Featured Post

Happy 6th Birthday, SPR!

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

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Testament: A Novel

John Grisham's The Testament was a recent vacation book as I am wont to do while relaxing poolside. In truth, I read this book back in August (AUGUST!) and I am just now getting around to posting about it. As it goes, I guess. Let's keep getting caught up!

One afternoon, the billionaire Troy Phelan invites his family to his office for the reading of his will, only to suddenly throw himself out the window and kill himself after secretly having written a new will that names a sole heir whom no one has ever heard of. His greedy children and grandchildren are completely stricken by the worst behavior that Troy could have predicted and vow to appeal the will. Meanwhile, Nate O'Reilly, strait out of rehab for the third time and barely able to continue to practice law is sent to the jungles of Brazil to find this mysterious heir to the Phelan fortune.

This book was a wonderful beach read. It was not a throwback Grisham in the traditional way, but I really, really loved the change of pace of this book. (Sometimes when Grisham shakes it up I'm not a fan, but this was certainly not the case here.) I loved Nate and his completely flawed character and all that he stood for. He was a broken man who almost had nothing to live for. This journey that he was sent on, though, redeemed him in a way that he never could have guessed.

Speaking of that journey, I loved the sections that featured Nate in the jungle. I would actually say that they were some of my favorite new-Grisham scenes. (Honestly, few of his books can compare to A Time to Kill or The Firm.) Grisham's writing was so clear and vivid that it felt like I was there. I'm not saying that I opened a new browser and looked into possibly taking my own trip to deep in the Brazilian jungle...I'm just not saying I didn't either.

Rachel Lane, the mysterious heir to the fortune, may or may not have been found. I don't want to say much here on that because I really loved that I didn't know whether or not Nate would find her. It was a nice anticipation -- not thriller like, but still enjoyable -- and I would like for you to have the same opportunity if you decide to pick this up on your next vacation. It's worth a trip to the bookstore (used if you can! save a tree!).

Thursday, May 26, 2016

In the Name of Love: Ann Rule's Crime Files Volume 4

Ann Rule's recent passing was very sad for me, as I was hoping to one day get her to write my own true crime story (in conjunction with my Dateline episode). Alas, that is not to be. On vacation recently I picked up Volume 4 of her crime files, In the Name of Love

I think the thing that I love most about Ann Rule's Crime Files is that it gives me access to several stories at once; one longer one and several short ones. It gives me a wide range for my murder-and-mayhem fix. The short story, "The Most Dangerous Game," was one of the most affecting stories I had read in a long time. Two young girls think they befriend a man in the woods, only to play, quite literally, the most dangerous game to stay alive. I still shiver when I think about it. Ann has this way of starting her stories so that they sound like great intros to a television show, and I think that's a part of why I keep coming back to her books.

In, "The Killer Who Never Forgot...or Forgave," I found myself actually questioning my own sanity. A woman and her baby are strangled in their own home while her husband and older child slept in the next room. How is that even possible? Well, you know how that's possible, folks. The bigger question is: Why did he do it? The thing with Ann's stories is that they are very rarely whodunit's. Don't come into these books thinking you are going to get a thriller. Instead, you are going to get more of a psychological study as to what the motives are behind why people kill. (My favorite!)

The main story of jealousy and intrigue was about Jerry Harris, a wealthy man who married a younger woman, only to find himself murdered in cold blood. Except this isn't the kind of story you think it is. Jerry and Susan were actually in love, and there was never a question that she was a grieving widow on a mission so solver her husband's murder, come hell or high water. As Ann digs into the case (as solved, of course, by investigators), we see a complex web of jealousy and greed. Can you really trust your friends? Are you sure about that?

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A Fever in the Heart and Other True Cases (Volume 3)

More Ann Rule! This time it's the third volume in her true cases series, A Fever in the Heart

A beautiful young woman has two men vying for her love. These two men, however, are old friends. One, her high school sweetheart, is a gentle giant and a most lovable man. The other was the high school wrestling coach, prone to mood swings and violent outbursts. After she waffles between them, both end up dead. What happened in this sleepy Washington town?

This and Ann Rule's other short stories make up the third of Ann Rule's true crime files, and of course I loved every second. I am easy to please when it comes to true crime (and wine, but this post is about the book). While this has not been my favorite of Rule's compilations, I still enjoyed it thoroughly. The story of the Blankenbaker's, the marriage that fell apart due to a wedge driven into their family, and the man who was that wedge, was fascinating. A piece of me wanted to slap the woman for her stupidity, but as we all know, the heart wants what the heart wants, even if it means destroying the best things you have. This story seems pretty straightforward until halfway through when you are thrown for a loop, and then the end will shock you. At least, it did me.

There are a handful of other stories in this collection, two specifically focused on sexually deviant predators that really unsettled me. They were absolutely fascinating, but I am glad to have moved through those stories. In these True Crime Files, I always read the lead story last (it's the longest), and in this particular one I was glad I kept the top story for last.

Happy reading!

For purchase below.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride

Who doesn't love The Princess Bride? This is Cary Elwes' bestselling tell-all, As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride. 

I have a deep, dark, necessary secret to share. I didn't grow up on The Princess Bride. Cinematically speaking, my parents did me a real injustice as a child. I never saw Star Wars (my boyfriend has rectified that situation, and it was his first item of business), I had a friend show me Ferris Bueller's Day Off and I had trouble understanding the title for like, three years, I only saw the Brat Pack movies as a teenager (still unsure if I ever actually saw Pretty in Pink), and don't think for a second that I was hip to any of the early 90's films. [Note: I did grow up on Dirty Dancing, and it's only because my wonderfully oblivious father allowed me to check it out from the video store when my mom was out of town. My dad also was once sent out to pick up a family movie on his own when I was 13 and my sister was 10, and he came back with To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, to which my mother was livid but let us watch the movie anyway and then never let my dad ever go by himself to pick up a family movie again. P.S. To Wong Foo was a great movie.]

As I was saying, I didn't actually see The Princess Bride until I was in my 20's, well after the movie had come out and was already a cult classic. That being said, while I really do like the movie a great deal, I don't love it the way that everyone else I know does. From a psychological point of view, it very much has to do with the point in my development at which I watched it, but that's for a different blog. (I started a psychology blog. I'm sure it will come up again later.) All of this to say, I enjoy the movie a great deal and was interested in this book when one of my oldest friends gifted it to me. She knows how much I love movies and also how much I love memoirs, and it was a wonderful gift from her. I'm so grateful for friends who know me well, and for lifelong friendships.

The stories that Cary tells about the making of the movie are very interesting, and I particularly loved the stories about Andre the Giant. The man apparently could drink pitchers of beer in one sitting, and not like you and me. The tale of the making of the movie is also interspersed with comments from the cast and the creative team such as director Rob Reiner and the author of the book, William Goldman. The quips were interesting, and they added depth to Cary's story. My issue with this book is that it wasn't well-written, and it was often hard to stay in it because it feels very one-sided. Now that I have that out of the way, I feel I can move on. I think this book is well worth reading if you have an affinity for the movie. There are certainly some great stories in it, and it is a time capsule worth digging into. The casting process, the making-of, and the release of the movie are all included, and they are interesting pieces of the puzzle.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Approval Junkie: Adventures in Caring Too Much

I read a great review of Faith Salie's Approval Junkie: Adventures in Caring Too Much in Entertainment Weekly before I jetted off to Chicago for 2016's Book Expo America (more on that later!), and when I saw Faith was signing, I jumped in line to grab a copy.

Aaaaaaaaand, it turns out I'm in love with Faith. It's funny that I don't necessarily watch CBS's Sunday Morning or listen to NPR's Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me even though I am familiar with and thoroughly enjoy both. I fell in love with Faith in line for her book at BEA. She stopped for just a few seconds to talk to all of us who wanted to speak to her. She asked about my blog (so few authors do, by the way), and we found out we are from the same area in Atlanta. She told me I would love the chapter on her winning her high school beauty pageant (I did), and we laughed over growing up in the same place. It was hard not to ask her to be my best friend then and there. BUT, I didn't know what I was about to get myself into.

I started the book right away. (BEA wasn't even a week ago, b-t-dubs.) I finished it before I even boarded the flight home from Chicago. It's fair to say that I love every stinkin' word in this book. I love how honest and raw and full frontal Faith is about her life. She talks frankly about her first marriage and what a sociopath her wasband was. (She calls him her wasband. I love it.) She is upfront and clear about her desire for children, and she lets us follow her on her IVF journey. It's still hard, in 2016, to be so blatant about our desire as women to have children if we want them. I do, and when I was single, even a bit now, I often get, "Don't be in a rush," "Don't worry about it," and a million other pieces of advice that I just don't want to hear. It was so refreshing to hear that she brought it up on her first date with her husband. Can you see why I want her to be my BFF?

My favorite part of this book, however, was how funny she is. So many times, in books by comedians or personalities, they try so hard to be funny that it's blatant and very overdone. I never felt that way with this book. I found myself snorting out loud in bed while I was curled up pantsless late into the night with another one of her stories about freezing her eggs right before meeting her husband -- and joking about it with him to test the waters. I guffawed at her rummaging through Buy Buy Baby as though her life (or her child's) depended on which stroller she chose. I understood her need to win her high school pageant. She was hilarious in a very natural way, in the, "Oh, I say those things too always get in trouble for not thinking first TOO!" kind of way. So, Faith Salie, thank you for being you and for giving a silly lady like me not just a good laugh, but a feeling of having a soul mate on the page.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Volumes -- Chicago, IL

Hi loves!

I have been in Chicago this past week for Book Expo America, and through an amazing, roundabout way, I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Kimberly, the co-owner of Volumes, an independent bookstore in Wicker Park. She is friends with my lovely friend Valerie, and Val introduced us and stopped by to visit yesterday. I fell madly in love.

It also occurred to me that I should take the opportunity to post when I visit these amazing, indie bookstores. I do this a lot, especially when traveling, and I would like to encourage you all to do the same. So, my inaugural Indie Bookstore Visit post!

What a lovely storefront.

It only got better inside. Kimberly and her sister built this store by hand, and the care and beauty really shows. Industrial and cozy while still being big and warm.

Val an I got some coffee and pastries and visited with Kimberly before perusing the selection.

Even though I had just scored almost 45 tomes at BEA, I still purchased from Volumes because I like knowing where my money goes -- to lovely indies and the employees and owners in Wicker Park.

Thank you, Kimberly and the staff of Volumes for your hospitality! Chicagoans, take some time soon to visit this lovely enclave. Also, the Mexican restaurant (XOCO) across the street is to die for, and Jeni's ice cream is across the street. Just make a day of it!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Improv Wisdom: Don't Prepare, Just Show Up

This book has been on my list for quite some time (it was released in 2005, so you know...). I picked it up this week to give me a pick-me-up. This is Patricia Ryan Madson's Improv Wisdom.

Life is improv. Madson says this, and it's something I have said many times in the past. If life is all improv, then, perhaps we should take the rules of improv and actually try to live by them. What this means is that we don't live entirely unscripted, but rather that we leave space in our scripts (our lives!) to embrace the now, say yes, and be willing to make mistakes. These are just some of the maxims put forth in this book that encourages readers to use improv wisdom to live their best lives.

This book is short (about 140 small pages) which makes it very worth the day or so you will need to read it. It's also one of those great books that you can read one chapter at a time, really ruminate on the advice, and put down while trying to live it and embrace the maxims one at a time. I also love that Madson includes exercises to actually try in your everyday life that embrace whichever maxim she currently speaks of. These exercises are real-world-friendly and I feel would really broaden your worldview if you were to give them a shot.

I was reading this book just prior to my yoga class in Bryant Park, and I was meditating on how thankful I am to have learned these rules so early in life. (I guess I should mention here that I worked in theatre for a decade prior to switching gears to academia--surprise!) One of the reasons I practice yoga so faithfully now is that I embrace (or at least I try to embrace) a culture of yes. Two years ago my dear friend Lyndsey asked me if I wanted to do yoga in Bryant Park with her. I was broke due to a cutback in hours at work and it was free and I was free time-wise, so I said yes. It was physically hard work and prior to that class I had no desire to actually do yoga, but because I said, "Why not?" I now am in love with an exercise that helps my poor aching back and balances me mentally.

So many wonderful things have happened to me in my life because I showed up, said yes, and was willing to make mistakes. Madson's advice in this book is great for those of you (ahem, me too) who are Type A over-planning perfectionists.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

This book was recommended by one of the blogs I follow, ReFashionista, and I picked it up for some train-reading this month. Wowza. Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion solidified what I already was trying to do in my fashion life.

In the updated Afterward to this book, Cline clarifies that this book really isn't about fast fashion; it's about the fashion industry as a whole. Just like reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, you have to be very careful about taking Cline's impeccable research and extending the information to extremes. I didn't get that she was trying to get her readers to stop shopping at H&M and Zara and the like; she was trying to make us aware of our spending habits as Americans and how it is affecting our closets, our wallets, and our planet.

When Cline started writing this book, she counted the amount of clothing she owned and found she had over 350 pieces in her closet and in boxes in her home. A good chunk still had tags on it. She filled up multiple trash bags to take to charity. She wrote that she was borderline embarrassed at her addiction. She then went on a hunt to find out how our clothes are made and by whom. She visited the Garment District right here in my home, New York City, and found factories that are still producing for designers. She spoke to former workers of fashion houses you are wearing right now to find out about their design, development, and production processes. She went to Bangladesh and China to see the factories for herself and speak to the management. One factory in the Dominican Republic has experimented with living wages and found that they can actually produce good products while paying a living wage.

This book was really outstanding, and I even though I was well on my way to making some big changes in my own wardrobe, this was the tipping point. I have already gone a year (2012) with buying no new clothes (the short of it: laid off, making $14k a year, just getting by on rent and dollar pizza), and I have been wrestling ethically with having a lot in my closet that people are sewing for pennies an hour. On top of this, I have way too much stuff in my home, so for 2016 I have installed a general rule of "one in, two out." This means that if I buy a pair of shoes, not only must they be high quality and sustainable, I must also get rid of two like items. For example, I purchased a pair of ankle boots and a pair of pumps from Clark's at the end of the season this winter, and I gave away four pairs of shoes. So far, so good.

However, finishing this book today made me realize that this just simply isn't enough. I know Cline doesn't want us to go to extremes after reading her book, and goodness knows I couldn't do that anyway. But I do want to learn how to sew. My mom recently gave me her old Singer from the '70's, and I'm excited to spend some time this summer learning how to use it. I will never be good enough to design my own line or make my own clothes, but I do think it's important, just as Cline writes in her last chapter, to be able to mend my own clothes and to be able to customize as I see fit. I will never be as awesome as Jillian who runs the ReFashionista blog, but it would be nice to find pieces at the thrift store for a small amount of money and customize them as my own. It's a small change, but it's one that I can do.

I hope you feel just as over cheap clothing as I do. I have realized in my 30's that I would rather have fewer things that are higher quality than more cheaply made things that pile up in my closet, don't fit well, and will soon be "off trend." I would prefer to have my own style that is made up of beautiful pieces. So, here's to a good change!

Cline quotes that only 15% of clothing that we get rid of is then recycled. That means 85% ends up in landfills. Rather than throwing those holey socks in the trash, consider filling a bag of cast offs and taking them to H&M. If you donate a bag, they will give you a 15% off coupon for use in their stores. North Face also recycles in store. Patagonia recycles as well and actually uses their recycling in future products. You may also donate these rags to Goodwill or Salvation Army; they will textile recycle for you. Please -- anything is better than the landfill.

You can also read more at the book's website, which includes a shopping directory for you to look up your favorite brands and similar places to ethically shop.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America

One thing I have been doing as of late is getting through some "school-like" books, which are not necessarily directly needing to be read for my dissertation but are connected to what I do (race and poverty, and the effects on cognition and education -- sounds fancier than it is, I promise). I picked up Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer's $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America as part of this. I hope you take some time to spend with this kind of literature, as this is a large chunk of our country. 

Right here, in our own backyard, over 1.5 million households (not people -- households) attempt to get by on less than $2.00 cash per day. Think about how you spend $2.00 daily. Is that a part of your cab ride? Is that the large coffee you buy from the bodega? Or do you maybe swing by the vending machine for a quick snack? Is that subsumed in your gas station fill up? This might seem completely out of your realm of understanding, but I can assure you it the reality for millions of people in this country, over 3 million of which are children. 

There should be some clarification, of course. WIC and SNAP, more commonly known as food stamps, do not count toward this $2.00 per day because they are not cash. I repeat, they are not cash. They are incredibly helpful for so many families, especially with children, who need to eat (and please move on from the "food stamp recipients all buy lobster" myth), but they don't go toward rent (or other housing), utilities, clothing, or a phone. Do you think a phone is a luxury? You should talk to my friend who recently qualified for Medicaid; she was assigned a PCP she had to use, and when she called the number, the only way to schedule an appointment was to leave a voicemail and wait for them to call her back. What if you don't have a phone (which is a strong possibility if you qualify for SNAP)? How do you apply for a job if they only phone number you can offer is for the homeless shelter you are temporarily housed in? What do you wear to a job interview if you can't afford clean, decent clothing?

This, of course, is just if you count those who don't have jobs. For those who work part time hours at minimum wage, also living under $2.00 a day is a strong possibility (at $7.50 per hour for less than 25 hours a week [if you get that many] after taxes), especially with erratic hours that can be cut at any moment

I am just giving you the highlights of this argument, but if you would like to read more, you absolutely must pick up this book. In fact, I would like to see this book become a part of every college curriculum that exists. Once we as a nation begin to understand that this is not about lazy Americans unwilling to work but a larger, more serious systemic problem we can begin to fix things. Did you read that statistic? Over 3 million children. What do they wear to school? What do they write with and on if there is no cash to purchase supplies? Edin and Shaefer have written a wonderful book that gives you stories of the real-live people living off of this income -- a single mother of two in Chicago, a once-successful man raising almost all of his grandkids in the Midwest, and others. These are your fellow Americans, readers.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

While The City Slept: A Love Lost to Violence and a Young Man's Decent Into Madness

Well well well. I have had many friends ask recently, "Are you still blogging?" I wanted to say yes, but I realized I haven't blogged once this calendar year. How embarrassing. My life got in the way, but now that I will be attending Book Expo America in Chicago next week, it's time to return to this lovely passion project of mine and catch you up on some of the books I have read this year.

Unfortunately, there haven't been many. It's been a result of my inability to read for pleasure. I just haven't been able to get through many books. I read a whole one this weekend and almost died with happiness. I think I've turned a corner, so let's get started, shall we?

Eli Sanders' While The City Slept: A Love Lost to Violence and a Young Man's Decent Into Madness was a February read, and one that was truly outstanding. I had heard about this murder a few years ago, and I didn't put two and two together until I was about a chapter in. I gasped when I realized.

One hot summer night in 2009 in a lovely little neighborhood outside in Seattle, a couple is sleeping when they wake up to a man in their room. Hours later, one runs screaming from their home, bloody and scared. Their neighbors do what they can do keep the two women alive, but half of the couple doesn't make it. What happened that night? Who would conduct such an awful, inhuman act on two sleeping women? The answer finds the reads backing up a long, winding road of the life of a young man who slowly descended into a mental break that would affect the families of all three players forever. 

Sanders has done a really wonderful job of telling a story from start to finish that could have been impossible to read, as the harrowing details of what Teresa Butz and Jennifer Hopper lived through are unbelievable and angering at best. These women were simply sleeping with their windows open; Teresa lost her life and Jennifer lost her partner, not to mention the hours of agony and torture they went through, done by a young man who grew up watching his father abuse his mother and his family be unable to deal with his mental illness. It's almost too much, but Sanders has built a story that pushes the reader to the breaking point and then backs off, focusing on other aspects of Seattle and the lives of Teresa and Jennifer. He has created such a clear and focused picture of these two women as both individuals and as a couple. This book must be such a tribute to the story of who these women were together and apart. 

I think that stories like this one are so important to present to a larger audience; these women deserve to have their story heard over and over and over again. It's about more than just healing, but also about a recognition that mental health care for all is so vital for building and maintaining a society that gives access and provides safety for all. You can read the book for yourself and see the incredible argument that Saunders builds. In the final chapter, he makes it clear that the lack of affordable and accessible mental health care in this country costs our economy $79 billion PER YEAR. Rather than saving by spending on the front end, we would rather spend multiple times more on the back end where we can see it. I hope that Teresa and Jennifer's legacy is that more people will learn that this is no longer a sustainable route.