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

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

People I Want to Punch in the Throat: Competitive Crafters, Drop-Off Despots, and Other Suburban Scourge

I needed a good laugh this week. Life has been crazy and I just needed snarky humor. So Jen Mann's People I Want to Punch in the Throat: Competitive Crafters, Drop-Off Despots, and Other Suburban Scourges hit the spot.

Suburbia is weird. It really is. Moms are obsessed with filling their kids schedules, every child has some sort of food allergy, and no one seems to get Jen and Ebenezer. Humor blogger Jen Mann pulls together some of her best suburban anecdotes to explore why on earth any sane person would want to live there. Starting with meeting her husband through the birth of their children and getting them through school, Jen finds the humor in all situations while staying true to her amazing, snarky self. 

So you can clearly tell by the blurb that I loved this book. Jen and I would best friends if only I lived in Kansas. Which I don't. Although it's not out of the question come job-search time. I completely understood why New York City was a no-go for her, and when her husband tells her he would never move back because, um, square footage, I almost cried real tears of jealousy. Because I want square footage, so bad. I kind of have it in my new beautiful pre-war rental, but, well, roommates. So I almost wanted to marry Ebenezer myself and move to the Midwest. As it goes with literature, you know?

I also find it particularly hard to choose a favorite story. I loved how honest Jen was about meeting her husband in a chat room, and I loved the story about the sociopath classmate of her son. I think, though, that my favorite would have to be the day care color group enforcer. Jen goes to join a play group for her young son, pre-preschool days, and when she shows up she discovers she can't be in the Red Group that meets on Wednesdays because it's closed. No new people. And definitely no people like Jen. She can join the Orange group, but they meet on Fridays, which is no good with Jen's schedule. It becomes an epic throw-down. I bet you can't guess who wins.

No matter what the subject matter, it was Jen's hilarious take-no-prisoners snark that made it all worthwhile reading. She doesn't take herself seriously and frankly, I try to do the same. Life is full of humor if you just take a moment to find it. I am glad Jen did, and I'm glad she decided to write it all down. For my enjoyment. As it should be.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens

Is anyone surprised that I was drawn to How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey?

Go go go. Push push push. That's the mantra of the meritocracy we live in. The harder we work, as we understand it, the better we will do. After all, no one who slacked off went to the Ivy Leagues for college, right? But what if everything we thought we knew about learning wasn't accurate? What if we have the wrong idea of how we learn? Could our abilities change on a dime if we took a step back and just learned how we learn?

Bottom line up front: I have mixed feelings about this book. I tell you this so that if you are super pumped to read it or are already sold on the blurb you can head out and buy it and come back to this post later. You should do it.

My biggest frustration that came out of this book and followed it through to the end was that I am not quite sure Mr. Carey properly defined what "learning" is. Depending on how you define it, of course, as it varies slightly across theories. I teach learning from a constructivist approach, which is defined as an enduring change in knowledge. This is broad for a reason--learning takes many shapes and forms. My concern with this book is that I felt Mr. Carey equated "learning" with the fondly termed "drill and kill." Learning isn't just about remembering facts for school; it's about being able to automatize the basics so that we can use that knowledge to critically think and apply it to the real world. Just as I had an issue with a narrowly defined concept of "intelligence," I have a problem with a narrowly defined concept of "learning." Learning is about the acquisition of knowledge, not just knowing the things you need to know for school.

Automaticity is an incredibly important part of learning, and I wish it had been explored in more depth in this book; I think a lot of things that Mr. Carey questioned could have been answered by the extensive literature on automaticity. It plays a vital role in our everyday lives from something as simple as talking to something as complicated as doing statistical linear regression by hand. (Not knowing your times tables makes it take much longer!)

I study learning as a part of what I do, and so I will admit that I am a bit sensitive to anyone taking this crazy body of research and distilling it into a "how-to" book. That being said, I think Mr. Carey made some great points that I hope people who read this book listen to. Sleep--a lot, and regularly. Ease up on yourself--the more you push, the more exhausted you will be, and exhaustion never got anyone anywhere. Take a break--allow your brain to do the work it has been built to do. Take a breather--if your brain is pushing back, it's because it's tired and you should give it some space. Sometimes you really are too distracted to learn anything--take a step back. Give your brain credit--it's a fantastically fascinating organ that deserves a chance to shine.

Mr. Carey is a strong writer who tells great stories, and I do enjoy his work. He weaves fascinating webs for his readers, and you all know how much I love that. I will definitely be searching out more of his work because I enjoy his writing style.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace

I was attracted to this book by the promising story that took a wrong turn--how is it that Robert Peace, who had accomplished so much from such hard work and grit, could lose it all so suddenly? This is Jeff Hobbs's The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League.

Robert Peace had it rough as a child. His mother scrimped and scraped from her job as a kitchen supervisor to raise him in Newark, a city with one of the highest crime rates in the nation. His father was very present in his life until he was convicted of double murder and sentenced to prison on shaky evidence and faulty eyewitness testimony. Robert knew from a young age how smart he was, and he worked hard and balanced life between school and the streets until he entered college at Yale. He was living the dream, but that bigger dream may not always be everyone's. The violent and tragic end to such a promising young man will take your breath away.

This book was truly astounding. Hobbs, who was Robert's roommate at Yale, has taken this story seriously and has treated it with such a great amount of respect that it stopped me in my book-reading tracks. I felt as though I grew up with Robert myself. I knew him, I knew his friends, and most of all, I knew his struggles to code-switch his life. He was one thing at school and another on the streets, trying to fit in with those who knew and respected his father while trying to live up to his intellectual potential, realizing all his mother was sacrificing to make sure her son succeeded in life.

The most astounding part of the book for me, after the end, was the sequence where Skeet, Robert's father, was dealing with his legal issues. If you have any doubt of the differences in the long-reach of the law between haves and have-nots, you will not after reading this book. Skeet most likely did not commit the crime, but was railroaded with no way to win his case. The story of his conviction reverberates throughout the story of Robert Peace, whether it is directly affecting Robert's life by seeing the long-term implications of taking a present and involved father from a young son to the larger societal implications of poor men not being allowed to live up to their potential due to systematic push-down.

Regardless, this book is an incredible feat of journalism and storytelling, and it is a testament not just to Hobbs's desire to honor his friend but also to give credit to Robert's mother, Jackie. She is a woman who would give up eating to send her son to a good school, and she often did. This book is also an ode to her, and to mothers everywhere who give of themselves so selflessly in order to give their children a fighting chance. Pick up this book. Spend some time with Robert. You won't regret it.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

To Rise Again At a Decent Hour: A Novel

Long before I started this blog baby of mine, I read Joshua Ferris' novel The Unnamed. I loved it. So when my book club picked his new book this summer, To Rise Again At a Decent Hour, I almost peed my pants with excitement and then bought it.

Paul O'Rourke is an avowed atheist, a devoted Red Sox fan, an eschewer of technology, and a dentist. He lives his life methodically and ritualistically, alone and sad about it, until one day when he suddenly has an online presence. He gets a website, a Facebook account, and a Twitter feed. There are two problems with this situation--one, he didn't create them, and two, they are used to espouse a religious doctrine of an ancient people that no one knows of. As Paul seeks out the truth behind this impersonation, he may very well find himself in a world that is more authentic than he realizes.

This book made me thoughtful and introspective, and the more I think about it, the more I have to say about it. First of all, I love that Paul was a dentist. There was something so right and so fitting about this character's profession that it hit the nail on the head. Paul would very quickly, if he were to see a therapist, be diagnosed with either as what I call "spectrumy," or somewhere on the autism spectrum. He says things he shouldn't say and can't control it as he really genuinely either feels he is being helpful or just can't seem to grasp that they are not appropriate things to say. He drives away people in his personal life because he is infuriatingly rigid in both his life and atheistic dogma. He is incredibly smart and I have no doubt was a very precocious kid, but he can't seem to direct it in the right way, a way that is socially acceptable and not alienating to those in his life.

That being said, I found him to be a super compelling character and a great driver of the story. His relationship with his ex-girlfriend/co-worker is messy and real; as anyone who has dated a co-worker can attest, the days/weeks/months following the break up are gross and awkward and you want them to pass so so quickly. His friendship and inability to properly converse with his older hygienist, Betsey, is hilarious and realistic; this is such a credit to Ferris's ability to trust his readers in his writing, as often Paul tells us about his conversations with Betsy in which he only tells us Betsy's side. Ferris gives us the freedom to assume what Paul's response was and it is a riot (because you know, and it's just not appropriate), and it is one of my absolute most favorite reasons as to why I will read anything Ferris writes.

 I would like to point out, for the record, that Henry was so worn out after reading he had to take a nap. That's how good the story was.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone: A Novel

An intriguing mystery is sometimes all you need, #knowwhati'msayin'? This is Adele Griffin's The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone.

Addison Stone is a young ingenue who has taken the New York art world by storm. She is only 18 but her work is selling for exorbitant amounts of money. Why, then, did she fall from a great height one summer night? Was it the fault of her boyfriend? Or her ex? Was it the result of a creative genius off her medication? This "oral history" of Addison's life and death follows those in her life--both close family and friends and those who only knew her artwork--to discover who Addison truly was and what happened to her.

This was an interesting book of the likes I don't see very often. Each chapter is told by a different character who knew Addison and related to her in some way. Her childhood best friend who desperately wants Addison to stay on her medication and seek the help she needs; her oblivious small-town parents who don't understand whey their daughter can't just be a normal teenager; her art dealer who knows what her work is worth; her boyfriend, another art world up-and-comer. Each person shows the reader a different side of Addison Stone, the beautiful young woman who didn't get to finish out her life. We follow the story through--and you can determine if it was murder or if it was an accident.

The story is a bit unrealistic for sure, but that's celebrity for you. (Aren't real-life celebrities unrealistic?)  It is also what contributes to its uniqueness as a story and as a strong read; it allows you to buy in whole-hog knowing that, as outlandish as a young art ingenue from a small town seems, it's still an interesting story and one that will hopefully keep you as engaged as it kept me. Griffin does a great job of creating full characters who surround Addison; her best friend's anguish at losing someone who, knowingly, she was mentally losing for quite some time or her ex's inability to understand how to deal with Addison show fully developed secondary characters that are still at the center of the story. It shows a strong writing ability to be able to make a large amount of characters come alive on the page.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest

I can relate to this title so hard it's glorious. This is Jen Doll's Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest.

Jen Doll can track her own life progression through the weddings she has attended--for better or for worse. Each wedding highlights a time of finding out who she is, behaving (but mostly not), and exploring what it means to be married. When you tie the knot, it's a commitment, and regardless of your feelings toward those relationships, you eventually have to put them aside, raise your glass, and eat your cake. But those stories that live on in infamy--well, they are worth keeping around, too. 

Oh, how much Jen Doll and I have in common. Sometimes the bridesmaid, always the guest, thankful to never be the bride. I felt myself relating to Jen very closely as she went through her slew of weddings, through the excitement of the first destination to wedding to the relief of the local wedding fifteen years later. I can even relate to her story later in the book of being the wedding guest at a significant other's friend's day. I was once the plus one, but my date hadn't bothered to RSVP for me. That's right. I was an extra guest, an inadvertent wedding crasher. I have never been so mortified as I was that night. We ended up at an empty table in the back, just the [awkward] two of us. Needless to say, he and I broke up for many reasons, some of which I you can glean from that story.

[Later I became a real wedding crasher, but that's a story for another time.]

I, like Jen, remember those first few weddings out of college. The excitement over the novelty of two people choosing to vow to spend their lives together. Meals with college friends that you would one day only see once a half-decade. Getting dressed up and praying to be a bridesmaid. The first time I traveled for a wedding and the first time I embarrassed myself at a wedding. I remember those mixed feelings about going to weddings in my early 20's single, fending off the questions about my own dating life. I remember when I learned to not invite a plus one unless they are in my life forever, because nothing ruins a group shot in the long run like an ex in the photo. I really wish I could edit both him and her out of that one photo.

But, like, Jen, I have also found peace in weddings. I love going to them now, it just took me a while to be OK with going at them alone. Now I want to go at them alone. But I have also learned so much along the way. I have some crazy stories, although I haven't had the whole accidentally-slept-with-a-married guy thing that Jen fended off before it happened. This book was well worth going through the journey with Jen. If you were married young and have been on your own separate journey, pick this book up to get an idea of what singledom at your nuptials looked and felt like. If you are a life-long single, pick up this book to see your own journey reflected. It will be worth the few hours you spend in it.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Neverhome: A Novel

War novels are always interesting, and this one did not disappoint. This is Neverhome by Laird Hunt. 

She left home to fight in the Civil War--after all, someone had to represent the farm and goodness knows her husband wasn't fit for it. Her journey through the war for the South and back home changes her in ways she would never imagine. She changes lives as well, and when you hear "The Ballad of Gallant Ash," you will know her reputation lives on. Just don't call her Ash--it's not her real name.

This was a solidly beautiful novel with prose that read like classic literature of its time. No muss, no fuss--only straightforward and crystal clear honesty. There are no flowery descriptions or meandering stories; this is the tune of Ash and the hardships she endures for her country, for her pride, and for her own salvation. Ash is not just a loyal patriot; she is also running from herself. Life hurts, whether it's the 19th century or the 21st. Ash was not the first to run from her pain, and she certainly will not be the last. Slowly throughout this work you will find out who Ash really is, and your heart will break for her. Don't doubt her strength, though. It runs deeper than you can imagine.

Her final choices, though, will be the ones that drop your jaw. Her harrowing journey through the war and her ability to keep her secret was truly astounding and well worth losing yourself in, but it's the destination that will make you stop and reevaluate what you think you know. It's only when you reach this end point that you realize how complicated Ash really is, and how thankful you are that you took the time to get to know her. She is a deep woman.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Sassy Peach Reads Announcement!

No, I am not pregnant, and no, I am not shutting down my blog. Far from it, in fact. 

As I have mentioned before in several posts, I am pursuing my doctorate. This has been an amazing experience, and continues to be so. I am about halfway through, and the more time that goes by the more opportunities I have been receiving to do amazing work and the crazier I get. As someone who has always worked at least five jobs and six days a week, for me to say I am overwhelmed most of the semester would shock most people I know.

I love absolutely everything I do--teaching, researching, and this blog. Therefore, I have come to a decision that really isn't that big of a deal in the scheme of things but was hard for me to realize needed to happen. I love posting three days a week and telling you all about my reading adventures. I am amazed and humbled by the response this blog has gotten over the years and I couldn't do this awesome love-child of a project without you, the readers.

Starting next week I will only be posting two times a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays. This will definitely be through December, and possibly through May. It was a hard decision, but I have found that I am struggling to keep up with posts on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule. This will give me some lead time to give my all to reviews and still be consistent.

Please know that nothing thrills me more than to have your presence here on this blog whether you click on my link through a search engine, you follow in your RSS feed, or you subscribe by email. Thank you for your love of books, and keep on reading!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Everything I Never Told You: A Novel

Everything I Never Told You By Celeste Ng is a moving portrait of a family dealing with loss of great magnitude, and it's quite incredible.

Lydia doesn't come down for breakfast one morning in May. Her family is frantic to find her--she couldn't have just ran away. She is found a week later in the lake down the street. Was she murdered or did she kill herself? The truth may be more hard to swallow than what her mother believes may have happened. Growing up is hard, and growing up in a mixed race family in 1970's middle America is even harder. Deeper than that, though, is facing how we raise our children and the expectations we place on them. 

This story was beautiful and haunting and painful at times. I will be clear up front that I cannot personally understand what it is like to grow up in mixed race family; Ng, however, paints such an honest and colorful picture that pathos is not hard to come by as the reader. James, the patriarch, is the son of Chinese immigrants who did not have many friends as a child--he was the only Asian student he knew of growing up. Marilyn is as American apple pie as they come--her home-ec teacher mother sent her off to Harvard telling her that she would meet so many wonderful men there. Two more opposite people could not have met in the late 1950's, but they did and they came together to form their family in spite of the push back they received. Ng writes such a lovely narrative that it feels as though you know these two--their personal struggles, their marital struggles, and their grief.

This novel tells the whole story of the Lee family, but not in a traditional narrative. Chapters jump around in time and it is absolutely seamless; you know exactly where you are in the lives of every Lee without Ng having to be obvious about it. The story is just spectacular, complicated yet simple in its essence, and it was such a pleasure to read it. You may think you know what is happening in the beginning, but you have no idea. People are complicated with layers and twists and turns; teenagers even more so. Ultimately I understood why Lydia was so miserable and became the young woman she was. That is Ng's writing in its finest form.

Hard copy for purchase below.