Featured Post

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...

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive


I picked up Stephanie Land's Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive at BookExpo last year as it was touted at the Adult Book Buzz panel as one of the hottest releases of the year

Stephanie is like many in America, but in ways that you might be uncomfortable speaking about. She grew up in poverty, and in early adulthood, she was working service jobs when she meets Jamie, who will become the father of her child. They agreed that their romance would be a fling — Stephanie had dreams of college in Missoula. When she becomes pregnant, she wants to give Jamie the chance to be a father, but instead she finds herself in a domestic violence situation with nowhere to turn. When she finally gets away, she finds herself dependent upon government assistance for everything from rent and electric to childcare — this while working long hours doing manual labor. Even while keeping her head up and trying to stay afloat, she deals with people remarking, “You’re welcome,” to her while she checks out in the grocery store with her EBT card. Her story is one that is repeated all across America — an entire swath of our population lives on less than $2 a day. 

Land is a profound writer who hits the shapest notes of strength and pride while still baring her soul for her readers. This book is no pity party; rather, it’s the story of a woman of tremendous strength who wants her reader to understand that when you live in poverty, there is never any getting ahead. The moment you do, you find yourself knocked down again — something as simple as a car not starting wreaks havoc for months on the loves of those living on an hourly minimum wage. Savings is a pipe dream. Land weaved her tale for us in a tight knit that made me empathize with her plight and angry at her circumstances. While you may feel there’s not much you can do, this is inaccurate. 

You can’t hate social programs and then say we can’t, as one of the wealthiest countries in the world, gauantee a living minimum wage for workers in every sector. Welfare is dead, and it has been for years. If you are paying attention, you know this to be true. Land goes into tedious detail explaining what life is like when you are on assistance — it’s almost a full-time job just to get what you need to be able to work. It’s a different application for everything (occasionally you get lucky and some applications double up), and each visit to each office takes hours on end. This is assuming that you never get sick and don’t need to take off work to go to a doctor. These minor inconveniences to people with salaried jobs are major catastrophies for people — mostly women, mostly single mothers — who fear losing what difficult-to-find work they had in the first place. 

That’s if you are lucky enough to have a regular work schedule, which Land finds when she begins working for a cleaning company. My heart broke for her when she entered into a relationship destined to fail — when it finally ended I was hopeful that she could make it on her own. I was angry when the doctors called her a bad mother for her living conditions — we are all trying to do our best with the circumstances we have. I  rode for her when her car went out of commission, the circumstances of which you will need to read for yourself. Land is an outstanding writer, and she brings us along on the journey that starts when her daughter takes her first steps in a homeless shelter. 

I’m always amazed when I listen to how some people speak of those on government assistance, and the coded language they use to describe those they feel are below them. Little do they know that the summer I lost my job, I sought out SNAP to help ease my financial burden. I qualified, but the process of obtaining them was so time consuming that I wouldn’t have been able to work what jobs I could find babysitting. It was an eye-opening moment for me, as was my visit to the unemployment office for a mandated job-training course. We were all treated like absolute morons. It was sobering to be sure. 

This isn’t a plea for empathy so much as it is a call to give Land’s book an open-minded read. Live in her world for a few hours, and imagine yourself in her shoes. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting


You know I love a good parenting book, so when I read the blurb about Jennifer Traig's Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting I was completely sold. 

One peice of advice you get as a new parent — and arguably one of the most well-intentioned yet completely useless — is to trust your instincts. After all, parenting is natural. Everyone knows how to do it! Except...

You should be a little more familiar with history. It turns out, there is nothing even remotely natural about parenting. Humans have spent centuries making absolutely stupid decisions about their children. There is a reason people have been horrible forever — it’s because they are products of their environment and child-rearing. As I like to tell everyone, when we know better, we do better. However, it’s also fair to point out that since the late ‘70’s, the Western world has taken the very new concept of “parenting” and run with it. The pendulum has swung in the opposite direction and humans still generally suck. 

But don’t worry! Just trust your instincts. It’s natural

I loved this book as a cultural history of parenting. I’ve railed in previous posts about how parenting has become a verb and it’s done some damage to adults’ self-worth and beliefs about themselves. Here, Traig has selected a few big topics and has given us a concise yet very full history of parenting advice from as far back as it was written. Some of it is horrifying, some of it is funny, and some of it is absurd. Occasionally you will find advice that is on-point. She takes  us through birth to feeding and toddlerhood to adolescence. You would be surprised at some of the recommendations that you should maybe still think about today. 

However, humans have been offering unsolicited and stupid advice for generations upon generations. Traig pulls it out in this book and presents it to you as-is with a side of self-depricating humor. She’s not interested in giving you parenting advice; she’s just telling you about the absurdity that lies in the history of men telling women how to parent. Because if we are really going to get down to brass tacks, that’s the history of child-reading advice. (The best is when the men either didn’t have children of their own or gave them away to be raised somewhere else.)

It took me a hot second to adjust to Traig’s asides in her writing, but once I did I thoroughly appreciated her jabs at history and her willingness to own her parenting choices. This is not a holier-than-thou retelling, and she’s strait forward in making sure you know that she’s just trying to get by. However, she knows that you are too even if you present yourself as a perfect family on social media. (I’m also calling out you all who like to throw in a “what a crazy day!” post every once in a while. We know you. We see you. We know you are full of shit.) It turns out parenting has been hard across history for different reasons, and at the end of the day, this book just celebrates us all getting by in whatever way we can. 

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Joy Enough: A Memoir


I picked up Sarah McColl's memoir Joy Enough at Book Expo last year on a whim, and it was the perfect size book to read on my way home to Atlanta and then give to mother. 

Sarah McColl has always loved her mother and depended on her for more than she realized. When her mother becomes ill, she must care for her while her marriage is crumbling and her heart is breaking in more ways than one. Can anyone ever find joy when their world is falling to prices around them, or do you just find joy enough in the wake of the destruction? 

I was quite blown away by this slim memoir. McColl is a hell of a prose writer, drawing me in with her raw wet concrete of words, smoothing it out all over the page, and allowing me to read it while it dries. That’s what her prose felt like; a soothing process making her grief permanent so that everyone else can walk on it and experience it. She felt completely exposed in this work, and she allowed me into her world and, even deeper, into her heart, laying near her worst moments so that I could just tangentially feel her grief over the two things she wanted most: her mother and her marriage. 

These books can be difficult for me, because the understanding that I will one day lose my parents breaks me. I recognize how fortunate I am to have them in my life and to have the support and love that they offer. As an adult these relationships are different than they are when we are younger, as it feels as though there is a timer that will one day go off. McColl distantly captures what it feels like when you hear the seconds on that timer counting down. I as the reader wanted to sit down with her so that I could hold her in her grief and figure out for her how to get through it. 

This book is well worth a read from any perspective — McColl’s expression of a time in her life that has shaped her is an incredible read, and I imagine that each person who reads it will get something different from it. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Illegal: One Boy's Epic Journey of Hope and Survival


I absolutely had to pick up Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin's Illegal: One Boy's Epic Journey of Hope and Survival for our family bookshelf. 

When I first brought this home, my husband raised his eyebrows at the title. I explained to him that it was supposed to be provacative in its exploration of what it means to be “legal” or not. Colfer and Donkin have put together a powerful story of a boy, Ebo, the youngest in his family, who alights off to join his older brother as he leaves their home in Africa to seek out both their sister and a better life than they grew up with. Ebo and his brother find themselves at the mercy of their handlers, handing off every dime they gave in search of Italy, where they plan to end up. Things go off the rails when they have to hop on a dinghy as quickly as possible with a dozen other migrants. The vessel is only slated to hold 8, and the engine dies, leaving they boys and men stranded in the sea. They are not sure who, if anyone, will make it to those golden shores of hope. 

I’m still processing my emotions after finishing this graphic novel, as it was both stunning and devastating. I used to question the role of graphic novels since I love the written word so much, but as I’ve gotten deeper into them I have found that the pictorial representation along with carefully selected text can punch me in the gut harder than a longer passage of the most beautiful prose. This was the perfect medium for this story, and it had me sniffling in the living room while my son watched TV. Ebo’s story is one of a boy who is audacious in his hope and his belief that he is making the right decision for himself and his family. What’s heart-wrenching about it from the point of view of my safe and warm home in adulthood is that it is so split-second, so without thought that I wanted to reach into the book, grab that boy by the ear, and drag him back home. 

However, he is an impulsive young boy who made the decision he did, so we choose to continue following him along on his journey. I will leave the rest of the narrative here so that nothing will be spoiled when you pick up the book. The story itself is heart-wrenching, but I do think it’s an important one to read and to understand. This book has so many talking points with young people — why Ebo made the decision that he did, what the conditions of his life were that would lead to his leaving so suddenly, why going to Europe was such a dream for so many, what would happen when they got there, etc. A piece of me wants to shield my son from the kind of pain contained in this book, but that’s realistic and it takes away the possibility of hope. Ultimately, I feel that’s what the book left us with, even if it did break my heart. 

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A Memoir


Carrie Brownstein's Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is one of those books I picked up forever and a day ago. I’m not quite sure what took me so long to get to it, other than that I am simply a book hoarder.    

I was just a little too young for the riot grrrl movement, so I was not especially a fan of the band. However, I wasn’t not a fan of the band either, and I am always interested in a little history, be it musical or otherwise. 

Carrie‘s memoir tells of her coming of age as a girl in the Pacific Northwest and her introduction into the music scene at a time when the whole area was ripe with musical energy. I found her trajectory as a musician to be particularly interesting – she needed a means of expression and found it through music rather than finding music and then using it as a means of self-expression. It’s fascinating and respectful, and her history goes hand-in-hand with that of Sleater-Kinney.  I am so thankful I grew to learn more about this point in time situated in a particular location. 

She lays her self bare in her memoir, and it makes her absolutely endearing. She is someone whom I would like to go grab a beer with, and ask her questions about life, her work, and everything in between. Even after doing some poking around online and listening to Sleater-Kinney, I can say that it’s not really my style of music, but I appreciate who they are and what they’ve done. The in-depth history of their albums and the process of writing and recording them has given me a lot to contemplate, and I’m going to give their music another go ‘round this weekend with this book in mind. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

The Dreamers: A Novel

Karen Thompson Walker's The Age of Miracles is a book that hit me like a ton of bricks and has stayed with me for years (since 2012!); when I saw that her newest book, The Dreamers, was available for request on Netgalley I jumped on it. 

A mysterious virus is snaking it’s way through Santa Lora, a sleepy college town deep in California. It’s starts with one student, makes its way to get another, and soon the entire town is blanketed in sleep, dreaming but not waking. Very few will be left awake, and the town is under full quarantine. Who will survive and who will not? What is happening deep down at the cellular level to cause this disease — and what are the dreamers dreaming? 

I wish that my blurb on this book could be a fraction as eloquent as Walker is in her prose. She is one of the most languid and beautiful novelists of our day. She writes with such a deep understanding of her characters yet provides us this knowledge at a remove; it’s as if she’s our higher power telling us the story of our ancient civilization. It’s a folklore that will be come to know by all who dwell here. It’s incredible, her ability to move me as a reader while still feeling like a universal storyteller. 

Walker focuses on Mei, a young woman who feels like an outcast in her college dorm. Her roommate is the first to experience infection and pass away. Walker has written Mei to be the most empathetic of characters, one that is easy to relate to even though in the surface it seems we have nothing in common. Mei, who is asked to endorse more than any 19 year-old does. She is in the eye of the hurricane and when it fans out, she is the moral compass in the storm. She, along with Sarah and Libby, the two young daughters of janitor at the college, anchored this story for me more than any other characters. The couple with the baby felt too close to home for me, as it made my gut ache. Walker has a way of doing that. The story is important, but the characters’ journeys are the lifeblood. 

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Boys: An Illustrated Field Guide


Boys: An Illustrated Field Guide by Heather Ross was a gift to us from a friend who attended Comic Con last year, and it was just a positively lovely read.

This love letter to girls* (and boys!) everywhere, this book reviews all of the boys they may come across in their life, the ones they may fall in love with and ultimately have to leave behind. Each of these boys is a type, and in order to love them, there may be things you have to alter about yourself. The message is that it doesn't matter which type of boy you choose -- you must know yourself and be true to yourself first. (You may have to go through a few boys to learn this.)

I was quite taken by this book -- from the writing, to the message, and all the way through the illustrations. I read it to my little boy and he, too, was captivated by it. I loved the message that it's important to hold on to who you are, because being in love with a boy can easily take your sense of self and make you into something that you are not. I have known so many girls -- some women, even -- who have not had a personality of their own, and I have watched them morph from relationship to relationship, even into their 30's, without knowing who they genuinely were deep down. It's heartbreaking, so this book really spoke to me.

I feel like I have so many stories to count that I can't even being to separate them all. I watched one in particular spend her early 20's talking about how a college education was a waste of money and being an avowed atheist who never wanted children, and just a few years later be a devout church-going, college-attending, mother of three. The difference? You guessed it -- a new man. I didn't care who exactly she wanted to be -- that's her business and her life -- but it was sad watching her be a chameleon. (Before you say, "Maybe she changed!" I realize this is an option, but I know her better than you do. It was the man.) I have many stories like this, and I feel that they could have used the small push that this illustrated field guide gives just a little earlier in life.

I would pass this book down to so many young girls in my life so that they know there are so many boys you will come across -- smart boys, dangerous boys, adventurous boys, sweet boys -- and they are recognizable. It is important that you, too, be recognizable, albeit in a different way. Be you, be strong, and be yourself, whatever that looks like.

*I recognize here that I am referring to cisgendered heterosexual females. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing


I had a Great on Kindle credit and didn't want for much, but at the moment Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing was on sale and caught my eye. My mom and several friends swore by it, so I gave it a go. 

For those of you who missed the craze, Kondo built the KonMari method. You hold an object in your hands and ask yourself if it brings you joy. If it does, you keep it. If it doesn’t, you toss it. That’s the long and short of it although there is definitely more to it in the fine details. Kondo hates organization tools; she feels it creates a false sense of tidyiness rather than actual tidyness. She has a point there. While some stuff I could get behind, others made me cock my head in wonder. 

Here is an Instagram post I put up a couple of months ago, toward the end of 2018. 



I came to the KonMari method late — both in book time (this book came out a few years ago) and in cleaning time (see the above post). I read it after my big year-long purge, so it was interesting to read the book and compare methods. (Disclaimer: my way was in no way a method. I just have a small child who gets into everything and I don’t have the luxury of doing my whole house in a week anyway.) There were some things that I preemptively followed to the letter — I didn’t lose a lot of sleep about getting rid of things, and I didn’t keep things that didn’t bring me joy — and there were some things that made me curious. I don’t openly thank objects myself; maybe it’s my American puritanical upbringing, but I have a hard time thanking objects. (Although, now that I think about it, I’ve definitely said goodbye to objects.) 

One other things that was important to me in my great purge that Kondo doesn’t address is that it was, and still is, very important to me to get rid of things “ethically.” I can’t just throw things away — in case you haven’t heard, the world has a trash problem — and just dropping things off at a Goodwill means they will likely end up in the trash. So I have a nice amount of things still waiting to leave my apartment for a clothing swap in February and another in June, and a bag of shoes to go with it. 

I appreciated that Kondo doesn’t preach about buying less so much as only keeping what makes you happy. She actually recognizes that you will buy more things, but the hope in the tidying process is that you will recognize what brings you joy. One point of note she makes about clothes is that most of her clients it rid of pieces that others gave her. I’ve noticed that too. I got rid of a lot of beautiful pieces that just don’t fit my postpartum body, but I also got rid of pieces that just weren’t me. Interestingly enough, many of those were gifts.   

There are things I’ve taken from this book. With what’s left over, specifically around my own clothes, I’m evaluating piece by piece which I want to keep. I wear work clothes to work and when I look in the mirror, if I don’t feel 100% confident in how I look, I put the piece in the clothing swap pile as soon as I get home. I commented to my husband just yesterday how much more empty our closet feels — I’ve never had so many empty hangers. I’m also much more picky about what I buy. I subscribed to a clothing rental service (Gwynnie Bee), and I’m super happy with it. It’s rentals, but if you like you can buy. I get to wear something once or twice and see how it wears. I’ve bought a lot of basics through this — black pants and dresses, a top I LOVE — and I’ve been able to change up my wardrobe through new dresses weekly. 

I still have more to do. I haven’t tackled my office in full yet, although I did start yesterday. I feel as though I spend less time picking up on a daily basis now that I’ve gotten rid of things. I also took advantage of Kondo’s suggestion of small box organizers in my drawers and it’s made a world of difference in my calmness while food prepping. All in all, the book was worth the read even if I didn’t, and wouldn’t, follow everything to the letter. Let’s all try to live tidier lives. 

Thursday, January 10, 2019

I'm Thinking of Ending Things


I read a Book Riot post on the best thrillers with unpredictable endings, and Iain Reid's I'm Thinking of Ending Things was on the list. I requested it from the library and boy howdy, was it a hell of a ride. 

Our protagonist who is never named has a wonderful boyfriend, Jake, with whom things are going well — in fact, they are driving out to meet his parents when the story starts. However, she’s thinking of ending things. She waffles back and forth, and it isn’t until they are on the drive home that she decides, definitely, that’s she’s thinking of ending things. The night takes a turn, though, when Jake pulls off on a desolate country road to a huge school that is clearly abandoned in the late night snow storm. As things go from bad to worse, she finds herself running for her life, and with her life, in this school that is so strange yet so familiar. 

I was absolutely intrigued by this story for the majority of it. I was completely creeped out by Jake’s family and his demeanor at dinner. Reid sets up this gothic thriller so well; we are on our way to dinner with his family, anticipating a nice night with early relationship jitters, and by the end all we want to do is get the hell out of dodge. But do you stay or do you go? Jake’s father offers for them to stay the night. They opt to go. But would things have happened differently if they had stayed? 

As a reader, I dreaded them pulling off the deserted highway in a snowstorm to an evermore desolate side road. Add on the abandoned school and I would have walked so fast back to town and risked frostbite. That combined with the narrator’s stalker in the back of my mind and her dead cell phone, I was a big ol’ NOPE. I desperately wanted her out of that situation immediately. 

Here’s the thing, though. I’m not sure I’m smart enough to get the ending. Once the final 20 pages took hold, I had to reread them, and I still do not h defat and the ending. I even looked it up online and not a single person will explain it. On one hand, that’s amazing for the author who’s work is outstanding and deserves to stand in its own. But on the other, I’m not sure I will get what the ending meant. I can’t say more without giving it away, so if you have read it, or you are killing to — help a girl out please! 

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The Wonder Weeks


This book was given to us by a friend of my husband's, and she touted it as lifesaving to her. I was sold because both authors are academics, and you know I dislike anything that isn't evidenced-based. Apparently The Wonder Weeks by Hetty van de Rijt and Frans Plooij is quite the hit among the mommy set, of which I am not one of their traditional members. 

Becoming a new parent is one of the strangest experiences, and I tell people all the time that no one was more prepared to be a parent than I was. A sample of my credentials included approximately 25 years of child care varrying in ages from newborn to high school, approximately 14 years of teaching ages toddler to graduate level, two Master’s degrees and a doctoral candidacy in Educational Psychology in which one of my foci was human development. I know my stuff. 

So when I tell you that becoming the parent of what basically amounts to a potted plant was one of the strangest and difficult things I’ve ever done, I can’t imagine how bad it must be for people who have never even held an infant. When we checked out of the hospital, the discharge nurse was talking to me about diapers when I cut her off and said that I have decades worth of childcare experience and I can change a diaper. I need guidance on how to turn a baby into a bigger human without losing my mind. She didn’t have an answer to that but was clearly happy that I knew how to fasten a Pamper. 

All of this to say that at first I relied on this book like it was the Bible. I mean, not entirely, but I did use it and appreciated its presence in my life to create a bit of predictability and stability in an otherwise chaotic and unpredictable moment in our lives. Those first few leaps that the authors discuss were not just important but were also markers that we were surviving and watching our boy grow. I didn’t follow their advice for games and activities and such because it just wasn’t necessary for me, but I was thankful to see them in there for parents who genuinely have no idea what to do with their babies. These leaps happened fast and furiously for the first nine months or so, so having this guide was vital for our sanity. 

As my son has gotten older and the leaps have gotten longer and farther between, we haven’t really needed the guidance as much. Once he hit six months or so he enetered my wheelhouse of knowledge and I was able
To better understand where he was and where he was going. But man, were those first few months something. I’m grateful that we had this on hand to serve as a guidebook for an otherwise confusing and fraught experience that comes with absolutely no instructions. And even when you find some, most are crap. Not this though.