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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, September 27, 2018

Under the Knife: The History of Surgery in 28 Remarkable Operations

Under the Knife: The History of Surgery in 28 Remarkable Operations by Arnold Van de Laar showed up in a search for new books on Netgalley and the blurb grabbed me. 

In the history of medicine, surgery has not always been the hot ticket residency position we currently see in shows like Grey’s Anatomy or whatnot. In fact, it was considered a specialty that doctors ran from, and certain surgeries weren’t even classified as such in order to avoid correlating the knife with the huge risk of death. It wasn’t until, for example, cleanliness improved and a surgeon realized he could cut out his own bladder stone a different way and not bleed out that the diagnosis began releasing pain in so many afflicted. As sanitation increased tremendously and medicine improved, surgery has taken on a life of its own, and it has both saved and ended lives. This historical look at 28 operations that defined the field will change the way you see the process. 

This book is incredibly interesting, drawing on so much history both medical and not. It covers a range of historical figures and what happened to them — popes, European royalty, American politicians — and analyzes what happened, why, and how it could have been different if we knew then what we know now. This book can be incredibly detailed at times, and informative albeit clinical. I love the interweaving of historical figures and the surgeries that saved them, or just could have, and I took a good chunk of information away from this, including the technicality of death via gunshot. (Want to know what that is? Pick up the book!)

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self

I picked up Manoush Zomorodi's Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self at Book Expo last year (2017), and I read through the intro immediately. It was different than I was expecting -- I was hoping for a treatise on the boredom research -- but it was interesting nonetheless. I put it aside for a while, and I picked it back up recently in the wake of my family's discussion of how we can be better about electronics. 

Westerners are spending more time on their electronic devices than ever. We are also reporting that it is negatively impacting our lives and our relationships -- so why can't we just put the damned things down? Zomorodi wondered the same thing, so she set out to challenge both herself and her listeners with the Bored and Brilliant challenge to get people off of their phones, get them bored, and bring back their brilliance. 

I began the challenge by downloading the Moment app and tracking my usage for a couple of days. I was surprised that, by the fourth day, that I clocked in less than two hours of phone time a day. However, I ended up with 25+ pick ups, which is an interesting ratio. I think that this usage is less than my usual, as I was already working to become aware of how often I was using my phone and making an effort to cut that usage down, at least at home with my family. Unfortunate, I found that it made me more aware of my husband’s phone usage, but that’s for him to fix. I just get to be exasperated with him. 

The second challenge, putting away my phone while I commute, was both easy and hard. I am a bookworm (obviously — this is, after all, a book blog), so staying off my electronics wasn’t terribly hard. However, I do often use 20 or so minutes of that commute to respond to emails and — here’s the irony — blog. It helps me keep my phone away at home to take care of little things on the train. So I modified the challenge. I could only use my phone and catch up on emails and such after I read at least one chapter in my book.

The third challenge, not taking a single picture during the day, wasn't too hard. Because we run an Instagram page for our family to see pictures of our son, it was important that a picture still go up, so I made sure to assign my husband to picture duty. I have found myself not taking pictures of the boy on days before, so this wasn't as hard as it seems. I made the decision several trips ago to avoid taking photos all the time and to just enjoy my experiences, which oddly coincided with me getting a smart phone. The first six months of my child's life was an exception, but otherwise, this was a good use of my restraint skills.

The fourth challenge, deleting an app that is a time suck, was one that I skipped, not because I couldn't bring myself to do it, but rather because just becoming more cognizant of my phone use on a regular basis meant that I was spending less (and sometimes significantly less) than two hours a day on my phone, and that included work time. Facebook may have been the one I would have chosen, and I found myself gravitating away from it anyway, which I find super interesting.

Then we get to challenges five (take a fakecation), six (stop and smell the roses), and seven (bored and brilliant), and I have to admit that I didn't do them. After reading the earlier chapters, I felt as though I was on the right track. And retrospectively, I can confirm this. I not only find myself on my phone less often, but I also find myself forgetting to bring my phone from room to room and, when I do notice, I tend to not care that I don't know where it is. That might change when my husband starts back up at work and we are on opposite schedules again, but right now it's working super well. So well, in fact, my husband has been annoyed with me when he can't get hold of me because I just don't have my phone around. Ha. Whoops! Sorry not sorry?

I will definitely do the bored and brilliant challenge sometime in the near future -- I think it's a good one. And I'm not deleting the Moment app from my phone so that if I do ever notice it becoming a problem again, I can refocus and get back to the deliberate use that I am working on now. I use my phone while putting my baby to bed because I have a book on my Kindle app that I'm reading. I check it while I'm out to see if my husband and/or child needs me. But otherwise, it's just not that important, and it feels like a great place to be.

During the challenge, which took me more than a week because I wanted to make this a change in how I use my phone regularly not just challenge myself for a week, my husband and I went on a date. While we were at the bar, right in the middle of our conversation about our family, he notices a film crew and asks if I had heard of the show. I said no, and while I proceed to pick back up the conversation, he immediately pulls out his phone to look it up. I became more than a little pissy, and I laid into him about how we were having a conversation and his addiction to his device just broke it up. Rather than filing it in the back of his mind, or work on continually observing, he had to go down an electronic rabbit hole and fill a void that previously had not existed. I told him that I needed him to start tracking his phone time because it was getting ridiculous. He has since started to do so, and next I'll have him read this book. 

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Hey Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction

Jarrett J. Krosoczka's graphic novel Hey Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction called out to me at Book Expo as a way to speak about these issues, particularly parental incarceration and addiction, with a younger audience who doesn't know that they are not alone. 

Jarrett grew up initially with his mother but when he was a toddler, his maternal grandparents took custody of him because they were concerned about the goings-on in his mother’s home. His mother would disappear for weeks or months at a time, sometimes sending Jarrett letters, but rarely visiting. As Jarrett grows older, his grandparents become more honest with him about the challenges with his mother — she is a heroin addict and has been in and out of prison his whole life. Jarrett, who spent years struggling with who he was and where he fit in, grew even more distant from his mother. Then, one day, his father sends him a letter. As Jarrett moves through adolescence, he must balance his own growing up, his mother’s struggle with addiction, and a new family he never knew he had. 

I was incredibly taken by this book — I read it the very day that I got a copy. It stayed at the top of my bag throughout the Expo and I found myself continually being happy to be standing in line so that I could get back to this book. It was an easy read in that it is aimed for the younger set, and Krosoczka's graphics are really great. It has a consistent color scheme, which I feel helps to set the story for the reader. In fact, as I was in line for another children’s book, I found myself extolling its virtues to a children’s librarian. Here’s the gist of what I told her. 

This book is vitally important for younger children. It’s a middle grade book, so sure, maybe its reading level isn’t quite elementary (although I would have read it as a fourth or fifth grader). But it should be on school library shelves. At one point in the book, Jarrett discovers that one of his classmates also has a mother who is an addict and he never knew. These kinds of secrets can tear children up, and with the amount of children in this country dealing with an addicted parent, it is so very important that these kids realize that they are not alone. One addicted person leaves at least a dozen affected people in his or her wake, and I am always amazed to find out how many of my friends either haven’t felt the sting of loving an addict or remain in denial about it. 

Krosoczka has published a deep, meaningful, and important work for young people that lets them know that they aren’t alone in dealing with hard stuff. The more we avoid talking about addiction, the more power we give the shame surrounding it. We cannot forget that those who love an addict are affected as well, and this includes even the smallest children. I originally picked up Hey, Kiddo for my son, because while he won’t be reading it for a while, I intend to be honest with him about our family’s struggles with addiction. We will not give power to the shame of an illness that affects so many, and I am thankful to Krosoczka for producing a beautiful, open-hearted piece of work for that purpose. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Pretty Is: A Novel

Maggie Mitchell's Pretty Is is part of the catch-up crew of books, ones that I was approved for an advance reader's edition years ago and unfortunately got sidetracked by life. Somehow, though, I come to these books exactly when I need them. 

Carly May and Lois were just twelve years old when thy were kidnapped by a man they knew only as Zed, taken to the woods deep in New York State and held there for six weeks that summer. After their rescue, their families kept them apart to avoid the reliving of those memories. The closure that they both sought, therefore, was never found. Now in their late twenties, Carly May is now Chloe, a D-list actress cast in a star-making role in a book that is a suspiciously familiar story of two girls kidnapped and held in a cabin in the woods. The book it is based off of was written by Lois, now an English professor by day  and pulp fiction writer by night. This event will push the two together again and force them to reckon with their past as they never have before. 

This book was one hell of a thriller — a slow burn through some kindling until it puffed out without you noticing. It was fascinating to watch and follow, and I have mixed feelings about the ending. I wanted a clean resolution — who was Zed, what were his motives, why did he take those specific girls — but we are only left with the same clues as the girls and are left to speculate on the exact motive. On one hand, I thoroughly appreciated that, because often I feel that writers underestimate their readers and provide resolutions that leave nothing to the imagination. On the other hand, it drove me nuts because I so desperately wanted to know what the hell was going on in that man’s mind. 

What is particularly intriguing about this book is that Zed isn’t even the focus — Lois and Chloe are. So we are left with this curiosity in the back of our heads in order to serve the girls. We know everything they know, and the reason we are left to speculate about the events of that summer is because the girls are. It has shaped who they have become and what they need in life, for better or for worse. At times I loved both of these girls and at times I absolutely hated them. They were not terribly likeae characters, which only served to make them realistic. Lois keeps everyone at arms distance, and Chloe seeks affirmation in her looks and her charm. They are extensions of who they were at age twelve, as though they are stuck in time. (I’ve been doing a lot of reading on trauma lately, and Mitchell got this pretty spot-on.)

I would give this book a go if you are into thrillers and crime and murder and mayhem. I found myself desperate to go back to it until I reached the conclusion, and I am secretly (well, not so secretly now) hoping for a sequel to find out some information that Mitchell left me hanging with. 

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Princess in Black: Science Fair Scare

The Princess in Black: Science Fair Scare by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham is part of a series that I did not know about before Book Expo this year. One major reason for this is that prior to this Book Expo, I hand no need to look for elementary and middle grade books. That has changed since the addition of my little guy as well as my desire to find books for my teacher education students, and this year was a feast of goodies.

Apparently I have been missing something, which is that The Princess In Black has so many adventures, and her science fair is just one of them. Why has no one told me? In this adventure, Princess Magnolia, our protagonist, heads to the science fair to present on her work regarding how seeds grow into plants. There are many princesses presenting, and everything is going well until one boy's volcano starts talking. Wait -- is that right? It turns out that boy, Tommy, added monster fur to his volcano to help it erupt, and erupt it does -- right into a big old monster who is set to destroy the entire science fair! Can Princess Magnolia, err, the Princess in Black, get rid of the monster (in a humane way, of course) and save the science fair before the monster eats it all?

I am so very happy that I picked up this book to have on my son's bookshelf as he heads into elementary school in a few years. Not only is it so much fun without being scary, but it features female protagonists who are also superheros when they aren't princesses. The Princess in Blankets joins the Princess in Black to fight the monster while also aided by other princesses who are at the science fair. It is important to me to surround my child with female heroes deliberately and frequently, because he, as a White male, will be surrounded by his likeness frequently and unconsciously. I loved the moral of this story, and how the girls saved the day. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Ohio: A Novel

The premise of Stephen Markley's novel Ohio was so compelling that I fought tooth and nail to get an advanced copy. 

One hot, muggy night in The Cane a few years bah, four classmates converge on their hometown (New Canaan, but really, who calls it that?) on a series of missions that are inextricably bound even if they don’t realize it. Bill is running an errand for an old friend, muling something he doesn’t know but would love to find out because the drugs he’s taking are nuts. Stacey has been asked to meet with her nemesis, the mother of her high school lover who has run away and wants it to stay that way. Dan is a veteran of three tours who is back to visit his folks and catch up with the only woman he has ever loved. Tina seeks a reckoning for choices others made for her that have steered her life since high school. Tonight will change the trajectory of so many lives, leaving the wreckage of the baggage of the past out and open for all to see. 

So, I’m dead. I was so utterly, completely destroyed by this novel that I can’t even see strait. This was such an outstanding piece of work that I honestly thought I might never read anything else ever again. This absolutely killed me. I felt myself slowly creeping back to the book after I put it down, wanting to be back in the world of these kids who were just that — kids — as they watched their world change so drastically. These characters are a little younger than me, and I understand their zeitgeist because it is my own. I know what it is like to live without war, without the prison industrial complex, and without the full invasion of addicting, homemade drugs. The landscape of their lives has shifted dramatically in small-town post-industrial America that it’s no wonder those who get out can, and they never return. Those who stay end up barely living if they remain alive. 

I could see some of the twists and turns coming, but I did not see the biggest one, the undercurrent of the reason they all are back. This history, this Eason, draws them all like a magnet back to their center and holds on to them as if their lives depended on it. No matter how far these four have come, they will never be separate from their inner core. Stacey wrestles with her demons and the loss of the first person she truly, whole-heartedly loved. Bill’s demons are all in his head, and he must wrestle with himself in order to breathe. Dan is truly heartbreaking — a man who gave up everything to serve and lost so much, except loyalty. Tina — man, I rooted for Tina once I figured out what she was up to. I wanted her to find a solution so badly. 

This novel was incredibly affecting, so much so that my heart hurt after I closed the final page. It was truly a gift to read in every way, and I’m so grateful it came into my life. 

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Dave Eggers' What Can a Citizen Do?

I love Dave Eggers, and when I saw he was releasing a children's book, What Can a Citizen Do?, illustrated by Shawn Harris, at Book Expo, I absolutely stood in line for his autograph. He made it out to my son, so that he will know that he is a citizen and there are so many things that he can do.

He can do so many things -- join causes, write letters, build things, stand up for beliefs, do kind things for others. The key is that a citizen must be engaged and they must be part of their society. Do things to help others regardless of who they are and what they need. After all, we never know the battles that others are fighting. Being a part of something is bigger than me and you -- we are citizens.

Where to start with this lovely piece of work that I love so much that I might not let my son touch it before his 18th birthday? Or, you know what, since his prefrontal cortex doesn't finish developing until he's in his mid-20's, he can't touch it until then which is fine because I wasn't about to let him out of the house anyway. But since I want him to be a good citizen, maybe I should take everything in this paragraph back and send him out into the world.

I love the sentiment of this book, and the poem itself is just wonderful and lovely. That the thrust of the book is to be a good citizen, which means recognizing that there is injustice in the world and that it is your job to fix it, is not just a sweet and ambitious idea, but it's the reality of our current circumstances. I have heard for years from parents of small children then they can do their part by teaching their children to love everyone, and the reality of that idea is that it's privileged, uninspired, and missing what is required to be an active, meaningful citizen. In order to teach our children to be citizens we must make explicit for them how to be good citizens -- caring for others, finding the helpers (thanks, Mr. Rogers!), being the helpers, giving of your time and your talents in any way that you can, and standing up for what is right. It is not enough just to love others -- oh sure, it's sweet -- but we must also teach our children to be active.

That is what is at the heart of this gorgeously illustrated, deeply worded book for young people. May my son always know that he must be a citizen.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Florida: Stories

I loved Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies (which I have et to finish, years later!), which I'm not sure I ever blogged about, so I requested her new book of short stories, Florida, as soon as I could. 

I wasn’t entirely sold by the first story — that of a suburban mom who walks her anger off for hours every night, watching her neighborhood change and shift throughout the seasons. But the second story brought me in a bit — that of Jude and his life’s tale in 14 pages. This story was fascinating, in that Groff takes you from Jude’s childhood to the day he sends his daughter off to college. It’s a wild ride, one that manages to break your heart while also being somewhat bare bones. It speaks to Groff’s astounding storytelling, that she can speed through a life and you feel like you know him intimately.

“Dogs Go Wolf,” the third story, is what completely sold me. The tale of two young girls left to fend for themselves on an island, alone, was gripping and jaw-dropping. Groff has this ability to create fully formed characters within a single page, so that when you realize the tragedy of their existence you can’t turn back and in-know it. I was both intrigued and devastated by these two girls, hoping for them that their mother wouldn’t be the jerk that she was and that she would come back for them. It wasn’t meant to be, and we as the readers are better off for that. We leave with more than we came with. 

Through the story of the woman with a head injury camping with her two sons, we move into another one of Groff’s masterpieces, a story in which a woman opts to ride out a hurricane at home, only to be visited by the great dead loves of her past. This story was surprisingly moving and I found my throat catching in moments. It is a little life-flashing-before-your-eyes but with an honest twist, as there are no holds barred between her and her ghosts. 

The next two stories were equally arresting — one of a pair of friends on holiday in France, where secrets peek around every corner, and the other a woman on annual holiday in Brazil in which her mettle is tested by a storm. As the stories progress, Groff’s writing continues to make its mark as she weaves the tales of these women who are three-dimensional and full of life and love and missteps and small triumphs. You may think you know what is going to happen, but Groff will surprise you with what you least expect, and boy, is that a feat. 

As I rinsed out the last of her stories, I put down this book better than when I came to it, and for me that is a mark of the beauty of this work. I need to turn back to Fates and Furies next, this time with a fresh appreciation for Groff and her storytelling.