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, October 31, 2017

Shitty Mom: The Parenting Guide for the Rest of Us

I had four baby showers. Yeah, sit on that for a second. As someone who doesn't enjoy attending others', that was a lot. They were all lovely, though, and I'm beyond grateful for how many people love us enough to want to celebrate our bundle of joy with us. My second shower was a book shower, and my dear friend Becca brought me this book, Shitty Mom (by Laurie Kilmartin, Karen Moline, Alicia Ybarbo, and Mary Ann Zoellner), in addition to children's books. I am amazed at how well she knows me.

Babies become children, and the fantasy of what you will be as a mother is quickly dashed when the reality of actually having a child sets in. Four moms came together to write the parenting guide to end parenting guides, being honest about what we all fear -- being a shitty mom. Get over it, y'all -- we all are, so by definition, we all can't be. From chapters on road trips and screen time to traditions such as thank you notes, this book runs the gamut of situations we all get in yet pretend to know the answers. This includes non-moms (noms) who have answers to the hardest mom questions and they usually involve heavy judgement.

This was really the best baby shower gift; I can't thank Becca enough for this lovely, hilarious book that just lit up my days. I read it before my baby came, and I read it again after. It's funny at a minimum, hilarious often, and everything completely hits on my parenting style. I'm surprised at how much my son has chilled me out as a parent (but not in other ways -- my home is arguably more picked up than ever). I find myself not caring too much about dropped pacifiers and blankets on the floor (I mean, I will wash them eventually). The ongoing joke with my friends is that I skipped my first child and am on to the second child "not caring" stage. It's probably why I loved this book so much; it encourages moms to just chill out.

It's so important to laugh when you are a parent, and especially in the early years. At least, I'm discovering that first hand as I type this. If you don't, parenthood will be long and exhausting. My son makes me laugh all the time -- he is a riot. I am grateful for books like this that take parenting lightly and have a sense of humor about it all. I don't believe that parents love playing with their kids all the time or that going to the zoo is the most fun for grown adults, so if we can all acknowledge that and have a good laugh about it, life can be slightly more enjoyable. Is it kosher to drop your sick kid off at daycare? Of course not. But sometimes moms have no choice. Do people love leaving their kids to go on business trips? Probably not. But sometimes moms have no choice. The authors finding the humor in all of these things makes me feel like I have a tribe. 

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Public School Choice vs. Private School Vouchers

Richard D. Kahlenberg's Public School Choice vs. Private School Vouchers has been in my arsenal for some time, but unlike many of the books that hang out on my shelf and haven't been read, this one was a re-read for me. This was part of my first Master's  of Science degree back a full decade ago, and with all of the political strife going on, I felt it was worth revisiting.

This compilation of think pieces and research on two types of educational reforms, public school choice and private school vouchers, explores what each is and what the support is for each. Published in 2003, this book is split into two topics: voucher  program myths and support for public school choice (PSC). Research on school choice and vouchers has been coming in for more than a decade, but in early 2003 it was in it's infancy, and this book explores what existed at that time for each method. Researchers who have contributed to this book include those from Harvard Law School, Columbia, and Penn State University.

It will come as no surprise to you thus far that this book is anti-vouchers and pro-PSC, which was no skin off my back as I am quite the vocal opponent to private school vouchers. I'm just a small fry though, so few people care what I think other than my own students, and I certainly don't mind that. My position is not at all surprising if you know me, my work, or have been following this blog for some time. One of my foci on anti-racist pedagogy and while I am not perfect and make mistakes as I learn to be a better teacher of teachers, I cannot in good faith support a widespread effort to continue systemic marginalization of children of color.

So now that my biases are on the table, let's get down to the actual book. It was fascinating reading this ten years out from my first read. So much has changed in terms of research on this topic, and this was a great primer to understand the historical background of this argument. Keep in mind that this book pits PSC against vouchers, so it's really a treatise on how PSC can supplant vouchers. If you are looking for anything on the virtues of public school as it currently stands, I have other resources for you. While I recognize the position of the book, I found that their breakdown of common voucher myths, such as the commonly held idea that vouchers raise student achievement or that they will promote equality, to be on point with at least the rudimentary reading I have done on the more current research.

I ate this book up this time around, and I'm glad I reread it. It's a good base of research for what the conclusion I have come to with more recent research, and I'm glad I have this book on my shelf. It's a dense read, as is anything that involves empirical research, but it's important reading for understanding where the voucher movement has come from so that you can understand where it is going. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Fierce Kingdom: A Novel

When I checked out a different book from the library a couple of weeks ago, the algorithm suggested Gin Phillips' Fierce Kingdom, and I had read an interesting blurb about it, so I picked it up. Holy  hell, I had no idea the ride I was getting into. 

It’s just a usual day at the zoo for Joan and her 4 year old son, Lincoln. They are regulars, and Joan knows the drill — and now that it’s nearing closing time, they had better hurry toward the exit. It’s getting dark and she can’t even imagine what it would be like to get locked into the zoo overnight. As the pair nears the exit, the scene comes into view. All of the popping she has been hearing for the last few minutes reveals itself to be gunshots that have taken down people attempting to leave at closing time — and the shots are coming from a dark figure kicking down the door to a restroom. Joan grabbed Lincoln and runs for her life, back into the far reaches of the zoo. The next three hours will be a battle for her life and that of her son. 

This book was a non-stop read for me. I was completely taken and blown away by the intensity of the story, and I’ve recommended this book again and again and again since finishing it. I posted it on my Facebook page and got into a discussion with a friend from high school about it. It’s fair to say that I think this is one of the best thrillers I have read at least this year. 

Joan was an impressive character in my book; I found her to be sufficiently complicated as a person and as a woman, yet she was a strong character who deeply loved her son and whose only goal the entire story was to get him out alive. I don’t know if this story tookon new meaning because I am now a mother myself, but I can say that I understand children fairly well. This led me to understand some of Joan’s choices, such as the need to feed Lincoln before he had a meltdown. Kids understand emergencies, but they are still creatures who have needs and are learning proper ways to express those needs. Lincoln embodied this dichotomy. 

I wanted to throw up when, at one point, we realize there is an infant still left in the zoo. I can’t say much more than that because it’s an integral part of the story, but it did make my heart skip several beats with that storyline. I thought deeply about what I might do to save my own infant’s life. It’s a position I hope and pray I never have to be in. 

My heart was beating crazy fast while I read this book, and at one point on the subway I saw someone looking at me with concern, and I realized that I must have looked incredibly intense. I had a good giggle at that. I couldn’t put this book down, and I can’t recommend it any more. Phillips has crafted one hell of a story, and it has stayed with me long after finishing the book. I have so many questions about loose threads (no spoilers here!), and I know I will always carry an extra snack for my son. You know, just in case. [Wink.]

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Art of Memoir

Mary Karr has always been one of my favorite memoirists, so a few years back I excitedly picked up The Art of Memoir at Book Expo. It took me a while, per usual, to pick it up, but I read it and then re-read it with aplomb. Wowza. 

Everyone thinks they can write a memoir, and sure they can. That doesn't mean everyone can write a compelling memoir. Mary Karr, one of the great memoirists at present, lays out, chapter by chapter, what makes a great memoir. She teaches this course in an MFA program and has opened up and expanded on her syllabus to let us humble lay people in on her secrets. She references great memoirs that she uses in her own teaching and provides an extensive reading list at the end of the book. I have already picked up two of her recommendations. 

It's probably no surprise that I ate this book up with my bear hands. I scoured it with a pen in hand, underlining the words of wisdom the Karr put forth about writing. The thing that I found so astounding about her work was that it was compatible with being human, not just with writing. Sure, I attempt to write things occasionally, but I'm no novelist. This book was just as much about being a person in the world with a story to tell as it was about putting that story in paper.

Karr devotes an entire chapter to dealing with those you love in your work. She has a list of 11 rules, one of which is to never assume that you know what others are thinking or feeling -- stick to the facts, ma'am. The other rule that stuck out to me was to avoid labeling people; simply describing their behavior should suffice. That stuck with me, as it felt like a stark reminder not just for memoir writing, but for life. Another chapter talks about story reversals, and in it she discusses the thing that makes a memoir, well, memorable: it's telling the tale about the things that we might forever hide, be it out of shame or embarrassment. It's these very things that are the meat of the story, and it's what makes our stories indelible. Heroes exist everywhere; real humans are what grab us.

There are other points she makes throughout this book that are so fascinating to me that I am opting to keep them to myself. If I told you all of her nuggets, then what would make you want to go read the book for yourself? It's an amazing piece of scholarship, and I will turn to it again and again.

Yeah. This one is worth owning. 

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

What to Expect When You're Expecting

What to Expect When You're Expecting is now in it's 5th edition. You know it. Even if you have never experienced a pregnancy, you are familiar with this cover. 

I wasn't quite sure whether or not to buy the book at first; I wasn't sure how useful it would be. Not because I knew much about pregnancy -- I knew what the average woman in America knows, which is next to nothing other than a fetus grows in my uterus -- but more because some books are super useful and others just aren't. I ordered the book anyway because I figured, why the hell not?

Even bough I had abandoned this book by the end of my pregnancy for other material (you've seen some here and more is to come), this was a great resource
For those freaked out first couple of months when I was wondering what the hell we were doing. Pregnancy was not my friend, and I won't even pretend like I enjoyed it. I totally dig the outcome -- my son is fun and silly and a ton of work -- but the process of getting him here was emotionally and mentally overwhelming, and it was physically difficult in the last trimester. This book helped in the early stages to help me recognize what was normal and what wasn't. I love my information, and this gave me an arsenal to look toward. 

Hubby and I also used the WTE app and weekly videos, which were a really great way to connect once a week to hit those weekly milestones. There were a couple of times times I had to correct the TV regarding cognitive development, but for the most part it was interesting and helpful. I wouldn't, however, recommend reading the section on giving birth too soon. It absolutely freaked me out the first time I read it. I needed time to digest all of it, and I untimately found some better (and more supportive of natural birth) resources for that part of the process. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning

I can't recall what drew me to the new memoir, Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning by Claire Dederer, but something did, so I picked it up from the library recently. 

As Claire enters her midlife, she opens her old journals -- which she kept from an early age up until her marriage -- and begins reflecting on the choices she made in life and in love. From young oversexualization to her current state of marriage, from an awareness of her sexuality through being hit on by a notorious literary womanizer, Claire revisits the experiences and the memories that shaped her. 

This was such an interesting memoir, and one that I'm still thinking on. I am a different generation than Dederer, so I was sometimes shocked by her stories of being a young girl and her sexual exploits. However, her tale of the root of the problem -- sexual manipulation with a creepy friend of her mother's -- broke my heart and put two and two together for me. My heart broke for the young, scared girl who was at the mercy of her mother's whims. We could say that parents just didn't understand back then, but did they? 

The most striking chapter in this book is Dederer's letter to Roman Polanski. Society has done a very good job of covering up his sexual assault of a young girl, so much so that I found out the details of that assault in this book. Not that I couldn't look it up in the interwebs, but that when we hear about the punishment of Polanski in the media, it's about how it was a long time ago and even the victim has forgiven him. Dederer writes a missive that shows the long-ranging ramifications of the choices Polanski made in regards to a young girl who didn't deserve to be manipulated at a minimum. What we understand now is that a pre-teen isn't old enough to give consent. Dederer's words that express how deeply she was affected by this man's actions, and the parallel to her own experience, was striking and moving, like a punch in the gut. 

At some point we all have a midlife reckoning, I believe, and Dederer's is raw and honest, sometimes to the point of uncomfortability. (If that's not a word, I just made it one.) but what a beautiful and timely reckoning it is. 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Be Brave Little One

I've always enjoyed children's books, but now that I have my own little one, I'm a sucker for them. Especially ones that feature a good moral of the story or encouragement. I cry. Seriously. So here we have Marianne Richmond's Be Brave Little One.

Out of all of the things I want to teach my son, bravery is up near the top. This book explores bravery in so many forms. It's not just taking chances and stepping out on a limb, it's also the willingness to try to something new, and if you stick with it, great! But if it's not for you, also be brave and walk away. Be brave in messing up and fixing things, and be brave in making friends, even with those you might not find otherwise. Bravery in perseverance and bravery in emotions are also part of the equation. In short, be brave, little one.

This was such a lovely, sweet, and moving book in its simplicity. The words don't have to be big and the sentences don't have to be long in order to pack a big punch and make this mama shed a few tears. After all, I think it's fairly universal that we all want the best for our children regardless of what that looks like. Bravery may or may not be important for everyone to instill in their children, but bravery sure is needed to get through life. This book reminded me of Lee Ann Womack's "I Hope You Dance," which makes me cry every time I hear it. (Honestly, I have to turn off the radio when it comes on.) It's a sweet and short book to read to your small child, and give as a gift to your big child, but it sure does hit home.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Guest Blogger Charlotte: The Art of Racing in the Rain


The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein, is a novel written from the point of view of a dog. If you’re thinking, “That sounds pretty cheesy,” that’s what I was thinking too. It’s also a novel about a can’t-seem-to-make-it racecar driver. If you’re thinking, “Wow I don’t care at all about racecar driving,” that what I was thinking too. But I still loved it, and I think you will too.

The book is an easy read even though the story is heart-wrenching and has some very sad moments. Overall, looking at the life of Denny the racecar driver through Enzo the dog’s eyes gives a unique perspective. Enzo is complex, and his depth doesn’t seem contrived (somehow) and is an interesting contrast to his still dog-like instincts and needs. The Art of Racing in the Rain made me think about dogs differently. Even though it was fiction, it gave me a new perspective on the value of their ability to connect emotionally.

The insights of a dog, and the creation of his sophisticated perspective, was my favorite part of the novel. If you love dogs, or have a dog, I expect this will be your favorite part too. He’s just such an interesting character, and so aware of his dog-ness and all the special abilities and inabilities that come along with it. He’s smart and observant and above being a dog in many ways, but then his instincts come through and take over in ways that can be tragic, brave, sad, or hilarious.

The underlying story, through Enzo’s eyes, was engrossing and sad. It’s heavy on the plot and not mired in details, which I enjoyed. Denny’s family life takes some heartbreaking twists and turns and is, in the end, a story of survival and perseverance. Adding the perspective of a young child and the dog’s observations of the child’s behavior added even more to the value of the book. I know a book is good when I find myself saddened or outraged on behalf of a character as if they were someone I knew, and that happened in this book with Denny.

One thing I didn’t really love was the inclusion of racing metaphors and examples all throughout the book. Enzo’s observations on racing and on races he’s watched (he loves watching TV) are peppered throughout the book and often used as metaphors. Sometimes they felt a little forced to me, but I think that’s mostly because it’s not a topic that interested me.

Overall I would recommend this book as a fast but engrossing read that helps broaden your perspective on the importance of emotional connection and support and the value of being there for the important people in life, even all you can do is listen. Or wag your tail.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Al Franken: Giant of the Senate

At Book Expo this year, I only attended one panel, and that was with Mark Manson and Al Franken in conversation. It was outstanding. Al Franken was advertising his new memoir, but it was one of the most enjoyable panels I have ever been to. Franken is clearly a Senator who is here to serve the people of Minnesota, that comes through loud and clear. His memoir, Giant of the Senate, only makes that more clear. 

If you are of a certain age, you will know Al Franken as a satirist and beloved writer of Saturday Night Live. You may also remember how confused you felt when he announced his entry into politics, particularly if you are not a Minnesotan. If you are younger, you may only know him as the Democratic Senator from Minnesota. Either way, you would be right. 

Al Franken started his career very early as a comedian and has written several satirical books on politics, almost exclusively excoriating the right. One thing he hates more than anything is lying, so you can imagine how much he loves our current POTUS. In this memoir (which contains a fair share of satirical jokes), he covers his early years (albeit briefly), including those on SNL, and then he's into his entry into politics. His friend and senator, the beloved Paul Wellstone, was killed in a plane accident and his successor was, shall we say, a Republican. Having never considered politics before, Franken starts to realize that he could do the job, and he starts slowly mounting his campaign and building his political knowledge early. This memoir covers his campaign, his contentious election, and his time up to present in the US Senate. 

I was worried that at almost 400 pages that I might not get through the book, as I have an infant and it seemed like a daunting task. Have no fear -- this book was so on point, entertaining and funny, that I read it in no time. I found myself giggling out loud more than enough times, and my husband often looked at me quizzically until I read him what I was amused by. The problem with that is that the jokes are smart and require background knowledge, so I often had to back up and read him at least the previous paragraph. Franken is not funny in a one-liner way; he is incredibly intelligent and writes his jokes for those who are willing to hold on with their left and and catch the joke with their right. That's what was so great about this book. It was informative and incredibly amusing. It's hard to find that in a memoir with a tinge of satire. 

Franken also doesn't mince words in his work. He is no fan of certain coworkers (one rhymes with Ned Kruz), and he is strait up with his readers. When I saw him speak at Book Expo, I was quite impressed at his dedication to representing his constituents. Franken is a man of his word, and in our current political climate, where I find some representatives are less concerned with listening to those they represent and more concerned with revenge on the previous administration, he is the one to watch. One thing that has flabbergasted me of late is how unwilling representatives are to recognize that they are voted in by their constituents and their responsibility is to serve them; you don't have a guaranteed job just because you are a politician. Franken not only understands that, he lives by the creed. I wish he were my representative, too. 

I often donate books that I finish, but this one will be staying on my shelf.