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Happy 6th Birthday, SPR!

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

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Cranes Dance

The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey was super well-reviewed in several publications last month so I added it to my queue.  It was a whirlwind.

Kate Crane is a soloist with a prominent ballet company in New York City.  Her younger sister, Gwen, a principal with the company, is on leave after a psychotic break which no one knows about except Kate.  She was the one who called their father to come rescue Gwen.  As Kate comes to grips with her sister's breakdown, her guilt, her own breakup, an injury, and an existential crisis, she finds herself moving in and out of madness--or is it a Valium-induced craze?

This was a fascinating look into the mind of a dancer if it were safe to say that dancers' minds were all alike.  This was certainly a compelling story and the characters were fascinating, even Gwen, the character that we only knew through Kate's memories and experiences.  At times I felt empathy for Gwen and other times I found her to be a conniving, hateful bitch.  I loved that this book was told from Kate's perspective; nothing is more telling than the guilt of the one who has "survived".

This was a great weekend book.  I was so intrigued that it was genuinely hard to put down.  I whipped through it because it was such a magnetic read.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Blue Mercy

Orna Ross's Blue Mercy stuck out to me because of it's intriguing synopsis so I picked it up this past week.

Mercy has had quite a life--her daughter Star was born in a California compound after Mercy left her home in Ireland after an abusive childhood.  She leaves her husband only to have him reappear after she has raised Star and found a new life and a new love.  She raises an ungrateful daughter only for them both to have the shock of their lives as they start to heal their relationship--then Mercy suddenly finds herself accused of killing her ailing father.  What is the truth?  And how does a person force others to believe it?

I realize this synopsis sounds like a lot--and reading back over it, I realize a lot happened in the book!  I have to say, though, that it was not at all overwhelming or that it ever seemed overdone or extreme.  I was highly engrossed in this book and was pleasantly surprised by how much I really didn't want to put it down when I got off the train.  I wasn't surprised because I expected otherwise; rather, I am always surprised when I find how much I love the characters with whom I am involved for a few hours of my time and of their lives.

I really don't want to give away too much of this narrative because it is so well-crafted and intricate that telling you much about it will just give away too many secrets.  I loved Ross's writing style and how she crafts characters so distinctly.  I felt so much sympathy for Mercy in her dealing with her overly emotional and often erratic daughter Star, and I appreciated how little detail we received about the relationship between Mercy and her father.  Sometimes imagining the worst is more harrowing the reading or hearing it.  This book is worth a look on Amazon (free for prime members!).

Monday, September 24, 2012

Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting

Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman spoke to me recently from a magazine review.  I was intrigued by this idea of raising children with manners and patience that is sorely lacking in the American culture.

Pamela, an American, marries a Brit who was raised in Holland and moves to Paris with him for his work.  Soon they have a beautiful baby girl they call Bean.  They love her and adore her, and sometime around 18 months they discover that she is the only child around that can't sit still at a restaurant or otherwise behave in public.  All of the French children are well-behaved, have proper manners, and allow their parents to have civilized, adult conversations.  How does this happen?  What are the French doing that the Americans aren't?  Or vice versa?  What are the tips and tricks of the French that allow their children to be so sophisticated so early?

This ends up being an entertaining question because by treating their children as children, not as overscheduled and constantly-in-need-of-stimulation beings, the French children overall tend to be more sophisticated and better mannered than American children in Druckerman's observations (and I would also say mine as well).  The French parents are in charge, and their children do what they are told not because parents are mean and bossy but because that's the way the world works.  Children are not in charge.  Druckerman points out that Americans allow their children to eat all of the time--in fact, when children cry, we automatically fill their mouths--but in Paris children eat four times a day--breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a gateau (pronounced goo-tay) at approximately 4 PM.  Druckerman says she can spy an American child a mile away simply based upon their behavior and how their parents are treating them.

The most interesting aspect of over-parenting that the author points out in this book is the obsession with "narrated play" on behalf of the children and what this means for adults.  If you go to any given playground in the USA you will find parents trailing their small children, narrating their actions point by point.  This is particularly noticeable in New York City.  Instead of allowing their children to explore, fall over, pick themselves back up again, and learn from their mistakes and their triumphs, parents tend to protect their children while simultaneously show to everyone on the playground that they are great parents--watch how they educate their children as they play!!!  I completely agree with Druckerman's observations and had a good chuckle myself.

The author in no way claims to be an expert, nor does she claim to be perfect in her parenting.  She had twin boys when Bean was young and often felt (and still feels) harried and driven insane by her brood.  But I took a lot away from this book--the biggest that I can have children and raise them in a way that will create humans that are well-behaved, well-mannered, and respectful of adults.  Potentially, of course.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Rest of the Story

It's no secret that I work in theatre, so when I found out Arthur Laurents was coming out with a sequel to his first memoir, Original Story By, I picked up this one.  The Rest of the Story fills in some gaps and tells some new tales.

Arthur Laurents penned many movies (including The Way We Were), plays, and musicals in collaboration with some famous names (Gypsy, anyone?).  In this tale, Laurents picks up where he left off in 2000.  His partner of 52 years died in 2006 leaving him bereft, and he directed the revivals of his two most famous works, Gypsy and West Side Story, since then.  He completed this memoir just weeks before he passed on.

Most of this work is devoted to Laurents waxing nostalgic on his relationship with Tom.  They met when they were both young, beautiful, and carefree, and they spent five glorious decades together.  Even when discussing his political past (he was "informed" on during the HUAC McCarthy hearings) and his work, it all revolves around and relates back to his relationship with Tom.  I understand that he was grieving for his lost love until his dying day. 

If you are a fan of musical theatre and are looking for good dish, I would suggest you hit up Original Story By first, then come to this work.  If you, however, love love and can't get enough of those relatoinships that last a lifetime through good times and bad, come to this memoir first.  Laurents is honest and heartfelt; he lays his love on the table for all to see.  It's heatbreaking and slightly voyeuristic, but enjoyable nonetheless.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Shadow Scholar: How I Made a Living Helping College Kids Cheat

I found the topic of this book fascinating--a man who made a living writing papers for college students.  The Shadow Scholar: How I Made a Living Helping College Kids Cheat by Dave Tomar was completely intriguing.

Dave hated school.  Hardcore.  He was broke, taking on more and more student loan debt to pay for his state university.  One day a friend offered to pay him to write one of her papers; a monster was born.  He took on paper after paper until graduation, then started helping students cheat professionally through online paper websites.  He found himself, at thirty, broken down, exhausted, and having completed several bachelor's, a few master's, and a doctorate--informally.  This is his story.

I was in turn fascinated and horrified by Dave's story.  On one hand I thought to myself, "Holy hell, who are all of these students who can't seem to write worth a damn?"  Then I thought to myself, "Holy hell, I must have worked for/with/by some of these people."  It was frightening and a train wreck that you couldn't help rubbernecking.  I am talking about students who spent thousands of dollars for others to do their work for them--this on top of tuition, fees, housing, and everything else.  It was jaw-dropping.

This book was stemmed from an article Dave wrote under the alias "Ed Dante" for the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2010; the outrage and counterpoints published in response to this article were overwhelming and even reached the pages of national news publications.

My one complaint with this book was the length; I felt that Dave spent so much time complaining that much of it could have been cut down in order to more prominently display the research he clearly did on the current state of education costs and attendance.  The research was quite impressive; he even went back to call his university's parking control unit in order to get their annual parking ticket income.

As I said, I alternated between shock and awe while reading Dave's account of how he spent almost a decade cheating the system that he felt cheated him.  It's worth a look.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Life After Death

I saw the documentary Paradise Lost: The Murders at Robin Hood Hill many years ago (it was released in the mid-90's) and have been fascinated with the West Memphis 3 case for many years.  I have been in turn flabbergasted, angered, and then unsurprised by our justice system's willingness to overlook possible wrongful convictions in the name of saving face.  Damien Echols's Life After Death is one of those whose conviction is in question, and this is his account of his time behind bars and the life that led up to his arrest.

In 1994, 18-year-old Damien and his friends Jessie and Jason were arrested and convicted of the murder of three eight-year-old boys in a supposed sexual, satanic ritual.  Jessie and Jason were sentenced to life in prison while Damien, the supposed ringleader, was sentenced to death.  In this memoir, Damien tells his life story beginning at childhood and ending with his release from prison after agreeing to an Alford plea--pleading guilty while still maintaining innocence and agreeing to not sue the state.  Damien gets into the reasons for agreeing to this plea along with a soul-searching account of religion, family, love, and life in prison. 

I won't go deeply into the evidence (and lack thereof) in the trial since that is well documented online as well as through four documentaries on the case, ending with the most recent West of Memphis.  Damien writes this book with a raw honesty that screams of nothing-left-to-prove.  When I read his thoughts that he put to paper it's clear that he had found a sense of peace in his situation yet yearned for the life he took for granted before the arrest and the conviction.  I appreciate his honesty in his early life--he claims to be no angel but is strait-forward about the how the satanic-cult connection came about, which was the obsession of a local police officer in his small Arkansas town that began many months prior to the Robin Hood Hill murders. 

The unflinching honesty in the peek into death row that I got as a reader made my heart hurt and fascinated me at the same time.  Damien spends time with his audience discussing the intricacies of Death Row and just a quick review of Philip G. Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment is enough to gain understanding into how humans can immediately be conditioned into their roles as aggressors and to understand how vicious and inhumane conditions are in our prison system.  Damien's book gives a human perspective on what psychologists know from past research.  And to be honest, I can't understand how he bared it for 18 years.

This is a book worth reading for sure.  It toggles between Damien's experience of Death Row and the story of how he ended up there.  He is clear and present in his tales of his fellow Death Row inmates, some of whom are completely guilty, some of whom are innocent, some of whom are mentally retarded, and many of whom left and never returned.  It's an expansive book to be sure, but one worth reading and adding to the cannon of literature that gives a resolute personal experience of prison life.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The American Dream: A Cultural History

Lawrence R. Samuel's The American Dream: A Cultural History peaked my interest the second I saw the blurb--I love me some non-fiction to break up my imagination-fare.

Samuel traces the origins of the "American Dream" from it's original incarnation in 1931 (although it was addressed under other titles before that) to our current understanding of what the dream is and how to achieve it.  It turns out that the definition of the "American Dream" is not as easy to determine as one might think; it represents different dreams for each American.  It also doesn't help that what we originally believed was the dream--owning a home, doing better than our parents, living your best life--has now become more of the European dream than the American one. 

I found this book to be very in-depth and well-examined.  Samuel pulls no punches and lays down the facts as you need to understand them.  This book is a survey of our understanding of the "American dream" from start to present (since, you know, we will never be finished per se).  Reading this gave me exactly what I needed and expected from the book: a genuine understanding of the origins of the term and the idea, and the understanding of the effects of history on the idea (and ideal) of the "dream," as well as the differences in beliefs of the "dream."

The most interesting nugget that I took out of this book was understanding the new social strata that we as Americans have formed--it is now less about where you come from, whom your family is, and what pedigree you are (think The Age of Innocence and the like), but what you do that defines you as your social class. 

I appreciate non-fiction books that get to the point and make sure that the reader can understand what is being presented.  Samuel uses normal-people language and never speaks over his readers' heads.  This is so appreciated when I pick up a book that is not in my field of study.  I learned something new and enjoyed myself at the same time.  What does that spell?  S-U-C-C-E-S-S.  [Yes, this means you should also read it.]

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Those We Love Most

I love a good family drama where relationships are tested, so Lee Woodruff's (wife of Bob) Those We Love Most popped out for me. 

Maura leaves one late spring morning to walk her children to school.  She looks down at her phone when she hears a horrible sound--her oldest son, age nine, hit by a car.  Life changes irrevocably in that moment.  The Munson family, led by matriarch Margaret, Maura's mother, leads their lives over the next year half awake and fully broken.  Margaret's husband has been having an affair for years, Maura's husband has been drinking away his sorrows, and Maura herself holds on to a terrible secret, one that leads her to hold herself responsible for her son's death.  Can time truly heal the pain inflicted by those we love most?

I felt fully enveloped by these characters.  They are so human with faults and love and desires that it's hard to not feel as though they are your very own neighbors.  It's heartbreaking when James is hit, and it's even harder to sit with the family for the few pages where James is hanging on for his life.  Roger, the patriarch, is in Florida with his mistress when it happens and holds himself responsible for not being there for his grandson and daughter.  Margaret takes over taking care of the family.  Maura and her husband, Pete, struggle to find an intimacy that was lost even prior to the accident.  These characters are real and flawed and it is so easy to relate to them on an emotional level.  It's so easy to hold on to guilt.

This was a beautiful read for the plane ride home from Germany this weekend, and I am so happy I picked up this book.  There are glimpses of hope and redemption in Woodruff's novel, all leading us to realize that we all stumble but in the end, if we listen to our hearts, we will find peace and forgiveness.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace

I have been on a bit of a feminist kick lately--for no specific reason whatsoever.  It just seems like every book I have been reading is about feminism in the '70's...or close to it.  So Lynn Povich's The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace fit right in. 

In 1970 almost 50 women held a press conference announcing that they were suing their employer, Newsweek, for sex discrimination--right on the heels of the cover story hitting newsstands titled,"Women in Revolt".  There were almost no women writers on staff; they were researchers, reporters, and secretaries, but tradition dating back decades implicitly stated that women were not to be writers.  That started to change with this first lawsuit (of two, it would turn out).  What many people don't realize is that this lawsuit led to others--the Time lawsuit, The New York Times lawsuit, and several others.  It's suffice to say that these ladies were not just of their time but were pioneers in equality. 

This story is told in first person by someone who was actually present and accounted for in the lawsuit--Lynn Povich.  She was one of the instigators of the suit and was one of the writers who benefited the most in the long run.  She was a talented writer and, it turned out, and even more talented editor, and she was given a chance due to the eventual quotas put into place regarding female editorial staff.  I loved hearing her story from the point of view of someone who experienced the frustration and the angst that went along with suing the bosses that she cared for and respected deeply as colleagues.  I was proud of these women for their courage and their moxie.

There were several women involved in the lawsuit who didn't actually want to become writers or do much in the workplace after they had children, yet they felt it was important to fight for others who did.  This was truly an incredible story that should be read by every young lady growing up today.  It's so easy to take for granted all of the strides that the feminists before us made.  Anna Quindlen is interviewed in the book and she gives direct credit for her success to these dozens of ladies who took a chance and opened doors for those directly after them and for generations to come.

This book is definitely worth picking up for your fall reading.

Kindle version on the left, hard copy on the right:

Friday, September 7, 2012

Apron Anxiety: My Messy Affairs In and Out of the Kitchen

I was thrilled to find Alyssay Shelasky's Apron Anxiety: My Messy Affairs In and Out of the Kitchen as an ebook--meaning that I got it immediately from the library.  Rejoice!

Alyssa has always lived a high-energy, high-octane kind of life--the best clubs, the best restaurants, and the craziest parties in New York City.  She, however, wouldn't know how to cook a grilled cheese if she was forced to save her life.  Through a fateful encounter she meets the love of her life, whom she calls Chef, and follows him to Washington, D.C. where she knows no one and has no job.  After weeks of anxiety and feeling lost, Alyssa determines that she will learn how to cook to fill her days.  She becomes obsessed--and quite good at being a home cook.  As her relationship crumbles and she has to find herself in the chaos, Alyssa learns to listen to her heart and to her stomach.

I love me some good memoir, so overall I dug into this book like it was an unopened bag of Mint Oreos.  I have a low threshold for dealing with the whining and self-pitying of others, so at times I wanted to reach into my Kindle and slap Ms. Shelasky and tell her to buck up and be a grown-up.  I had a great time with Ms. Shelasky all through her relationship (even the bad parts!) and I cheered for her when her recipes came out how she wanted them.  She has clearly written this book with her heart and with earnestness and I can't fault her for that.  I do wish that Chef hadn't been such a...well, so himself.

Ms. Shelasky really likes her alliteration and puns (e.g., "Ziti was my zen and potatoes were my penance." [This is not a direct quote from the book!]), which I have to say grated on my nerves by the midpoint.  Other than that I enjoyed her writing style and zipped through this book in just a few train rides.  I was entranced enough by her story that I found myself picking my Kindle back up even after I arrived home.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

In Praise of Messy Lives

Katie Roiphe's In Praise of Messy Lives came across my bookshelf in an unusual kind of way; I was scouring a list of forthcoming books and I was hoping this book would make it OK for me to have a messy house.  Nope--that's not what this was about at all

You can read about Katie Roiphe here, and you should--she has an interesting biography.  In her latest, Roiphe explores people with messy lives (hence the title) and she in her essays she tells us about different ways people live that makes their lives "messy"--not as perfect as others want theirs to be.  Roiphe lays out her choice to have her second child as a single mother and all of the flack that came with that choice from outside of herself.  She talks about her "Twitter feud" with Ayelet Waldman (although thinly disguised as "Mrs. C") that Roiphe didn't even know she was having but the rest of the world did.  She writes an essay on Maureen Dowd, and another on our fascination with the world of Mad Men.  She is honest about her feelings toward Gawker; she writes about parenting and about the horror that is Fifty Shades of Grey.

There were two lines in her book that really spoke to me; the first was about the aforementioned book.  If you know me slightly then you know my complete abhorrence to the book, so when I read in Roiphe's essay that if she were a religious conservative her biggest concern would be that intelligent and thoughtful women would put up with writing as horrible as that in the Fifty Shades phenomenon.  (I am paraphrasing here since I have a galley of the book.)  I laughed out loud and then got a little sad, because I have been saying the same thing for months.

The second thought came from her essay on Hillary Clinton and her presidential campaign.  Roiphe poses the idea to her readers that I found myself saying of my ex-boyfriend many years ago: We like the idea of strong women but not the reality of them.  (Again, I paraphrase.)  It stung like a knife when she said it simply because she is the first in my life to vocalize what I have been feeling for some time.

This book was thoughtful and interesting, and I am thrilled that I had the chance to read it.  I get that sometimes Roiphe can come off as extreme but I thoroughly enjoyed my time with this book.  It was raw and honest, and if that bothers you then you might just want to read it anyway just for fun.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock

If you will all remember back in November my office was destroyed in a fire.  One of the books on my desk that was destroyed was David Margolick's Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock.  I was super excited to read this and was super sad when I couldn't.  Enter a replacement--thank you, library!

I post this on the 55th anniversary of that fateful day in Little Rock, Arkansas.

On September 4, 1957, Elizabeth Eckford attempted to enter Central High School in Little Rock as ordered by Brown v. Board.  She didn't make it in that day.  She was stalked and hounded by racial epithets, projectiles thrown at her, and words said that could never be taken back.  Hazel Bryan joined in the fun without much thought as to the effect of her actions.  Both were caught in one of the most famous pictures from the Civil Rights era, Hazel in mid-insult and Elizabeth just trying to walk away with dignity.  As the years went by, Hazel apologized to Elizabeth and they formed a friendship, only to have it fall apart under PTSD and suspicion of motive.

This book was a fascinating look inside a picture that tells a thousand words--but leaves so much to the imagination.  Almost every other page I would flip back to the cover to find new meaning in the shot by Will Counts.  These are two women that were there by fate, really--Elizabeth did not get the message that the Little Rock Nine were meeting to walk in together, and Hazel was the least prickly of the mean (white) girls--her friend standing next to her, with her face turned around, was one of the most vicious instigators, Sammie Dean.  They were thrown together by history and it's truly fascinating to read the accounts of their lives before, during, and after this photo.

I love non-fiction and I particularly love historical non-fiction, so of course I am going to recommend this book.  The story is told honestly but with deep pathos for both women, and the writing is interesting and lacking in the blandness that can often take over historical work.  It is so interesting and alive, and full of both sorrow and hope.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiostiy, and the Hidden Power of Character

Several years back I read Paul Tough's Whatever It Takes which was about Geoffrey Canada and the founding of Harlem Children's Zone.  I had mixed feelings about the work Canada was (and still is doing), but I found the book to be compelling and an interesting read.  So when I found out Tough was coming out with a new book, I jumped on the bandwagon and picked up How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.

In his latest, Tough gets down and dirty (in research) to examine what makes children succeed in school and in life.  Obviously some answers include self-regulation, grit, and determination, but the bigger question becomes, "How does one get these?"  Tough comes to the conclusion throughout that some of this is innate and for others it's taught through role models, through life experience, and through home.  Can children who have the deck stacked against them overcome their circumstances?  Can schools really teach you grit and steely determination, thereby improving your character?  And can chess really make you smarter?

While Tough doesn't call it this, this book is the classic nature/nurture debate that will never go away.  Tough uses some analyses of studies published over the years but, as any good non-fiction writer knows to do, he uses anecdotal evidence to support his conclusions.  While this makes a feel-good book it is also what makes me as an educational psychologist in-the-making go, "Hmmm..."  The stories of the handful of young people overcoming adversity (read: poverty, low parental education, and low socioeconomic status) are stories that I believe fully, but I fear that when they are put into a book like this that it gives so many ammunition to bring back the boot-strap mentality: "These five people made it against all odds, why can't other people?"

Of course this misses Tough's point in the book, which is that these young people (and many others) have been given support and an I-believe-in-you attitude from many organizations and people (such as the KIPP schools and OneGoal discussed in the book) who believe that with said support that these kids can make it though college and beyond.  It's a point that should be heeded and I appreciate Tough's writing; I hope that this is the point that comes through more strongly than the boot-strap mentality.

Tough is strait-forward in his writing and he has a way of inserting soul and care into his narrative.  This book is well worth a read if you care even the slightest bit about ensuring education and lifetime success for every young person in the United States, not just those who can afford it.