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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...

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Guest Blogger Charlotte: The Chocolate War

The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier, is a book I am glad I read and a book I’m glad I did not have to read for school. Let’s start with the basics:

• It’s short.
• It has swears and sexual language in it.
• It gets put on a lot of lists of the best YA novels ever (this is why I read it).
• It gets banned by schools a lot (this is also a little bit why I read it).
• It was written in the 1970s and is kind of dated, so it can be hard to get really lost in it. I also found that the fact that it had LOTS of character who were all boys made it easy to get confused and meant that I had trouble getting lost in the book.

Like so many young adult classics, it’s a book about the dangers of mob mentality, the importance of standing up for yourself, and the ability to make an impact in an unfair world. I can’t say that I loved reading it, if only because it felt dated and I wasn’t able to really get absorbed in the book. It took a lot of energy to read. I think maybe stories set in high school, where the norms of communication and friendship change so much over time, have trouble aging well.

But even though I didn’t love reading it, I kind of loved having read it. This book sticks with you. The lessons and themes are ones we’ve seen again and again, but there are two things that make them particularly meaningful and special in this book, and I think they are the two things that make the book such a work of art.

Thing 1: The situation is so mundane. It is easy for an author to make drama in a dramatic situation. In Lord of the Flies or 1984, for example, there is an elaborately dramatic and abnormal setting in which the reader can watch rebellion take place. In those settings, we can try to think “What would I do?” and it’s easy to tell ourselves that we would take a stand, we would be brave, we would make a difference. Those settings are separate from our reality, and while we can relate to the emotions and connect them to the real world, they are more like allegories than they are an example of day-to-day life.

But unlike an island plane crash or a dystopian future dictatorship, the setting for The Chocolate War is so, well, boring. Everyone at Jerry Renault’s school is asked to volunteer to sell chocolates for a school fundraiser, and he chooses not to volunteer. That’s it. That’s his big rebellion.

And yet, it’s everything. The beauty of this book is that you can truly see and understand how those tiny things mean so much and make such a huge impact on yourself and the world around you. The kind of things that seem like a big deal in high school and people tell you, “In ten years, you won’t even remember this.” The kind of things that make you so deeply, profoundly upset, and when you try to explain them to your parents they sound like nothing so you end up saying, “you don’t understand” or “you had to be there” and leaving it at that. Comier expertly shows how such a small action can actually be giant, and that alone is worth reading the book.

Thing 2: The hero doesn’t win. Sure, The Chocolate War is far from the first novel where the good guy doesn’t get his way. In fact, both the novels I mentioned before are good examples of the good guy not getting his way – evil wins, and the good guy must find a way to go on (or not) without getting to be a hero at all.


What’s rare, however, is for the good guy not to win in a mundane setting. It would be easy and believable for some good to come from Jerry’s protest. It wouldn’t feel cheesy or contrived – in a school setting, the reader could conceive of a victory for right over wrong. When it doesn’t come, we feel cheated in a way that we don’t in dramatic, fanciful settings. When fanciful settings have a dark and unsatisfying ending, they still have a kind of satisfaction in thinking, “I’m so glad real life isn’t like that.” The Chocolate War doesn’t deliver even that satisfaction – it just ends, unresolved and unsettling, the bad guys keeping the power. It feels bad, but small enough that it feels real, which is what makes it unshakeable. 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Guest Blogger Charlotte: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman is a real book. It’s a book-reader’s book. Immediately after reading it, I looked online to see if I could find any other books by Gail Honeyman and was sad to see there are not (yet!) any others. But she is a wonderful story in her own right – a great literary success with her first book at 40, which gives me hope as an author.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is the story, not surprisingly, of Eleanor Oliphant, a lonely, single woman who works in an office in England. The story is told from her point of view, and it is truly a window into another world. She has coping mechanisms, funny observations, rationales, and troubles. While you the reader are hearing from her perspective, you can imagine how she is seen from the outside. She is sophisticated in some ways, with elegant language and a detailed but dated code of politeness, but in other ways she is completely lacking in the basic skills needed to be “normal”. Her world is dictated by practicality in ways that leave others puzzled or even offended, and she obviously and simply doesn’t fit in. She knows it, as well.

What is most amazing about Eleanor Oliphant is the depth of the characters, including Eleanor herself. She is not a one-dimensional weirdo. She is bright, funny, and shockingly relatable. She is also sad, lost, and at times irritating. She is a person, and you feel that you know her very well, yet a large part of her remains a mystery.

Unlike so many “special” narrators – I’m looking at you, girl-in-the-bubble from Everything Everything and Oskar from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as just a few of many, many examples – Eleanor is not precious and perfect. What a relief. That is, I think, what makes her real.

The surprise of this book is that there is a bit of a mystery woven throughout – what made Eleanor this way? I think the revelations of Eleanor’s past are woven so well through the book that they don’t disrupt the flow of the story, until they do, sneaking up on you and creating a faint but creepy overtone to the book. It almost lets the reader experience what Eleanor might experience, going about her day and forgetting about troubles in the back of her mind until they pounce upon her without notice. It has the effect of helping you understand Eleanor and care about her, even as you realize you don’t know the whole story.

Don’t choose this book based on the plot – the plot is not the thing. It’s a book about emotions and rationalizations. A book about loneliness and humanity. The language is not simple and the jokes are not spelled out for you, which makes them all the more rewarding, The characters are regular people. As in the real world, this book does not have clear good guys and bad guys. This review is making it sound terribly boring, but it is the opposite. You will be enthralled, and you will root for Eleanor, and some of the scenes are truly heartbreaking. Nothing dramatic and cheesy happens, and yet it is somehow more dramatic than so many novels packed with momentous scenes.

I think above all these. it’s a book about perspective. Seeing the world from Eleanor’s perspective is eye-opening.  It may even make you aware of some things that you yourself do or think and how they may be perceived by others. It should certainly make you pause a moment before thinking a cruel or rude thought about the weird kid, the loner… the person you usually ignore. Because once you get to know Eleanor as a person, with all her imperfections, you can’t get her out of your head.


If you love character-driven literary fiction, books from the perspective of a unique narrator, or suspense novels, I suggest you give Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine a try.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Guest Blogger Charlotte: The Diary of Anne Frank

This month I read The Diary of Anne Frank, but before you click away because it’s a smaller or younger read… Stop! Everyone knows the story and the way it sadly ends, but it is so important, especially now, to read it.

The book takes place in Holland during Nazi occupation. A young girl named Anne is 13 years old when the Franks, Van Daans, and Mr. Dussel go into hiding. For the next 3 years of her life, the Secret Annex, their hiding spot, becomes their home. They cannot leave or be heard or seen. They experience bombings, gunshots, and burglaries, but Anne continues to write. In the end, hopes are high because the Allies are approaching, only it is not soon enough and the diary entries soon stop.

I think the most shocking for me was how normal Anne was in her entries. I mean she is just a regular teenager; she talks about her hair, friendships, and self-criticism. Aspects of the war are only spoken of when there are air fights, or burglaries occur. She adjusts to life and this, the war, becomes her new life. I feel that this was so important because it shows how that this is just a young girl’s diary. She shares her thoughts and feelings while living through one of the worst events in history. It shows the world that when these events occur they affect real people with feelings, aspirations and hope. Although it is known that tragedies affect many individuals, reading Anne Frank gave a reality check.

Something else that affected me while reading this is that she is the age of my brother.  Obviously World War II had taken the lives of people younger and older than him, but reading Anne’s diary who could have been his classmate or even him is terrifying. It also makes events today more real and horrific. There is such a disconnect and a ‘us vs. them’ sense that we often forget to be empathetic, accepting and/or helpful. It’s easier to walk away but if it was someone you knew or read their diary, your point of view would quickly change.

It’s understandable that as one becomes older, the book may seem less appealing, as it is a teenage girl’s diary. Sure, the book is long at some points but it’s a book where in the end everything connects. It’s just a must. You get to see a personal account to such an inhumane moment in history. And although it seemed to have occurred such a long time ago, it really really has not; in fact I found myself having some of the same interests as Anne.

We have to do everything in our power to stop this from happening again and honestly currently we are failing. Do not let these people’s sacrifice and tragedies be forgotten or be in vain.

            

Saturday, July 8, 2017

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 days of Book Expo America
  • 1 baby
That's right -- 1 baby. He's a doll, you guys. This is the craziest, off-the-wall, most insane thing I have ever done, having a baby. It's incredibly emotional.

Looking over the past year, I read a ton of amazing books. This may be my best compilation yet. Here we are, in no particular order except by genre, the best books I read this year. As usual, not all were published in the past year; these are just what I read this year.

Non-Fiction

The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools by Dale Russakoff

Why We Can't Wait by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opioid Epidemic by Sam Quinones

Not My Mother's Kitchen: Rediscovering Italian-American Cooking Through Stories and Recipes by Rob Chirico

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli

Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools by Jonathan Kozol

Obedience to Authority: The Experiment that Challenged Human Nature by Dr. Stanley Milgram

Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America by Patrick Phillips

Memoir

The Fortress by Danielle Trussoni

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer

Fiction

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

Children's

Max at Night by Ed Vere

Ada Twist, Scientist and the series, links found in post by Andrea Beaty

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Guest Blogger Charlotte: If Not For You

Short version: If you love cheesy, predictable romantic stories, If Not For You might be fine for your beach bag.  As long as you also love clich├ęs and trite dialogue. Otherwise, skip it.

If Not for You, by Debbie Macomber, is a very long novel that starts like a Lifetime movie and ends exactly where you think it will. The story is about a woman named Beth who moves from Chicago to Portland, Oregon to escape her overprotective mother Ellie. One day, her friend Nicole sets her up on a blind date with Sam. They obviously don’t connect, until later when Sam witnesses Beth get into a car accident.

It should be noted at this point that the characters are all standard stock romance novel characters, and each one is completely as one-dimensional as possible. Beth is quiet and polite, a teacher, a lover of classical music – you can also see the halo. Sam is a brooding, tough loner mechanic who likes rock music. He likes guitar and she likes piano – how can they ever get along? But somehow, in a twist that’s a surprise to absolutely no one except Beth and Sam because how could I possibly love someone different than me, etc etc, they fall totally in love. I feel like “Beth” and “Sam” even sound like the names you’d give these characters when you came up with the story in fifth grade. Because about fifth grade is when the idea of “he watched me get in a car accident and that made him fall in love with me” should lose it’s appeal, right?

Maybe I’m wrong. This book is a New York Times Bestseller, so people found it entertaining I guess. Admittedly, if it were half as long, it might be good as a relaxing read, like watching a cheesy romantic movie. There’s a reason those aren’t usually four hours long though.

The story was pretty well written and easy to read – you definitely don’t have to do any work to understand what’s happening in the story. From the beginning until the middle of the book, I actually enjoyed it. It was sweet and cheesy and made me smile. I found the love story entertaining and felt like I knew the characters personally. Characters like Sunshine, the quirky aunt, felt real and relatable, even if it was because they’re exactly like thousands of other quirky-aunt-who-paints-and-tells-me-to-follow-my-dreams characters in thousands of stories before, with literally nothing unique or new added (she’s named Sunshine, for heaven’s sake). That quickly changed however, when the book started to prolong itself and all I could do was cringe. Extra details and events seemed forced and strange considering these were adults and not teenagers. The story dragged out in minutia that added nothing to the predictable ending.

In the end, I kind of enjoyed it for what it was, but I have to say I also took some perverse pleasure in how standard and formulaic it was. If that’s what you like, this book won’t rock the boat and won’t disappoint. If you’re looking for anything unique or interesting, this isn’t the book for you.





Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Guest Blogger Charlotte: Carrie Fisher's The Princess Diarist

Since I can remember, Star Wars has been prevalent in my life. It was pretty much part of initiation into my family. I adored Princess Leia and her bravery, so when Carrie Fisher sadly passed late last year, I was devastated. One of the first things I did, other than have a movie marathon, was read The Princess Diarist, one of Carrie’s books of personal stories. I wouldn’t call it an autobiography, as it only covers a few incidents in her life while giving her perspective on some moments in time, but it is autobiographical in nature, and I looked forward to the chance to get to know her a little bit, in her own words. The cover describes it as “a sort-of memoir”, which is exactly right.

 I was extremely excited when I set aside a day to read it. I was grasping for pieces of Princess Leia and Carrie Fisher in any way possible. However, by the time I finished, I was conflicted between my love for an actress and my feeling for the book.

          The book is essentially a recount of stories from Carrie Fisher’s life, mainly focusing on her time filming Star Wars. I was ecstatic about learning more details about behind the scenes; that’s not what this book is. It felt like the entire book had been dictated in an unorganized, stream-of-consciousness style. I had trouble following thoughts and events occurring. Some of the stories dragged on for chapters trying to prove things that didn’t need to be proven, and it felt, overall, like a last effort of someone to set the record straight. It also seemed like she expected the reader to be familiar with the tabloid rumors of her time filming Star Wars, like she thought the world had been sitting around judging her this whole time. Maybe it’s just because I’m young that I wasn’t sure what she was referencing some of the time. I was surprised there wasn’t a little more background information considering how many Star Wars fans were not around during the first wave of Star Wars films.

Although the writing itself was not the greatest, I did get an insight into Carrie Fisher's life, which I greatly appreciated. Stories of her experience on set, interactions with others, and especially her struggle with body image made me glad for reading the book. Being around the same age she was when her adventure began, I was thrilled to learn that we had some things in common. I feel it was also really important that body image kept appearing in the book, as it showed that it isn’t something ‘famous people’ are shielded from and that everyone kind of struggles with body positivity at some point in their life.

At the same time, some of the anecdotes were really boring and didn’t seem to go anywhere. It almost felt like when you’re at a party and someone traps you in a corner telling you a story, and when you don’t laugh they just keep telling it and telling it thinking that once you understand how funny it is, you’ll laugh and you’ll like them. For example, she refers to signing autographs as “lap dances” because you’re selling yourself. That’s the whole joke, but it goes on for pages and pages and pages. It doesn’t get funnier, you just feel bad for her, which seems to be the last thing she wants.

In the end, would I reread this memoir? The answer, to my dismay, is no. It feels like the leftover stories that didn’t make the cut for another book. But I do not regret reading it. Although the writing is not fantastic, we, as an audience, were still given a window into parts of Carrie Fisher life, a choice that was entirely optional. Carrie Fisher is one of the most amazing actresses I have ever watched and Princess Leia has had a lifelong impact on me. She was absolutely brilliant and will be greatly missed and I hope she will rest in peace.




Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Guest Blogger Charlotte: Go Ask Alice

Hey!

Okay, I'm going to start with the summary of my review. Go Ask Alice is amazing. Why? Because it's so incredibly bad.

Go Ask Alice was published in 1971. It claims to be the true story of a teenage girl's drug use that has been edited by a group of editors, and I started reading it under this impression. The cover says it's written by "Anonymous", and the inside cover mentions that it is a true diary.

I will admit that at the beginning of the book, I thought it felt slightly formal and the language didn't sound like any teenager I know or have ever met, but I thought that may be because it was written in the 1960s. After all, I certainly wouldn't be excited to wear a white pantsuit to a party, or bring a Jell-O salad, or set my hair by curling it on orange juice cans, but my parents assured me that these things (which are all mentioned in the book) are actual things that teenagers might have done. (Is this how my hypothetical kids will feel about things I do now? Maybe they'll think eating sushi and writing book reviews is unfathomable.)

So I tried to get lost in the story, but I just found it so unbelievable that I started reading about the book instead of reading the book itself. As it turns out, it's not only fiction, but fiction thought to have been written by a Mormon counselor as a way to present the dangers of drug use. Maybe I'm the last person to know this.

But now things started to make sense. Moments in the plot that seemed outrageous and unbelievable (and that frankly would have succeeded in shocking me if they'd been real) made sense as the wild fear-mongering of someone who seemed to have no idea what drug use is like. Admittedly I don't either, but I'm pretty sure most people don't accidentally swallow LSD in a Coke at a party and end up casually shooting heroin a day later. The narrator so quickly and so casually goes from worrying about a B on a paper to living as a homeless prostitute. Even weirder, she seems to hesitate between the two with seemingly no transition!

She's also so straightforward in what's happened that it doesn't sound like a diary at all. Fresh from reading The Diary of Anne Frank, I found that I kept asking, "Is this really supposed to be a diary?"

This is basically what the book sounds like:

Dear Diary,

Today was so terrible! I accidentally snagged a fingernail on my bed, and mother will be so frustrated with me! It makes me wish I was dead! Maybe instead I'll find some cocaine and sniff it and then shoot more drugs into my veins and ruin my life. I think it would be super-fun! I will try to do that as long as it won't make me miss the Sock Hop on Saturday, because I long to wear my velvet dress with the lace collar - it's peachy! But if I have to prostitute myself or sell my family to get the extra-fun drugs, I'll do it, because drugs have lured me in and ruined my life even though I'm a great girl with parents who love me. Oh Diary!

Once you know that this book is written by an adult pretending to write the true story of a teenage girl, it's actually amazing to read. And if you didn't know from this review, or by the story overall, you'd know from sentences like this one:

“Adolescents have a very rocky insecure time. Grown-ups treat them like children and yet expect them to act like adults. They give them orders like little animals, then expect them to react like mature, and always rational, self-assured persons of legal stature. It is a difficult, lost, vacillating time.”

Oh yes, that's a real line from the book. A real line that this author wanted us to think a teenager wrote in her private journal. Although this made me very much want a tee shirt that says "Adolescents have a very rocky insecure time", (haha) I can't imagine how this line made the cut. Who knows. Maybe it was a difficult, lost, vacillating time for the editor.


- Charlotte 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

I'm Out! Maternity Leave and My TBR Pile

A Saturday post? WHAT?!?

I may mentioned this, but I'm pregnant! Yay! (You are now saying to yourself, "So that's why she's posted on the birthing books as of late!") I'm also due tomorrow. Now, in all fairness, I do tend to save up posts, so I am unsure right now if I have actually given birth or not, but I will take the time to let you all know when that happens. I am, after all, a proud mama of a future reader. 

Don't worry, I have my amazing guest blogger, Charlotte, taking over while I'm gone. The goal is to come back in October after I've spent the summer with my bundle of joy and gotten the semester started up again in September. I just need some time to adjust to my new role as working mom. I also hope to pop back in for Sassy Peach's sixth birthday in July. 

Thankfully I have the greatest husband a girl could ask for, and I have more than enough books to get me through the first three months of breast feeding.

Behold, my TBR pile. I would like you to know that this picture was taken from my breastfeeding glider. So when I finish one book, my husband can bring me another. As you do. 



Also note, this is before BEA 2017, so I am sure I will have added 20-30 books to the pile by then. 

Happy reading everyone, and I'll see you in the fall! 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Natural Childbirth the Bradley Way

This is the second book that we were assigned to read for our childbirth class: Susan McCutcheon's Natural Childbirth the Bradley Way. As my birth has gotten closer and we feel more prepared (for an event that you can never really be prepared for anyway), I definitely feel more confident about having a natural birth than I did six months ago. This book helped in some ways and was super duper crunchy anti-medicine on the other, but I think it was a very good guide to prepping for a natural birth. 

One thing I have learned over the course of our preparation is that you don't just have a natural birth because you say you want one. It requires a great deal of preparation -- labor practice, communication with your partner about wants and needs during each stage of labor, making sure your partner is prepared to take over the check in process at the hospital, working with a doula (highly recommended) to prepare, having the proper tools at home (snacks, drinks, props, etc.). It's a great deal of work, and I think Walter and I have at least come close to nailing it. The caveat here is that birth is unpredictable, so no matter how hard you prep, other factors can easily get in the way and foul the best laid plans of mice and men. 

The super crunchy hippy parts of this book make it clear how BAD modern medicine is and that you should avoid it at all costs or you and definitely your baby will be ruined forever. Of course I don't buy into this; plenty of women in the last few decades have given birth with pain relief and everyone has turned out just fine. My desires for a natural birth are purely selfish and my own; I'm not worried about ruining my baby. 

That all being said, this book was a very important read otherwise in prep for the early and active labor stages. Now that we are due any moment, we do need to go through and re-read them, but I really felt educated after reading these chapters and we both felt very comfortable using this as a basis for our process, whatever that might look like. The pictures were very helpful to understand exactly what birth looks like, as we live in a world where we are conditioned to fear the birth process as opposed to celebrate it. Seeing other women give birth, if only in pictures, was a very useful exercise. 

This book is on our nightstand with another that I will review after my self-imposed maternity leave. I have no doubt we will reference this in the early stages of labor as we go through this at home. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Ina May's Guide to Childbirth

My partner and I hired a doula for many reasons, most of which are too much for this, a book blog, and she recommended a local childbirth class for us that focused on the Bradley method. I have been very upfront on my belief that I am open to an epidural if I feel I need it, but once I got into the idea of the Bradley method, I realized this is a great way to work on laboring. My hope is to labor at home as long as possible and to go to the hospital when I reach the 3-1-1 phase in order to avoid unnecessary medication and timeouts. Of course, this isn't up to me. This kid will make his decisions and I will just have to follow them. 

For our childbirth class, the first book that we were assigned to read was Ina May Gaskin's Ina May's Guide to Childbirth. It was quite interesting, for both my partner and myself. I think he was most fascinated by the birthing stories, while I was most interested in learning how to give birth mindfully. One of the best things I took out of this book is a recognition that if I go into birth worried about how painful it will be, I will most likely only be focused on the pain as opposed to what I need to do to give birth. Let's be clear -- it's going to hurt like a m@$/&*%#er. But my focus needs to be on giving my baby life, not a worry on how much it will hurt. 

One thing we laughed about with my OB is how anti-medicine Ina May is. I'm not quite that anti-drugs. I see where she is coming from, but I also know that I have moved heaven and earth to be able to stay with the OB practice that I love and trust. I love a balance, and my doctors are all supportive of my bringing a doula and the desire to try a natural birth, but they will also be the first to say, "Ok," when I ask for pain meds. I appreciate that balance in them that I don't think Ina May has. 

I am a little suspicious of the birth orgasm for one, although I don't doubt that woman have had them. I'm just not planning on that one. I was already against an episiotomy as well as only laboring on my back per physician instructions. (My amazing OB's don't do either of these things, btw.) So Ina May and I are in the same page here. I would have loved a home birth, but my doctors don't do that. I would, however, recommend Ina May for pregnant mothers who are looking for just a little more information to add to their birth-prep arsenal. I feel much better about and more willing to explore a natural birth after reading this book, even if I didn't buy into absolutely everything she said. I definitely think it was worth a read.