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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...

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Bleachers: A Novel

This is a departure from my usual John Grisham fare. I'm keeping a list of his books, or a bookology if you will, and I'm coming down to the wire of things I haven't read yet. This is his heartwarming coming of age novel, Bleachers.

Neely Crenshaw was not just the star quarterback of his high school football team; he was a town legend -- an All-American who went on to play college ball before ending his career with an injury. However, something happened his senior year that alienated him from his beloved coach and town celebrity, Coach Rake. When we'd gets out that Rake is dying, his former Spartans converge on their home terf to hold vigil and remember their glory days. 

This was a sweet book that was a quick read. It is a different genre than most of us are familiar with when it comes to Grisham, and it was an enjoyable one. The story was part coming of age, part reminiscent novel, and it told a story that was relatable and felt quite classic. For those who grew up in small towns, or in areas where football reigned king (I'm looking at you, Southerners!), the nostalgia will ring heavy and true to you. 

The last quarter of the book is very technical; it consists of the past players reliving one final game, play by play, and I will be upfront in saying that I glossed over these passages. I love college football like any good SEC school graduate, but it wasn't up my alley in a relaxing novel. Other than these sections, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, as it's a lovely summer/beach read for those in the mood for some light, sweet fare. 


Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College

Ok, well, you are in for a post today. I am only posting on this book because I read it, not because I am advocating for it in any way. In fact, quite the opposite. Last summer I taught a cohort of alternative certification students whose program uses this book as their bible. In fact, many alt cert programs do. I needed to read Doug Lemoy's Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College in order to be able to speak about it. That's my rule. No bashing or supporting work until I've read it myself.

This book touts itself as "offer[ing] the essential tools f the teaching craft so that you can unlock the talent and skill waiting in your students" (back cover). It is a laundry list of skills that are used in classrooms that Lemov has observed to keep order and have teachers focused on drilling content into students. While there is certainly the occasional helpful hint, for the most part this treatise if focused on the militarization of schooling for high-needs students, who typically tend to be students of color. You don't have to believe me -- just google "teach like a champion" with any number of keywords following (racist, jim crow, criticism) and you will come up with more thoughtful posts than this one written by people whose work is more focused on pedagogy than this blog, which is a book review. This particular piece was the most striking to me.

As for my close reading of this book, I was less than impressed. I bought a used copy of this book because I knew I was going to want to make notes and annotate to collect my thoughts. The note I wrote that seems to encompass this entire teaching philosophy is this: "Relationships are tertiary in this model after order and efficiency. Learning isn't even valued." I think that note sums up the entire approach in this book, and it's going easy to say I was less than impressed with the pedagogy behind the 49 techniques. Keep in mind, many of these techniques are not new in education, and additionally, most teachers would aim for order and efficiency in their classroom as we all know (or at least, we all should know) that classroom management is the most important classroom tool any teacher has and it starts before the students walk into the classroom in September. (Or August, depending on where you live.)

At times I felt that Lamov was urging teachers to mock their students when they got the answers wrong. Many times he urges teachers to move away from respecting students and what they bring to the classroom, to the point where it goes well beyond the hidden curriculum and openly disparages any culture outside of the dominant white, male, upper-middle class one we are all terribly familiar with. This book ignores issues of power structures in the classroom and their delicate interplay with race; even worse -- it perpetuates and exacerbates these issues. Ultimately, at the end of the day, schooling isn't about creating active citizens in the world but beating students of color into submission to serve at the pleasure of the systemic racist system that American education has perpetuated over the last couple of centuries. It's disappointing at best, dangerous at worst.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Middlesteins: A Novel

I have had Jami Attenberg's novel The Middlesteins on my TBR bookshelf for a few years now, and I decided to pick it up and dive in recently. I got it at the first Book Expo I went to, and on one hand I'm sorry I waited so long to read it, and on the other, I'm glad it came into my life when it did.

Richard Middlestein has left his wife, Edie, just as she is diagnosed with life-threatening health conditions due to her obesity. He just can't take it anymore. Their children, golden child Benny and sourpuss Robin, do what they can to stand by their parents while working through issues of their own. Benny's twins are about to have their b'nai mitzvah, Robin is newly in love, and Edie won't stop eating. Rachelle, Benny's wife, has made it her life's mission to save Edie from herself while banning Richard from their home. Family dynamics are delicate, as they often are, and each person has issues that are intertwined with everyone else. Ultimately, they are all responsible for the issues that plague them all.

I was pleasantly surprised by how taken I was with this novel. Fat shaming is prevalent in our culture, and research has consistently found that bigger people are not just judged more harshly than thinner people, but also face dislike and often disgust. Attenberg created Edie with such ethos and pathos that she is a women who comes alive on the page with such love and care. She is a full-bodied character (pun intended) with a strong character arc, and it's clear that Attenberg takes pride in her character development. Robin as well could have been just horrible, but in the author's hands, she is surly and broken but so sympathetic, as anyone who has ever been a teenage girl can understand. Even Richard was sympathetic, and really, when you read the description of the man you might envision that he was a horrible man, but the deeper you get into this book, the more you see that relationships are not black and white. Break ups are not easy and clean, and rarely is just one party at fault. Richard is a grown man who makes a decision to live his best life while still yearning for the love he once had with Edie. With that love gone, however, Richard must move on.

The back and forth of this book through time was also a plus on my side. Attenberg did a great job of being clear about which time period we were in, and she inserted the reminisces into the past to bolster her character development in the present. I felt that I deeply understood Edie based on the flashbacks. We are who we are because of where we came from, and Edie is no different, even if she is fictional. Her reliance on food as more than just a comfort mechanism is deep and rooted in her childhood as well as her young adulthood. (I would also be lying if I said that I haven't had a few cravings for Chinese food after reading this book...) It is the defining element of everyone, from her husband and her children to her daughter-in-law and her grandchildren, all the way to the newest love of her life. I got that, on a super deep level, and I really loved her as well as this story.

I am looking forward to picking up more of Attenberg's work; I have another book of hers on my TBR shelf, so I'm aiming for sooner rather than later. The crafting that she does with her characters is astounding and well worth the read. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

You: A Novel

I have been holding on to Caroline Kepnes' You for quite some time, for no other reason than that I just haven't gotten to it yet. I then read a blurb in Entertainment Weekly about how someone was looking forward to this movie or miniseries or whatever, and I realized I needed to get on this, like, now. So I did.

Joe runs a bookstore in New York City and has fallen for Guinevere Beck, a customer who stopped in one day to buy some books. He steals her name off of her credit card receipt, finds her home, and eventually worms his way into her life. Before she knows it, she is the eye of his obsession -- and she has not the slightest clue. Joe will win her over and make her fall in love with him, even if it's the last thing she ever does.

Yeah, so about this book. I was completely, 100% hooked about 20 pages in. That quick. So much so that I hushed my husband repeatedly when he tried to talk to me because didn't he understand that I was reading the most fucked up and engrossing story I have read in years??? Like, come on dude. Get it together. This story and this protagonist were completely messed up and it was one of the most compelling novels I have picked up in a while. It only begs the question -- seriously, what took me so long?

That I can't answer -- sometimes I make poor life decisions -- but I am so amazed that I had the chance to read this. This is a completely character-driven story, and Joe is one messed up SOB. He is a stalker of the utmost level, and being in his head (this story is told in first person) give me the chills and may have caused some sleepless nights. He is vile and horrible, and I couldn't stop being in his head for all of these pages. I wanted him to get Beck, and at the same time I didn't want him to be around Beck. I wanted him to fall off the face of the earth, but yeah, could you check her email again just in case she said anything about you? Joe is a man who kills with impunity and yet somehow justifies what he does. I won't say more than that -- you can find out for yourself who he kills, and I'm not just talking about the object of his affection either -- because this is a book worth reading on your end.

What makes this book, and Kepnes as a novelist, so outstanding is that she has created characters who have brought out such a visceral reaction in me. I recall a conversation once with a colleague about Gone Girl (and no, I'm not comparing these two books here) and she talked about how the book wasn't that good because she absolutely despised the characters, and then she spoke at length about why she hated them -- and it was all about the character arc. I explained to her about what makes a good book, that if the novelist has crafted such despicable characters that create that much of a reaction in you, it turns out the book was really well-written after all. That's the magic of Kepnes's writing. She has created characters that I loathed so much that I have deep thoughts on them. And that, dear readers, is the sign of great writing. 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Power: A Novel


I opted to do my review on Naomi Alderman's show-stopping The Power the same week as The Handmaid's Tale because I feel that these two books are lovers. I'll get more into this in a minute, but these two books feel so intricately connected to me, separated across three decades, and it's absolutely astounding.

It starts slowly, with a few girls here and there. A young girl isn't supposed to be home with her mother, but fends off intruders using it. A teenager in the foster system fights off her abuser with it. A woman is given it by her daughter and uses it to rise to power. A young man is fascinated by it and follows it to the ends of the earth to chronicle it. What is this power, exactly, and where has it come from? It is most likely a leftover from chemical tests during World War II, but it came at a time when women weren't the powerhouses running the world like they are now. I mean, could you imagine? A world with men in charge? That must have been barbaric and unlivable.

Unsurprisingly, this book had been on my radar for a while. Surprisingly, it took me a while to jump on board. I can't say why; I think I have just been bogged down with books and dissertating and working and parenting. I'm glad I picked it up when I did though, because it was a full-scale dive in to a book that hooked me after the first few chapters. These stories are all related, and they are the focus characters in this story that takes a look at a long-ranging (albeit fictional) phenomenon that shakes the world to its core. The brilliance under-girding the story is astounding, really, and Alderman is truly a tour-de-force in regards to the detailed world she has created. It's a world I wouldn't mind living in, frankly, and the whole idea of The Power and what it does to upend gender power is incredible. In the thick of the story, when horrible things are happening to men that we just currently accept as happening to women -- think mass pillaging, torture, sexual assault -- it was hard to read. I had hoped that there would be some level of revenge happiness on my end, seeing men reap what they sow, but it was heartbreaking to know that this was a representation of what we as a gender deal with on a regular basis. The acceptance of these events became stark and clear when reading about them happening to a group that doesn't typically experience them.

Additionally, Alderman's characterization is flabbergasting. She has created a set of characters that are so human that they come alive on the page and I knew them. Really, really knew them. From a middle-aged mother to a young man on the verge of the biggest story of his life to a power-hungry young women, these characters were clearly painted with an expert brush, and the character arc from start to finish was long and languid, leaving me feeling as though I just survived the events with them. I felt I was being let into one long intimate moment that changed the world as we know it.

As I mentioned in the first paragraph, as I read this book it felt eerily like a companion piece to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. I don't think it's just because Alderman has worked with Atwood. It's deeper than that. It's a dystopian tale that is what happens on the other side of the Gilead coin. What could have been in an alternate, Sliding Doors-esque universe is the story of The Power. It was really moving reading these both so close together and seeing the portrait of the women at their core and how they are related to one another, if only they could have existed side by side. I would highly recommend to anyone reading Handmaid for the first time to read this right after and sit with the meaning of the worlds these women have created. It's astounding. On a final note, the last sentence of this book is striking, and it is worth the hundreds of pages you read to get there. The story as a whole is, but the last line. The. Last. Line. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Handmaid's Tale

After thoroughly enjoying the first season of the Hulu adaptation, I decided that I wanted to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale for myself to see the differences in book vs. cinematic adaptation. My thoughts are below, but long story short, it's a good one.

Offred can bear children, this much we know. It's why she's still alive, rather than having been sent to the Colonies. She once had a child, in the time before Gilead. She had a husband then, too. But she cannot even speak of those earlier times. Her only responsibility now is as a handmaid, and she must bear her mistress a child, or it's off to worse pastures she goes. She is Of-Fred, the handmaid of Fred, who rapes her once a month in hopes of her conceiving. In the world of Gilead, it a theocracy where men are king and women are only to serve in various capacities, be it as wife, handmaid, cook, or Jezebel. Once upon a time, they were human. Now...

The first thing that comes to mind when I write about my experience reading this book is how well it paired with the television adaptation. I found them to be complementary, companion pieces, and much less so a show adapting a book. They felt that they went together, both the same and different. I'm glad I finally read this book, as it was recommended to me several years ago and honestly, dystopian fiction is rarely my thing. This one, though, with the addition of the television show, felt very close to home. The theocracy, where men have taken over the lives of women in every respect, may have, at one time even in the recent past, felt far removed from the possibility of occurring, now feels disturbingly omniscient. Women as birth slaves is hard to deal with from a human rights perspective, but it has happened, and it is happening. Look at Boko Haram, as just one example. Atwood's point, I feel, is that this kind of reality is not as far removed as we would like it to be.

I really enjoyed Atwood's writing style, and the first person narrative that provided such strong characterization. I knew Offred, I understood her, and I felt her pain. She was such a strong, vivid character, and I often felt as though I was in the room with her when she told me her story. A part of this characterization is more clear after you read the ending (see AFTER the spoiler alert below if you dare), and it makes me put this book under the banner of "brilliant" more than just plain old "good." Even though I might not be listing it as one of my favorite books of all time, I can't deny that this book is just absolutely brilliant, if not also prescient and horrifying. It's what makes it so incredible. Atwood is a hell of a writer, and even with my aversion to dystopia and fantasy, I think it will be worth my while to pick up more of her work. The first season of the television series ends when the book ends -- Offred being taken off by hopefully friendly forces, but we really don't know that for sure -- so I have mixed feelings about a second season of that. But those thoughts are for another blog. Here, my friends, we do books.

***BOOK SPOILERS AHEAD***

I was really taken by the ending, in terms of finding out that this whole story was written and later discovered once Gilead fell and a new world order was established. I actually read this epilogue a few chapters into the book, and it gave me a good grounding for understanding Atwood's masterpiece. If I had come upon it when I was supposed to -- as an actual epilogue, that is -- it would have been all sixth sense-y, but I liked my way of doing it, as well. It not only provided me with a sense of relief, that at least these women were not held as birth slaves for all of eternity, but rather for the time that Gilead existed. It doesn't take away the horror, but it provided a bit of a salve. 

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Guest Blogger Charlotte - You are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life



At the end of winter, we tend to find ourselves in a rut. Because of its eye-catching title, I immediately picked up You are a Badass. I had never been able to read self-help book all the way through, simply because they seemed too cheesy, forced, or impossible for me to keep up with. But, for some reason, I still gave You are a Badass by Jen Sincero I try, and I actually really enjoyed it!

The book is quite different from other self-help book I have read because you could truly hear the author’s voice and personality come through. Talking through different concepts relatable to all humans, she shared universal ideas from a personal perspective. I felt that the advice, tips, and topics covered were more personal than self-help books and blogs usually seem. Sincero’s sense of humor when it came to facing the facts, titles, and how she approached situations she encountered made this book easier to read because I didn’t feel she was taking herself too seriously. The way the book was written and how the chapters were named made me feel that I was talking to a friend instead of a professional coach, which I loved.

You are a Badass is organized into five sections, which I thought was useful. As the reader, you are slowly introduced to different concepts and ways of thinking. Then as you continue to on reading, the concepts build on each other to speak about overarching topics. Although this led me to sometimes feel that the book was repetitive, it also made sure that I wasn’t forgetting what the author was advising and talking about. You are obliged to improve yourself and your mindset because you are constantly being reminded of improvements to make or change of mindsets.

Within the parts, the book is also organized into different chapters with different styles of writing. Some sections are lists, others are anecdotal stories, and some are the author’s simply talking through concept. I found that this definitely kept the book interesting, as I didn’t feel like I was being lectured or that the information was going right over my head. I also found that this gave the book a personal touch because you could relate to the author as she spoke about moments and experiences of her own life. It allowed me to feel connected to the book as I didn’t feel as though the advice she was giving couldn’t relate to me.

So is You are a Badass the solution to being the best person you can be? Yes and no. I think that it is one of the better self-help books I have read, but you still have to keep up with what Sincero is saying in order for it to work. I think the information provided in the book is extremely helpful and encouraging and the way it is presented and written was beneficial for me. Although it can be repetitive at some points, it’s a nice book to get re-inspired and reset.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Family Next Door: A Novel


I requested a copy of Sally Hepworth's The Family Next Door because I was intrigued by the premise of a series of lies all coming together to a blow up finale. Call me a Liane Moriarity junkie, and I will agree. (Don't fret everyone, for reference, this book was compared to her work in the promo.)

Pleasant Court in Melbourne is a sleepy street where not much happens except the occasional child injury. Except what happens behind closed doors is always more salacious than anyone will let on. Fran and her husband have dealt with their fair share of ups and downs in the recent births of their two children. Ange spends an ungodly amount of time trying to portray the perfect life on social media with her husband and two boys. Essie and her family are trying to forget about her episode of post-partum depression after her first child and secretly guarding against it happening with their second. Thank goodness her mother lives just next door. When Isabelle moves in to a rental on the street, her urban glamour intrigues everyone, not the least of which features Essie. As the heat builds, both literally and figuratively, everyone's lives will come to a head as secrets come to light and families are changed.

This review takes two positions: the first is that the book itself is a little outlandish, and the second is that it was a fun read. I was reminded repeatedly of Big Little Lies, which, as I mentioned earlier in the post, shouldn't surprise anyone since the promotion for this book compared this book to her work. I'll start with the first statement so we can hurry up and get to why this book was a fun read.

I was into this book for a good long while, because Hepworth does a great job of creating interesting characters. Ange was insufferable in that way that you enjoy reading her and hating her all at the same time. We all know people like this in our lives, women who go out of their way to portray a perfect life on social media when you know your kid blows out his diaper just like mine. It's completely insufferable, and you can easily spot an Ange a mile away. Like, really, we aren't stupid. I dropped most of these people on social media during the Great Unfriending of 2016, but I still have a couple on my feed. I really felt for Fran and the difficulties in her marriage, as that was so easy to relate to. Essie fascinated me, and I wanted to get to the bottom of her issues. Isabelle was intriguing. So it's fair to say I was captivated by the characters, and their husbands too.

The story just went a little off the rails when we get to the crux of why Isabelle moved to Pleasant Court. It absolutely was not what I was expecting, I'll give the author that. It was a surprise, because it looks like Hepworth is leaning left and then she spins right. I liked that. However, once the motives are revealed, the story took a turn for the unrealistic in an eye-rolling way. I don't want to give anything away, because I think the book is definitely worth a read for the fun of it, but it's fair to say that the explosiveness of the revelation was downplayed by the melodramatic plot bits.

Back to the good parts of this book. I mentioned the characters earlier, and I think that the strong and intriguing character development is Hepworth's strength. I also loved the suspense that Hepworth was able to bring to the story, as it kept me intrigued enough to grab my Kindle and read that instead of the hard copy books I keep at my bedside. (I use my Kindle for commuting and don't often read it at home, so it's a testament to the intrigue that I wanted to read this book instead of one just an arm's reach away.) The intrigue is what kept me coming back and pushed me through to the end, and that's why I would recommend this book. It was exactly what I needed in the middle of an edit for my (very emotionally heavy) dissertation -- a bit of intrigue, a dash of character love, and a whole lot of page turning. 

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children

A longtime friend of mine sent me a text recommending Alison Gopnik's new book, The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children after seeing Gopnik speak about it recently. What she didn't know is that I am one of Gopnik's biggest fans, and I have a huge academic crush on her. I present her work to my students in my early childhood classes, and The Scientist in the Crib is one my all-time favorite books. I'm rereading it right now, actually. 

Gopnik writes this book from the perspective of being a grandmother and an academic researcher. She opens her book by discussing "parenting" as it has become over the last 50 years -- a verb, a job, something that we are required to do if we have a child. The thrust of her book is that we have become a society that parents as carpenters rather than as gardeners. Carpentry is done with a blueprint as a guide, and the result is something that involves specific processes and a specific outcome. Gardening, on the other hand, implies guidance and trimming while giving the contents a time to grow and define themselves. In carpentry, if you get a different outcome than you planned, you have not achieved your goal. In gardening, there is not outcome in mind, only the process and the acceptance of the beauty of the unexpected outcome.

I loved this book for so many reasons, not the least of which is that Gopnik presents developmental research so clearly and plainly that just about anyone can read this book and have a sense of the essence of what developmental psychology can show us. I love what I do, which is mostly teaching teachers about child and adolescent development, and I found that this book was so eloquent about the history and the understanding of where children come from and how they develop as they do. What I hope that people take away from this book is the understanding that how you parent won't make as big of a difference in what your child will become as much as just simply loving your children will. Her thesis that parenting is not a job, but rather an act of love, is profound and so simple that it gets lost in the Mommy Wars. You won't get your kid to Harvard because you use flashcards with him at age two.

Slow down, everyone, and love the process. It's hard, especially with middle class parents, to tell them to slow their roll. I've commented on here in previous posts that I'm a wool blend parent, and a lot of that has to do with the access to research that I have. I understand, for example, that my values matter, but loud obnoxious toys don't. Talking to my son matters, but talking television doesn't. Laughing with my son matters, pushing him to learn his numbers at six months doesn't. My husband and I laugh because my goal is for my son to be average, and I joke that only an educational psychologist says that about her child. I have no desire to be a carpenter with my child, and it has made me a better parent. I was particularly taken with Gopnik's introduction, and I spent a great deal of time after reading it thinking on this idea of parenting as a verb, as a job. How ridiculous it is, really, that we as (mostly) women base our self-worth on how our children turn out. We are actually depending on someone else's autonomous decisions to inform us of whether or not we did our jobs. That is utterly and completely absurd. As Gopnik says in this book, we raise our children to be who they are through our love and our guidance, but they will be who they will be.

Children learn naturally and on their own, and no amount of pushing them to be geniuses at age three will do the trick. I joke around with my friends that my parenting advice book is going to be called "CTFO: A Parenting Guide For The Rest of Us." I loved this book, and not just because I love Gopnik. I loved it because it took this research that is so full of insight and made it available to the masses. The question is, who will listen? I hope more of us, as we seek to find balance in parenting and people. I will say this loud and clear: Parenting is not my job -- it's something I do out of love. It's not my job to see that my child becomes a genius or does anything specific in his life other than, and these are required in my house, that he be kind and respectful of all humans.