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Happy 6th Birthday, SPR!

As of my "maternity leave," here are the stats of the past year: 74 books reviewed 9 guest posts 4 independent bookstores 3 d...

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

God: A Human History


Reza Aslan's Zealot was high on my "enjoyed" list, and I learned quite a bit from it. Looking back on that post, I wish I had written more in-depth about my thoughts on it and how the book effected me. So I decided to pick up God: A Human History when I saw it available for advanced review. 

I have been a fan of Allan since reading Zealot, and I find him to be an accomplished scholar who does outstanding historical research. This should come as no surprise seeing as how this is literally his job. I need to spell that out early on, though, so that we can be clear in explanation that the dude has got a point. You don’t have to be an atheist to find his work to be incredibly deep and explanatory. However, if you don’t like exploring knowledge that may contradict your faith, you should look for another work. That being said, I would encourage you to explore historical facts that you believe might not support what you have faith in — you might find some insight into why you believe what you believe. 

So now that my disclaimer is out there, let’s get to the meat of the book. I have a teensy background in religious history just through reading my beloved non-fiction religious scholars, but I had never explored the origins of the human belief in God. It’s funny now that I think about it, particularly as cognitive psych-oriented I am, that I have never spent time mulling over this. Hence my fascination with Aslan’s latest work. 

Where does God come from? Not in terms of physical origin, but in our own thoughts and minds. Who is he, and what is he like? Since no one on this earth actually knows (not even you), we as hominids with complex cognitive reasoning skills have created a likeness in our image because it’s what we can understand. How can we possibly imagine a being that isn’t something within our cognitive framework already? (This starts to get complicated on my end in terms of psych concepts, so as simply as I can explain it: we can’t know more than we know, so the conception of God is super complicated.) 

So ancient relatives of ours created God in their own image. Religion helped settle hominids and, Aslan argues, pushed us from a hunter-gatherer culture to an agricultural one. We created many gods pan-culturally with similar backstories based on historical events, and those gods had the ability to do specific things that humans could relate to. They were an explanation for a species who are primarily meaning-makers. (Now you are getting a part of my human development class mixed in with Aslan!) 

Then comes in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. I could go into it all here, but you should read the book yourself because it is an awesome (in the most literal sense of the word) intellectual exploration of humans and deities and how we got to here. 

Aslan discusses some important-to-me topics in here such as theory of mind and ancient Hellenic culture, and I was amazed at my ability to synthesize it all. I was fascinated and humbled by the research presented and the depth of Aslan’s understanding of from whence we come. I only read one chapter at a time so I could ruminate on his words and the string of his narrative in relation to my own history and conception of the divine. 

The most moving piece of his book was the conclusion when Aslan opens up about his own journey to believe in what he does. He leaves the journey up to each of us, but indeed I identify with his short but profound words about his own beliefs, because I share them. He says in the last chapter that to reach this point in your beliefs, you have to come to it willingly and deliberately, and this struck such a strong cord with me. He’s right. I, too, have come here willingly and deliberately. What a beautiful thing it is. 

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Guest Blogger Charlotte - The Glass Castle: A Novel

Hello!
Anytime I asked my friend for a book recommendation, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls was the only book she would tell me to read. So, after a few months, I finally decided to pick up the book she continually raved about.    

The book is a memoir of Jeannette Walls’ more than dysfunctional life from childhood to adulthood. Growing in up in poverty with an alcoholic father, unpredictable mother, and her three siblings, Jeannette retells her different experiences. The story begins later in Jeanette’s life with her on the way to a get-together when she sees her homeless mother digging through trash on the streets of New York. After this shocking start of the book, the audience is drawn in as she goes back in time to her being three years old and from there the story is written in chronological order, with each chapter being a moment in her life. 

The story is heartbreaking, encouraging, and completely stunning as she experiences events that do not seem possible, such as hospital trips, lack of food, and homelessness. The Glass Castle opens the door to a perspective that is often overlooked. I spent the entire time rooting for Jeannette and her family as they encounter many setbacks caused by a number of variables, whether it is family members or outside sources. It is a story of human life and human nature as the characters grow and continue through life. You may love and hate different characters, but I felt that most of the time I simply saw the characters as real people doing their best to figure life out. 

The writing itself is also captivating. There was not a moment when reading the book that I felt disconnected to the characters or the story. It was as though I was living through the eyes of Jeannette, feeling devastated whenever a bad event happened to the individuals in the story and ecstatic when the characters finally caught a break.

As soon as I finished reading the story all I could do was sit and call my friend who had recommended the book because I had loved it so much. I would say this is definitely a book to put on everyone’s to-read list as it makes you cry, think, and laugh. Overall it is an extraordinary story written in a unique and impeccable manner.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Our Kind of Cruelty: A Novel


Holy. Mother. Of. Pearl. I heard that Araminta Hall’s Our Kind of Cruelty was a gripping, wonderful thriller, but I wasn’t expecting THAT. 

Mike and Verity were college sweethearts, and for several years after university they supported each other moving up in their careers in London. Mike takes a job in the United States for a short time, and upon his return, his relationship with his beloved V is over — or is it? She won’t answer his emails or calls, and she’s getting married in a few months. But it’s all part of the game they play, this Crave, and Mike believes, no, knows, that if he plays his role the way he’s supposed to, he and V can be stronger than ever before. If only she would speak to him, though. No matter. Soon. 

Heads up — I can’t talk about this book without throwing in a few spoilers, so caveat emptor. 

I honestly didn’t know what to make of this book as I read it with a mouth agape and my head cocked to the side. This is, by far, a huge compliment. It is astounding that Hall could write such an incredible piece of work that treats a mentally ill man with such a deep humanity that sometimes it’s hard to tell exactly what the truth is. Even as Mike is reaching in his interpretations of Verity’s communications, and you know he is reaching, you still aren’t sure which was is up and you ask yourself, “Am I really sure that she’s not playing a Crave?” Because she could be. When we are in Mike’s head as his first-person narrative unfold, we could very well be there. He is both a reliable and an unreliable narrator, and it’s mind-boggling at times the mental gymnastics he goes through to convince himself that he’s seeing what he wants to see. 

Hats off to Hall on the construction of this book as well. I thought for sure this would give me the ending most of these books do, which is that the woman ends up either dead or fighting back and forever scarred. This story, though, ends even worse than that. The first part of the book focuses on Verity’s upcoming wedding and Mike settling back into London, building a home for Verity when she decides to leave her now-husband. The second part is post-wedding when Mike’s determination ends in a spectacular fashion and everyone’s lives are changed. The third part is the most frightening of all, and it’s what I didn’t expect when I picked up the book. What the actual living fuck? 

(Again, a compliment.)

I was so blown away that I was both repulsed by the events and enraptured in what was going to happen. I couldn’t have predicted this ending, and I was spellbound. This story is just simply jaw-dropping, and it’s absolutely worth any praise you’ve heard of it. One of the blurbs said something along the lines of being glued until the very last, chilling line. I didn’t necessarily find that last line most chilling, but rather the first of the author’s acknowledgements. Save it until the end, and it will put the book in an even stronger context. 

Ms. Hall, if I may address you directly — you are incredible and I bow down to you for this raw and intense portrait of violence against women. It feels so real it’s frightening. Thank you. 

Sunday, July 8, 2018

We Made It SEVEN Years!

It never fails to excite me to realize that I've been running this blog for as long as I have. It's still fun, and it's still important to me, so here we are. 2018 and still reading like a fiend. Hopefully by this time next year I will have completed my doctorate and will be on to less stressful things. 

This year has been fun. A baby, my dissertation proposal, and an extra Master's degree (an M.Phil., in Educational Psychology, in case you were wondering).

I think my count goes something like this: 87 posts this month covering 86 books with 12 of those being guest posts -- a huge thank you to Charlotte for taking over while I recovered from having my wonderful baby boy. I am a little bogged down right now with some papers and my dissertation, so I am keeping this short today. Mostly, though, I just want to thank you all for sticking around and reading the books. 

Some of my favorites:

Novels


You Think It, I'll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn

The Power by Naomi Alderman

Heartshire High by Charlotte Leonetti

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny

Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

Non-Fiction 

The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives by William Stixrud, Ph.D. and Ned Johnson


Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover


The Gardner and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children by Alison Gopnik

Birds + Bees + Your Kids: A Guide to Sharing Your Beliefs About Sexuality, Love, and Relationships by Amy Lang

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat

I Can't Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street by Matt Taibbi

Lactivism: How Feminists and Fundamentalists, Hippies and Yuppies, and Physicians and Politicians Made Breastfeeding Big Business and Bad Policy by Courtney Jung

The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups by Erika Christakis

Children's

Max and Bird by Ed Vere

Thursday, July 5, 2018

B. F. Skinner's About Behaviorism


I can't even remember where I acquired a copy of B. F. Skinner's About Behaviorism, but I do remember that I picked it up as a work book. In a basic ed psych course I teach a primer on behaviorism, and while I understand the basics of operant conditioning I felt it would be good to read it from the horse's mouth.

The history of paychology is fascinating to me, even if it is the story of a long line of White dudes. Human beings are complex, irrational beings who think they are logical and objective and who are anything but. Skinner, however, decides that he doesn’t agree with cognition as a concept and instead becomes the father of radical behaviorism, coining the concept of operant conditioning and changing how we as a people see our relationship with the environment. He says that cognition has too much weight placed upon it in understanding human behavior, and that instead we are at the mercy of our environment and our direct responses to external stimuli. 

(Watch me pull up my pants and stretch my arms, because we are about to get into this, kids.)

The first, and most important, thing I have to say is that Skinner has a point. (Go ahead and pick your jaw up off the floor if you haven’t been a student of mine and haven’t heard my point in Behaviorism as a whole.) It is vital that we as scholars understand where we came from, because even if the theory doesn’t explain everything (and no theory does, FYI), there are pieces of every psychological theory that have merit and have allowed researchers to build off of it. Skinner’s explication of operant conditioning is quite accurate, but he was rigid in his determination to convince everyone that it was the only and primary explanation. 

On the chapter entitled, "Thinking," Skinner was lucky that I didn't throw my out-of-print copy in a dumpster fire while cursing his name. His big thing is the "so-called thinking processes," because he doesn't believe that cognitive processes are a part of decision making, as it's really a reliance on behavioristic decision-making that is either approach or avoidance goal-based. (While he didn't use the "approach/avoidance" terminology, that's essentially what he's getting at.) I rolled my eyes so hard I almost saw my brain in the back of my head. 

There is no reason the operant conditioning can’t exist in tandem with cognitive processing. I don’t believe in throwing the baby out with the bath water. Just because his theory isn’t the be-all-end-all doesn’t mean it doesn’t have merit. Maybe he could just slow down on the definite statements. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Who? A Celebration of Babies


Who?A Celebration of Babies by Robie H. Harris and illustrated by Natascha Rosenberg is the sweetest, most adorable book. I picked it up at Book Expo this year as part of my movement to pick up more books for my son. Because the 500 we currently have just isn't enough.

This book goes through a series of questions asking who the baby is seeing. From birds and dogs and cats to grandmas and grandpas and parents to cars and toys, just about everyone and everything you can imagine are present in our world within these page.

What makes this book worth purchasing is the diversity presented throughout its pages. It's not just babies of different races, but babies of different complexions within races. There is a grandmother who wears a head covering, and a a set of twins. So many babies are represented here, and while I would have liked to see a baby with a physical disability to round out the group, I am so happy with this book. My son loves it too, from the beginning to the end. I caught him looking through it on his own yesterday, actually, and it was the sweetest thing to see. I'm thrilled this early reader is on our shelves, or, more specifically at present time, flung across our living room floor. 

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Two Days Gone: A Novel


Toward the end of spring semester, I started devouring any murder mysteries or thrillers that I had languishing on my TBR shelf from past Book Expos. The students in my childhood development also shared a fondness for murder and mayhem, so I powered through a bunch of them to share with them on the last day of class. They were thrilled. One of these was Randall Silvis's Two Days Gone.

Thomas Huston is a celebrated author with a beautiful wife, three kids, and a university job. One night his whole family is slaughtered in their beds, and Thomas ends up on the run. Detective DeMarco, who had known Huston as a friend, takes up the case with suspicions about the claim that Huston is a murder. When DeMarco finds the notes and early writings of Huston's next novel, he proceeds down a rabbit hole that brings out a host of suspects, unclear motivations, and a path that leads to a broken man who lost his family and may only live long enough to avenge them.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book and the story that it told. It was one of those that I wished I had picked up earlier, because I found I quite enjoyed reading it. I was recommending it right and left after finishing it because I was just so impressed at the character development as well as the story arc. Silvis writes compelling characters who are deep and intriguing, and I found myself liking just about everyone save for the whole murder-like person. He peels back the layers of each character like an onion, slowly revealing who they are to the reader so that they never appear just one dimensional or as stock characters. Even the killer, who surprised me, was not just a singular bad guy, but rather full of intrigue and an interesting choice for the story.

Silvis also weaves together an intriguing story that isn't entirely predictable but doesn't shift on a dime. I wasn't able to predict the ending, but then again, I wasn't inhaling the book so that I could get to it. There was something incredibly intriguing about the journey to get to the end of the story, and that made this book different than other thriller's I have read recently. I enjoyed the entire process of reading this story instead of wanting to get to the end so that I could reach a satisfying climax. One of the reasons why is that the end isn't a satisfying climax, but more of a lull in a much larger story. Just because we know who killed the Huston's doesn't mean that justice was served or that anyone in the story gets to live a happy ending. Just as in real life, the end doesn't work that way. We all just keep on moving forward, regardless of whether or not loose ends get tied up.

This was a story well worth reading, and I'm glad that I was able to sink my teeth into it during a restful spell in my crazy life. It was a good choice after proposing my dissertation when I wanted a good story that would intrigue me but didn't necessarily need me to dig deep into my knowledge center to make sense of the content. Instead, I was able to be simply intrigued and surprised, and this book was perfect. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The Neuroscientist Who Lost Her Mind: My Tale of Madness and Recovery


Right up my alley and fascinating to boot, Barbara K. Lipska's The Neuroscientist Who Lost Her Mind: My Tale of Madness and Recovery was a read that I couldn't put down. 

Barbara was a prolific researcher on the neuro-origins of mental illness and the director of the brain bank at the National Institute of Mental Health. Her life's work served as the greatest irony when she began losing her mind in the prime of her life. At first she loses sight in the corners of her eye, and she knows -- it's a tumor. Her breast cancer metastasized to her brain, which was the ultimate cruelty. She has it treated and has confidence in her recovery, but she slowly changes from the loving, caring mother and wife that she has always been to someone she doesn't even understand. Her work can't save her. 

You know me and brain stuff -- I love it. Can't keep my hands off of it, except for maybe when I read murder and mayhem. I was fascinated by Lipska's journey from researcher to the researched, and I found myself overwhelmed by her experience. I love that she opened the book with a particular point in her journey, when she found herself dying her hair and then going for a run, but not realizing she still had dye in her hair and then losing her place in her neighborhood. None of it phased her as she didn't even realize what was happening. It was fascinating to read, and then to jump into her journey from her beginnings in Poland and her journey to the United States. Her research was profound and an incredibly important contribution to the mental health field, and her description of her work at NIMH was amazing.

Then the worst happens, which is the growth of metastatic tumors on her brain. I felt her panic as she realized that she couldn't see out the side of her vision, and her I understood her denial of what was happening even as I was screaming to her that she needed to get to the doctor now. The devastation she felt at having to put her life on hold was acute to me, and her journey was arduous and palpable. I will say that her writing felt a bit stilted, but I chalk that up to a background in academic writing which doesn't particularly lend itself to writing for the masses. (I know this well, as I can be pedantic myself if I don't watch it. See? I just used the word pedantic unironically.) However, her story was so fascinating that I was willing to look past the sometimes awkward narrative voice to dig deep into the heart of the story. 

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Every Breath You Take: A True Story of Obsession, Revenge, and Murder


Could this be the best Ann Rule book out there? Possibly. Every Breath You Take: A True Story of Obsession, Revenge, and Murder was hands-down mind-boggling.

Sheila Blackthorne Bellush lived though literal hell with her husband, Allen Blackthorne. Physical abuse coupled with emotional and verbal abuse, affecting not just Sheila but their two daughters, Stevie and Daryl. When Sheila finally is able to take her daughters and leave, Allen continuously hunts them down and makes their lives as miserable as possible. As he becomes a multimillionaire, he nickels and dimes his third ex-wife to keep her in poverty. When Sheila meets Jamie, they build a family together that involves not just her daughters but quadruplets. After enough threats from Allen, the Bellushes pack up their home and escape to Florida in the dead of night. No one knows where they are -- or do they? What Allen wants, Allen gets, even if is the murder of his ex-wife as a form of power.

This may rank up near the top on my list of Ann Rule full-length narrative non-fictions. Not only is the story absolutely bat-shit crazy, but Rule was able to follow the court case closely and put it all in this book. It's actually one of the pieces that I like least about this book -- the last whole half being the arrest of the killers and the trials of them all -- but the first half which tells the story of Allen, of Sheila, and of the events leading up to Sheila's brutal murder were some of the most riveting I have read out of Ann Rule. That's saying a lot, as you know I am a fan. I tried to search for where the Blackthorne/Bellushes are now, but it's surprisingly hard to find.

Sheila was Allen's third wife (although he told her that she was his second), and Blackthorne wasn't their last name when they married; it was Van Houte. Allen changed it after what is a long, winding road of hustling and cheating and moving and shaking. You see what is coming; Allen's treatment of his first two wives was a huge warning side to us readers, and it's a damned shame that Sheila didn't know about it beforehand. Although, I know well that when a woman is in love, very few will be able to get through to her about this kind of thing. Allen cheated and used Sheila's parents, pushing them into debt, and Sheila still stuck by her man. I wanted to scream at her across the miles and the years to run, but she wouldn't have heard me.

The details of the murder are gory and heartbreaking, especially because it was in front of her four babies. I wish for her that her relationship with her younger daughter from her first marriage, Daryl, had been better when she was killed, but Allen was to thank for that. No matter how much I understand about sociopaths, I am always still so surprised at the damage they can cause. Allen was clearly one; he didn't care who he hurt how badly or how often, as long as he kept his perceived power. It's not a surprise that he was eventually convicted, since we know that's how Rule's stories go, but it was still nutty. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Dark Lake: A Novel


I had this juicy thriller on my TBR bookshelf for a while, and I picked it up for some early summer reading by the pool. How indulgent it was, The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey. 

Gemma Woodstock grew up in Smithson and has settled there as an adult, becoming a police officer and having a son with her partner. One day, right before Christmas, she is called to the scene of a murder involving one of her high school classmates behind that very school following the school play. Gemma tells everyone that she barely knew Rosalind Ryan and that it won't affect her ability to investigate the murder. But just like Rosalind, Gemma is full of secrets that she can't reveal, including her affair with her work partner, Felix and the true cause of the suicide of her high school sweetheart in their final year of school. When the case gets personal and Gemma feels her sanity slipping, she begins to wonder if she will ever solve the case and move on with her life, in every way.

I quite enjoyed this story and found it to hit the sweet spot of murder and mayhem with a good story twist. Gemma was an interesting character whom I felt could have been been fleshed out more in terms of character arc. Rosalind came across as subhuman in the way that only the recently deceased can be -- perfect, angelic, beyond beautiful, mysterious. You know. I did find that the story arc was interesting and kept me wanting to find out exactly who killed the woman.

There was a lot going on in this story, and underneath the big story line of Rosalind's murder were several minor story lines, some of which had to do with the big one and some that didn't. If you don't like spoilers, stop here and pick up the book. Otherwise...

The story line that didn't have anything to do with the murder was Gemma's affair with Felix and the difficulty she is having at home with her partner and father of her child, Ben. It was a plot piece that I think was meant to humanize Gemma while also providing us with the characteristic of hardheartedness, but instead I felt that it took away from the task at hand, which was Gemma's relationship to Rosalind and her willingness to take on the murder investigation while there is a connection that is foreshadowed throughout the book. I am having a hard time reconciling this plot point with the main thrust of the book. The other story line that was only tangentially related to the murder was that Rosalind's father was not who she thought it was. We find out who it was, but it feels as though it was an unnecessary piece of the story that muddied up the point of the story.

The personal connection that Gemma has to Rosalind is her high school sweetheart, who broke up with her to date Rosalind. This is connected to the murder (and no, Gemma didn't do it), but it ends up being convoluted and the ending comes upon us quickly. It left me feeling like the story was quite incomplete, as in 50 pages the murder is quickly solved with a slight threat to Gemma, her affair ends abruptly because she pushes Felix too far, and Gemma comes to grips with her past. I would have been much happier with the story if it had chosen a path and stuck with it instead of trying to trail-jump all over the mountain.