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

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Bringing Adam Home: The Abduction that Changed America

Les Standiford's Bringing Adam Home: The Abduction that Changed America was one of the novels I chose to "check out" from Amazon, along with a bunch of children's books and a book on the history of Budweiser. (What can I say? I have eclectic taste.)

This book is incredibly in-depth, closely examining the Walsh case from start to finish. In the event you haven’t heard of it, Adam Walsh was a six-year-old boy in Florida who disappeared from a Sears store while his mother was just in the next department. This was the late ‘70’s/eary ‘80’s when everyone was a bit more trusting and severely less fearful than we are in 2018/19. He wanted to play with a video game console, and there was no reason for his mother to say no. His head was found a couple of weeks later several miles away, and his body was never found. It would take almost three decades to name his killer even though it only took months to identify him. 

Standiford’s book bookended a long, sordid tale of Otis Toole, the killer of Adam and many others, with the Walshes. That was, to me, the most interesting piece. I ended up skimming over a lot of the middle of the book because I found Toole to be egregiously disgusting and I didn’t care to hear the details of his crime. I was much more interested in the details of the day that Adam disappeared and the aftermath of that. The relationship between the Walshes and Matthews, the investigator that ultimately solved and closed the case for them, intrigued me more than the sordid and pained life of someone like Toole. 

Going even deeper than that, I was horrified by the police work done in the case. Toole confesses mere months after Adam’s killing, spontaneously even, and because it didn’t fit the narrative the investigators had about the crime, they ignored the confession or brushed it aside as false when challenged. It angered me to no end, as the Walshes could have had some sense of closure early on if the man had been identified and at a minimum had charges brought against him. These two people, Adam’s parents, had to spend almost 30 years wondering exactly what happened, as the police delay told them nothing. Even as John Walsh featured his son’s case on America’s Most Wanted and the tips came in, the police went to great effort to cover up their mistakes. If I had any faith left in criminal investigators, this shook that deeply. Unfortunately, it appears the doggedness based in their biases was much more common than we want to know. 

Ultimately, this was an interesting book about the Adam Walsh kidnapping and murder, and its detail and clarity was well worth the read for the true crime nut. It was one of the two cases that I really feel shaped our understanding of child abductions by strangers (the other being Etan Patz) and changed how Americans view the right to a carefree childhood. In fact, there is a direct connection to Small Animals, which I reviewed last fall. We were never the same, and we can never go back. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Touchpoints: The Essential Reference for Your Child's Emotional and Behavioral Development

My husband has been working at a downtown theater these past few months, so when we head down to meet him for dinner I will often swing by The Strand and see what used books look interesting. I've reviewed books by Dr. T. Berry Brazelton before, and I happen to be a fan of his work from a professional standpoint as well as a personal one. I found Touchpoints: The Essential Reference for Your Child's Emotional and Behavioral Development and I picked it up for a dollar to use with my early childhood development classes.

I found this book to be a great reference for new parents and those who may be skittish about whether their kids are "on the right track." Funny enough, last night I had a childless friend over along with a parent friend, and CF said that just about everyone she knows with a child is worried about whether they are developing correctly except me. She said this laughingly, but it's true. A big part of that is my work; I teach human development and understand it intimately, and I also understand that resilience is the norm. I don't freak out easily, and I would like to urge others to as well.

That's where Touchpoints comes in. I found most of the information to be reassuring to the general public, and the thrust of the book is a noble one: that there are certain times where you will see your pediatrician and you will wonder if what you are doing as a parent is correct. (Short answer: most of the time it is, so chill out.) The first section of this book goes over 13 touchpoints starting in pregnancy and ending at three years. Each of these touchpoints talks about what Dr. Brazelton expects to see when you walk into his office and how most of what he sees is normal. Emotional and behavioral development are just as important as physical development, and they are also the most nerve-racking to find a balance with new parents.

The second section covers challenges to development such as allergies, divorce, illness, and school readiness. The last section discusses allies to development such as grandparents and your doctor. Overall I found this book to be a helpful one, although it did contain some inaccurate information regarding cognitive development. Some of this can be chalked up to this book being published in 1992 (26 years ago for those of you whom have trouble with math) and it's more than fair to say that understanding of cognitive development especially in children has grown and changed tremendously in that time. The rest of it can be attributed to the difference between medical doctors and psychologists. There is a difference in what people learn and why, and just like I would never purport to know about the inner workings of a baby's body, it's fair to say that sometimes pediatricians aren't up to date on the latest research outside of their field.

One thing that I like to make sure all parents know is related to chapter titled, "Lying, Stealing, and Cheating." Actually, it came up in conversation last night, too. Lying in children under four is a sign of appropriate cognitive development. This doesn't mean that you don't correct them according to your values, morals, and ethics, but it's important to remember that children are not small adults. They have a developmental trajectory and cognitive map that is different that what we have as grown ups, and that should be respected. We often assign motives to children's actions when really, they are just in a constant state of learning and absorbing. Appreciate that all of it is a part of development, and it's your job as a parent or caregiver to shape the clay but understand that clay is malleable and fragile. Children are constantly learning and growing into adults, not as adults. 

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Knish War on Rivington Street

I mentioned somewhere previously that one of my goals at BookExpo this year was to buff up my children's library, and I specifically was on the lookout for diverse books. The Knish War on Rivington Street by Joanne Oppenheim and illustrated by Jon Davis fit this bill. 

It's the story of Rivington Street in lower Manhattan, which for generations served a large immigrant Jewish population. Benny is a young boy whose mother's knishs were so famous that she was able to open up a knish store on Rivington Street. Then one day Mrs. Tisch opens up a competing knish store across the street, and her knishes are fried and square. Who has ever heard of that?!? 

The two knish sellers each begin lowering their prices in order to compete with one another, and when that isn't enough, each store resorts to crazier and crazier tactics to win customers. The war heats up, and it comes to a head when the Mayor shows up to sort out which knish is the best. Which one will he choose?

Based, albeit loosely, on a true story -- yes, my friends, there was actually a knish war on Rivington street! -- this lovely, lovely children's book is simply a delight to read. It has a great message -- that one person's success doesn't take away from that of another -- and it is told through an entertaining and easy-to-grasp story of two boys who are simply caught in the middle of their parents' feud. I am just madly in love with this book, and I hope that one day my son is as well. 

The best part of this book (well, I don't know if it's the best, but it's certainly wonderful!) is that the last page of the book has recipes for both baked and friend knishes! My son isn't old enough to get the connection yet, but as soon as he is, we will make knishes after reading this book on a cold winter afternoon. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Dry: A Novel

Dry, a new young adult novel by Neal and Jarrod Shusterman, needs warning before you pick it up. It’s incredible, but also a little hard to swallow right now (pun completely intended) if you are aware of the effect of climate change on the Earth’s current water situation. It was so realistic it was painful at times. 

The Tap-Out, as it will be known for generations to come, was not entirely unexpected, but they were never really sure that it would actually come. After all, water has always seemed to be an unlimited resource. But the day the taps ran dry was the day that their worlds changed, and Alyssa was front and center to witness it all. She and her parents and little brother are just a little too late to the warehouse club to buy up water -- after all, how long could this really last? When her parents go to collect some from the desalination machines, they don't return. Alyssa, along with her brother and their survivalist neighbor (who just happens to be madly in love with Alyssa) have to get out of town before neighbors start killing each other. Their journey might take their lives, but they won't stop until they at least try to save them. 

This young adult novel was heavy, for sure. There were times when I felt my chest grow heavy and panic start to set in. I am quite concerned about the water issue; there is plenty of evidence leading to the conclusion that we, as an industrialized society, are running out of water. The conflicts in the middle east can be traced back to scarce water resources. After all, humans can't survive without it. It's incredibly frightening to me, and this book did not quell those fears. In fact, the Shustermans' story felt remarkably realistic, and that's what makes the book so outstanding yet so frightening. 

Researchers have a good understanding of why humans believe the crazy things that they do. We know, for example, that humans living in the Western world tend to overemphasize events that are statistically unlikely (especially if they are man-made) -- think stranger abductions. However, humans tend to ignore or underemphasize events that are statistically likely and dangerous -- think building homes in hurricane territory and staying even when warned to evacuate. It's cognitive bias at work. It's also a matter of ignoring things we can't control and overemphasizing things we can.

All of this to say that it's no surprise that many people don't take this seriously. All of the estimations that scientists have made about population growth, demographics, resource scarcity, and climate change have all changed drastically in the past decade -- and they are speeding up, not slowing down. Things will change much more quickly than we think. The Shustermans have captured this in their story. Kelton, Alyssa's neighbor, has grown up in a survivalist family, seems a little nutty at the beginning of the book, but boy was I grateful for him (and his regimented, authoritarian, conspiracy-nut father) by the end. The boy was prepared to n-th degree, and I'm not going to lie when I say that I am contemplating following suit.

Everything about this book -- the desperation of the neighbors, friends turning on each other, new alliances being formed, the government not doing anything to help while leading the people to think that they are -- every last thing felt true-to-life, and it left me shook. It was an outstanding book, and I can't recommend it more highly. Now I'm going to go build my home off the grid and I hope you have a nice day.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Gray Mountain: A Novel

This summer, during our family vacation to Myrtle Beach, I chose John Grisham's Gray Mountain as my Grisham reading because you know I can’t hit the sand and not do one. It’s in my bones. 

During the great implosion of 2008, law firms were going belly up or, at a minimum, hemorrhaging employees. Poor Samantha — her hours of poring over commercial real estate contracts for wealthy magnates has come to an end. She has been offered a “furlough” with r in one year as long as she agrees to take an unpaid internship for that year. She ends up in rural Virginia, in the Appalachian mountains known for their coal. Land owners drool at the prospect of selling strip mining rights to big companies that wheel and deal and cheat and lie. At the legal aid clinic she comes to, Samantha soon discovers that she has the ability to help people who desperately need it, and some who don’t even want it. When a new friend is found dead after initiating the biggest lawsuit that side of Virginia has ever seen, Samantha must make a choice between the safety of New York City of the danger of pushing forward to keep her promises to her new friends. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this book in the best vacation way. It was absolutely perfect for a beach read — a little thriller-esque, a little pulpy, and a lot of character. Samantha was interesting if sightly annoying in that NYC bullshit snobby way of young people who earn too much money and think they need to spend it all. I had no patience for their bullshit in 2008 and I have even less in 2018. There’s no reason you should have so much money that you can afford to pay rent on your TriBeCa or Village high-rose while you intern for free in another state. My eyes are rolling into the back of my head as I type this. 

Other than that, I actually quite liked Samantha. She wrestled with doing right by her indigent clients while still trying to hold on to a piece of herself. She avoids the temptations of one romance (for good reason) while indulging in another (for yet another good reason). She cares and grows to care even more during her time in Virginia while still clinging to her knowledge that she can’t settle there forever. She doesn’t give in to what I expected would be a do-holder trope, and that was great to read. 

I also appreciated the social justice angle that Grisham took in this novel. The strip mining of land in the Appalachian region has been egregious to say the least, and it’s nice to see him bringing light to the issue. He even provides a reference to donate money for aid if you feel so inclined. Unfortunately, so much of the land has been destroyed in that area in the decade since this book was published, and little has changed in the way businesses hold and wield power. It’s angering at best and heart attack-inducing at worst. Putting that on the page for readers to face head-on deserves applause. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Reluctant Queen: The Story of Anne of York

Jean Plaidy's The Reluctant Queen: The Story of Anne of York was passed on to me by one of my best friends along with A Rose Without a Thorn, which you may notice isn’t on this blog for reasons we will get to in a moment. I found the premise of this one interesting as the only thing I know about Richard III is what Shakespeare has told me. So I gave it a roll. 

Lady Anne Neville, our protagonist, is a proviledged girl in Britain during the War of the Roses. Her father, Earl of Warwick, is the most powerful man in the country who is not king. He helped win the War and put King Edward on the throne. Edwards youngest brother, Richard, grew up as Warwick’s ward, where he and Anne are drawb together in mutual kinship and a spark is alighted. However, as times change and politics stir and alliances shift, young Anne is betrothed to the enemy of the throne, one who aims to take it back, in hopes that her father willl win his influence in return. Anne had no desires for the throne, and is devastated at the notion of marrying such a brute. Her sister, Isabel, who has married the other brother of the trio, the Duke of Clarence, Richard’s older brother, would happily be queen. When Anne’s fiancĂ© dies in battle, she is free to marry Richard and live the quiet life they’ve always wanted. 

But you didn’t think that would last, did you? Silly rabbit. 

I was definitely intrigued by the first couple of chapters in this book, and I found myself wanting to keep digging in. I mentioned a previous book above, which I found to be melodramatic and stilted in terms of prose, so I didn’t post on it. This one, though, was interesting enough for me to push through. My general assessment is that it kept my attention until the middle, the. I found myself horribly bored until the last chapter again. I had the same issue with this book as I did with Rose — the story is way too bogged down in details that I found irrelevant to the story at hand. The history is interesting, but it comes across as staged when the dialogue is written here. 

However, I will say that I’m not this series’ primary target. If you like historical fiction with a twist of romance, then this is your jam. I do not like romances as a genre (good for you if you do!) so this didn’t fulfill a need in me to see my characters beguiled. (I mean, it’s not like the story ends well. Anne dies while Richard is on the throne — no spoilers here, you had 400+ years to see the movie — and it’s not even like she does a dignified death.) I did appreciate the historical situating of the marriage between Anne and Richard. It has sparked in me some interest to poke more into their situation and what historical records exist of their marriage. 

Thursday, November 22, 2018

The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler

John Hendrix's The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler was a book that I picked up because it not only looked interesting, but it was also something that I know I will one day want my son to read.

This graphic depiction of a story I had never heard about before was just amazing. I was blown away by the representations of some difficult material, including Hitler and the underpinnings of the Holocaust. Hitler was portrayed as a wolf, so his actual human representation was only presented once. This is important, as any other consisted picture of him might have served to humanize him; rather, seeing him as a wolf in sheep's clothing created a metaphorical yet arresting picture of a man whose need for power destroyed millions of lives. I also found the explanation of the rise of the Nazi party to be incredibly well-done and very clear. It's hard for even those with high level reading skills to grasp onto all of the nuances and details of that point in history, and I felt that this book did a wonderful job making clear what happened along with the timeline. Hendrix put a small box on the corner of the page when he was discussing the military exercises that contained a map showing the areas that the Nazi's had already conquered and that which they were moving into. Not only was this a great story of standing up for your beliefs -- and we will get to that momentarily -- it was also a history book.

I was never aware of the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man of God who believed it was his moral imperative to kill Hitler. Spending time in America and seeing legal racial discrimination, even among his fellow Christians, shapes who Bonhoeffer is and what his faith means. When he returns to his home country of Germany at the beginning of the era we know well from our history books, he wants to bring the active faith he discovered in America. As Germany begins to see its takeover by the Nazi party, he finds himself involved in anti-Nazi activism that puts him on the enemy list, and he briefly escapes to America before realizing that to truly live his faith, he must be in the middle of the storm. He returns to Germany and joins the resistance. He struggles with his belief in the Bible and what he knows needs to happen to save Germany -- and the world -- from a tyrant who was seeking to end the lives of millions of minorities. The question he faces -- is it justified to kill a person to save millions of others -- shapes his activism, and Bonhoeffer becomes central to the plot to kill Hitler.

This is an absolutely incredible story, and one that I want my son to read one day. I want him to know that people don't just oppose hate with their words, but also with their actions even if they seem extreme at the time. We can't prove what would have happened if Hitler had been stopped earlier; it could have been a Medusa situation, or it could have helped good people realize that they were turning into bad ones. Maybe those who sought power would have still pushed forward because this was the way they were taking it. Who knows? But we do know now who Dietrich Bonhoeffer was and why we should be grateful to him. My son will know, too. 

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Sick: A Memoir

Porochista Khakpour's Sick: A Memoir was a popular new release, so I jumped on the bandwagon as soon as it came out. I was unfamiliar with her previous work, and much to my shame. She is a beautiful, compelling writer who drew me in with her prose and her tale-weaving. 

Most likely but as a child, Porochista has never known a time when she wasn’t sick. Things had always felt off for her, and when as a young woman at college in New York she finds herself spiraling down into a series of health breaks, she can’t quite put her finger on why. Although several people mention the possibility of Lyme over the next few years, it’s not until a definitive diagnosis almost a decade later that she can find any sort of short-lives relief. Her work and wanderlust takes her all over the word, but her illness continues to bring her back. 

Porochista’s story is fascinating, and well worth a read. She has many in her life who don’t believe her, and through her story I did a great deal of reckoning with myself over people I have known who have suffered from similar ailments. Was I a non-believer? Did I hurt anyone I loved because of an illness that was hard to diagnose? Quite possibly. I also had to reckon with my own ailments. I have been suffering from extreme exhaustion on and off for four years. It got better with pregnancy and post-partum, but it’s recently started to read its ugly head again. No doctor has taken me seriously, and so I soldier on, grateful that I have the ability to work from home on days when I just have difficulty moving. 

Following Porochista’s journey from childhood to adulthood and colored by this mysterious illness that has lent a cloud cover to her development was fascinating. Her timelining her illness with her relationships was something we can all easily relate to, even though by the time her illness became so bad that she had to leave Germany, I wanted to smack her and tell her to let herself heal emotionally as well as physically. For once, a character listened to me! For a bit, anyway, so by the time she found a relationship after making her way back to NYC I was cheering for her. 

I appreciate that she ended the book with the recognition that her journey is far from over. She talks about the book that she pitched which is not the book that she ended up with due to an unexpected relapse. Her open heart that she lays bare on her pages makes me feel as though she is my friend, and her words strung together on the page have made me think more deeply and honestly about capital-H Health. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

My Body Belongs to Me!

Amazon Prime Day is a beautiful thing. I didn't intend to buy anything more than what we absolutely needed, but when I saw this My Body Belongs to Me! by profamilia and illustrated by Dagmar Geisler, I knew we absolutely needed it.

Clara is a young girl who understands that from being a baby to being a small girl, her body has changed and she is becoming different as she grows. She also knows that sometimes it's nice to touch other people, like sitting close to a friend, hugging her family, and sitting on her grandmother's lap. But Clara most importantly knows that she is the only one who gets to decide who touches her and when they do. She has the right to tell others to not touch her, and to decline when others offer and she does not want it, even if it is someone she knows well, like her parents. And if she tells someone no and they don't listen, she can always go get an adult she trusts, because she gets to choose when and how someone touches her.

One thing that is very important to us in our household is that our child does not have to touch anyone he doesn't want to. I ask him to give high fives, hugs, or kisses to people we know and love, and sometimes he just doesn't want to. It's not a problem; in fact, quite the opposite. Sometimes he doesn't feel like it, even at 16 months old. It's his right, and we want to encourage bodily autonomy with him. I ordered this book for exactly that reason; I wanted a resource that we could read to him that says this very thing.

Over 90% of children who experience sexual abuse and assault know their victimizer. All of this brouhaha over the last few years about transgender men and women using the bathroom of their choice because it puts kids in danger is a bullshit, and not just because of the primary reason that we should respect people's choices with their own bodily autonomy (and, frankly, if you are going to look over my stall to see my genitalia, I am absolutely going to call the cops and report you for sexually inappropriate behavior). The statistic at the start of this paragraph should alarm you, because it's NOT a stranger in the parking lot, but someone your child -- and YOU -- knows. It's someone you might very well trust.

Sex education begins young. It begins when babies are teeny tiny. It's a constant education, not just a single sex talk. It starts with making sure that children know that their bodies belong to them, and they have a right to say no and to be listened to when they say it. I love this book, and the culture of consent that it reinforces.

There is an introduction from the International Center for Assault Prevention recommending this book and providing information as to how to use it with your children to discuss bodily boundaries. There is also a list of resources at the end for parents if they need them. I would also like to point you to RAINN, another great resource if you are in need of help or other resources.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

When Breath Becomes Air

Recently in my apartment building, someone started a book table where they leave books and others can take them. I am not interested in most of the titles, but occasionally one pops out that I have wanted to read. This was the case with Paul Kalanithi's When Breath Becomes Air.

This book is mostly a memoir, but it is a beautiful and arresting treatise on life and love. How do we live to our fullest? Kalanithi tells us, because he did it. Beginning as a child with a deep love of literature instilled in him by his mother, he was encouraged by his parents to delve deep into his curiosity and to learn. In college he continued to immerse himself in his beloved literature as well as indulge his curiosity in how the mind works through biology and the beginning inklings of neuroscience. He then went off to find himself, continuing his studies at Cambridge before moving on to medical school and eventually becoming one of the most sought-after neurosurgeons and neuroscientists in the nation. He married Lucy, the love of his life whom he first met in medical school, and together they had a child when they knew his life was near its end. Other than dying at a young age -- 37 -- he had it all.

But the thing that Paul teaches us in this book that dying is merely the end, but it's not the definition of who we are the lives that we have led. The measure of our worth as humans are the things we have accomplished in between birth and death -- knowledge, love, kindness, and the depth of our souls. In this short memoir, he puts that all to words in the most eloquent, moving, and thoughtful prose I have ever read. His words seared my heart in a reminder of how important it is to reflect on our lives through the lens of thankfulness when we have been given so much. Paul is one of the most gifted motivational writers that has ever existed (and yes, I am not exaggerating), and just a few hours with his gifted mind feels like it was a gift meant for me. It is clear why he would have been incredibly successful as a writer, and his self-education in literature is apparent in his writing.

There are so many beautiful moments in this book to touch on, but I want you to read them for yourself. When Paul is diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer in his 30's, at the height of his career, when he is being pursued by some of the most elite medical institutions, he has to reexamine his life plan. Practicing medicine for the next 20 years and spending the following 20 as a writer isn't possible anymore. He just won't live that long. He has to make a decision to live the last of his days and months to their fullest. He finishes out his residency, he begins this book, and he and Lucy decide to have a baby. This is where I am broken.

Paul's final words in his final chapter broke me as a human. His final paragraph, written to his infant daughter, is the most meaningful work I have ever written. It's simplicity belies the depth of his words and the meaning of life and love for another human. Even if the rest of the book wasn't worth the read -- and it very much is worth every second you will give to it -- those last few words will wreck you.

But you aren't done -- you need to read Lucy's afterword. Reading her bear her raw soul in telling us about her last few moments with her husband was so real that I had to read it in one-paragraph chunks. It was too much to bear in one setting without openly breaking down.

This book as a whole is one of the all time greatest memoirs ever written.