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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...

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.