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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...

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

What Does Consent Really Mean?

What Does Consent Really Mean? by Pete Wallis and Thalia Wallis, illustrated by Joseph Wilkinscame across my radar when I was looking for new books to read on my Kindle this fall. (With a small baby, Kindle is really the way to go for me right now.) Now that I am a mother, I am looking for ways to teach consent to my child at a young age, as it's incredibly important to me. Hence, why I picked up this graphic novel. 

What is consent? What does it mean exactly, and does it take away the fun of a sexual encounter? Do you have a right to consent in a relationship? These are the big questions explored in this short primer on what it means to give consent and why it's important. Several friends get together after school, and one brings up a rumor that the new girl was raped. This sparks a discussion about what it means to say "yes" and "no," and if that even matters. (Spoiler alert: it does.)

What I found the most fascinating about this book was the spot-on characterization of high schoolers. Now, it's been on the far side of two decades since I started high school, but looking back on what I knew then, I saw myself in these characters. In fact, even just a couple of years ago I had a conversation with a good friend about women who get roofied, and this friend even, in their 30's, expressed fault on the side of the woman. I can speak to this, as someone who has had the *wonderful* experience of being drugged (that was sarcasm, in case you didn't catch it), that it was 100%, explicitly not my fault in any way. In fact, I couldn't have been more responsible at the time of the incident. But it took me a long time to realize that it wasn't my fault because I didn't give consent. 

So yes, I saw myself and my peers in these high school kids in a graphic novel, just the way I see all adolescents in their semi-developed prefrontal cortices.  Without a full understanding of what consent is and why it matters, kids will continue to believe that as long as it hasn't happened to them, that others should have made better (or even different) choices. 

Which is what I think is the brilliance of this graphic novel. It doesn't treat teens as if they have pedantic, juvenile conversations, but rather meets them where they are. Whether it's gossiping about the new girl being promiscuous, using the word "gay" as a pejorative, or doing things sexually with a boyfriend or girlfriend they aren't comfortable with, we all can understand these things because we've been there. So when the authors turn toward defining consent (with a diverse cast of characters, mind you), it's a seamless transition from gossip to, "Hey guys, wait a second..."

I'll be buying this in hard copy and holding on to it for my own kiddo when it comes to be about that time. We have a couple of other books we are using to guide him when he's younger, and we will add this to our arsenal when he's middle school age. Talk about consent can never start too young. 

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Standard Deviation: A Novel

You may recall back a couple of years to when I raved about Katherine Heiny's Single, Carefree, Mellow, her book of short stories. I found it to be brilliant and enrapturing, and I formed a little bit of a writer crush on Heiny. Then she released a novel, Standard Deviation, and you guys, I am in full-blown love.

Graham and Audra have been married for some time, and they are raising their son who is on the spectrum and is currently mastering origami. Life is moving along swimmingly until the day that Audra gets it in her head that they should befriend Graham's cold and rigid ex-wife, Elspeth, who has come back into his life through no choice of his own. One glitch -- Audra was the other woman who precipitated that divorce. The several months spent finding their rhythm, wondering how to have a balance between a former love and a current one, and not killing long-term house guests welcomed by your gregarious and extroverted wife are life-changing for Graham, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.

Heiny has a voice that is witty and sharp, and it comes through in this novel told from Graham's point of view. I ate the prose up because it's written in a voice that I know and understand and found deeply personal. I am not as witty as she, not even close in fact, so I am grateful to have had the chance to read and ingest this novel. I wish I had words to explain the joy that I felt reading this book, in the story itself but also in the characters. It reminded me of how I felt reading Jonathan Ames; while their writing is not a replica of one another, I felt that I was reading the thoughts of someone smarter and wittier than myself. That is an amazing read in my book.

I loved the characters in this book, from our protagonist, Graham, to his spacey and lovely younger wife Audra, to their son who was lovable and sweet and living life on the spectrum, to his friends in the origami club who were just as oddly lovable as he, to even Elspeth, whom Heiny made empathetic even though if she were someone I met in real life I might avoid talking to at the holiday party. Heiny has such respect for all of the characters she creates, from the doorman-turned-squatter to the philandering men in the book. I thought about the world of the characters for some time after closing the book, wishing I could be in their world a little bit longer. What a gift it is to finish a book and feel satisfied, yet still wanting to know more.

So, Ms. Heiny, if you ever by some long shot ever read this little post, could you please hurry with another piece soon? It's so enjoyable escaping into your work, even when my subway train is stalled. Which every New Yorker knows is the worst.  

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Guest Blogger Charlotte: Inge & Mira


Inge & Mira, by Marianne Fredriksson, is a short novel about the friendship between two women: Inge, a Swedish native, and Mira, a Chilean living in Sweden. I read the book in English, and I’ve never been so curious about a translation in my life.

That’s because I don’t know if I liked Inge & Mira or not. The writing is stilted and factual, with the most important details either unspoken or quickly brushed aside. The story has almost no imagery and scene setting, and the conversations start and end abruptly. It seemed affected and fake, which I found off-putting.

On page one, Inge and Mira meet in a garden center and say hello. By page three, without skipping ahead in time, they are strolling on the beach together, with no explanation as to how they’ve gone from acquaintances to friends in a few sentences. There are times when the book reads like Spark Notes. Here’s an example two complete paragraphs from the novel:

It had stopped raining. Inge sat down in front of the computer but did not manage to produce a single sensible sentence.

She went shopping.”

This structure was different for me, and there were things about it I hated. This is why I wonder how much of this style was because of the particular translation. I took the fact that I was so curious to read the original as an indication that I actually cared about the story and characters. Because despite not loving the writing style, I was truly interested in the characters.

The crux of the story is that throughout their friendship Inge learns about Mira’s past in Chile and Mira has to face the things her family went through before she fled to Sweden. The women come up against one another’s cultural norms, prejudices, expectations, and ways of thinking and speaking about important issues. The inclusion of their children into the story adds even another level to these cultural differences.

This is the part of the book that I loved, even when the writing caught me off guard. I loved that it was written from the perspective of each woman and also from the outside, because I felt that it gave me a chance to appreciate how much culture really has to do with our perspective on everything from huge life events to everyday conversation. The book made me think, and it made me feel for Mira and what her family had endured.

In the end, I found it an effort to read a book with so little imagery that moved so quickly past key points, but I think I found it difficult because I wanted to know more. And that’s because I liked it. Because of this, I might suggest giving it a try if you are quite interested in reflecting on how culture influences our friendships and perspectives. 

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Shame: A Brief History

One of the themes of my life recently, as in the past year, has been shame. While it's something I have absolutely experienced, and still do at times, it's been mostly about how other people in my life deal with theirs. So I saw Peter N. Stearns' Shame: A Brief History, and I knew I wanted to read it.

This historical document of shame goes all the way back in the written record to what we know about shame, from the Greek and Roman view all the way up through pre-modern and the present time. It's important to understand the background of a topic, so I was grateful for these chapters, and I was interested in the historical perspective for sure. However, I was mostly in it for the meat of the burger, which was contemporary views of shame and, if possible, answers for ways to deal with it. While my latter question wasn't answered by this book, my first one was.

There were a few points I took out of this book that I found to be on point, and the first was the decline in shame as Western society took on a more individualistic cultural identity followed by an uptick when social media came into the picture. Shame is a much more powerful tool in a collectivist society, as it is dependent upon group norms. In the United States, as we have seen more people move to a much more urban and suburban landscape, shaming as a point of punishment in general society declines. It's needs a group to serve it, such as in school, where shame still often takes hold. Social media has changed that, with a tweet having the ability to go viral in just mere minutes. That being said, this book does a great job of differentiating between guilt and shame, and how they function as separate entities. I took a great deal away from this book intellectually, and I found it to be moderately easy to read while still providing in-depth and interesting information.

This was a more historical examination of shame rather than a psychological examination, which was what I was expecting, but I found it to be an important piece to read and add to my arsenal as I go about digging deeper into what shame is in our present society (which for me is a Western, urban, young culture) from a psychological perspective. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Shitty Mom: The Parenting Guide for the Rest of Us

I had four baby showers. Yeah, sit on that for a second. As someone who doesn't enjoy attending others', that was a lot. They were all lovely, though, and I'm beyond grateful for how many people love us enough to want to celebrate our bundle of joy with us. My second shower was a book shower, and my dear friend Becca brought me this book, Shitty Mom (by Laurie Kilmartin, Karen Moline, Alicia Ybarbo, and Mary Ann Zoellner), in addition to children's books. I am amazed at how well she knows me.

Babies become children, and the fantasy of what you will be as a mother is quickly dashed when the reality of actually having a child sets in. Four moms came together to write the parenting guide to end parenting guides, being honest about what we all fear -- being a shitty mom. Get over it, y'all -- we all are, so by definition, we all can't be. From chapters on road trips and screen time to traditions such as thank you notes, this book runs the gamut of situations we all get in yet pretend to know the answers. This includes non-moms (noms) who have answers to the hardest mom questions and they usually involve heavy judgement.

This was really the best baby shower gift; I can't thank Becca enough for this lovely, hilarious book that just lit up my days. I read it before my baby came, and I read it again after. It's funny at a minimum, hilarious often, and everything completely hits on my parenting style. I'm surprised at how much my son has chilled me out as a parent (but not in other ways -- my home is arguably more picked up than ever). I find myself not caring too much about dropped pacifiers and blankets on the floor (I mean, I will wash them eventually). The ongoing joke with my friends is that I skipped my first child and am on to the second child "not caring" stage. It's probably why I loved this book so much; it encourages moms to just chill out.

It's so important to laugh when you are a parent, and especially in the early years. At least, I'm discovering that first hand as I type this. If you don't, parenthood will be long and exhausting. My son makes me laugh all the time -- he is a riot. I am grateful for books like this that take parenting lightly and have a sense of humor about it all. I don't believe that parents love playing with their kids all the time or that going to the zoo is the most fun for grown adults, so if we can all acknowledge that and have a good laugh about it, life can be slightly more enjoyable. Is it kosher to drop your sick kid off at daycare? Of course not. But sometimes moms have no choice. Do people love leaving their kids to go on business trips? Probably not. But sometimes moms have no choice. The authors finding the humor in all of these things makes me feel like I have a tribe. 

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Public School Choice vs. Private School Vouchers

Richard D. Kahlenberg's Public School Choice vs. Private School Vouchers has been in my arsenal for some time, but unlike many of the books that hang out on my shelf and haven't been read, this one was a re-read for me. This was part of my first Master's  of Science degree back a full decade ago, and with all of the political strife going on, I felt it was worth revisiting.

This compilation of think pieces and research on two types of educational reforms, public school choice and private school vouchers, explores what each is and what the support is for each. Published in 2003, this book is split into two topics: voucher  program myths and support for public school choice (PSC). Research on school choice and vouchers has been coming in for more than a decade, but in early 2003 it was in it's infancy, and this book explores what existed at that time for each method. Researchers who have contributed to this book include those from Harvard Law School, Columbia, and Penn State University.

It will come as no surprise to you thus far that this book is anti-vouchers and pro-PSC, which was no skin off my back as I am quite the vocal opponent to private school vouchers. I'm just a small fry though, so few people care what I think other than my own students, and I certainly don't mind that. My position is not at all surprising if you know me, my work, or have been following this blog for some time. One of my foci on anti-racist pedagogy and while I am not perfect and make mistakes as I learn to be a better teacher of teachers, I cannot in good faith support a widespread effort to continue systemic marginalization of children of color.

So now that my biases are on the table, let's get down to the actual book. It was fascinating reading this ten years out from my first read. So much has changed in terms of research on this topic, and this was a great primer to understand the historical background of this argument. Keep in mind that this book pits PSC against vouchers, so it's really a treatise on how PSC can supplant vouchers. If you are looking for anything on the virtues of public school as it currently stands, I have other resources for you. While I recognize the position of the book, I found that their breakdown of common voucher myths, such as the commonly held idea that vouchers raise student achievement or that they will promote equality, to be on point with at least the rudimentary reading I have done on the more current research.

I ate this book up this time around, and I'm glad I reread it. It's a good base of research for what the conclusion I have come to with more recent research, and I'm glad I have this book on my shelf. It's a dense read, as is anything that involves empirical research, but it's important reading for understanding where the voucher movement has come from so that you can understand where it is going. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Fierce Kingdom: A Novel

When I checked out a different book from the library a couple of weeks ago, the algorithm suggested Gin Phillips' Fierce Kingdom, and I had read an interesting blurb about it, so I picked it up. Holy  hell, I had no idea the ride I was getting into. 

It’s just a usual day at the zoo for Joan and her 4 year old son, Lincoln. They are regulars, and Joan knows the drill — and now that it’s nearing closing time, they had better hurry toward the exit. It’s getting dark and she can’t even imagine what it would be like to get locked into the zoo overnight. As the pair nears the exit, the scene comes into view. All of the popping she has been hearing for the last few minutes reveals itself to be gunshots that have taken down people attempting to leave at closing time — and the shots are coming from a dark figure kicking down the door to a restroom. Joan grabbed Lincoln and runs for her life, back into the far reaches of the zoo. The next three hours will be a battle for her life and that of her son. 

This book was a non-stop read for me. I was completely taken and blown away by the intensity of the story, and I’ve recommended this book again and again and again since finishing it. I posted it on my Facebook page and got into a discussion with a friend from high school about it. It’s fair to say that I think this is one of the best thrillers I have read at least this year. 

Joan was an impressive character in my book; I found her to be sufficiently complicated as a person and as a woman, yet she was a strong character who deeply loved her son and whose only goal the entire story was to get him out alive. I don’t know if this story tookon new meaning because I am now a mother myself, but I can say that I understand children fairly well. This led me to understand some of Joan’s choices, such as the need to feed Lincoln before he had a meltdown. Kids understand emergencies, but they are still creatures who have needs and are learning proper ways to express those needs. Lincoln embodied this dichotomy. 

I wanted to throw up when, at one point, we realize there is an infant still left in the zoo. I can’t say much more than that because it’s an integral part of the story, but it did make my heart skip several beats with that storyline. I thought deeply about what I might do to save my own infant’s life. It’s a position I hope and pray I never have to be in. 

My heart was beating crazy fast while I read this book, and at one point on the subway I saw someone looking at me with concern, and I realized that I must have looked incredibly intense. I had a good giggle at that. I couldn’t put this book down, and I can’t recommend it any more. Phillips has crafted one hell of a story, and it has stayed with me long after finishing the book. I have so many questions about loose threads (no spoilers here!), and I know I will always carry an extra snack for my son. You know, just in case. [Wink.]

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Art of Memoir

Mary Karr has always been one of my favorite memoirists, so a few years back I excitedly picked up The Art of Memoir at Book Expo. It took me a while, per usual, to pick it up, but I read it and then re-read it with aplomb. Wowza. 

Everyone thinks they can write a memoir, and sure they can. That doesn't mean everyone can write a compelling memoir. Mary Karr, one of the great memoirists at present, lays out, chapter by chapter, what makes a great memoir. She teaches this course in an MFA program and has opened up and expanded on her syllabus to let us humble lay people in on her secrets. She references great memoirs that she uses in her own teaching and provides an extensive reading list at the end of the book. I have already picked up two of her recommendations. 

It's probably no surprise that I ate this book up with my bear hands. I scoured it with a pen in hand, underlining the words of wisdom the Karr put forth about writing. The thing that I found so astounding about her work was that it was compatible with being human, not just with writing. Sure, I attempt to write things occasionally, but I'm no novelist. This book was just as much about being a person in the world with a story to tell as it was about putting that story in paper.

Karr devotes an entire chapter to dealing with those you love in your work. She has a list of 11 rules, one of which is to never assume that you know what others are thinking or feeling -- stick to the facts, ma'am. The other rule that stuck out to me was to avoid labeling people; simply describing their behavior should suffice. That stuck with me, as it felt like a stark reminder not just for memoir writing, but for life. Another chapter talks about story reversals, and in it she discusses the thing that makes a memoir, well, memorable: it's telling the tale about the things that we might forever hide, be it out of shame or embarrassment. It's these very things that are the meat of the story, and it's what makes our stories indelible. Heroes exist everywhere; real humans are what grab us.

There are other points she makes throughout this book that are so fascinating to me that I am opting to keep them to myself. If I told you all of her nuggets, then what would make you want to go read the book for yourself? It's an amazing piece of scholarship, and I will turn to it again and again.

Yeah. This one is worth owning. 

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

What to Expect When You're Expecting

What to Expect When You're Expecting is now in it's 5th edition. You know it. Even if you have never experienced a pregnancy, you are familiar with this cover. 

I wasn't quite sure whether or not to buy the book at first; I wasn't sure how useful it would be. Not because I knew much about pregnancy -- I knew what the average woman in America knows, which is next to nothing other than a fetus grows in my uterus -- but more because some books are super useful and others just aren't. I ordered the book anyway because I figured, why the hell not?

Even bough I had abandoned this book by the end of my pregnancy for other material (you've seen some here and more is to come), this was a great resource
For those freaked out first couple of months when I was wondering what the hell we were doing. Pregnancy was not my friend, and I won't even pretend like I enjoyed it. I totally dig the outcome -- my son is fun and silly and a ton of work -- but the process of getting him here was emotionally and mentally overwhelming, and it was physically difficult in the last trimester. This book helped in the early stages to help me recognize what was normal and what wasn't. I love my information, and this gave me an arsenal to look toward. 

Hubby and I also used the WTE app and weekly videos, which were a really great way to connect once a week to hit those weekly milestones. There were a couple of times times I had to correct the TV regarding cognitive development, but for the most part it was interesting and helpful. I wouldn't, however, recommend reading the section on giving birth too soon. It absolutely freaked me out the first time I read it. I needed time to digest all of it, and I untimately found some better (and more supportive of natural birth) resources for that part of the process. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning

I can't recall what drew me to the new memoir, Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning by Claire Dederer, but something did, so I picked it up from the library recently. 

As Claire enters her midlife, she opens her old journals -- which she kept from an early age up until her marriage -- and begins reflecting on the choices she made in life and in love. From young oversexualization to her current state of marriage, from an awareness of her sexuality through being hit on by a notorious literary womanizer, Claire revisits the experiences and the memories that shaped her. 

This was such an interesting memoir, and one that I'm still thinking on. I am a different generation than Dederer, so I was sometimes shocked by her stories of being a young girl and her sexual exploits. However, her tale of the root of the problem -- sexual manipulation with a creepy friend of her mother's -- broke my heart and put two and two together for me. My heart broke for the young, scared girl who was at the mercy of her mother's whims. We could say that parents just didn't understand back then, but did they? 

The most striking chapter in this book is Dederer's letter to Roman Polanski. Society has done a very good job of covering up his sexual assault of a young girl, so much so that I found out the details of that assault in this book. Not that I couldn't look it up in the interwebs, but that when we hear about the punishment of Polanski in the media, it's about how it was a long time ago and even the victim has forgiven him. Dederer writes a missive that shows the long-ranging ramifications of the choices Polanski made in regards to a young girl who didn't deserve to be manipulated at a minimum. What we understand now is that a pre-teen isn't old enough to give consent. Dederer's words that express how deeply she was affected by this man's actions, and the parallel to her own experience, was striking and moving, like a punch in the gut. 

At some point we all have a midlife reckoning, I believe, and Dederer's is raw and honest, sometimes to the point of uncomfortability. (If that's not a word, I just made it one.) but what a beautiful and timely reckoning it is.