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

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Birds + Bees + YOUR Kids: A Guide to Sharing Your Beliefs About Sexuality, Love, and Relationships

Toward the end of my pregnancy I started seeking resources for parenting. One of those was on how to talk to your children about sex, because I am a firm believer that sex education starts young. One of the mistakes parents make is that assuming sex ed is one conversation when your kid is old enough to understand; the commonly cited statistic is that more than 90% of children who are sexually abused know the abuser. Recently, due to the Larry Nassar abuse coming to light, we also have the statistic that is made clear: when children are abused, they have to tell, on average, seven times before they are believed. When children are taught that there is shame in their bodies, or that we don't talk about those things, it closes down the conversation and makes children feel embarrassed about things they should be sharing. 

So I turned to the book of faces, and I found Amy Lang's Birds+Bees+Kids page. It's an outstanding resource for how to talk to your kids about sex and their bodies, and I picked up her book, Birds + Bees + YOUR Kids which happened to be on Kindle Unlimited (yay!) for my husband and I to peruse. I was so impressed with how this book was written and structured that I decided to purchase it. As Amy guides you through the chapters on your own beliefs about sex, love, and intimacy, she asks you and your co-parents/guardians some tough questions that make you dig deep into what you believe about these topics and why. She starts with your values regarding sex, how you learned about sex, and what it means to be ready for sex. She then moves into some hard topics, including pregnancy, masturbation, STD's, and birth control. The third section is about puberty and adolescence, and the last two sections are about outside influences on your kids regarding sex and how to have conversations about all of this. 

This prompted my husband and I to have some talks we might not have otherwise. We are both very open to talking about sex and the topics around it, but these are things that just don't come up in regular conversation. I wanted to start these talks early and have them often so that they wouldn't feel new and that they would just be a part of our lives. I know that for me, the sex talk was quick and already at the end of my high school career. I was told that sex was bad and not what the Lord wanted, but no one ever really talked to me about my body. No one certainly ever spoke to me about how to make good decisions about sex that weren't mired in guilt. This, however, was progressive compared to my husband's upbringing, which in the Evangelical tradition taught a great deal of shame over the body and of sex. Both of these parenting choices affect us and our outlook on sex, and I don't want my children to grow up in a home where we aren't comfortable having real conversations about things that affect our physical and mental well-being. 

These chapters in Amy's book are well-structured and they ask deep and thoughtful questions that seem so simple at the outset but spark good conversation among parenting/guardian partners. It's so important to be on the same page, and this is what Amy gets through to her readers. She encourages you to write down the answers, but Hubby and I just talked about them. We took the book chapter by chapter, and while only time will tell, I do feel more equipped than I did before having this resource handy to deal with what comes. I'm glad I purchased this book to have as a resource for when I need it. 

Thursday, February 22, 2018

George Orwell's Animal Farm

George Orwell's Animal Farm is one of those books you often have hanging around and forget that you do. I needed a short book to add to my purse for my commute that day (you know the drill -- I was thisclose to finishing another book and didn't want to carry two thick books...), and I was reminded why it's a classic.

The animals of Manor Farm are tired of being overworked and under appreciated by the humans, so they revolt. Snowball and Napoleon, a donkey and a pig respectively, co-share leadership following the takeover and renaming of Animal Farm. They have a list of egalitarian rules that someone writes on the barn wall, but unfortunately, most of the animals can't read. No worries, as life goes on and all is well. That is, until Napoleon realizes that sharing power is for the birds. After banishing Snowball, the pigs begin to rule the roost, rewriting the rules everyone had agreed upon and making life and work so difficult for the animals that it suddenly seems not so egalitarian anymore. Will Animal Farm even survive? Or was everyone right -- a farm should be run by humans, anyway?

Ah yes, Animal Farm. The old allegory about the Russian Revolution, and Napoleon is supposed to be Stalin. It's thinly veiled if anything. However, this story is so often told that it's not hard to see timely parallels to our current situation in the United States at present. Oh sure, we don't have a dictator (ahem...cough...yet...), but the nature of the animals working hard and being told that they aren't worthy and that they have to work harder just to make the same amount of money food smells suspiciously like capitalism a couple centuries later. It makes you wonder, is this possibly just human nature?

That's not for me to answer, or at least, not in this blog post. I enjoyed the book, and it was surprisingly short for what I was expecting. I can't remember whether or not I had to read this in high school -- I'm quite confident that I didn't -- so it was interesting to pick it up now, in 2018. I think it home more than it would have in 1995. I was thoroughly entertained while still being absolutely horrified. I could see so much of the world I know in the world of this book, right down to the defamation of Snowball after he chooses to leave the farm once he figures out Napoleon's game. I'm glad I picked up the work when I did, at this point in my life, and I'm looking forward to revisiting 1984, too. This also has me ruminating on the role of the classics in our world, and why it's a shame that it took me 30-something years to get around to reading this. It's also made me seek out more books that I ignored skimmed Cliffsnotesed read in high school.

I leave you with a famous quote from the book, but one that I hope you sit with for a while. It is one of the rules that was rewritten after Snowball leaves Animal Farm and Napoleon begins his dictatorship.

"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Supreme Power: 7 Pivotal Supreme Court Decisions that Had a Major Impact on America

I picked this book up at Book Expo for a good friend of mine who is a political science professor, but I found it so fascinating myself that I ended up taking notes in Ted Stewart's Supreme Power: 7 Pivotal Supreme Court Decisions that Had a Major Impact on America and keeping it for myself. Sorry, not sorry, friend.

The cases discussed in this book include Marbury vs. Madison, which established powers the Supreme Court holds and doesn't hold; Plessy vs. Ferguson, which established racism and led to Jim Crow; Lochner vs. the State of New York, which brought about the power of substantive due process on behalf of the Supreme Court; Wickard vs. Filburn, which focused on the role of Federalism in the United States; Everson vs. Board of Education of Ewing Township, which examined the establishment clause and the role of religion in the public arena; Missouri vs. Jenkins, focused on integration and the role of the courts in ordering it; and Obergefell vs. Hodges, which struck down the ban on marriage between same sex couples.

Some of these cases I was already familiar with, and some were new. I particularly found that this book hinged on Lochner, a case that I didn't know at all, and that this case changed the Supreme Court into being the power that we know it. I appreciate that this book was focused on situating the case in historical perspective regarding what was happening in and around the time that the case was weaving its way through the courts; it's this level of historical perspective that I was after. That being said, the first half of the book, through Lochner, was incredibly informative and interesting. In fact, I was so floored at finding out the history of Thanksgiving, the American holiday that doesn't have origins in Pilgrims and Indians (seriously...do the research yourself, it's fascinating), I dropped everything and made my husband pause his movie just so I could tell him about it. It caused a big discussion in my house about the origins of the holiday and how we want to celebrate it.

However, once I hit the second half of the book, I was very turned off by Stewart's crusade to make America moral again. His politics come across loud and clear in the last few cases, and he's incredibly conservative, and whether or not he intends to be, he comes off as hating abortion (but I mean, who likes it?), LGBTQ+ rights, and he especially despises Hollywood, which is so interesting because none of these major cases is about Hollywood specifically. He mentions movies and entertainment several times in the Obergefell chapter, specifically blaming Hollywood and the media for the downfall of society's morals. It's peculiar, and red flags were popping up everywhere. Instead of entertaining the idea that perhaps society and the media shaped each other, it reads as though he blames popular culture and the Supreme Court for allowing such horrible things to occur such as gay marriage, which obviously wouldn't happen if Hollywood still had couples sleeping in separate beds. (That was sarcasm, by the way.)

I did learn a great deal from this book, specifically a historical perspective of these cases as well as some fairly intricate legalese about why the Supreme Court decided these cases the way that they did. Stewart also has great expertise in the Constitution and situates most of his analysis in the document itself, which I very much appreciated and learned a great deal from. I wish he could have done a better job of keeping his political views out of his analysis of later chapters, but I know from experience that this is easier said than done when you feel passionately about something. My overall recommendation is read this for the earlier chapters in order to gain a solid understanding of the earlier cases that shaped the Supreme Court. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Salt Fat Acid Heat

After finishing Tuesday's review, I thought it would be perfect to pair with this book, from one of Alice Waters' former employees of Chez Panisse. This book is, hands down, brilliant. I don't own a lot of cookbooks because I love to experiment in the kitchen, but when I read about Samin Nosrat's Salt Fat Acid Heat, I preordered it. It was worth every stinkin' dime.

Cooking is an art form, and some people love it while others can't stand it. I am in the category of "love it." I am no expert by any means, but I love to mess around in the kitchen and I joke around that recipes are against my religion. I am Italian, after all. Nosrat's whole concept with this book is that these four elements (salt, fat, acid, heat) are the main underpinnings of good cooking that you need to understand both in theory and practice to create dishes that will serve your palate. Amateurs in the kitchen are usually afraid of everything but heat, but fear of salt, fat, and acid will leave you with limp and unappetizing food.

This book is astounding because it is a cookbook, yes, but it is also a journey through the basics of cooking that are easy to understand yet so deep and thoughtful. I am madly in love with this book for so many reasons, not the least of which are the illustrations, by Wendy MacNaughton. Holy hell, they are gorgeous. Everything from colors of cooked onions to wheels explaining how to get the regional taste that you want, this book is so gorgeous it's hard to put it on the shelf. I'm not kidding you -- it's currently open to that very page with the caramelized onions on my coffee table right now. One of my favorite pages is right before the section of recipes (which is actually the last half of the book), there is a flow chart that helps you determine what you want to cook that day. The first question asks if you've read the book, and if you select "no," it tells you to go back and read the book because it's about the journey, not the destination. Boy, is she ever right.

I read this book slowly and in sections so that I could start putting into practice what I was reading. I started with salt, because it's the first section. I opened myself up to what Nosrat was explaining about how to use salt and how to get away from our fear of using too much, and it improved my cooking -- especially with meats -- almost instantaneously. It turns out I already had multiple types of salt in my kitchen, and I was able to distinguish what to use and when to use it. Eye opening doesn't even begin to describe it. Now I use salt liberally and, more importantly, appropriately.

Then fat. Sweet, sweet fat. It's another element that scares new cooks, because anyone who was alive in the 1980's has a deep-seated fear of fat. In the past few years I have come to realize how great it is -- and not just in taste -- and I now can taste a (disgusting) difference in full-fat and low- or non-fat products. I now no longer fear butter and cream, and it's made such a big difference in our dinners. I learned how to render fat, how to take advantage of excess fat on meat, how to better cook bacon, and how to balance salt, fat, and the next ingredient, acid, into our meals. Fat is glorious when used (here it is again) appropriately.

Finally, last but never least, is acid. Holy mother of pearl, I had no idea what I was missing in my life. Much like Nosrat's discovery of what acid could do to add volume and depth to a dish, neither did I. It turns out that acid is a vital component for this purpose, and you are missing out if you don't take the time to play around and figure out how to finish off your dishes with the appropriate form of acid. I added apple cider vinegar to finish off my cauliflower soup -- what a difference from before and after! I then began experimenting with my sauteed spinach, and I discovered that squeezing fresh lime juice over the finished product added a new dimension to something that I liked before but that I love now. I decided to get a whole slew of vinegars the next time I grocery shopped, and thanks to Nosrat's section on acids, I now feel comfortable and inspired to experience with something that I previously thought would ruin a dish.

Oh wait -- let's not forget heat! See, my mom is amazing but it wasn't until I was an adult that I realized that she never taught me to cook very well. She learned on her own, as did I, but she came from a tradition that opened cans for dinner. (1950's and '60's, anyone?) I will say that I discovered I have been using heat inappropriately for YEARS. The section on heat really opened my (impatient) eyes to how to slow down my cooking and take advantage of different ways to use heat to cook.

When I picked up this book, I didn't realize that Nosrat was the cook who worked with Michael Pollan on cooking when he was writing one of my favorite books on food, Cooked. It was really wonderful to see the connection between my favorite food writers. No matter how I came to it, this book will remain one of my all time favorites and I am so, so glad that I splurged on purchasing it. Now that I am incorporating our son into our meal times (we skipped purees and have gone strait to eating what we eat -- I'm sure this will come up again in the Sassy Peachiverse someday), I love that I have new tools in my arsenal to play around with flavors. Thank you, Samin, from the bottom of my heart, for this glorious tome you have given the world. 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook

I thought I would pair books this week, so we are starting with Alice Waters' Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook, followed by a cookbook from one of her former chefs at Chez Panisse.

Growing up in America in the 1950's, Alice Waters wasn't introduced to a wide range of gastronomic delights -- that era wasn't exactly known for good food, but rather the invention of kitchen items and foodstuffs that made household life easier on everyone. When she went to Paris for a study abroad trip, her palate was introduced to some of the world's finest flavors, and Alice fell in love with food. When she graduated college, she floated around Berkeley, trying to find her way, until one day she realizes her dream of opening up a small restaurant. She was never a trained chef, but she wanted a place that she and her friends could eat great, handmade French food and spend hours talking. Chez Panisse was the realization of that dream.

I found Alice's own words on her history to be very interesting. I will say at the start that her prose leaves a lot to be desired, but the meat of her story is incredibly interesting. From her childhood in a happy home all over the country to her transferring to Berkeley during the heyday of the cultural revolution, it's fair to say that Ms. Waters is a product of her culture. She trusts her instincts and it pays off. She talks in this book of her two great loves in the lead up to the opening of her restaurant, and she waxes poetically about her time in and love of France. I am completely biased, as I have found France to be positively lovely, at least once we got out of Paris. That's where Ms. Waters and I differ, but I think it's wonderful that she found the charm there that i didn't. But the rest of France -- ah. [Cue the emoji with heart eyes here.] French cuisine is entirely what Ms. Waters makes it out to be in this book. I have pictures for days of the incredible dishes that I ate while there. Just incredible.

I see what she is saying when she calls herself a counterculture cook, and some of that is on point. She is a woman chef who opened her own restaurant in the 1970's when that was basically unheard of, especially with no formal training in the kitchen. Chez Panisse serves just one meal per night at a prefixed price, and Ms. Waters is known for taking chances on informally trained staff based on instinct. Frankly, no one can argue that she knows what she is doing based on instinct. She certainly is counterculture for the time period that made her. It's hard for me, though, in 2017 to rectify that label with the story, but I will say that I believe that is due to my age and my distance from that time period. (By distance, I mean I wasn't even alive.) So I will just have to trust Ms. Waters on this one.

This book was picked up on a whim and I'm so glad that I got it. I was able to pair it with the cookbook I will post about next, and it really put Chez Panisse into perspective. I would love to one day make our winding way to Berkeley and eat at the famed restaurant. I mean, Alice's raving about her love affair with lettuce is enough to make a salad lover out of just about anyone. (I appreciate her recommendation to toss your salad by hand, as it is the best way to ensure that the dressing coats every leaf.) That isn't sarcasm, either; the way she talks so kindly and warmly about salad is just wonderful, and now my stomach is grumbling. I'm off to cook, inspired by Alice and the famed California restaurant. 

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Senator's Wife: A Novel

I really enjoyed Sue Miller's While I Was Gone, so when I found The Senator's Wife on one of my Goodwill jaunts, I picked it up in hopes that I would enjoy it as much as I enjoyed my first Miller experience. 

Meri is a newlywed when she agrees to move to a small college town for her husband's new job, and within months finds out she is pregnant. She is thankful for the friendship of her new next door neighbor Delia, the wife of the famous politician Tom Naughton. Tom's philandering is well known in D.C. circles, and Delia has opted to live separately from her husband while still being married to the man she loves. As both women navigate their complicated relationships, they will be drawn together in a way that is unexpected yet intimate, creating a bond that will ultimately be broken. 

I liked Sue Miller after While I Was Gone, but I loved her after this novel. This was a beautiful, gripping novel that I couldn't put down because staying away from it was just not possible. These characters were overwhelmingly real and flawed in their persons, and it made for honest and hopeful reading. I felt that with this novel I could really dive in and love in their world. It was wonderful and heartbreaking for so many reasons. 

The characters are what drive the story in this novel, and the story is central to the growth of the two main players. Meri and Delia are the Central heart of this story, loving parallel lives if not similar. We have no reason to believe Meri's husband is cheating -- except maybe with his work, as it keeps him distant and it encompasses him -- but Tom, Delia's beloved, has been a cad since he was a young man. Miller makes it easy for us to understand Delia's love for and attachment to Tom, making his first known betrayal to be utterly devastating. We jump through time in the course of the story, understanding that these two women are more similar to each other than they realize. 

The end of this story caught me by surprise. There are two endings, really, and the first was the most surprising of all, leading to the surprise of the second, post hoc ending. Both are worth sticking around for even if you don't agree with my assessment of the astounding beauty of the novel. Miller has this incredible way of drawing her reader into worlds where not very much happens yet everything does. It's dreamy. 

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

An American Marriage: A Novel

I will be honest with you -- I didn't even read the synopsis before I jumped at the chance to read Tayari Jones's An American Marriage. I absolutely adored her previous novel, so I knew that this was a must read for me.

Roy and Celestial are newlyweds when Roy is arrested and jailed for a crime he did not commit. Married only a year at the time of his arrest, the couple finds that they have different visions of what marriage can and should be during a forced separation. Celestial becomes fairly well known for her doll creations while Roy sits in prison, missing the life he was supposed to lead. Celestial finds a shoulder to lean on in her childhood best friend, Andre, and tries to move on with her life. At least, until Roy wins an appeal and is released early. Can a couple separated by time, miles, and spirit make a go of it, or is it too late for them?

I was quite taken with this narrative, and Jones's ability to craft such honest and real characters in her world. It also snagged my heart a little, as Celestial is from and currently resides in Atlanta, which I also consider my home. Jones knows how to dig deep into the clay of the earth and sculpt characters from nothing, line by line, until they become so lifelike that you forget they aren't real. She does that in this novel, and it's an incredible work of art. The book alternates narrators, and I was struck by Roy in particular, as I found him to be an unreliable (albeit captive) narrator. I was waiting for the bomb to drop that maybe he actually did commit the crime -- and I won't tell you the answer to that -- but the truth (without spoilers) is that this part of the story doesn't matter. When the story takes a sharp left toward the end, it's about the characters and their complicated, interwoven relationships that have you raising your eyebrows and choosing a side.

In this novel, just as in life, there are no winning sides, really. In the game of love, someone is bound to get hurt, and bad. There are so many loving, shining moments in this novel that they are hard to illuminate. Do you love Andre, or do you hate him? I liked him, then I disliked him, then I felt bad for him, then I felt triumphant, and finally I became sad for him. Do you love Roy or do you want to punch him in the face? I liked him a great deal at first, then I came to despise him if only for the character arc that Jones has prescribed him. That is, as per usual, a compliment, for to have a strong draw to or away from any aspect of any narrative or character is a testament to the ability of the hand holding the pen. Celestial is the third in the triangle for whom my opinion wavered constantly, and I'm still mulling over the final pull she had on the characters and who they became.

Tayari Jones is one of those writers that I feel understands the complicated web of human emotion deep down in her core, and I will always run to pick up her work. It makes me feel alive and thrilled and devastated and whole.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

White Owl, Barn Owl

I recently read Nicola Davies' White Owl, Barn Owl (illustrated by Michael Foreman) as part of a teacher professional development on science learning, and I fell madly in love with it. If you haven't picked it up, it's well worth your time.  

A boy is helping his grandfather, and today they are going to build a box for the owls in their fields. The boy has so many questions -- what is the box for? How will they use it? The pair builds the box, and in time they find that a barn owl has stayed there. The boy explores information about owls with his guide, such as how owls hunt and eat and what they leave behind, and they learn more together than they could have expected. 

I was really enamored with this book for one very specific reason. It warmed my educator heart to see that this book told two stories. The first story was the narrative, the story of the grandfather and the grandson (at least, we think it's a grandson because the gender is never specified) and their building of an owl house in order to take care of the bird on their property. The parallel story is expository, giving the reader factual, scientific information on the barn owl. Not only is the story compelling and sweet, but it also contains clear, factual information that I learned so much from. For example, I never knew that the heart-shaped ruff around their eyes was designed to move sound toward owls' ears, which have incredible hearing so that they can hunt prey. I also never knew what owl pellets were; I thought they were poop, but they are not. You will have to get the book to find that out yourself. 

I am so in love with this book that I will have to buy it for my son. I love books that are informative while still being good reads.