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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, May 31, 2013

TransAtlantic: A Novel

Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin was simply magnificent, so when a little birdie told me that McCann had a new book coming out, I snagged a galley so that you, dear readers, could have first pick at purchase! (And because I really really really wanted to read it.)

This is TransAtlantic.

In 1919, two men build a plane that will cross the Atlantic and land in Ireland. In 1845, Frederick Douglass tours Erin in response to his abolitionist treatise. In 1998 a senator arrives in Ireland to broker a peace in ideology. Three different eras, but one very same ideal--that of Ireland, and of the belief that in something greater than themselves.

Someone once described McCann to me as "hypnotic," and I was shocked that I hadn't thought to describe his writing as such before. When I read McCann's writing I feel completely and utterly transported to another realm of being, one that makes me feel as though I am much more high minded and lofty than I often feel. I lose hours in his books, and I lose my sense of self in such a glorious way--that of becoming one with the narrator and with the story at hand. That, my friends, is an awesome feeling.

McCann creates characters that are strong and steady regardless of their thoughts or actions. They are consistent and they are well-formed; they are flawed and they are honest. They are nothing if not true human beings in the most basic sense. I love this man's writing, and when I closed the last page of the book I knew I would never be the same. I have become a more fully formed person. How marvelous, yes?

Kindle on left, hard copy on right. What are you waiting for?

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Fastest Growing Religion in America: How Genealogy Captured the Brains and Imaginations of Americans

I really enjoyed Doug Bremner's The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg, so I picked up The Fastest Growing Religion in America: How Genealogy Captured the Brains and Imaginations of Americans during my last trip.

Genealogy has grabbed hold of America--people everywhere, in all walks of life, are spending money and time putting together their own links to the past. Some call it an obsession. Some even call it a religion. Doug Bremner is no exception. In a search to fill in the blanks of his maternal history, Doug finds out about the history of the genealogical obsession along with long-held deep dark secrets in the family he never knew. It's enough to make your head spin.

This book focuses on Bremner's genealogical search, which is really interesting if you are a genealogist (professional or amateur!) yourself. Bremner works step-by-step through his process which has taken him years to put together. He started long before the ease of the hundreds of thousands of websites became available for the ease of search. It's quite interesting. I appreciate how Bremner integrates information about genealogy itself with his own slog through the alternating myriad and dearth of available information. The author lets it all hang out--the good, the bad, and the ugly. It makes for a very interesting read!

Kindle copy below. A great price!

Monday, May 27, 2013

Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked

Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked by James Lasdun caught my attention immediately. I love true crime, and I have been obsessed with understanding stalkers my whole life (the psychologist in me?).

After James teaches a seminar at an MFA program, a student named Nasreen (not her real name) begins contacting him for advice. They strike up a cordial email correspondence until one day it become less cordial and more creepy. Nasreen begins intimating that she has feelings James, who in turn makes it clear that he is a happily married man and is not interested. Nasreen moves quickly from creepy to all-out stalker and in time, full-on psychotic. Even as James publishes this account, she continues to reach out to him.

I was morbidly engrossed in this book from the moment I picked it up. I enjoy Lasdun's writing style, and I liked his references to literature sprinkled throughout the book. The more Nasreen amped up her communication, the more I couldn't walk away from the car wreck of her obsession. I appreciated Lasdun telling this story from his point of view, the stalked--this book was completely subjective and I liked it that way.

I found it so interesting that Lasdun spends the middle part of the book examining his own feelings and role in this theater of obsession. He asks himself what he could have done to change it, and he constantly searches for ways to end it, contacting the FBI, the police, and his friends and colleagues whom Nasreen also has under her watch. This woman's obsession is relentless--she contacts all of his supervisors where he teaches, she sabotages his online authorial presence, and never seems to sleep in her quest to ruin Lasdun's life. I couldn't help but wonder how this woman could possibly even hold down a job with the amount of sabotage she constantly waves in Lasdun's face.

All of this to say, I think this book was well worth the hours I spent with it.

For you to own. Kindle on left, hard copy on right.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

I lovelovelovelovelove Michael Pollan. I couldn't wait to read Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. It was well worth not waiting to get my hands on this goodness.

Pollan splits this book up into four parts: Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. Each is an in-depth exploration of what it means to get back to the elements and be at one with food. In "Fire," Pollan learns that barbeque really is (none of this Northerner-BBQ-when-you-are-really-cooking-out-BS!). In "Water," he learns how to braise and truly appreciate slow cooking. In "Air," he learns how to bake his own real bread and what it takes to make a loaf that is truly artisinal. In "Earth," he gets down to the roots (ha ha) of fermentation--and in turn discovers why so many of us currently experience gastrointestinal disorders. All the while, Pollan does his usual research and provides his reader with a load of outstanding information that makes you think, and hopefully make more informed choices about your food, your life, and your kitchen.

I seriously adore this man. He has driven me to thoughts on food and my diet in ways that no other nutrition book possible could. The Omnivore's Dilemma was life-changing, and I have been itching to buy myself a copy of Food Rules since I read it. I had high hopes for Cooked which were promptly met.

If you look to your right, you will see even Henry loved this book. He asked if we could keep it, but I sadly had to inform him that it belongs to the city of New York through the public library system. He was bummed.

I read this book much more slowly than I have read a book as of late. It's thick, but it's because it's filled with so much information that I wanted to soak in and let fill my brain. I wanted to memorize every detail in this book, and this is something I may very well ask to receive for my birthday. I was so inspired that I set out to slow cook some chicken coconut curry right after I read the "Water" section! I also spent time exploring how I could ferment things myself, and while I was in the process of reading this I have also been setting up my own window garden. Once it is all set up I will have my own lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries, and herbs.

I found this book to be so very inspiring while also being ridiculously informative. A little over a year ago I discovered that I have a sensitivity to gluten, and Pollan's research illuminated some of the reasons this might be the case, including why I don't have such a hard time with gluten when I go overseas. I found his "Earth" section to be the most in-depth and clear about food allergies, and I have been recommending this book left and right since picking it up. So right now I recommend this book to you, dear reader. It's worth the week of your time. I even think it's worth keeping on the shelf.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Death Penalty: An American History

I am incredibly interested in the death penalty debate. My opinion is not for this blog (I have said before that this is, after all, a book blog and not a political-viewpoint blog), but I do, however, believe in being as well-informed as possible when making a decision about how I feel on certain matters. This is what led me to pick up the often-recommended The Death Penalty: An American History by Stuart Banner.

This book is the ultimate history of the death penalty in America. It begins as early as America does, examining the rationale behind the death penalty, the movement from public to private executions, and why the movement to abolish it came about. Originally the death penalty was in existence to deter crime, to punish offenders, and to exact retribution. Only the crimes that were being punished were often as simple as stealing a loaf of bread, which many agreed later was not on par with rape and murder. It's also no secret that there is a racial component to who receives the death penalty, and in recent years there has been an abundance of convictions overturned due to DNA non-matches. It's fair to ask, "From where have we come, and where are we going with this practice?"

I was super impressed at the comprehensiveness of this book. It was incredibly in-depth and the historical coverage was expansive. I had no idea that the history of the death penalty was so wide-ranging and, at times, so uncontested. This book was eye-opening as to the rituals that we so commonly accept on a regular basis.

What I also appreciated about this history was its unwillingness to take sides or show bias. It is clear that Banner is unwilling to allow his politics to come into play in this history book; his desire to show an objective portrait of the road to present-day is commendable and quite useful. I am happy that I have taken the time to understand the historical implications of a practice in such hot debate, and it has helped inform my thoughts while providing me with both sides of the argument.

Kindle copy on left, hard copy on right.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Golden Boy: A Novel

Aaaaaahhhh. I love a good novel. Abigail Tarttelin's Golden Boy was just that.

Max is a fifteen-year-old high school student who is practically perfect in every way--the Golden Boy of the title. Except he has a secret. He was born intersex. Very few people know outside of the immediate family; one of these is a family friend whom Max has known since he was a child. When this friend betrays Max in the ultimate way, Max must examine who he is, both in gender and in life, and what he wants out of a world that can be cold and cruel, yet have people in it who can be so kind.

I was utterly fascinated by this book. I kept itching to come back to it to see where it was going. I was floored by the premise, and I was even more floored when I sat back to think that this book, written with such love and pathos, dug deep into the psyche of a young man who is neither male nor female. Max must grapple with so much more than your average teenager, and when he discovers the difficulty his mother had with his "condition" as an infant, I wondered what it would take to break him. How much pain and misunderstanding can one teenager take?

This was a lovely and wonderful book, and I am glad I picked it up last week to escape from the doldrums of life. It was fascinating and honest, caring and open.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

After seeing the most recent remake of the film based on this book, I ran home and requested John Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy.

How does one even synopsize this sucker?  It's one doozy of a tale involving a mole in the British version of the CIA called the Circus.  When the long-time leader of the Circus dies of a heart attack, many are forced out by his sketchy co-workers.  George Smiley was one of those forced out.  A year later he is called in on a separate and covert mission to determine who in this new contingent is a mole for the Soviets and has given away one of their own.

This book is not for the faint of heart.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and felt it was incredibly well-structured and beautifully written.  However, there were many pages that I had to go back and re-read in order to figure out what was happening in the present.  You almost need a flow chart in order to keep up. 

It's a spy novel, and one that has kept up with the test of time.  Oh yes, it's historical--it's based in a time when spying was still considered elegant and intriguing.  This is a book you commit to, which to be frank, I am glad I did not know before I picked it up.  I have commitment issues.  However, I think it's fair to warn you, dear readers.  It's worth it, most definitely.  Buckle your seat belt and jump in.

For your shelves:

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Sheryl Sandberg. Has anything been more controversial in the first half of 2013?

I feel that this book needs no introduction, but here goes nothin'. Women still make up a small percentage of CEO's, leaders in government, and overall leadership in the workplace. Why is this? Many reasons. Women tend to be less willing to negotiate things like flex time and salaries. Women are more concerned than men about hurting others' feelings, and we also tend to value being liked which can sometimes run counter to being successful. We have a hard time promoting ourselves for fear of looking overconfident and boastful. All of these things that make us awesome women also hold us back in the workplace.

I will lay it out for you--I found this book to be inspiring. I find most of the discussion, and particularly the criticisms, around the book to be annoying and clearly personal. Well, ok, fine, it's a personal subject--Sandberg is calling us out. So be it. My experience has shown me that most people willing to criticize Sandberg's book didn't even bother reading it. Just to be clear, I don't care about your opinion based on some news show interviewer's opinion of their assistant's opinion of the book. If you didn't read the book then you don't get to have a place at the unhappy table until you do.

I found this book to be inspiring for many reasons. I approached it with an open mind, choosing to ignore what I had been hearing from the press, from blogs, and from Sandberg herself through interviews and sound bites. Sandberg lays out the problems as she sees it--and it's not just women to blame. It's a systemic problem that we lack women leaders in every field. I didn't feel that Sandberg was specifically referring to the tech world, the social media world, or corporate America. I could see her words fitting into academia, the arts, and non-profits. I have experienced first-hand the criticism and the alienation that happens when I, a woman, act like a man in the workplace. People want, and expect, women to be nice, to roll over, and to make way for those bigger and stronger than us. I am thankful that someone finally put into words, "Make it stop." The best advice I ever received, and to this day still sticks in my head, was from my supervisor after I received a nasty post-workshop evaluation. He told me that if I wasn't pissing a few people off, then I wasn't doing my job. He was right.

I felt that Sandberg acknowledged her privilege, which is another criticism leveled at her. She has the ability to hire quality childcare and she has a loving and willing partner at home who also makes it his business to be home for dinner as much as possible and to be a present and contributing adult in the house. I am not sure that this is so much privilege as it is something they have built and worked their way toward. I felt Sandberg is advocating for all women for all the choices they want to make.

I am thankful that someone finally said the things I have been thinking for so long. Stop the "mommy wars"--if staying home and raising your children makes sense for you, then do it. Don't denigrate women who choose to, or have to, work. If moving up the corporate ladder is your speed, then do it and don't feel guilty about not being around all the time. It's about quality time, not the quantity of time. (Trust me, I know this, I am an educational psychologist.) Why don't we as women stop bashing each other? If the CEO of Yahoo wants to take only two weeks of maternity, let her. It's her life, her baby, and her choice. She isn't lessening the amount of maternity leave for her employees. In fact, she recently increased it. Let's all stop criticizing each other's choices and focus on moving forward together as a group.

I think over time this book will seal its place in feminist history. Just you wait.

Hard copy below.


Monday, May 13, 2013

Winter's Bone: A Novel

I loved the movie. So hard. So I decided to pick up the book this week for some light reading. This is Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell. 

Ree's father is the best meth cooker in the county. He is a Dolly, and that means something. So when he disappears one day and Ree is visited by the loal bondsman to tell her that he father put up their home as collateral against his next court hearing, Ree knows she is about to lose everything. She sets out to find him, but there are many people who want--need--her to stop looking. So much so, the lengths they will go to might kill her.

This book (novelette?) lived up to it's hype, and I would dare say that the movie is so close to the writing. I was hooked from the beginning sentence, and Woodrell paints a vivid and detailed picture of life in the Ozarks. It's a place so different from where I come that it almost comes across as a fantasy world.

I love when a book reads as though it is a live telling of a story; I think that's why this translated so well to screen. I could watch the whole Dolly story play out in fromt of my eyes with only the writing of Woodrell to guide me. In my book, that's superb writing.

Friday, May 10, 2013

After Visiting Friends: A Son's Story

After Visiting Friends: A Son's Story by Michael Hainey drew me in with its lurid description of a story being not all it is cracked up to be. It won me over--I love a good mystery.

Michael's father died very suddenly one night when he was a small boy on the side of the road in a Chicago neighborhood. The obituaries read that he died after visiting friends--but why was he so far from home at such a late hour? His father, a newspaperman, was known to work until 2am--but where was he after this? And who were these friends? And why does the story seem to not be all there is?

Hainey's journey is a long and winding road, in a car in which he sits in the drivers seat and allows you, the reader, to tag along. He makes you the co-pilot, sometimes putting you in charge of the map but at other times relying on his inner GPS. When he suspects that there is more to the story (Hainey does, after all, take after his father--he is a journalist himself), he is relentless in hunting down clues until he can come to a solid enough conclusion about where the truth lies. It may not be pretty, but he is willing to face it--that is, as long as you, the reader, agree to not close your eyes when the truth bears it's ugly fangs. You must face the honesty with him. That's part of the deal.

I loved the passages of Hainey with his mother. He worries for so long about how his mother will handle the truth of his father's death, and therefore his life. His digging leads to a side of his father that is not pretty, but it is the truth.

I sat with this story for two days. I am thankful for the road trip.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

While I Was Gone

People just give me books. Everyone knows I love to read and people will just hand me books they have finished and want to pass on. That's how I picked up While I Was Gone by Sue Miller.

Jo Becker lives a happy life in her small Massachusetts town. She runs her own vet practice, her husband is the town preacher, and her three daughters are grown. When a new couple comes to town, it doesn't take long for Jo to realize she knows the husband from a previous life, one in which she was running away to find herself. They share a terrible experience in their past, and this interaction starts to gnaw at Jo. Now that her past has caught up with her, will it overcome her life?

Ms. Miller gives us an incredibly intricate web of narrative; she has this glorious way of revealing her main character's past like peeling an onion layer by layer. Her writing is intriguing and calming at the same time which makes the story come alive. I love when the main character has a past about which no one knows and I love when a crime is involved.

This is a story that might not completely fulfill you if you are looking for a thriller. The story stays focused on the domestic drama of what happens when your past catches up to you and you can't let go. I, however, found it fulfilling on a level of heart and hope.


Monday, May 6, 2013

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: A Novel

Oh. My. Gawd. I loved this book so hard I can't even begin. I must still sit in awe for a few minutes, observing a long moment of silence for this awesome (in the most literal sense of the world) and huge books. This is Anthony Marra's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

Cechnya, a war-torn country that has experienced years of economic turmoil, holds villages of ghosts. In one, 41 villagers have disappeared in this second war, and there is no end in sight. One night Akhmed watches his neighbor Dokka taken away by the Feds. Akhmed knows what this means--everyone knows what this means. Dokka will never return. Akhmed watches the Feds burn his neighbor's home, but where is Dokka's young daughter, Havaa? Akhmed finds her hiding in the woods and spirits her away to the only place he knows she is safe--the local hospital. There he meets Sonja, the brilliant surgeon with ghosts of her own to chase down. Together they must survive, forged together by a war that is killing them, both literally and figuratively.

This book is so emotionally stunning, so beautifully written, and so elegantly painful that I could just sing its' praises for hours on this blog. I could (and would, if I had the time) write effusive praise with the biggest of words and the most fragrant phrases you could ever imagine. This book had me in shatters for days. DAYS, I TELL YOU. It broke my heart into a million little pieces, then put it back together again with Scotch tape and dental-floss stitches. (You will get the reference when you read the book.) I was devastated, so devastated, and to leave the world of Akhmed, Sonia, and Havaa just because I finished the book was one of the most unfair moments of my life. Like, EVER.

I can see why Marra is getting fellowships and awards and praise out the ying-yang. This novel is so well-deserved it's ridiculous. I felt that a baby was being ripped from my arms when I had to put this book down. The man writes like a slow ballet piece by the world's most brilliant choreographer: Every movement is painstakingly defined, every muscle is used, and the story that is told by the end is gut-punchingly gorgeous. (Yes, I just made up the phrase "gut-punchingly." I need you to read this book so badly I have resorted to inventing words.) The characters will stay with you, their stories will stay with you, and you too will have a life-changing experience with this book.

You might notice that I have labeled this book under "Award Winners." Has it won anything yet? Who cares. It will. This book is Pultizer-, National Book Award-, and any-other-award-you-can-thing-of-worthy. Mark my words.

You would be absolutely remiss in not getting this book for yourself.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Lush Life: A Novel

Richard Price's Lush Life has been on my radar fora while--in fact, I had it checked out from the library this time last year and I lost track of time and didn't get to read it before I had to return it. I stepped up to the plate this time.

Three men are robbed and one is shot on their way home from the bar in the Wast Village late one night. The one sober in the group, Eric, describes two dark-skinned suspects; two other witnesses describe Eric as the shooter. Where does the truth lie? Are witnesses as reliable as they seem? How can we keep grief and shock from overwhelming us? What makes one thug give another up--what is the code? This sweeping crime epic spans all sides of the historic LES--the cops, the projects, the imigrants, and the gentrifiers--to bring to the top the tensions that fuel our everyday lives.

Multilayered. Epic. Sweeping. Gigantic. Heartwrenching. Do you need any more adjectives for me to properly describe the feelings that this book holds between it's covers? I think not.

I was hooked from page 20. It took some concentration to get into the earlier scenes, but once I had a sense of where it was going I was able to latch on to the story told from so many different points of view. This book needs committment from its readers, and in return it will give you all it promises--humbling respect, raw honesty, and shocking realism. If you love a good read, Price is your man.

 For purchase. Kindle version on the left, hard copy on the right.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination: A Memoir

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken starts off on a rough premise--she makes clear that this book is about the death of a baby. It is, however, a lovely and incredible story.

McCracken's first child is a stillborn. This gives nothing away, as this is the backbone of the story. She tells her tale from a year's distance as she holds her second baby, alive and healthy, on her lap. It's a story of excitement and anticipation; a story of loneliness in the French countryside and the navigation of a foreign language; a story of love between two people that is upheld in the wake of tragedy. McCracken makes it clear that this is not a treatise on what might have been; rather, it is an exploration of a heartbreak that can only serve to help herself and others.

This one of those books that, after reading the first ten pages, I realize I had read before. It's hard to miss, but it's so lovely and meaningful. McCracken is a gorgeous writer, and I felt that I was listening to beautiful music while she spun her tale for me.

Of course her story is heartbreaking. Losing a child is something I cannot even begin to imagine. McCracken is so eloquent and open about her story, and she bares her soul for her readers. The result is an extended meditation on learning to live with pain and grief while not allowing it to overtake your life. After closing this book I felt that I knew McCracken, that she was indeed a friend of mine, and I left fulfilled.

I also took away from this book an understanding of how to reach out to those who go through such a loss, be it a miscarriage or a stillborn. I am grateful to McCracken for opening up her vault to share with me her story.

Get the book for yourself! Kindle version on the left, hard copy on the right.