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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud

I read a blurb about Elizabeth Greenwood's Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud in Entertainment Weekly, and I'm always looking for offbeat and interesting works of non-fiction, so I checked this out from the library recently.

Faking your own death is a fascinating way of going about escaping your life -- if that's what you're interested in. In this nonfiction piece, Greenwood looks at the art of death fraud from several different perspectives, including those who commit it, those who have been found out, and those who have been affected by it. How would one go about committing death fraud? Who are the types of people who get caught? What is it like to be the child of someone who faked their death? What is the best way to go about doing this? Greenwood's fascinatios starts from the frustration with debt, specifically student loans, but ends having done a full-scale examination of this process that is both fascinating and surprisingly not entirely illegal. If you do it right.

I can't remember what attracted me to this book at first, but I'm so glad I ended up picking it up. It was a truly fascinating look at something that I had never considered. Faking my own death? No thanks, I like my life too much. However, I can understand Greenwood's point in her over-reliance upon loaned money to be able to get herself ahead. She also points out in her first chapter that a lot of those guilty of committing this type of fraud end up doing it to escape jail sentences, most often for the mishandling of other people's money. Which begs the question of, why did you bother to commit financial fraud if you just gonna end up faking your own death? She also points out from her research that faking one's own death in and of itself is not illegal, as long as you're not trying to cheat the insurance companies or commit other types of financial fraud. She speaks with a few experts in disappearing and comes to the conclusion that if you want to disappear, you can do it – there's really no need to set up an elaborate scheme of pretending that you have died.

Greenwood tells the stories of a few of these people who have committed fraud, and many who got away with it for some time. Often how they get caught are simple, small things – you have a broken taillight but you don't have a new piece of ID or that identification is not real enough. Sometimes you ask for too much money in your insurance policy. A lot of times, however, many people just turn themselves in so as to not live with the guilt. It's all terribly interesting. However, the chapter that looked at the children of those who have faked their own death was particularly sad. One of the stories Greenwood tells is about a young man of 8 years old whose father told him about his plot. The child had to pretend that he didn't know the truth with his mother and his sister, and he had to keep that secret until his father was caught not long after. Another young man who was in his late teens helped his father with the death-faking. Yet another \woman found out in her 40's that her father had faked his death when she was a child. That was heartbreaking – the damage that was wrought upon this woman, thinking her whole life that her father was dead -- only to find out that he was alive up until a year before she discovered the truth.

Ultimately what Greenwood discovers is that it's not worth faking your own death to get out of whatever pickle you were in. You have to leave behind everything that you love, because if you don't, that will be sure to undo you. You have to walk away from your entire life, people and things and money and your favorite pizza place. Every single thing. Through writing this book, she discovered that, no matter how hard things are financially, it's not worth NOT living your life to escape financial hardship.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa



The movie "True Story" had been in my queue for a while, so I watched it one lazy night a few months ago. The movie was just okay, but as fans of this blog know, I am madly in love with true crime. So I did some digging, read some articles about the case, then decided to check out the work of Michael Finkel himself, True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa.

Christian Longo murdered his wife and three children. He was not only found guilty, but he ultimately admitted to the murders, was sentenced to death, and then was put to death of years ago. The crime itself is disgusting and painful, but what follows is terribly fascinating. After he goes on the run, he assumed the name Michael Finkel while in Mexico, claiming to be the disgraced New York Times journalist. When Finkel finds out about this, he contacts Longo and forms a friendship that spans from immediately after the man's arrest and through his trial. In a way, each man uses the other; Longo for someone to tell his story and Finkel for a way out of his man-made hole into personal and professional redemption. What results is an inter-dependent relationship where each man bares his soul to the other, although one is far from honest with the other.

This book pleasantly surprised me. I picked it up thinking that it was going to basically just be a masturbatory project for Finkel. I was worried it was going to be a self aggrandizement for the disgraced journalist, laying out his woes and finding a way to be redeemed in his career. Surprisingly, I found this to be an incredibly compelling story that didn't necessarily focus on giving Longo the fame he didn't deserve for slaughter and his family, but told a story about a man who is a full-scale narcissist and absolutely off his rocker. I found that I couldn't put this book down because it was so captivating and interesting. I found it to be a treatise on what happens when you get into deep. Finkel was grasping onto straws for anyone who would be outside of his world, and Longo fit the bill. It's just that Longo himself was a liar.

It's easy to be swept up by non-truths when that is what we want to hear and to believe. I believe that Finkel wanted to believe that Longo could potentially be not be guilty, and even though I was reading this book after the man was put to death, it's clear from an outside perspective that he was a liar at best and dangerous at worst. Hearing his version of his family's financial woes was interesting in that it's clear the woes were Christian's fault. While in his telling, it's a series of unfortunate events that happened to him rather than because of him. Since one of the things I happened to study is attribution theory, which is a model for how we attribute outcomes happening either to us or because of us, I was able to pinpoint him very easily. If you are interested in a an intimate and intricate study of how a man's twisted mind works, this is your book. I also appreciated Finkel's personal commentary, and his self examination of his own thoughts on Christian and his work throughout the process of these interviews. He has clearly spent a lot of time examining his own thoughts and biases, which makes for a worthy read.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Go Ask Alice

I have never read the infamous Go Ask Alice, even though it has obviously been on my radar my whole life. I mean, who hasn't heard of this supposedly-true anonymously written supposed-memoir? I decided to read it one day that I had a lot of commuting to do.

In short, a young girl turns 15, starts keeping a diary, tries drugs for the first time and becomes a fiend. I think the first time she tries anything she drops acid. She thinks it's amazing, and she ends up addicted to everything in the book. She loses her virginity on LSD (if I remember correctly) and it was just the absolute best experience and she isn't sure if sex not on drugs will ever be just as good. She ends up a homeless runaway twice, the first time becoming a successful business owner in San Francisco. (Yes, she is still 15.) She ends up getting put away in a mental hospital and dying soon after the book ends.


If your head is spinning from that "true story," you are not alone, my friends.

This is, inarguabley, the most absurd book I have ever read. You can't seriously buy into the idea that I would actually believe this was the real diary of a young girl, right? This was clearly written by an adult who thinks that she understands how a teenager writes. (Spoiler alerts: she doesn't.) If I want to read something overwrought and completely unrealistic, I would read romance novels. Also, the events are absurd. One day she tries LSD and then she wants to try everything under the sun? She never wavers, feels bad, or questions her choices? She looses her virginity on drugs and says it was the most amazing, wonderful, fireworks-filled experience of her life? Gag me, please.

The most absurd of them all, though, is in the middle of the book when, in the course of four weeks, she gets kissed by her childhood crush, then meets a man who has her try hash which is now totally her thing, she starts selling all kinds of hard drugs for this man and plans to set up a drug shop to support him through medical school, sells acid to middle school kids, then walks in on him having sex with his male roommate and then runs away to San Francisco. YOU HAVE TO BE KIDDING ME. WHAT IS THIS NONSENSE?!?

The most insulting part of this book is the supposed rape that occurs. It's apparently brutal and premeditated, but then nothing else is spoken about it. What I find insulting about this is that it has nothing to do with actual, long-term consequences of dealing with the aftermath of a sexual assault. The end of the section is that she will never ever see those horrible people again. Really? No PTSD? No flashbacks? No panic attacks? No dealing with the issues. It's disgusting.

Would I recommend this book? Only if you want to read something completely and utterly absurd. 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Obedience to Authority: The Experiment That Challenged Human Nature

This semester I was aiming to read one work book (or 5 journal articles) per week to stay on top of my field. I didn't quite succeed the way I hoped, but I still read a great deal. (See Blackballed, Savage Inequalities, and The Prize.) This is a classic that I should have read years ago: Stanley Milgram's Obedience to Authority.

In the 1950's, a young psychologist has a difficult time wrapping his head around how a large group of people, namely the Nazis, could carry out such heinous orders that involve the death of over 6 million people. Were they horrible people who secretly harbored sadistic tendencies, or was there a greater force at work, namely, obedience to authority? Dr. Stanley Milgram set out to find an answer by creating one of the most famous experiments in the history of psychology.

Two participants are brought into a room, but one is actually working for the experiment (we call this a confederate). They are assigned roles of teacher and learner, the teacher reading a list of vocabulary words that the learner has to memorize. The subject always "picks" the role of teacher. Every time the learner is quizzed and gets a question wrong, he must be shocked by the teacher at progressively higher voltages. As the learner continues to get more wrong, the shocks go up the scale until they reach a maximum of 450 V. How many people will insist on stopping the experiment? How many people will go to the end simply because they are told to? You might be surprised.

Several years back I had a conversation with one of my roommates about this experiment. She swore up-and-down that she would have never got all the way to the end, but I seriously doubt that she's correct about her own estimation. Most people would say they would never go to the end – most people would say they are "good people." However, based on the law of averages, she most likely would have. In fact, knowing her as well as I did, she absolutely would have listened  to and obeyed authority and gone all the way to the end. We all want to think that were special and unique, but the reality is that were are all average. We are all the kind of people would probably go to the end.

This is one of the top 10 most well-known psychological experiments that has ever been conducted. Sure, there were methodological flaws (which every experiment has), but this book lays out not just the initial experiment but the dozens that followed the original. We also know that long after Milgram finished his series, this experiment has been replicated again and again. However, just the replications in this book are astounding. The variations on the relationship between the participants in the experimenter are fascinating, from whether or not you should wear a lab coat, to the location of the experiments, to the proximity of the learner, to more than one experimenter, The results are fascinating. Very few people quit early, and a decent amount go until the end. However, based on the factors altered, the numbers change.

Ultimately Milgram finds that self-proclaimed good people will easily obey authority with and without question. The end of the book breaks down the process of how large scale organizations break down individual members in order to get them to follow authority. I read it completely astounded, only because it made such complete sense that I couldn't believe it. The stripping of the individual's autonomy, The putting in place of authority figures, and the structures in place to get The little guy to listen to those in charge is something that rings true even to this day. It's historically accurate, and contemporary at the same time. This book will never go out of style because it is as appropriate today in 2016 as it was in 1962. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Painted House: A Novel

Another beach, another John Grisham novel. It's an addiction. This summer, it was A Painted House.

One summer, a young boy's life comes to a head before it changes for good. Luke, the young man at the heart of the story, is 7years old and has grown up in his small, Southern town his whole life. His father is a cotton farmer, and every year they must hire the hill people to help them with the harvest. It's never enough – and, inevitably, the floods wipe out the entirety of the remaining crop. This year though, a particularly violent man is a part of the hired help, and with the harvest season the town is forever changed. A beautiful young woman disappears, and a young man lies beaten to death. In addition, someone is mysteriously painting Luke's grandparent's house, which is more significant than most people realize. What is the cause of all of these events?

This was an interesting departure for Grisham, and I enjoyed it immensely. Maybe not in the page-turning sense, but in a way that was easy to sink into, like a big comfy chair that smells like your grandma's house. There was certainly an air of mystery, and there was definitely a sense of injury, but overall it was a well-crafted narrative of a boy's coming of age. I love the whole metaphor of watching the house be painted, and how it never really finished in the course of the out-of-towners being there. I also love the relationship between Luke and his elders. The older I get, the more I am able to relate to the characters are in their adulthood phase and who are struggling to be just that. The protagonist's relationship with his parents was lovely and moving, and his relationship with his grandparents was one that I loved as well as envied. I didn't particularly grow up around my grandparents, so I find it interesting to read stories of those who did. Is that what it would've been like? I don't know, but I am grateful to have the reading to be able to see for myself what the fictional view would be.

I left this book with my cousin because I thought that she could join me in loving this book. As I said earlier, because it's a departure from Grisham's usual thriller fair, it's one that I could recommend to quite a few people. It was a wonderful vacation read, and I'm glad I picked this one up.

Friday, November 25, 2016

A Flag for the Flying Dragon: A Captain No Beard Story

Captain No Beard is back! I have a bunch of Carole P. Roman books that are waiting to be reviewed -- she has a fantastic new series out -- but in the meantime, our favorite high-seas bandit is back with his crew in A Flag for the Flying Dragon: A Captain No Beard Story.

Cayla, Captain No Beard's little sister whom we met a few books ago, is now grown up and doesn't need her burp cloths anymore, so she's using them to improve the ship. Their younger brother, though, Zachary, is still a baby. Babies, as we know, are just so much trouble. No one can find a job on the ship for Zachary that he doesn't ruin. No one wants to hurt Zach's feelings, but no one wants him to help, either. No Beard comes up with a plan -- he chooses a flag for the ship, and asks his baby brother to guard it. The flag isn't exactly what No Beard was picturing for an official ship representation, but sometimes we have to compromise to include those we love. 

As usual, I was smitten with this book. More than usual though, I really feel that this is one of the best No Beard books I have read. Roman does a great job of whittling down the story to its essence. It's shorter than most of the other No Beard books, and it gets right to the meat of the issue. I like the short and sweet nature of this story, and I love the addition of a new sibling for the Captain. Now that one sister is old enough to join in productively, he has to deal with a little brother. Some of the same issues, but this time around No Beard is growing up and working with his family instead of against them. It's lovely to see the series progress in this way, and to see No Beard sticking up for his brother. The choice of ship flag was not exactly the one that he wanted, but he knows and understands that sometimes you have to sacrifice the details for the bigger picture. This was a lovely story, and I'm so happy to add it to my No Beard collection. 

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Do I Have to Say Hello? Aunt Delia's Manners Quiz

I picked up Delia Ephron and Edward Koren's Do I Have to Say Hello? Aunt Delia's Manners Quiz more than a year ago, at BEA 2015, and as we all know I got a little distracted by my (lack of) dissertation. (It's going much better, by the way!) I thought it would be a perfect fit for a Thanksgiving Day review here on Sassy Peach. I will be slaving away in the kitchen for my friends while you sit back and enjoy this post.

How do you eat certain foods at the dinner table? What is the proper response to a letter from a distant family member? Appropriate school behavior -- what is it? If you need to throw up in a moving vehicle, how should you politely ask the driver to pull over? Every question you could imagine that a young person wouldn't ask but needs to know is contained in this book. Fashioned as a question-and-answer process, Ephron covers everything you can imagine in this book and has it properly, and humorously, illustrated by Koren.

You might hear an older generation holler about the kids these days having no manners, but the reality is that manners, and morals, for that matter, are generational. Manners are seen as a moral issue, and I have heard many in the greatest generation yell and yell about the lack of respect and manners in young people. Hell, I've even heard my older graduate students wax on about this. Now, doing what I do for a living, I don't believe this to be true. Not only do the idea of what is proper and what is not changes over the years, but we also know that these things take time to learn. They aren't inherent, and not all children are rude. (Sure, some are.) You must learn how to behave in certain situations -- no one "just knows."

A form of this book was originally published in 1989, and honestly, it shows. I loved reading this book because it's of my generation -- it's something my dad's mom would have absolutely given to me as a child. She once sat me down in her living room with my aunt to tell me how rude I was, because obviously that was her job. I can't remember my response, but I think when she asked me if I was this rude at my other grandmother's house, I replied no. She asked why, and I said because I liked my other grandma. As you can see, she would have purchased me this book without taking a step back to realize that maybe, just maybe, the six-year-old me just didn't like being treated as though I had no thoughts, feelings, or autonomy. My behavior was in reaction to, and modeled by, the people I was with. Think on that.

So this book cracked me up, only because it felt as though it harked back to my childhood. It's not a book I would purchase as a gift for my friends' children, because the times, they are a-changin'. I have a much different view toward the development of children (because, you know, it's what I do). They are to be seen and heard, as opposed to my grandmother's desire for me to be a "good little girl" and be prim and proper and marry young because how on earth do I support myself as a woman in this world? I would, however, purchase this book for my friends so that we could sit back and talk about our childhoods. The ones that were good but that we want to modify for our own kids. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Water Dragons: Too Heavy to Fly

Dragons are interesting, no? I've never had the biggest fascination, but I love children's books, and I was attracted to this book by the lovely cover and the hope of a sweet story with a strong message. This is Ruth Ellen Parlour's The Water Dragons: Too Heavy to Fly.

Silver and Pearl are dragon siblings, and one day while they are out playing, they spot a bird in the sky. Not knowing what it is or how it works, Silver decides that he also wants to fly. Pearl sets him up with wings on his front legs and he climbs a tree to set off. Only when he is up there does he realize his mistake. His mother comes to save him, and together they realize that ground animals should stay on the ground and that the flying can be left to the air animals. 

This was a lovely, short and sweet book that had a great message -- everything I was hoping for when I picked it up. I loved the idea of the dragon siblings and the desire to go out on a limb (pun intended) and try something new. There is something to be said for the risk taking based on observations, and I appreciate that Parlour explored this in a creative and adorable way. One issue I had was with the illustrations; some appeared to be computer graphics and others appeared to be clip-arty, and I was bothered by the inconsistency. However, the story was sweet, the dragons were positively sweet and cute, and I loved the moral of the story. 

That's a win in my book!

(Get it?!? My book?!? Tee hee hee...)

Monday, November 21, 2016

Ada Twist, Scientist

You may remember a few months ago when I posted on finding the Andrea Beaty and David Roberts' series of students who achieve in STEM fields. Originally I had seen the cover of this book on the side of Abrams' booth at BEA and turned myself right around to speak with them. I pre-ordered Ada Twist, Scientist (I do that so rarely!), and it was everything I was hoping for. I couldn't think of a better book to kick off this holiday season's Children's Book Week here on the blog.

Baby Ada was a quiet creature as a baby, until age three when she said her first word: "Why?" She then started asking who-what-when-where-why-how questions and didn't stop, driving her parents absolutely nuts. Even in school she drove her teacher, Ms. Greer, bonkers. One day Ada decides to figure out where a smell in her house is coming from, so she experiments. First she tries the cabbage soup, and it's not that. Then she tries the cat. Nope, not that either. Her parents stop her as she is about to wash the cat (all in the name of science, of course!), and they put her in the thinking chair. Ada does, indeed, think long and hard -- all over the walls. Her parents realize what a gift this is, and Ada spends her days experimenting away.

I just can't even believe how amazing this book is. The whole series, really, but particularly this one. The search for books with diverse protagonists continues, and this one, with a young girl of color as a scientist, just warms my heart like you wouldn't believe. She is inquisitive and authentic, lovely and sharp. She chooses to speak very deliberately when she has something to ask. Ada spends her early days taking in the world, and when she has something to say, only then does she say it. I can't express how amazing it is to see this reflected in children's literature in such a mature and straightforward manner. Beaty doesn't have to beat the point with a stick; it's just a part of who the character is. She is smart and curious and that is just simply who she is. It's amazing and inspiring to read.

This book just tickled my fancy.

I love the entire series, and I can't wait until the next one comes out!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Ghosts: A Graphic Novel

I have mentioned before, and I will continue to mention, the need for children's and young adult books with protagonists of color. At BEA this year, I picked up Raina Telgemeier's Ghosts with the hope that I would enjoy it as much as I was hoping I would.

Catrina and her family are moving to Northern California where the weather is gloomy and everyone is obsessed with ghosts. Her sister, Maya, has cystic fibrosis and it's a better climate for her. Catrina is upset and is slow to make friends -- everyone in this town is crazy about All Souls Day when souls return to find their loved ones. Maya buys in immediately, and can't wait to welcome their grandmother back. Catrina agrees to go out with her friends that night and is wonderfully shocked to find that she is part of something bigger than herself.

This was an absolutely charming book. I was so wonderfully, pleasantly surprised by how moving the story was. Cat loves her sister, and Maya adores Cat. When Maya becomes direly ill and Cat blames herself, the connection between the two is so powerful yet so personal, as it's easy to relate to two sisters who love each other yet want their space. The guilt is also a familiar feeling; Cat feels guilty about Maya's illness even thought it's not her fault. This book is perfect for young adult audiences and grown ups alike.

The return of the spirits to the town is amazing to read. First of all, the graphics are outstanding, but it's really the story that got me. How Cat is able to let herself go and enjoy herself in the moment when the spirits come to visit is fun and it is touching. She is able to realize what a gift it is to be in the middle of something so big and so light, and it was amazing to watch her journey as a character end in this moment. This is a perfect book, and it was a pleasure and an honor to be able to pick it up.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

MLK, Jr.'s Why We Can't Wait

While reading Jonathan Kozol's **Savage Inequalities**, it quoted from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Why We Can't Wait. I realize that I had never read Martin Luther King Jr.'s, "Letter From a Birmingham Jail." Shame on me. I ordered a beat up paper back of his larger book, and I settled in one day to catch up on some long-missed copy.

This treaties contains several pieces of writing by Martin Luther King Jr. surrounding the events of Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. He lays out his rationale for why Birmingham, why now, and his writings follow us through the events of the sit-ins at Woolworth counters and boycotts of stores during the Easter season of that year. He discusses the planning stages, the performance stages, and just hopes for what will ultimately come out of these actions. It's a defining piece of writing that encompasses the story the children of all generations know.

Historically speaking, this book was absolutely fascinating and I found myself with my pen in my hands repeatedly underlining and nodding along with his work. He makes some very valid arguments as to why the civil rights movement could not have move slowly. When you have lived under a system of oppression for decades, millennia, how do you wait just a little bit longer for justice? The answer is that you don't. We know that Martin Luther King Junior was arrested with the protesters, but reading about his choice to be arrested was particularly interesting. Sometimes I felt his narrative was a little self-serving, but, if you are MLK, I guess it can be. After he was arrested, he writes a letter from Birmingham jail. It was far more moving than I ever could have imagined. He lays out the argument for desegregation from a moral perspective and his writing could make any more sense if he rewrote it today. I felt while reading this narrative but the more things change, the more they stay the same. He could have written this letter in 2016 and not 1963. It's been 50 years, and what have we learned? Not a whole lot it seems.

I find the argument that many who are anti-Black Lives Matter protests use, which is that MLK, Jr. wouldn't approve of the protests because he was a "peaceful guy" to be simply absurd. I just simply reply, "Well, clearly, you have never read his writing." He was a proponent of civil disobedience which, I would like to point out, is far from peaceful. He was a protester as much as he was a preacher. That comes through in this work -- in his very own words. 

I also particularly enjoyed his argument about using protest and civil disobedience to spark change in the government, since we know that the change in the hearts of the majority population didn't necessarily happen, nor has it really, even to this day. You can see it if you just turn on the news. He says that you may view protest as wrong, and breaking the law particularly in light of not having a permit is just as bad as segregation, but it's not. It's a moral issue, one that must be addressed swiftly and a sharply. I'm happy that I picked up this book when I did, and it will stay on my shelf for me to constantly refer back to. While I don't consider myself a Christian, and that's a discussion for another time, I do very much relate to his argument that it desegregation is a Christian issue. Wouldn't we say that it still is today? You wouldn't know based on our current political climate. My, my, how the more things change, the more they stay the same…

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Fortress: A Love Story

The Fortress: A Love Story by Danielle Trussoni called out to me, but I can't remember from where. I think from a book review somewhere. I am so glad that I had the wherewithal to get this book from the library because it was incredible.

Danielle is a young woman who has lost her marriage, with a young son and working on an MFA when she meets Nikolai, a Bulgarian national who is getting his degree at the same university on a visa. Love hits hard and fast and dangerously. Suddenly Nikolai's visa is up, and they decide to return to Bulgaria while he clears up the matter. They find out that this return requires a two-year stay there, and at the same time, they find out that they are pregnant. They marry, they stay, then they move back to the states. The marriage crumbles from the beginning as Danielle ignores the warning signs. A last ditch effort has her moving her family to the south of France to an ancient home to repair what has been cracking for years. There her marriage slowly disintegrates as she realizes her husband has issues that she can't resolve.

Trussoni is one compelling writer, and I am so glad I picked up this book on a day when I had a lot of commuting to do. I read it in one day. I couldn't put it down, and I couldn't wait to pick it back up again when I had to step away from it momentarily. It's one hell of a book. 

Nikolai is a narcissist. Trussoni never says this, but based upon her descriptions of what happened in their marriage, this isn't a far leap to name the issue. You might say he's crazy, and I might agree with you, but it goes deeper than that. His refusal to compromise with his wife is frightening; instead, he will agree with her then do what he wants, whether it is vaccinating their child or feeding her what he wants. He lords his young daughter over his wife to the point that he ignores his stepson and alienates everyone else. I felt so bad for her daughter, Nico, and what she will have to deal with when she reaches adulthood. I can see the therapy bills piling up already. Dealing with the fallout of a parent who is a narcissist is a long, fraught process. I haven't read Trussoni's first memoir of her father, but from the description she gave in this book, it sounds like her father and her husband share many traits. I was angry for her when she discovered Nikolai had cheated, and I was livid when he felt he could just lie to her as though she couldn't see right through him. I wanted to scream at her to just leave him then.

Trussoni had a right to be frightened of her husband, and I really felt she should have been more frightened far sooner. It was almost a bit too late by the time she came around to ending her marriage. I wanted her to be happy so badly that when she chose to take a love (you see this coming a mile away), I wanted this for her. I cheered her on and urged her to do it in my own mind. She deserved it. Her husband is a classic emotional abuser; throughout their entire marriage, when she wasn't in town or around him all the time he would call obsessively, send a million emails and texts and make her feel guilty for having a life, all the while cheating on her and treating her horribly when she was home. Can you tell I found the man insufferable?

As I said, this memoir was incredibly compelling and an astounding read. Trussoni is an incredible writer and it was a joy to read this piece.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America

Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America by Patrick Phillips held particular interest for me as it takes place in Forsyth County, Georgia. While I grew up next door in Fulton Country, my home was, in fact, on the county line, and my life straddled these two counties. I remember being horrified to discover how racist so many were in the area in which I grew up, and now that I am older, and this is now my work, I am not surprised, but rather thankful that I have been able to examine my own biases to be a better teacher and researcher. However, Forsyth cannot escape it's bloody and horrifying past.

In 1912, the murder of a young woman rocked Forsyth county, an area in rural Georgia north of Atlanta that until this saw few crimes and a quiet life for the residents, be they White or Black. No one in present day would say that the Black residents had it good, but overall, everyone existed together as much as they could for the post-slavery South. Until, that is, Mae Crow's death at the hands of an assailant. Immediately a group of men determined that this must have been at the hands of a vicious Black man, and a mob set out to right the wrongs of this young woman. Her death was exaggerated to the millionth degree, and several Black men lost their lives in the process. One was viciously lynched while the others were hung in a public spectacle after a farce of a trial. After this, the mob of Forsyth residents ran out every single black resident they could find from the county in the least heard of racial cleansing in American history.

The county stayed that way until very recently. You may recall one of Oprah's first episodes, when she came to town in 1987 and interviewed the residents there. I recall seeing the show -- I'm confident it was much later, some retroactive revisiting of the episode -- but I remember being horrified by what I heard. And it came from my neck of the woods. 1987 was also the time of the Peace March through Forsyth County that was anything but. To this day, as of the 2010 census, Forsyth remains 85% White. That's astounding.

I say that with an asterisk, of course. It's only astounding if you aren't from there. I grew up on the county line, and I knew very well that people of color were not welcome in Forsyth County. It's not blatant, it's just a written rule. I never questioned it, but then again, I lived just over the line in the next county. The older I got, the clearer it became, and the more my family spoke of it. I can attest to all of these facts about the segregation of the South. I lived it, even in the beginning of the present century.

Phillips has written an astounding piece of work that covers the racial cleansing in clear, minute detail that at times is quite painful to read. The fear that the residents must have felt, worried that their own kin would be lynched at a moment's notice simply at the drop of a White man's fancy is just simply too much for me to wrap my head around. Having to abandon all you have worked for simply because others tell you that you must or you will be killed -- my heart aches simply at the thought. House help couldn't even stay to work for families they had been with for generations. Men who worked to own their own land through toil and sweat had to sell for pennies on the dollar or risk their family's lives. This is more than unfair, this is egregious and must be rectified. However, the county doesn't feel as though it owes the decedents of its refugees anything for their trouble. How disgusting.

The worst part of all of this is that another murder occurred just weeks later in a close location to Mae's -- with a similar modus operandi. This murder, however, was covered up and ignored because if, god forbid, anyone realized that the Black men accused might not be the murderers, how would the residents of Forsyth justify their racial cleansing? 

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America's Campuses

Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America's Campuses by Lawrence Ross is a must-read for anyone who wants to get a grasp of race relations on college campuses. It was eye-opening for me.

The politics of race on campus has come to the forefront in the last couple of years, but make no mistake -- these issues have been going on for some time. It's not a matter of needing a "safe space"; it is flat-out racist acts by members of the university community that egregiously affect the health and welfare of their fellow students. Whether it's hanging someone in effigy, writing racial slurs on walls, or it's the ever-faithful traditions of historically white fraternities and sororities, the politics of race on campus are alive and well and perpetuating themselves over again and again, leaving a swath of students feeling unwelcome at best and unsafe at worst.

This book was eye-opening to say the least. From a historical perspective, there was more information than I could have ever imagined, and I took it all in and sat with it for a while. You see, this book reminded me of my own experience at my alma mater in the early 2000's. By experience, I in no way mean that I was belittled and faced aggression due to my race -- because that's not at all what happened -- but I was a member of a Greek organization, and I remember very distinctly what happened the year that a young Black lady rushed the traditionally white houses. I remember the comments my sisters made, and I remember the divide that this caused in the community. I remember the older girls trying to keep it away from the sophomores (as I was) so as not to involve them in the "race drama." I remember not understanding why it was such a big deal, why we couldn't just vote on her as a potential sister, but I also remember not quite understanding why I had such mixed feelings about the process. Now, 15 years later, I have much more solidified views of this issue, and I would feel quite unequivocal now. This book, though, dredged up those memories and brought them to the forefront. I, too, was guilty of blackballing, whether or not I meant to be. I was part of an organization that did.

I add this book to my canon of work that critically examines the historical roots of systemic racism, as the college and university system in this country is about as systemic as it gets. The ousting of administration for not responding to racism on campus isn't just because students are bratty and angry over little things; the ability to feel as though your alma mater is your home and an extension of self is something that the majority culture takes for granted. I know I sure did. It's only when you are considered part of the "in-group," which means that you not only show up but are made to feel as though you belong, that you can find a home at a university. Sure, Southern schools get a bad rap, but they also deserve it. The Greek system at some of the oldest Southern universities are based upon the exclusion of minorities, even in 2016. Read a little bit about the student government at some schools -- it's entirely Greek-based, which is exclusionary to others who don't look like them.

We can do better, and we do better by recognizing first and foremost that there is a problem. There are problems everywhere, but this particular book focuses on the problem in our universities. Recognize that there is a problem, then start asking how you can be a part of the solution.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

How to Make Your Cat an Internet Celebrity

My friends just get me. She gave me this book as a present in which to return the money she owed me, and that is a good friend. She knew i would love How to Make Your Cat an Internet Celebrity by Patricia Carlin.

If you have a cat, and you're not making money, what's the point having a cat? This book cheekily explores ways that you can exploit your cat for financial gain using the inter-webs. There are many different routes you can take, including funny, sad, dress up, or intellectual. Choose your poison, post, promote, and revel in the dough!

This book was a nice joyous addition to my weekend. I wanted a quick read that was going to make me smile, and this hit the nail on the nose. (Not sure if that's an actual expression, but I just decided it's one.) It was full of pictures of cats, which is probably my all-time favorite reasons to love a book, but it was also annotated and presented in a way that doesn't just promote cat celebrity but mocks it as well. This book was mostly tongue-in-cheek but also somewhat serious. It's amazing how many people have actually made their cats Internet celebrities, and I would be lying if I said that it didn't cross my mind to try. Henry the One Eyed Wonder Cat is amazing and hilarious and cute and sweet and intellectual, but it's hard to get all of that across in a meme. So he and I will just have to settle for obscurity in our Harlem apartment.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster

This was one of those paperbacks that I picked up on one of my used books expeditions, and I added it to my vacation arsenal, which is a stack of trade paperbacks that I can pick up, read on the plane or the beach or whatever, and then pass on to fellow readers. For my recent trip out to Denver (you may remember my posts on Capitol Hill Books, Innisfree Poetry Cafe, and the Tattered Cover), I grabbed Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster, because I thought it would be crazy appropriate for my trip to a higher altitude.

In the spring of 1996, Jon Krakauer sets out with a team of climbers on an expedition to summit Mount Everest from the Nepalese side. He was an experienced climber in his own right, and he joined a team led by Rob Hall who was known for his diligence, care, and safety in getting his clients to the top. That spring, several other teams were trying to summit as well, and May 10 was the chosen date for two of those teams (and an additional rogue team) to make the last push for the top. What they couldn't have known, however, was that something had angered the mountain, and by the end of the climbing season, twelve climbers had lost their lives and many others were scarred by their experiences on the mountain. 

Wowza. What a book. I've been a fan of Krakauer's since picking up Under the Banner of Heaven, and there has yet to be a book of his that hasn't astounded me. He is arguably one of the best narrative non-fiction writers of his generation, and I look forward to picking up any of his books that he wants to release. (I will also post on Missoula soon, which was a very difficult if not vitally important piece of work.) This, which I believe was one of his first of the genre, written when he was a journalist for a magazine yet had to put his whole story down to help himself understand it, was just an outstanding 350 pages of madness. I never would have guessed that an adventure book would have kept me on the edge of my seat, but it did. I found myself in it to win it in the craziest way possible, and putting this book down was not a negotiable point. 

What makes this book so much more poignant than any of Krakauer's other books is that this is his own story, not just one that he is researching and reporting on. He always feels completely invested in the work he is writing, but this one felt so much more personal, for obvious reasons. The man almost lost his life, so you can't blame him for being all in. It does, though, lend itself to a certain investment from the reader as a result. I obviously know that he makes it down from the mountain (spoiler alert: he wrote the book), but the book becomes completely about the process, not the product. I became invested in the players in a way that doesn't often come even in non-fiction, but I was on the team with Rob Hall and Yasuko and Beck and Andy and Doug and Jon. I wanted them all to win, to succeed, to make it off the mountain, and I found it so incredibly unfair when not everyone did. If only we could turn back time and know what we know now, but we can't and we won't and, unfortunately, it has been seen that not many others have learned from this. Summitting Everest is still a popular, and desired, project. 

Nature, however, is a fickle beast. As is made clear in this book, it is impossible to predict with any certainty whether or not the chosen summit day will be brilliant or if, as Krakauer experienced, a sudden and violent, though common and normal, storm will swoop in and trap even the most prepared and practiced climber. While I wouldn't wish Krakauer's experience on anyone, he has taken that difficulty and given us an account that needs to read, one that respects the elements for the unpredictable experience it can provide and honors those who lost their lives in the process.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

When I first saw Seven Brief Lessons On Physics by Carlo Rovelli in the bookstore, I was terribly intrigued. Science was never my strong suit in school, but as I've gotten older and wiser -- just kidding, I only appreciate learning more than I did at 16 -- I've been curious to know what makes the world. So I bought this while in Colorado at The Tattered Cover and read it on the way to Texas the following weekend.

Physics is a complicated subject but not nearly as complicated as it wants to be. This book lays out seven brief lessons, beginning with Einstein's theory of relativity, moving through quantum mechanics, and finally ending with human life and our ability to exist. It's a mind blowing treatise the takes complicated concepts and breaks them down for the everyman reader. This book was a runaway success in Italy, and it's such a shame that we can't say the same for its presence in the United States. This is the history of the discipline combined into less than 100 small pages, written for your pleasure and to make your head explode with the possibilities.

I had seen this book in several bookstores and was waiting for the right time to pick it up. Finally, I had a long trip to Dallas to meet my boyfriend's family, so I decided to start reading it on the way. I realized very quickly that I was going to need to read a chapter and take a break, not because the writing is terribly hard, but because the concepts are so big and mind blowing. I will be the first to admit that I didn't pay very much attention to physics in high school. Actually, I read Gone with the Wind and convinced my ex-boyfriend to do my work for me. I'm not necessarily proud of it, but then again, I kind of am. Guilt is a powerful force. This means that I didn't really grasp a lot of the concepts that I was supposed to have learned even though I somehow made a B in the class. (Or maybe it was a C? Can't recall exactly.)

So beginning with Einstein's theory of relativity, my mind was blown. This book was written in such a down-to-earth way that I was able to grasp the concepts that really needed to sit on it for a while. Then going into things like particle physics, my mind was just absolutely wrecked with this book. I feel like I understand the basic discipline of physics so much better than I did before, even though I will never tell you that I think of myself on par with any physicist. I never really understood the concept of space bending around objects, but Rovelli described it in such exquisite detail that I actually said aloud, "Whoa." Then to move on to quantum physics and later, black holes in the ever expanding universe, I just don't even know what to say that could convince you to pick up this book more.

I read this entire book with pen in hand, underlining phrases and facts, and jotting down notes. This is giving me a new appreciation to how small we as humans are in the larger realm of time and space. The idea that we are just teeny tiny specs in a little universe that is so large it's beyond our comprehension is so cool to think about. I am glad that I purchased this book, as that's when I will continue to go back to you again and again.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools

This is one of those books that I have been needing to read for years. It comes up in educational research all of the time and I always said to myself, "One day." Well, I decided this summer was actually the day to pick up Jonathan Kozol's seminal Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools.

Across this nation, a gulf exist between the funding of schools based upon whether a family is low socioeconomic status or higher SES. Disparities can be seen in tax rates and numbers, but some of the larger disparity can't be seen unless you go in, sit down, and make yourself comfortable. In this education classic, Jonathan Kozol enters into classrooms across the country to explain to his readers exactly what these disparities look like. He visits Mississippi, Texas, New York, New Jersey, and Texas, and paints for his readers a portrait of what savage inequality looks like on a day-to-day basis in the classroom.

I should have read this a decade ago. There's just so much to read, and so little time. I'll forgive myself knowing that I picked it up now. This book was written in 1991, but very little has changed. Sure, the hard numbers have, but when you just things for inflation they are the same 25 years later. Children are segregated in this country not just by socioeconomic status, but also by race. These two things are so closely intertwined that it's hard to tease out which is which, but we do know that the economically disadvantaged tend to be minorities. We also know what districts in this country are listed as apartheid school district, and once you start to get down to the nitty-gritty, Kozol is spot on. It's just hard to tell the difference between 1991 and 2016.

My copy of this book is highlighted and annotated and written and it's been thrown across rooms. If you care even remotely about the education of our countries people, you probably read this book. You're probably angry about the state of her education system. And the truth is, if you genuinely believe that the system is not rigged, and that everybody can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, well then, you probably ought stop reading this blog post. It's a little bit like preaching to the choir, and I am unsure what else I can say to convince you that there's a major issue in this country, and it begins in our education system.

Kozol is a superb writer, and there's no doubt in my mind that this book became a sensation and has remained such because of his work. The insight he brings to his writing as a teacher and a writer provides the perfect underpinning for what is one of the most super pieces on education ever written. He poured his heart and soul into this book, and I have mad respect for him.

I leave you with this quote from the prologue.

"What seems unmistakable, but, oddly enough, is barely said in public settings nowadays, is that the nation, for all practice and intent, has turned it's back upon the moral implications, if not yet the legal ramifications, of the Brown decision. The struggle being waged today, where there is any struggle being waged at all, is closer to the one that was addressed in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson, in which the court excepted segregated institutions for black people, stipulating only that they must be equal to those open to white people. The dual society, at least in public education, seems in general to be unquestioned."

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Modern Lovers: A Novel

Oh, Emma Straub, how I love thee. You may remember by adoration of The Vacationers, and I am dying to read Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures and her short story collection. I am, it's fair to say, an Emma Straub devotee. Here is her latest, Modern Lovers.

Elizabeth and Zoe are best friends, and thankfully they live a few doors down from each other. They've been best friends since college when they were in a band, Kitty's Mustache, with Elizabeth's now-husband Andrew and the soon to be famous Lydia, singer of "Mistress of Myself." Now, 25 years later, Zoe is married to Jane and their daughter Ruby is a massive fuck up, Elizabeth and Andrew have the perfect son Harry, and a big Hollywood producer wants to make a movie of their alliance due to Lydia's infamous early death. Unfortunately, 25 years later, each couple is struggling with their own issues of growing together and apart, and all the while Harry and Ruby strike up a romance. It's a complicated web that makes up "adulthood."

This was such a lovely, indulgent book for my Labor Day weekend. I was able to just get lost in it for a few days and not have to even look up from the pages. I lived in the world of Zoe and Jane and Elizabeth and Andrew; I rooted for Ruby and Harry; and I wanted to eat at the Hyacinth, Zoe and Jane's restaurant. I loved the complicated relationships, not only because the mirror real life, but because Straub has a way of creating characters and complicated relationships that make you want to fight your way out of them. Not only are the characters compelling, but their relationships are as well. She writes with such a human voice that if I hadn't had the pleasure of hearing her talk about her last book, I would wonder if she had multiple personalities. Her characters are so real, so much to the point where I feel like if I went to Ditmas Park myself today I could easily go stand in front of Zoe and Jane's house.

Another thing that Straub does particularly well is make neighborhoods come alive as a character in her stories. I prefer to not live as far out from Manhattan as the main characters do, but after reading this I now want to purchase a house in Ditmas Park. I want to go eat at the Hyacinth, and I want to attend the yoga studio that Andrew helps fund. She makes these neighborhoods come alive in ways that so few other writers can do (even though so many try!), and the result is amazing.

The relationship between Ruby and Harry was a little bittersweet. It's easy to think back on those years of the young love, those summers that made you feel like you were high as a kite and floating on a cloud of love. It's a young love, and a difficult love looking back, and you think it will never end but inevitably it will. I have to say, on the other side of life, I much prefer the quiet low level intensity of my adult relationship, which Straub so perfectly describes through Elizabeth, but I know that deep and intense love of being a teenager. I absolutely related to Elizabeth and Andrew and their long-term marriage, and the passages where the author is describing the difference in the relationships of the two best friends hit the nail on the head. This was quite an indulgent story of a summer in the lives of best friends and neighbors, and I loved every second of it. It's a story of a complicated web of relationships and the events that will either make or break them.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Guest Blogger Charlotte: The Giving Tree

The Giving Tree has been inescapable throughout my childhood, I see it on every bookshelf, bookstore, and library I pass, but I hadn’t bothered to pick it up until now.  You know that one bestseller that’s been around forever, and that everyone has seen and you’ve heard so much about that you feel like you’ve seen it without actually having seen it? Yea, that’s my relationship with The Giving Tree. Okay, wow, I now see why this book is on almost every bookshelf in America. And, I’ve got to say, for a couple of hundred words, this story is surprisingly heavy and meaningful.

I know we’re all used to children’s books with a single or maybe a couple of lessons or morals woven into the story with a nice, neat payout at the end. This kind of story is satisfying to the mind and perfect for helping with sleep. That said, The Giving Tree is not this kind of book and should probably not be read as a bedtime story.

And that’s the exactly what’s so great about it! This book makes you think. It tugs at your heartstrings in lots of different directions. Shel Silverstein is a true artist and The Giving Tree is possibly his most thought provoking work. The book is at most a five-minute read and, again, packed with layers and layers of meaning. I’ve gotten far less out of five-hundred-pagers I was stuck with for a week.

The story is about a boy and the special relationship he has with his favorite tree. The tree is a girl. He loves the tree, visits her every day, and does with her all of the things boys usually do with trees. The tree loves the boy too and is increasingly sad as the boy grows up and his visits to the tree become less frequent. When the boy does visit and needs something, the tree provides. The tree sacrifices for the boy. First her apples, then her branches, and finally her trunk, leaving nothing but an old stump. Still, when the boy returns the tree is overjoyed, and gives her all to please him. The story ends with the boy, now an old man, desiring only to spend the rest of his days resting near the stump. The tree warmly welcomes him back.

There are so many ways to interpret this story. It’s also clear to me that my interpretation of the story will change as my perspective changes. The meaning of this story depends totally on the lens through which you view it. And that’s what makes it great! I’m sure I’ll read it again in five years and see it in a whole new light.

I did have a few immediate thoughts when I closed the book. For me the story brought clarity to the concept of unconditional love and I was immediately thankful for my wonderful family and all they do for me. And all the things we do for each other. It’s an intense feeling to know that my family would sacrifice for me in the same way the tree sacrificed for the boy.

I also thought about the tree and how she seems to depend on the boy for her happiness. The entire time the tree is only trying to please the boy so he would stay, however, as soon as he leaves (pun intended) she is instantly saddened. This reminded me to be responsible for my own happiness and to not let my sense of self get wrapped up in anyone else. I don’t want to end up with just my stump.

It’s important to remember to climb trees and take naps outside in the shade. The boy in the story lost his innocence and imagination, which I think was ultimately a source of his trouble. In life you don’t need every single thing available because in the end it won’t make you happy.

The Giving Tree is certainly food for thought. The story will undoubtedly leave you feeling good about the people around you.

Take five minutes and read this book.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Today Will Be Different: A Novel

You know we all loved Where'd You Go, Bernadette. It was one of those books that was so worth the hype and the praise that I still can't get over it. So at BEA this year, I jumped in line for the book signing of her latest, only to discover that it was a print from the book. Imagine my surprise when, a few months later, this gem landed in my mailbox. I screamed with joy in my apartment lobby, and my boyfriend was terribly confused at my excitement. I had forgotten that the publisher had promised to send galleys when they were ready. This, my friends, is Maria Semple's Today Will Be Different.

Eleanor promises that today will be different. She will be more patient, she will dress up, she will make all of her appointments, and she may even initiate sex with her husband. Today will be the day she has it all together, she swears. That is, until her poetry lesson doesn't go as well as expected, she has to pick up her faking-sick son Timby from school, she steals a fellow mom's keys, her husband has told his office they are all on vacation and are suprised to see her when she stops in, and a ghost of her old life shows up and reminds her of the biggest loss in her life. A raucous good time, no?

Of course I will own up to the fact that I love Maria Semple wholeheartedly and that love runs deep. Bernadette was a lovely, astounding book that I couldn't put down, but Today was so much better. I don't say that lightly – this book entranced me and gripped me in a way that surpassed the incredible nature of Bernadette. This book owned me totally and completely – I only wanted to finish whatever I was doing that to be able to get back to this book.

Semple has a way of telling the most crazy and meandering story in a way that feels entirely realistic and completely plausible. She writes her protagonists as people whose readers can not only relate to but also understand as if she were telling her own story. Life is complicated – it's ridiculous and it's confusing and it's wonderful and it's something that you have to learn to figure out every day. No two days will be the same, but surely, when every day each and every one of us wakes up we hope today will, in fact, be different. The protagonist of the story is no different, one who promises she will be patient and will love her has been more and will dress up, and will be the best. Lo and behold, life doesn't have that planned for her today. Today is different than any other day, and you have to read this book to understand why.

I couldn't put this book down, and if you are to read it for yourself, you will certainly understand why. The pain of not being close to the one family member you hoped that you would always be is difficult to accept but vital to doing in order to make today different. Accepting the day in stride and pushing forward nothing is wrong is a big piece of being human, but Semple takes it to another level. I certainly don't have my own husband to lead me to follow a new path, but I did find myself laughing and entirely entranced with this work. Semple has the ability to insert love in the hardest hearted person to make him or her giggle. Her wit, her timing, and her aplomb is simply to die for, and I can't wait another three years to get my hands on her next book.