paris researching the Vel' d'Hiv, a roundup of Jews in Paris where thousands of men, women, and children were inhumanely imprisoned and then sent to their deaths under the direction of the French police. I found the modern story to be the less interesting of the two stories, probably because I could relate more to the second. Because I am French, I suppose, but also because I am in high school and I have a little brother.

The second story is about Sarah and is told from her perspective. Sarah is one of the children captured during the Vel' d'Hiv roundup, and her young brother is left behind. Being able to see the event through the perspective of a ten-year-old girl gives fresh meaning and humanity to the true horror of what happened. While this is detailed in many fiction and non-fiction novels about the Holocaust, there is something about Sarah's perspective that is emotionally raw, because she simply did not see it coming and does not understand what is happening. The dramatic irony of reading as you know more about her future than she does truly makes you feel sick to your stomach. Her feelings of guilt, anger, and sadness, none of which are her fault, come through in a real way from the perspective of a child.

I did feel that the book got a little less interesting to me once Sarah's story was resolved, because I was less interested in the present-day journalist and her actions. I liked that parallel motifs throughout, tying together Sarah's story with the present day. But I had trouble relating to Julia, the present-day protagonist, only because her struggles seemed so small in comparison to Sarah's story. Your husband making jokes about you, for example, must feel awful and is truly deserving of empathy. But in the setting of Sarah's heart-wrenching and truly maddening story, it is hard not to view Julia's problems as paltry.

I have read Sarah's Key before, but I think this is an important time to read it again. We have all seen the pictures of children in Syria being hurt by bombings, but it's easy to move on from them without connecting them to real emotions. This book helped me to think from those children's perspectives and remember how scared, alone, and unfair they must feel. I think as the rhetoric of the American presidential election grew more hateful and more dismissive of whole groups of people, it's important to be reminded of the humanity of each person, no matter how small, and to see how easily politics can change so that evil is done and no one is empowered to stop it.

Sarah's Key will leave you feeling uneasy and upset, but, as Julia points out about uncovering the story of the Vel' d'Hiv, maybe we owe it to those who suffered to hear, know, and acknowledge their stories.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud

I read a blurb about Elizabeth Greenwood's Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud in Entertainment Weekly, and I'm always looking for offbeat and interesting works of non-fiction, so I checked this out from the library recently.

Faking your own death is a fascinating way of going about escaping your life -- if that's what you're interested in. In this nonfiction piece, Greenwood looks at the art of death fraud from several different perspectives, including those who commit it, those who have been found out, and those who have been affected by it. How would one go about committing death fraud? Who are the types of people who get caught? What is it like to be the child of someone who faked their death? What is the best way to go about doing this? Greenwood's fascinatios starts from the frustration with debt, specifically student loans, but ends having done a full-scale examination of this process that is both fascinating and surprisingly not entirely illegal. If you do it right.

I can't remember what attracted me to this book at first, but I'm so glad I ended up picking it up. It was a truly fascinating look at something that I had never considered. Faking my own death? No thanks, I like my life too much. However, I can understand Greenwood's point in her over-reliance upon loaned money to be able to get herself ahead. She also points out in her first chapter that a lot of those guilty of committing this type of fraud end up doing it to escape jail sentences, most often for the mishandling of other people's money. Which begs the question of, why did you bother to commit financial fraud if you just gonna end up faking your own death? She also points out from her research that faking one's own death in and of itself is not illegal, as long as you're not trying to cheat the insurance companies or commit other types of financial fraud. She speaks with a few experts in disappearing and comes to the conclusion that if you want to disappear, you can do it – there's really no need to set up an elaborate scheme of pretending that you have died.

Greenwood tells the stories of a few of these people who have committed fraud, and many who got away with it for some time. Often how they get caught are simple, small things – you have a broken taillight but you don't have a new piece of ID or that identification is not real enough. Sometimes you ask for too much money in your insurance policy. A lot of times, however, many people just turn themselves in so as to not live with the guilt. It's all terribly interesting. However, the chapter that looked at the children of those who have faked their own death was particularly sad. One of the stories Greenwood tells is about a young man of 8 years old whose father told him about his plot. The child had to pretend that he didn't know the truth with his mother and his sister, and he had to keep that secret until his father was caught not long after. Another young man who was in his late teens helped his father with the death-faking. Yet another \woman found out in her 40's that her father had faked his death when she was a child. That was heartbreaking – the damage that was wrought upon this woman, thinking her whole life that her father was dead -- only to find out that he was alive up until a year before she discovered the truth.

Ultimately what Greenwood discovers is that it's not worth faking your own death to get out of whatever pickle you were in. You have to leave behind everything that you love, because if you don't, that will be sure to undo you. You have to walk away from your entire life, people and things and money and your favorite pizza place. Every single thing. Through writing this book, she discovered that, no matter how hard things are financially, it's not worth NOT living your life to escape financial hardship.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa

The movie "True Story" had been in my queue for a while, so I watched it one lazy night a few months ago. The movie was just okay, but as fans of this blog know, I am madly in love with true crime. So I did some digging, read some articles about the case, then decided to check out the work of Michael Finkel himself, True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa.

Christian Longo murdered his wife and three children. He was not only found guilty, but he ultimately admitted to the murders, was sentenced to death, and then was put to death of years ago. The crime itself is disgusting and painful, but what follows is terribly fascinating. After he goes on the run, he assumed the name Michael Finkel while in Mexico, claiming to be the disgraced New York Times journalist. When Finkel finds out about this, he contacts Longo and forms a friendship that spans from immediately after the man's arrest and through his trial. In a way, each man uses the other; Longo for someone to tell his story and Finkel for a way out of his man-made hole into personal and professional redemption. What results is an inter-dependent relationship where each man bares his soul to the other, although one is far from honest with the other.

This book pleasantly surprised me. I picked it up thinking that it was going to basically just be a masturbatory project for Finkel. I was worried it was going to be a self aggrandizement for the disgraced journalist, laying out his woes and finding a way to be redeemed in his career. Surprisingly, I found this to be an incredibly compelling story that didn't necessarily focus on giving Longo the fame he didn't deserve for slaughter and his family, but told a story about a man who is a full-scale narcissist and absolutely off his rocker. I found that I couldn't put this book down because it was so captivating and interesting. I found it to be a treatise on what happens when you get into deep. Finkel was grasping onto straws for anyone who would be outside of his world, and Longo fit the bill. It's just that Longo himself was a liar.

It's easy to be swept up by non-truths when that is what we want to hear and to believe. I believe that Finkel wanted to believe that Longo could potentially be not be guilty, and even though I was reading this book after the man was put to death, it's clear from an outside perspective that he was a liar at best and dangerous at worst. Hearing his version of his family's financial woes was interesting in that it's clear the woes were Christian's fault. While in his telling, it's a series of unfortunate events that happened to him rather than because of him. Since one of the things I happened to study is attribution theory, which is a model for how we attribute outcomes happening either to us or because of us, I was able to pinpoint him very easily. If you are interested in a an intimate and intricate study of how a man's twisted mind works, this is your book. I also appreciated Finkel's personal commentary, and his self examination of his own thoughts on Christian and his work throughout the process of these interviews. He has clearly spent a lot of time examining his own thoughts and biases, which makes for a worthy read.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Go Ask Alice

I have never read the infamous Go Ask Alice, even though it has obviously been on my radar my whole life. I mean, who hasn't heard of this supposedly-true anonymously written supposed-memoir? I decided to read it one day that I had a lot of commuting to do.

In short, a young girl turns 15, starts keeping a diary, tries drugs for the first time and becomes a fiend. I think the first time she tries anything she drops acid. She thinks it's amazing, and she ends up addicted to everything in the book. She loses her virginity on LSD (if I remember correctly) and it was just the absolute best experience and she isn't sure if sex not on drugs will ever be just as good. She ends up a homeless runaway twice, the first time becoming a successful business owner in San Francisco. (Yes, she is still 15.) She ends up getting put away in a mental hospital and dying soon after the book ends.

If your head is spinning from that "true story," you are not alone, my friends.

This is, inarguabley, the most absurd book I have ever read. You can't seriously buy into the idea that I would actually believe this was the real diary of a young girl, right? This was clearly written by an adult who thinks that she understands how a teenager writes. (Spoiler alerts: she doesn't.) If I want to read something overwrought and completely unrealistic, I would read romance novels. Also, the events are absurd. One day she tries LSD and then she wants to try everything under the sun? She never wavers, feels bad, or questions her choices? She looses her virginity on drugs and says it was the most amazing, wonderful, fireworks-filled experience of her life? Gag me, please.

The most absurd of them all, though, is in the middle of the book when, in the course of four weeks, she gets kissed by her childhood crush, then meets a man who has her try hash which is now totally her thing, she starts selling all kinds of hard drugs for this man and plans to set up a drug shop to support him through medical school, sells acid to middle school kids, then walks in on him having sex with his male roommate and then runs away to San Francisco. YOU HAVE TO BE KIDDING ME. WHAT IS THIS NONSENSE?!?

The most insulting part of this book is the supposed rape that occurs. It's apparently brutal and premeditated, but then nothing else is spoken about it. What I find insulting about this is that it has nothing to do with actual, long-term consequences of dealing with the aftermath of a sexual assault. The end of the section is that she will never ever see those horrible people again. Really? No PTSD? No flashbacks? No panic attacks? No dealing with the issues. It's disgusting.

Would I recommend this book? Only if you want to read something completely and utterly absurd. 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Obedience to Authority: The Experiment That Challenged Human Nature

This semester I was aiming to read one work book (or 5 journal articles) per week to stay on top of my field. I didn't quite succeed the way I hoped, but I still read a great deal. (See Blackballed, Savage Inequalities, and The Prize.) This is a classic that I should have read years ago: Stanley Milgram's Obedience to Authority.

In the 1950's, a young psychologist has a difficult time wrapping his head around how a large group of people, namely the Nazis, could carry out such heinous orders that involve the death of over 6 million people. Were they horrible people who secretly harbored sadistic tendencies, or was there a greater force at work, namely, obedience to authority? Dr. Stanley Milgram set out to find an answer by creating one of the most famous experiments in the history of psychology.

Two participants are brought into a room, but one is actually working for the experiment (we call this a confederate). They are assigned roles of teacher and learner, the teacher reading a list of vocabulary words that the learner has to memorize. The subject always "picks" the role of teacher. Every time the learner is quizzed and gets a question wrong, he must be shocked by the teacher at progressively higher voltages. As the learner continues to get more wrong, the shocks go up the scale until they reach a maximum of 450 V. How many people will insist on stopping the experiment? How many people will go to the end simply because they are told to? You might be surprised.

Several years back I had a conversation with one of my roommates about this experiment. She swore up-and-down that she would have never got all the way to the end, but I seriously doubt that she's correct about her own estimation. Most people would say they would never go to the end – most people would say they are "good people." However, based on the law of averages, she most likely would have. In fact, knowing her as well as I did, she absolutely would have listened  to and obeyed authority and gone all the way to the end. We all want to think that were special and unique, but the reality is that were are all average. We are all the kind of people would probably go to the end.

This is one of the top 10 most well-known psychological experiments that has ever been conducted. Sure, there were methodological flaws (which every experiment has), but this book lays out not just the initial experiment but the dozens that followed the original. We also know that long after Milgram finished his series, this experiment has been replicated again and again. However, just the replications in this book are astounding. The variations on the relationship between the participants in the experimenter are fascinating, from whether or not you should wear a lab coat, to the location of the experiments, to the proximity of the learner, to more than one experimenter, The results are fascinating. Very few people quit early, and a decent amount go until the end. However, based on the factors altered, the numbers change.

Ultimately Milgram finds that self-proclaimed good people will easily obey authority with and without question. The end of the book breaks down the process of how large scale organizations break down individual members in order to get them to follow authority. I read it completely astounded, only because it made such complete sense that I couldn't believe it. The stripping of the individual's autonomy, The putting in place of authority figures, and the structures in place to get The little guy to listen to those in charge is something that rings true even to this day. It's historically accurate, and contemporary at the same time. This book will never go out of style because it is as appropriate today in 2016 as it was in 1962. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Painted House: A Novel

Another beach, another John Grisham novel. It's an addiction. This summer, it was A Painted House.

One summer, a young boy's life comes to a head before it changes for good. Luke, the young man at the heart of the story, is 7years old and has grown up in his small, Southern town his whole life. His father is a cotton farmer, and every year they must hire the hill people to help them with the harvest. It's never enough – and, inevitably, the floods wipe out the entirety of the remaining crop. This year though, a particularly violent man is a part of the hired help, and with the harvest season the town is forever changed. A beautiful young woman disappears, and a young man lies beaten to death. In addition, someone is mysteriously painting Luke's grandparent's house, which is more significant than most people realize. What is the cause of all of these events?

This was an interesting departure for Grisham, and I enjoyed it immensely. Maybe not in the page-turning sense, but in a way that was easy to sink into, like a big comfy chair that smells like your grandma's house. There was certainly an air of mystery, and there was definitely a sense of injury, but overall it was a well-crafted narrative of a boy's coming of age. I love the whole metaphor of watching the house be painted, and how it never really finished in the course of the out-of-towners being there. I also love the relationship between Luke and his elders. The older I get, the more I am able to relate to the characters are in their adulthood phase and who are struggling to be just that. The protagonist's relationship with his parents was lovely and moving, and his relationship with his grandparents was one that I loved as well as envied. I didn't particularly grow up around my grandparents, so I find it interesting to read stories of those who did. Is that what it would've been like? I don't know, but I am grateful to have the reading to be able to see for myself what the fictional view would be.

I left this book with my cousin because I thought that she could join me in loving this book. As I said earlier, because it's a departure from Grisham's usual thriller fair, it's one that I could recommend to quite a few people. It was a wonderful vacation read, and I'm glad I picked this one up.

Friday, November 25, 2016

A Flag for the Flying Dragon: A Captain No Beard Story

Captain No Beard is back! I have a bunch of Carole P. Roman books that are waiting to be reviewed -- she has a fantastic new series out -- but in the meantime, our favorite high-seas bandit is back with his crew in A Flag for the Flying Dragon: A Captain No Beard Story.

Cayla, Captain No Beard's little sister whom we met a few books ago, is now grown up and doesn't need her burp cloths anymore, so she's using them to improve the ship. Their younger brother, though, Zachary, is still a baby. Babies, as we know, are just so much trouble. No one can find a job on the ship for Zachary that he doesn't ruin. No one wants to hurt Zach's feelings, but no one wants him to help, either. No Beard comes up with a plan -- he chooses a flag for the ship, and asks his baby brother to guard it. The flag isn't exactly what No Beard was picturing for an official ship representation, but sometimes we have to compromise to include those we love. 

As usual, I was smitten with this book. More than usual though, I really feel that this is one of the best No Beard books I have read. Roman does a great job of whittling down the story to its essence. It's shorter than most of the other No Beard books, and it gets right to the meat of the issue. I like the short and sweet nature of this story, and I love the addition of a new sibling for the Captain. Now that one sister is old enough to join in productively, he has to deal with a little brother. Some of the same issues, but this time around No Beard is growing up and working with his family instead of against them. It's lovely to see the series progress in this way, and to see No Beard sticking up for his brother. The choice of ship flag was not exactly the one that he wanted, but he knows and understands that sometimes you have to sacrifice the details for the bigger picture. This was a lovely story, and I'm so happy to add it to my No Beard collection. 

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Do I Have to Say Hello? Aunt Delia's Manners Quiz

I picked up Delia Ephron and Edward Koren's Do I Have to Say Hello? Aunt Delia's Manners Quiz more than a year ago, at BEA 2015, and as we all know I got a little distracted by my (lack of) dissertation. (It's going much better, by the way!) I thought it would be a perfect fit for a Thanksgiving Day review here on Sassy Peach. I will be slaving away in the kitchen for my friends while you sit back and enjoy this post.

How do you eat certain foods at the dinner table? What is the proper response to a letter from a distant family member? Appropriate school behavior -- what is it? If you need to throw up in a moving vehicle, how should you politely ask the driver to pull over? Every question you could imagine that a young person wouldn't ask but needs to know is contained in this book. Fashioned as a question-and-answer process, Ephron covers everything you can imagine in this book and has it properly, and humorously, illustrated by Koren.

You might hear an older generation holler about the kids these days having no manners, but the reality is that manners, and morals, for that matter, are generational. Manners are seen as a moral issue, and I have heard many in the greatest generation yell and yell about the lack of respect and manners in young people. Hell, I've even heard my older graduate students wax on about this. Now, doing what I do for a living, I don't believe this to be true. Not only do the idea of what is proper and what is not changes over the years, but we also know that these things take time to learn. They aren't inherent, and not all children are rude. (Sure, some are.) You must learn how to behave in certain situations -- no one "just knows."

A form of this book was originally published in 1989, and honestly, it shows. I loved reading this book because it's of my generation -- it's something my dad's mom would have absolutely given to me as a child. She once sat me down in her living room with my aunt to tell me how rude I was, because obviously that was her job. I can't remember my response, but I think when she asked me if I was this rude at my other grandmother's house, I replied no. She asked why, and I said because I liked my other grandma. As you can see, she would have purchased me this book without taking a step back to realize that maybe, just maybe, the six-year-old me just didn't like being treated as though I had no thoughts, feelings, or autonomy. My behavior was in reaction to, and modeled by, the people I was with. Think on that.

So this book cracked me up, only because it felt as though it harked back to my childhood. It's not a book I would purchase as a gift for my friends' children, because the times, they are a-changin'. I have a much different view toward the development of children (because, you know, it's what I do). They are to be seen and heard, as opposed to my grandmother's desire for me to be a "good little girl" and be prim and proper and marry young because how on earth do I support myself as a woman in this world? I would, however, purchase this book for my friends so that we could sit back and talk about our childhoods. The ones that were good but that we want to modify for our own kids.