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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...

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Science Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained

What a week of knowledge, huh? Today I am talking about another book in DK's Big Ideas Simply Explained series, The Science Book. Yes, I'm still in love.

Talk about some big ideas--if you want to know the history of science, this is your gem. Starting with ancient history (the Greeks and other thoughtfuls) and moving into what is dubbed the "Scientific Revolution" (with such luminaries as Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton), any reader can grasp a strong basis for what we understand today. Next up comes 18th and 19th centuries (Ben Franklin and Proust in the former; Doppler, Darwin, Pasteur, and Curie in the latter) followed by the early 20th century (Einstein, Turing, and Oppenheimer). We end with mid-century to present, focusing on such big ideas as put forth by Steven Hawking. It is a sprawling book that illuminates big ideas that drive what we know and understand today, whether you are a scientist or not.

This was the book that first made me fall hard for the series. I picked it up at Book Expo America in May and I went over to the DK booth to absolutely gush about it. Hard science has never really been my thing, mostly because it was always hard for me to wrap my mind around the ideas. I wish I had had a handy guide such as thing while in school (the first time around); I may have been able to get a basic understanding enough to guide me. The first thing I read about was Schrodinger, as his cat paradox is referenced often and I still don't entirely get it. After reading his whole section, I was finally able to understand what is meant when someone references Schrodinger's cat.

I look forward to collecting all of the books in the series (philosophy, economics, politics), as they are amazing reference tools and help those of us who aren't experts in the field grasp on to concepts enough to have slightly intelligent conversations at dinner parties and such. Also, these make superb holiday gifts, which is why I chose to do my posts on them over the holiday week. Pick these up for the budding intellect in your life--they will be happily surprised this holiday season. (They will also be kept busy all day reading!)

For purchase below--just in time for the holidays!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Heads Up Psychology

Along with Monday's The Psychology Book, I also got my hands on the young people's version of the same, Heads Up Psychology. Talk about WOW.

This book starts off with chapters that explain what psychology is, what psychologists do, and what research methods are. I'm serious. I think that is what grabbed me so much. I spend a good deal of time at the beginning of each semester trying to explain this all to my students, and it is all just right there. It's really an incredible and easy read. This book is written for the non-psychologist, and the clarity and ease of this book is what keeps me from recommending it just to young adults. This book is for everyone to use and understand. 

I also am blown away by the organization of this book, and it is one of the selling points in using it in my educational psychology classes. Each section covers a different field of psychology, all of which inform my own field. It is organized in the most amazing way, and I am going to just keep gushing about it. Social psychology, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, biological psychology--it is all there for the taking with interesting headings that grab even me. Theorists are broken down so that their theories are related to every day life, and the writing is interesting. Even I was riveted, and I already know this stuff. Really. Just madly in love. 

The graphics. OH MY GOODNESS, THE GRAPHICS. They support and explicate the information in the text, and at times the page seems crowded, but overall it's something I can ignore enough to put this book on my required reading list. I want my students, and everyone really, to understand this field and know how to apply this information (which can be, frankly, overwhelming and daunting for the average reader), and this book is what I wish I could have written myself. I. Love. It. 

For purchase for your young one below.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Psychology Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained

I am about to talk to you about one of the greatest series of books I have ever encountered. I came across a book I will review on Friday, The Science Book, at BEA this year, and I fell madly in love with it. It is important to me to find books that are clear, easy to understand, and break down concepts for the everyday reader. I loved that book so much I requested a copy of two more in the series, and this holiday week I am going to gush about them thoroughly. Today is The Psychology Book

I am going to skip my usual recap because this book could be read cover to cover, but it is also an incredible resource for psychology in general. We all know how sensitive I am to psychological content being misrepresented, so I was floored when this book arrived on my doorstep and I cracked it open. I read it with my jaw on the floor--it was gorgeous, first of all, but it was also so clear. Of course it can't encompass every single thing about every single theorist (the book is already a nice size!), and I was impressed at how it took the big ideas and synthesized them for a non-psychologist audience. 

It starts with this philosophical roots of psychology (Kierkegaard, Descartes, G. Stanley Hall, etc.), then moves into Behaviorism, which is both easy and difficult to understand. Thorndike, Pavlov, Skinner, and their ilk are one of the hardest things for me to teach, and I appreciate how this book drilled it down so that the big ideas came out. We then move into psychosexual theories (Freud, Jung, etc.) and then into my love, cognitive psychology, with such luminaries as Bruner, Seligman, and Kahneman. Then follows social psychology (think Asch, Milgram, Zimbardo), which I love but have always needed something that boils it down for increased understanding. We then hit my other love, developmental psych, with Piaget, Vygotsky, Bandura, and Baron-Cohen. We end with psychology of difference. 

I love the broad range of topics that are covered, and I also adore that this book focuses on bringing big ideas from specific psychologists to life. A lot of these ideas are very hard to grasp in full, and this overview is excellent. It's a great resource for my students, and I recommend this book often to students looking for either an additional reference or for more information on topics we cover in class. There is a handy glossary and the table of contents makes the book so easy to use. It looks gorgeous on my shelf and makes an excellent addition to my library. In fact, it's a lot nicer looking than any other psych text I own! I am beyond thrilled with this book, and I could not recommend it more for any reason whatsoever--whether it be general interest or an addition to your library. (In fact, I have already been so vocal about recommending it that my fellow psychologist roommate bought her own copy and was also blown away.)

For purchase below! Get a copy for someone for the upcoming holiday season!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth About Everything

I love Barbara Ehrenreich's work, so when I found out she put out a new book, Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth About Everything, I scooped it up.

As an adult about to submit her papers for archiving at a university library, Barbara reviews her journal that she kept as an adolescent. It records a series of mystical experiences that happened to the young atheist, forcing her to examine whether there was something wrong with her or if a higher power was affecting her. The journey leads her to push through discoveries in many areas of her life--a journey of self-discovery, intellectual ability, and personal determination.

I really do adore Ehrenreich and her work as a journalist; I think she is one of the most deep-cutting and insightful writers I have found who doesn't hold back. If you haven't yet read Nickled and Dimed, run and read that then come back here and finish this post. It will stun the pants off of you while making you a little bit of a better person for understanding some harsh realities behind our minimum wage culture from someone who voluntarily lived it. That, however, is not this book, which is a tour de force in and of itself. Ehrenreich turns her critical eye inward to explore her experience and to view it from sharp hindsight.

This is classic Ehrenreich: intelligent and penetrating while never being pedantic or assuming she can't trust her audience. She is on a literary journey that she kindly shares with us, her readers. She lays her experience bare on the table and examines it critically in order to get a good grip on what happened. Hindsight is 20/20 as we all know, but there are sometimes occurrences that can't be explained to easily. They require more insight and responsibility, and this treatise is one of those. It was also incredible to watch Ehrenreich explore her identity through her childhood and her college years; as we move through early adulthood in this book we get a strong sense of who Barbara is and what drove her life choices.

This is a memoir of sorts, but a very specific kind. It is one that asks you as the reader to examine what it is you believe, and to reconcile it with her experiences in order to find a deeper meaning. That, my friends, is why I will always pick up a Barbara Ehrenreich book. She makes me smarter by her thoughtfulness and her literary care.

Hard copy for purchase below:

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

I Am Pilgrim: A Novel

I have some insanely crazy news--this here marks 500 posts. You read that number right. Isn't that crazy? I owe a big thank you to all of you, my readers, who come back again and again. I considered doing a "Best Of" post today, but instead I decided to do my thing and give you a book post. The book I have chosen, which I read this summer and have been sitting on the review, is the best I have ever read. Hands down. I was about a third of the way through when I announced to my family (we were on vacation): This is the best book I have ever read. Needless to say, the other two-thirds just confirmed it. Ladies and jellybeans--Sassy Peach Reads' 500th post. xx

One of the hottest books earlier this summer was Terry Hayes's I Am Pilgrim. Seriously. At BEA I asked around for the best book to grab, and it was consistently this one. I happened to miss the signing. I died a little inside. Then I just happened to be by the publisher's booth as they were giving out the last few copies. I grabbed one like a starving child eyeing a peanut butter sandwich.

He has been all over the world and solved crimes you never knew happened. He wrote the book on forensics--literally. He is the world's best trained operative, and he has no name. In fact, he doesn't even exist. That is, until he becomes code name Pilgrim and is sent by the President of the United States to figure out how to stop the greatest threat to American existence, a plot decades in the making. While he is at it, he should also solve the murder of a young woman found in a seedy, downtown NYC hotel room with no face, no fingerprints, and no name--all points taken from his book. How it all comes together will be enough to make you want to join the CIA yourself.

Yeah, it sounds like a super complicated plot, and it most definitely is. Only I didn't care when I was reading it. I was so face-planted in the book that I would have followed it anywhere. I was on vacation with my family and I ignored movies playing in the background and my mother talking to me. None of that mattered. I only wanted to find out where this was going next. I have also never been so patient with a book. This was one where I just had a gut feeling it was going to be spectacular based on the first few chapters. Hayes had my hook, line, and sinker with the opening chapter, the murder of the young woman in NYC so bizarre it was real.

The truth is that Hayes had me the whole time. He created compelling characters that were human and superhuman all at the same time; while in reality they may not have been super realistic, they come up off the page as fully-formed and ready to rumble. This book would make one hell of a miniseries, but I hope that no one is going to turn it in to a movie, because there is so much nuance and detail that it is mind-blowing. My mom peeked over my shoulder in the car (because yes, I read this book everywhere!) during one particularly gruesome scene and now all she can talk about it the-book-about-that-scene. (I won't actually say what it is because it is so shocking that it would absolutely ruin that small section--and I want nothing ruined for you about this book.) I was entranced by Pilgrim, obsessed with the Saracen, and I was only able to put this book down because I knew I was in it for the long haul.

This book is absolutely brilliant. Beyond amazing. This is the book that I will read again because I want to learn something new about it. The story was spellbinding, and the way that Hayes was able to weave together two such disparate plots, and then bring them back together again, was mesmerizing. This book took me all over the world, and I made Pilgrim's decisions with him and cheered when he had good luck. I would recommend this book over and over and over again with no qualms about my unabashed love for it. Hayes is incredible, and I anxiously await his next novel.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The New "I Do": Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists, and Rebels

I have always gone back and forth on wanting to get married, and that's one of the reasons I choose singledom. This is repeated in the book, but my thing has always been that I wouldn't mind getting married, I just don't want to be anyone's wife. So I was quick to grab up Susan Pease Gadoua and Vicki Larson's The New "I Do": Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists, and Rebels.

Does traditional marriage make sense today? The part where two people fall in love and commit their lives to each other and sign a license to be wed and promise 'til death do us part in front of family and friends. What if we took marriage and turned it into what we want it to look like? This means that if we view parenting as the most important part of our lives, why don't we find marriages that support co-parenting? If we want a long-term companion, why wouldn't we seek that out instead of searching for passion? If we want to marry someone whom we love but aren't attracted to, why wouldn't we have an open marriage? These and other questions lay the foundation for closely examining what marriage is, and what it should look like as the 21st century barrels forward.

It took me a bit to buy into the argument, but as soon as the authors made it clear that marriage is a contract that is submitted to the government, they had me. This is always how I have seen marriage--it's a long-term contract that can be broken at any time. Friends have gotten on me about having divorce in mind when I marry, and my counter arguments have always run along the lines of: I'm not sure long-term monogamy is a thing for every person (or even most people); like it or not, divorce is a reality for half of the people who enter into it; and I wouldn't want to marry anyone I couldn't be divorced from. What I mean by that last statement is, I wouldn't want to be with someone whom I believed would go through the process being overwhelmingly douchey. Hence, when I pick a mate, I will pick someone who can fight fair.

(As you can guess, this will be a bit more of a reflective post than most.)

I have been very lucky, being in my early 30's, to have watched my friends get married and make their marriages work--or not. I have been able to sit back with my glass(es) of wine and indulge in a fantasy of what I want and what I don't. Now, this being said, I prefer to remain single, hence why I have effectively stopped dating and am getting a PhD. I still saw myself stuck prominently in the middle of this book--after everything I have seen, I realize how little I believe in love as we know it--the tingly butterflies, knots in the stomach, crazy passion that comes with the first couple of years in a relationship. As you can see, that clearly hasn't worked me. Hell, the last "relationship" I had (and I use that term loosely) ended because I was sure he was cheating on me--which he was, but he was also cheating with me, on his fiance. [You read that right the first time. It appears that even smart, savvy women can have the wool pulled over their eyes and, admittedly, ignore the glaring red, glowing signs.]

So it was really wonderful to read a book that gave me options, but most of all, that I found a chapter (and a marriage) I can relate to--the Companionship Marriage. I have always said that I am pragmatic about marriage, and that all in all, it is a contract you sign and submit to the government for advantages in return. That being said, I view marriage as much more about long-term commitment and an agreement that we are going to swim forward together--which may mean one may move ahead of the other at times, but ultimately, we will arrive at the same destination. I have said many times, jokingly of course (but maybe not), that I am looking for the person I hate the least. Because if I can find someone I like hanging out with as much as I like being alone, it might be worth it.

I also would absolutely, positively consider the Living Alone Together marriage. The most successful relationships I have had have been long-distance for a significant period of time. This kind of relationship works best for super busy, incredibly independent people. (I don't know anyone like that who writes for this blog.) I agree with several people interviewed for that chapter that if you aren't dealing with the day-to-day of taking the trash out, making the bed, ordering light bulbs, etc., then you can focus on the enjoyment of being together. I have found that has been very true for my life. Perhaps I can find me a nice Californian tech-magnate who can afford to fly back and forth on a weekly basis? Any takers?

All of this to say that I found the book to be more insightful than I was expecting, and I would absolutely recommend it to anyone, married or not. I appreciate that it gives the reader permission to have exactly the kind of relationship they want, whether or not that be actual marriage or some variation on a theme. Why shouldn't we be allowed to make our lives what we want?

For purchase below.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Bellweather Rhapsody: A Novel

I can't quite remember who recommended Kate Racculia's Bellweather Rhapsody to me, but I sure am glad whomever it is did. 

It's all-state time for the talented music students in the northeast. Everyone gathers at the Bellweather, an old estate hotel off the beaten path. It was once glorious and is now what we would call "shabby chic." The weekend is off to a rough start and only gets rougher when one prodigy goes missing, another is dead-set on finding her, and a witness to a murder/suicide in the hotel fifteen years prior somehow ends up tangled in the mix. It only gets better when a snowstorm traps everyone.

This book was positively lovely and I had such a deep and fun time with it. I absolutely loved the prologue, as it grabbed me immediately and made me buy in and hang around. I love an intriguing murder/suicide to kick off a book. It's true.

I particularly thought that the characters made this book what it was. Remember being a band geek? I do. I played French horn like a rock star...you know, if rock stars had French horns in their bands. Whatevs. It was so much fun to read about those yearly band geek get-togethers where everyone is the best in their school, then comes together to battle it out. Only this story was so much more. Rabbit and Alice, twins who are both selected for the honor of attending, couldn't be more different. Rabbit is shy and studious and ready to come out of the closet, while his sister is loud and dramatic and going to be a star. Alice befriends Jill, a flute prodigy, who ends up disappearing from the very same room the murder/suicide occurred in fifteen years earlier. Then the young girl who witnessed that tragedy shows up as a super messed up adult and teams up with Alice to find the truth of Jill's possible suicide/murder/kidnapping/disappearance. Sound crazy? It's way more fun than crazy.

All in all, I found the story to be twisty without being twisted, and the characters to be eccentric while still being honest. I wanted to punch Violet Fabian in the face for being so obnoxious to everyone she comes across, including her own daughter Jill, and I wanted to watch Natalie and Fisher drive off into the sunset. No idea what I'm talking about? Then go get the book, silly.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Forgetting to be Afraid: A Memoir

I find Wendy Davis to be fascinating. I watched with utter and complete fascination when she filibustered, and I was watching the Texas gubernatorial race closely. Therefore, I requested to review Forgetting to be Afraid as soon as it was available. And here we are.

You may best know Wendy Davis from that fateful day in 2013 when she filibustered the Texas congress to stop a vote on an abortion bill that would effectively outlaw the procedure in the state of Texas. Regardless of how you feel about this bill, Davis's story starts long before that day and is the story of a woman fighting to be the best she could be. From a young doomed marriage that produced her beloved oldest daughter to graduating from Harvard Law School, Davis has never stopped pushing to do what she believes in.

This was an incredibly fascinating memoir, a lot of which surprised me. Usually memoirs get bogged down in the details of life as a child, which is not something I am terribly interested in, but Davis kept those chapters short and sweet to get to the meat of the middle of the book, which was her struggle to go back to junior college and then on to a four-year university. It was the moment she realized that she could be a lawyer, not just a paralegal, that was the turning point in her life. I have an immense amount of respect for a woman who, in her mid-20's and a single mother, was willing to say to herself that she could go to school for another seven years if she put her mind to it. That's a huge commitment, and a scary one. It's that kind of grit that made her the woman she is today.

Following her second marriage to the father of her youngest daughter, Davis spends a short amount of time on the two children she lost due to genetic health issues, both of whom she and her husband wanted to desperately. Her experience in having to choose to stop the suffering of her unborn children is very moving and one that I hope to never have myself. It's a moving point in the book, and while Davis does not spend a great deal of time in those moments, they are enough to know the great effect these had on her future political career.

The book then takes us through her initial run for city council through her time in the Texas legislature, and then into her historic filibuster that moved me. Leaving aside the reasons for the filibuster as to keep politics out of this, I admire a person who is so adamant in her convictions to serve his or her constituents. It's a passion that I find missing in many areas of politics, so to turn on the live stream of that June evening, I was moved to tears to watch something so profound happening. Fighting for the rights of others, no matter what side you are on, is a right and a privilege, and having the opportunity to hear about Davis's thoughts on that day from her own perspective was worth reading the book.

 Hard copy for purchase below.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Year After Henry: A Novel

I thoroughly enjoyed Cathie Pelletier's first book, so I jumped on the opportunity to read her latest, A Year After Henry.

Henry died unexpectedly early one morning at the age of 41. He left behind a wife who was about to leave him after finding out about his affair with the local bartender; an older brother who always lived in Henry's shadow and still does, even a year after his death; a former mistress who moved on long before Henry died; a son who is struggling with who he is in the midst of all the emotional turmoil; and a small town who loved the larger-than-life man. As the one year anniversary approaches that will see a memorial service for Henry, everyone deals with grief in their own idiosyncratic ways.

Pelletier has this way of writing her characters as full manifestations of who they are. I read her books and I immediately feel as though I live in small-town New England and know all of my neighbors, all of whom just happen to be written about in this book. It's incredible, really, how deeply I feel I know the characters in her book, and that is a direct result of Pelletier's hand in the work. This being the second book of hers I have indulged in, I feel I can say with certainty that I really, really, really like her.

I have to say that I felt the most connected with Jeannie, Henry's widow in this book. I absolutely loved Henry's brother as well, but it was Jeannie that I felt was the most compelling character in this book. Her simple yet so deeply complicated relationship with her husband was enough to grab me. Jeannie found out about the affair much before Henry's death and was collecting evidence to divorce him in one fell swoop. He died right before she was planning on confronting him. She feels betrayed by his affair yet angry at Henry's seeming indifference to his health before he died. She still loves him, despite the pain and the betrayal, but she would kill him if he were alive now. She cares about Henry's family, but they drive her nuts. Trying to hold together her own immediate family is enough to drive anyone batty, but she does it. Watching Jeannie move through her own grief was beautiful.

Everything else in this novel was really pitch-perfect, and it was well worth the read. It also fit my mood as of late, which is a bit nostalgic and desirous of a simpler life. I could get that in their town. Perhaps I will move there?

Hard copy for purchase below.

Monday, November 3, 2014

We Should All Be Feminists

Just look at Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's We Should All Be Feminists. It's a title that is basically calling your name. No matter your gender.

Is "feminism" such a nasty word? Should we be afraid to call ourselves feminists? What does it actually mean to be one? It's not exclusively a club for man-hating, cargo-pant-wearing, un-patriotic women. Although they are welcome to be feminists, too. Feminism is about inclusion and being on equal footing with one another--it's about being acknowledged and respected for being a human being. So in that vein, we should all be feminists.

I loved this treatise. This was originally Adichie's TEDx talk on the very same subject, and it is well worth watching and reading. It is an impassioned plea to view feminism as a vital part of being human, and being recognized as a fellow person. One night in Nigeria, she gives a man a tip for helping her park her car. After pulling the money from her purse and handing it the man, he turns to Adichie's male companion and thanks him for the very tip Adichie handed to him. Why? Because of the assumption that her money couldn't possibly be anything other than that of the man she is with. Why didn't her male friend speak up and say that the tip wasn't from him? For reasons such as these, we should all be feminists.

My first thought when reading this was that these are things I have been hearing over and over again as of late; but then it occurred to me that Adichie’s call was aimed at her native Nigeria where the embracing of the concept of feminism is only just beginning. For as much resistance as we see in the United States, being called a feminist, at least for my generation, doesn’t have as much of a sting as it does in Adichie’s home. And to be frank--we can never hear words such as hers too often. For these reasons, we should all be…(let’s say it together!)…feminists.

For purchase below. (It's only 99 cents. It's WORTH IT.)