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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...

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Citizen: An American Lyric

I felt like today would be a good day for this book post, seeing as what is happening in Baltimore is a hot topic. I have a lot of thoughts on it, but this post is about this specific book. Thanks for stopping by!

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from this book, so I was a bit turned topsy turvey in the first few pages. I was blown away by it when I finally caught on to the narrative, and I realized quickly that it's a book all men, women, and children should pick up. This is Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric.

Racial aggressions, outright expressive or micro in leaning, are a daily part of living for many in our country. Whether it's the click of the lock on the car doors when a Black man walks by or it is the loud use of a racial epithet in a coffee shop, these aggressive actions of power toward others are defining and meaningful. Citizenship is torn down through these actions, and how they define the Black experience is the subject of this lyric.

The book opens with a series of vignettes that touch on the daily black experience, enumerating stories that we've heard but have maybe thought to be innocuous. "But you're not that kind of Black person." "I'm talking about the others." "You know, those people." Words that one thinks are mitigating the insults coming forth but instead are exacerbating the problem. Phrases that are beating down men and women who have spent their lives being beaten down. These are stories that we've heard, we've witnessed, and we have excused. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me -- how wrong that is.

I read this book right before joining my family for the spring holidays, and at a brunch I was speaking with a relative. It's fascinating to that side of my family that I live in New York; everyone has a story from a time they visited. Whether it's how they successfully avoided people begging for money on the subway (before going on a rant about "religious freedom" for Christians -- sit on that one!) or it's about the amazing experience they had buying fake purses in Chinatown. One particular relative was telling me about an experience she had on the subway.

She had bent over to tie her shoe when the train stopped and six Black men got in. She immediately became wary and her friend and her looked at each other, wondering what to do. Then one of the men said, "Do you know what time it is?" She thought to herself, "Oh, we're in trouble now!" Then the group of men started singing doo wop! How funny she thought that was! To go from thinking you are going to be attacked on crowded a NYC city subway train in the middle of the evening to enjoying an impromptu concert of mid-century pop! Hahahaha! How delightful! RACISM IS JUST SO FUNNY. 

The problem with this story is that she doesn't think she, like so many Americans, is racist at all. And there, my friends, likes the crux of Citizen. What this relative does not want to believe she is doing is exactly what is happening -- she has dehumanized black men to the point that they only serve one purpose, which is to make her so nervous when they arrive in groups of more than one that she is willing to suspend common sense to fear them.

Take some time to ask someone their story. It will sound a lot like this American lyric. 

For purchase below. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

Oh, you know me and my love of psychology. I couldn't help myself when I read about Michael S. Gazzaniga's release of his (what I'm terming) neuro-memoir, Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience. Because I'm a nerd that way. 

Dr. Gazzaniga, the father of cognitive neuroscience, tells his tale in this book. In 1960's, he begins his work on split-brain patients to figure out what happens when the two sides of the brain aren't directly connected. His findings, and his subsequent researched, changed how we understand the brain works. He enumerates his esteemed colleagues, and makes no bones about his conservative leanings and his friendship with William S. Buckley, Jr. He takes us through his journey as a scientist, and while doing this makes us all a little bit smarter and a little more human.

This book made me cry with happiness. It made me miss the research I was doing on cognition like nobody's business, and I had to take a step back and go talk to my mentor and ask to be put back on a project. Gazzaniga has a warm, loving way of storytelling, and he reminded me of why I got into what I'm doing in the first place. It's the desire to understand that which is almost impossible to understand, and making the understanding of how the brain works accessible to the masses. His style of writing is so colloquial and accessible for the general masses, and it heightens his charm to such a large degree that I can't wait to own this book in paperback and revisit it.

Gazzaniga enumerates his relationships with such luminaries in his field and out such as Skinner and Buckley, and his name dropping is so honest that it was lovely and heartfelt. He truly respects so many in his field, even those who came after his. This is all before we even get to his research, which is fascinating in and of itself. Split brain research was an opening to the field that we now understand as cognitive neuroscience, a field that I happen to love and use research from regularly. It's an understanding of the neural processes behind our thought processes, and while many would argue that it's not an exact science, anyone making strides in understanding cognition is worthy of entertaining in my book. Understanding what how our brains work -- from originally stating that our full brain is actually two distinct brains combined into one or later on discovering that neural functioning is far more complicated and intricate than such a simple explanation as two brains in one -- remains groundbreaking in the field.

Gazzaniga's memoir will remain on my shelf to serve as a reference piece when I need a refresher of brain functioning. Honestly, I will probably put my teeny tiny brain model right next to it in my future office as a reminder of the lovely, complicated world of human functioning that is, no pun intended, consistently mind blowing to me. 

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Terrorist's Son: A Story of Choice

This book was a last minute pick up at the library the other day, and how glad I am that I picked it up! This is Zak Ebrahim's The Terrorist's Son: A Story of Choice.

Zak was seven when his father was arrested for the murder of a famous and beloved rabbi in New York City. His father had grown increasingly radicalized throughout his childhood, and it culminated in his organizing the first World Trade Center attack from his prison cell in 1993. Growing up with an abusive step-father and pushed to be as radicalized as his father, Zak decided as a young man to move away from hate. It was too exhausting. 

I had only recently read about this book, so I picked it up on a whim. I finished it fairly quickly and was really blown away by the story and who Zak has become. It's not just his willingness to discard his father's identity but his willfulness in preaching the exact opposite that is so fascinating and heartwarming. His desire to remove himself from his father's line of vision and instead find ways to advocate for peace is really astounding. He is so eloquent about his feelings and his past, and it's a very good read.

I was genuinely surprised to hear his story, and the details behind the attempted murder of the rabbi and the first World Trade Center attack. Obviously the attack was something I was aware of, even as a child, but the actual firsthand story of someone behind them was a bit mind blowing. I think his ability to come forward and tell his story, even after dealing with extreme bullying as a child, is a strong characteristic and lends itself to the weightiness of the story. He lays everything on the table so that those of us who were unaware of his history could learn from it.

This is a book I would quite like to see integrated into the classroom curricula. It is in easy enough read that even middle school or's can grasp it, yet it's complicated enough to spark strong discussions.

For purchase below. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Seven Wonders: A Novel

History! Intrigue! Anthropology...? Yes! Fascinating and fun. This is Ben Mezrich's Seven Wonders.

Respected mathematician Jeremy Grady is murdered in his lab on campus one night, and in a way that leaves few wondering if it was a well-planned hit. His twin brother, renowned anthropologist Jack Grady, has a suspicion after looking at the last thing Jeremy was working on: a bright, shining pattern in the Wonders of the World, ancient and new. Serpentine, almost. Jack sets out with his team to investigate what his brother could have found, and he soon discovers an ancient, concealed connection between the wonders of the world -- and his own research -- that will change history as we know it. 

I will start out this post by saying that this book, while not being one of the best written I've ever read, was entertaining. I like to get that out of the way, because that's the general feeling I had after finishing this book. As some of you may or may not know (okay let's face it, most of you guys have no clue) I was a Classics major in undergrad. I have a special affinity for anything related to mythology, secret societies, anthropology, and, obviously, psychology. I have always loved history, so I was super interested in this book when I had an option to pick it up at BEA. I have also read some of Mezrich's work previously, so it was kind of a done deal.

This book had a really interesting premise, with the seven wonders and an historical connection to an ancient secret society. It was really interesting to follow Jack through the story, knowing that the and would be only slightly predictable but still terribly interesting. I particularly loved the scenes that took our characters to the modern seven wonders of the world, and I appreciate Mezrich's focus on detail in these places. Also let his imagination when it came to having to dig deep in these places, locations where people may have never been and where they just may still be rumors. There was a love story too, but I was more interested in the woman's academic credentials than I was in her beauty or sexual attraction.

Overall, I was entertained and had fun with this book. It was good for a snowy weekend in this winter, and I was able to get lost in the history for a bit.

For purchase below.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Stillwell: A Haunting on Long Island

Believe it or not, even as a New Yorker, I have only been to Long Island once and it was for a wedding so I don't remember much other than a really long drive. So while on vacation this summer I picked up Michael Phillip Cash's Stillwell: A Haunting on Long Island to get in the visit-mood.

Dealing with his wife's death has been life-changing, and almost impossible for Paul. They have been together since they were children, married young, and had three of their own. Paul knows, though, that he has to get back to work ASAP as a realtor--and an old friend's house, Stillwell Manor, may be the answer to his prayers. The only problem is it may be haunted, and the haunting somehow involves his wife who has yet to cross over to the other side, spiritually speaking.

This was a fun book for beach reading. It was short enough that I could finish it in one setting and not so heavy that I couldn't enjoy it while staring at the ocean--my definition of a great beach read. I found the character development to be strong in this book, particularly that of Paul and his journey through denial to becoming a (partial) believer. He starts out as completely feeling like he's going crazy, because what sane person really believes in ghosts? By the time you get to the end of this book, you may very well also. Some things are just unexplainable.

The story was engaging as well. I loved the scenes of Paul with his three young children, trying to deal with life after the loss of his partner and the mother of his children. It wasn't just his loss, but also that of a mother to her children. The house coordinator and maker of dinner, the soother and the to-bed-putter and the homework-supervisor. Learning to live life without your better half is more than just the aching pain of loss; it's also a complete loss of life structure. These were the strongest scenes in the book in my opinion. They felt raw and honest, and it was how I preferred to the character of Paul.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Girl on the Train: A Novel

Murder and mayhem, that's my jam. When I found out my beloved book club was reading Paula Hawkins's The Girl on the Train I almost wept with joy. I had been hearing the buzz and couldn't wait to read it. Was it worth it? Continue reading...

Rachel is a bit down and out. She's an alcoholic that is still reeling from her divorce from Tom after his affair with Anna, to whom he is now married with a child. She's lost her job due to a drunken mishap, but she still takes the 8:04 into London every day. The train pauses at a signal near Whitney, which happens to provide a view of her former backyard as well as that of the neighbors. Rachel falls in love with one couple whom she gives names and envisions a perfect life for. When the wife of that couple goes missing, it becomes national news -- and it turns out Rachel was in the neighborhood that night. She can't remember anything though. Why was she there? What happened that night? Why are there more questions than answers in these lives to intertwined yet so disparate? 

Where do I even begin to start to describe this book? It was fantastic, it was amazing, I didn't want to put it down. Which of these exclamations do you prefer? I seriously love this book, and not just because it was a book club pick and I was able to hear the author discuss the work. It was genuinely creepy and honest and empathetic at the same time. I know this book has gotten a lot of traction since the new year, and it's well deserved. In fact, I found that I spilled wine on it before I even started, and it was only after I finished the book that I realized how appropriate it was that I spilled wine on this specific book. I even told Hawkins that and it made her laugh. WIN!

The narrator is an alcoholic. That's the premise of this book, so it's really not giving anything away. After several rounds of her going to London in the morning and hold the night you start to realize the truth of who she is. She clearly drinks too much, but it turns out she is a dyed in the wool alcoholic. This underscores a lot of her crazy decisions, but it also makes her behavior difficult at times to understand yet so easy to relate to. It's almost as though she's living a life and making decisions that I would never do in a million years only because I'm too afraid of the consequences. The alcohol numbs that fear, and allows her to take the story into the deepest, darkest places you could ever imagine.

When I was able to hear the author discuss her work, and answer questions that are bookclub about Rachel and the story, I didn't have much to ask. Not because I couldn't come up with any questions, but listening to the author talk about her work and where she was in it and how it came about was so fascinating. She's clearly a brilliant woman, and listening to her was such a gift.

I love crime, and I love true crime, but what I love most is a well-developed story that grips my head and won't shake free. The story was exactly that. It was well-crafted, thoroughly believable, extremely out there, yet based in reality. I am so thankful that I ended up purchasing this to hold onto it so that I can reread it again in a few months. I have a feeling it's one of the stories I'm going to catch more the second time around I didn't catch the first. I'll little bit like re-watching The Sixth Sense.

For purchase below. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Walls Around Us: A Novel

I wanted a ghost story of sorts that involved crime, so I picked up Nova Ren Suma's The Walls Around Us this week and I got what I asked for. 

Amber and Violet could not be more different. Amber is locked up in juvenile state prison; Violet is off to Julliard to dance. They are both bound by what happened at the state prison when 42 young girls died. Orianna, their connection, was Violet's best friend and an inmate of the prison. What happened the night all the girls died? Sometimes, when no one wants you to know the truth, it comes out against everyone's best wishes.

This book was incredibly interesting, and much more so that I had originally expected. It took me a hot second to determine that it was switching perspectives, and at first I thought that Ori and Violet were sisters. I liked that I had to keep moving forward to move backward to find out the truth. We know from the outset that Ori wasn't guilty and was covering something up for Violet, but as we move through the story and find out more and more about the awful truth, we begin to suspect that we are not being told everything. Violet is a reliable narrator, but she is also a bit of a sociopath. Not a full-scale one, but definitely with sociopathic tendencies. Ori is a character that I grew to love without ever really knowing her; we know her only through Violet's eyes. How sad that her life was lost so young. And in such a cruel, painful way.

Amber was also an interesting one. Her story was fascinating and a great compliment to that of Ori and Violet's. Amber was a frank character while still being incredibly cagey, and she was compelling in that sense. I loved the story, and the characters were what drove it. Fictional murder can be a tricky subject as it can quickly become campy and overwrought, and I felt Suma did a great job crafting a narrative that made sense while still being juicy and lovely to sink my teeth into. This was fantastic commute reading, and I found myself wanting to get back into the story when I picked my Kindle back up. Recommended? Why, yes. It is. 

For purchase below. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

I've Got You Under My Skin: A Novel

My apologies, friends. I have gotten way off the rails in my posts. I have been travelling a good deal, mostly for fun, some for school, and I am exhausted. Just getting to a computer to schedule posts has been hard. I promise, though, that the worst is over. Well, not really. I have a draft of my pilot dissertation due a week from tomorrow and no time really to write it. I will not, however, forget about you, dear readers. Let's start with one of my childhood heroes. 

You all know MHC is my book candy. Soooooo... at Book Expo last year I finagled a ticket to an autographed signing of her latest (since not her latest anymore, but whatevs), I've Got You Under My Skin. You can see the picture my new friend Nancy shot for me in line. I met Nancy in line, and I'm so glad I did! We have kept in touch and she is a fantastic person. Thanks, Nancy!

Back to the book.

Laurie Moran is a hotshot reality TV producer with a handsome physician husband and lovely young child. Her perfect life is ripped apart when, one afternoon, her husband is shot point blank while having taken his son to the park up the street. "Blue Eyes," as the young boy calls him, announces that Laurie will be next, and her son after that. Years later, Laurie is working on a new reality show that examines real-life murders by interviewing the cast of characters involved. The more she gets into the pilot, however, the more uneasy she becomes that this will all connect back to that horrible threat years before.

Oh, how I love MHC and the formulaic stories. There is something so easy about reading the books, in a way that makes me love picking up her latest release. I can jump in and know exactly what I'm getting, and sometimes I really like that confidence. I get the same from reading Ann Rule. 

So needless to say, I enjoyed this book. I was able to curl up on the couch with my cat and some tea and just dive in. I really enjoyed the reality show pretense, and of course I love any and all crime, so the initial crime and the crime behind the reality show Laurie is producing were both really interesting. One thing I wish is (spoiler alert!!!) the killer had more of a connection to his victims. It felt a little cast-off at the end and a bit too expected. But, on a more positive note, this book had its romance and its intrigue and its plot and it was delightful.

It was such a giddy moment to meet MHC, as she is (along with R.L. Stine and Ann M. Martin) a staple of my childhood. Her books were what drew me to my love of crime, and I am forever grateful for her work.

For purchase below.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Visiting Hours: A Memoir of Friendship and Murder

What drives someone -- a nice, normal-seeming someone -- to a brutal and unfathomable murder? Especially when he is someone you know well? This is Visiting Hours: A Memoir of Friendship and Murder by Amy Butcher. 

One spring night about a month before graduation, Kevin walks Amy home from the bar. She happily drifts off to sleep, dreaming of her new job offer, while Kevin goes home just up the block and murders his girlfriend, stabbing her 27 times. What drives someone to murder? If your friend did this kind of heinous act just hours after leaving you, would you blame yourself? Worry for your own safety? Wish you had done something differently? In this candid memoir, Amy Butcher explores the aftermath of the crime affecting those left behind -- those not directly involved, but those forever affected by the actions of one young man. 

My feelings on this book wavered back and forth throughout the reading. I obviously picked this book up because I am fascinated by true crime, and the psychological underpinnings of someone being present right before the crime was committed was a fascinating prospect for me. I was very much looking forward to the personal account of Butcher, but I wasn't entirely prepared for what at times came across as a self-focused piece. I am not under any circumstances minimizing what she went through, as I can't even imagine how this would begin to affect me. I am a highly empathetic person and often carry the weight of the world on my shoulders, and so I fear that a similar situation would break me. In a way, it broke Butcher and those in her circle. I appreciate her openness in writing this book, and talking about how it affected her as a bystander. We all know that this kind of incident affected the family of Emily as well as Kevin and his family. But what about those on the sidelines? What about those who continuously wonder, "What if?" What if I had reached out that night? What if I had reached out more? What if I had just said something differently? What if? I can imagine that these feelings are somewhat akin to what the survivors of suicide ask themselves. I can understand this – I've been there. Only this time, it's far more brutal in scope.

I really appreciated Butchers exploration of her feelings, but I also wanted to know more about Kevin. I understand that he was just coming off of antidepressants, but I want to know more of his side of the story. Granted, after reading this book, I realize that's not the purpose of it. This was about her communication with him after his incarceration when no one else was there. She was the only one of his friends to keep in touch with him, and really only one of the few besides his immediate family. I wanted them to talk about everything, not just the surface level things that were keeping them both busy in their respective lives. I wanted Amy to be honest with him about her macabre sense of duty, and I wanted Kevin to be honest with her about their final in-person encounter. Alas, this is only briefly touched on at the end before we find out whether or not their relationship will actually continue into the future.

I would like to see the story revisited in 10 or 15 years, after Kevin has served more time and Amy has more of her adult life under her belt. I want to know how she continues to deal with her PTSD, and I want to know whether or not Kevin decides that be honest with his friends is more important then feeling ashamed. I guess we'll just need to wait and see won't we?

For purchase below. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Guest Blogger Charlotte: Close to Destiny

Hi there!

Close to Destiny by Adria Cimino was a breath of fresh air. Most YA authors spend countless hours subtly weaving PSA-style messages into their novel. I’m a sucker for a good story, but I also totally get that I shouldn’t do drugs, have sex or worship Satan without having it subliminally shouted from the rafters in most of the YA books I read.

I really do. It’s getting ridiculous at this point. I’m halfway expecting the back cover of the next book I read to have a cigarette-pack-style warning shouting against whatever cause the author has decided to take up. I wish more writers would start to come around to the idea that having a moral to your story doesn’t necessarily make it better… and in lots of cases it takes away from what would otherwise be an enjoyable read.

So, for me, that’s exactly why Close to Destiny was such an enjoyable read. The author left the parenting to my parents and lesson teaching to my school (where I spend way too much time). She does this while at the same time addressing serious topics that I hear about or in some way face on a daily basis. She gracefully presents the story without judging or taking a position one-way or the other.  It’s a novel with some romance, mysticisms and a great story that doesn’t feel like it was assigned for summer reading because it will make me realize that suicide is bad (I’m looking at you, I Was Here).

The book opens as Kat, the main character, is attempting suicide. She’s unsuccessful. The scene is graphic and it’s immediately clear how desperate her situation is. However, what’s not clear is exactly why all this is happening. While she does have a strained relationship with her mother and boyfriend, it’s obvious that there is a lot more to the story.

At the suggestion of her psychiatrist, Dr. Bell, Kat begins painting her feelings on canvas as part of her recovery. When Dr. Bell’s friend, Gwen, notices Kat’s artwork, Kat is invited to London to take part in an exhibit. With nothing making sense at home in New York City, Kat reluctantly accepts the invitation and flies to London to take part in the exhibit.

This is where things start to get weird, like Ghostbusters weird. A naked woman named Destiny visits Kat in the night and whisks her away to a party at the top of her hotel. The party is glamorous and the champagne is flowing yet no one seems to notice that Kat is in her nightgown. As the champagne and laughter go on into the night, Kat is left only with more questions, and, when she wakes up the next morning, she’s not sure whether the experience was a dream or reality.

At first it’s hard to tell where Adria Cimino is going with this. I found myself dreading the moment when the author would take that inevitable turn towards an underlying message, but, thankfully, that turn never happened. In this sense, the story stays pure, which shines a light on seamless transitions between fantasy and reality. Adria told the story without passing judgment on her characters, which is not easy to do.

The story ends after a maze of mystery, a centuries old love affair, and back and forth trips across the pond. The plot connects beautifully in unexpected ways, and was an easy read. I’m now a fan of magical realism and Adria Cimino, and, even though I wish it had lasted longer, I’m glad it ended where it did.


~ Charlotte —Book Chameleon 

For purchase below.