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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, November 29, 2018

Gray Mountain: A Novel

This summer, during our family vacation to Myrtle Beach, I chose John Grisham's Gray Mountain as my Grisham reading because you know I can’t hit the sand and not do one. It’s in my bones. 

During the great implosion of 2008, law firms were going belly up or, at a minimum, hemorrhaging employees. Poor Samantha — her hours of poring over commercial real estate contracts for wealthy magnates has come to an end. She has been offered a “furlough” with r in one year as long as she agrees to take an unpaid internship for that year. She ends up in rural Virginia, in the Appalachian mountains known for their coal. Land owners drool at the prospect of selling strip mining rights to big companies that wheel and deal and cheat and lie. At the legal aid clinic she comes to, Samantha soon discovers that she has the ability to help people who desperately need it, and some who don’t even want it. When a new friend is found dead after initiating the biggest lawsuit that side of Virginia has ever seen, Samantha must make a choice between the safety of New York City of the danger of pushing forward to keep her promises to her new friends. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this book in the best vacation way. It was absolutely perfect for a beach read — a little thriller-esque, a little pulpy, and a lot of character. Samantha was interesting if sightly annoying in that NYC bullshit snobby way of young people who earn too much money and think they need to spend it all. I had no patience for their bullshit in 2008 and I have even less in 2018. There’s no reason you should have so much money that you can afford to pay rent on your TriBeCa or Village high-rose while you intern for free in another state. My eyes are rolling into the back of my head as I type this. 

Other than that, I actually quite liked Samantha. She wrestled with doing right by her indigent clients while still trying to hold on to a piece of herself. She avoids the temptations of one romance (for good reason) while indulging in another (for yet another good reason). She cares and grows to care even more during her time in Virginia while still clinging to her knowledge that she can’t settle there forever. She doesn’t give in to what I expected would be a do-holder trope, and that was great to read. 

I also appreciated the social justice angle that Grisham took in this novel. The strip mining of land in the Appalachian region has been egregious to say the least, and it’s nice to see him bringing light to the issue. He even provides a reference to donate money for aid if you feel so inclined. Unfortunately, so much of the land has been destroyed in that area in the decade since this book was published, and little has changed in the way businesses hold and wield power. It’s angering at best and heart attack-inducing at worst. Putting that on the page for readers to face head-on deserves applause. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Reluctant Queen: The Story of Anne of York

Jean Plaidy's The Reluctant Queen: The Story of Anne of York was passed on to me by one of my best friends along with A Rose Without a Thorn, which you may notice isn’t on this blog for reasons we will get to in a moment. I found the premise of this one interesting as the only thing I know about Richard III is what Shakespeare has told me. So I gave it a roll. 

Lady Anne Neville, our protagonist, is a proviledged girl in Britain during the War of the Roses. Her father, Earl of Warwick, is the most powerful man in the country who is not king. He helped win the War and put King Edward on the throne. Edwards youngest brother, Richard, grew up as Warwick’s ward, where he and Anne are drawb together in mutual kinship and a spark is alighted. However, as times change and politics stir and alliances shift, young Anne is betrothed to the enemy of the throne, one who aims to take it back, in hopes that her father willl win his influence in return. Anne had no desires for the throne, and is devastated at the notion of marrying such a brute. Her sister, Isabel, who has married the other brother of the trio, the Duke of Clarence, Richard’s older brother, would happily be queen. When Anne’s fiancĂ© dies in battle, she is free to marry Richard and live the quiet life they’ve always wanted. 

But you didn’t think that would last, did you? Silly rabbit. 

I was definitely intrigued by the first couple of chapters in this book, and I found myself wanting to keep digging in. I mentioned a previous book above, which I found to be melodramatic and stilted in terms of prose, so I didn’t post on it. This one, though, was interesting enough for me to push through. My general assessment is that it kept my attention until the middle, the. I found myself horribly bored until the last chapter again. I had the same issue with this book as I did with Rose — the story is way too bogged down in details that I found irrelevant to the story at hand. The history is interesting, but it comes across as staged when the dialogue is written here. 

However, I will say that I’m not this series’ primary target. If you like historical fiction with a twist of romance, then this is your jam. I do not like romances as a genre (good for you if you do!) so this didn’t fulfill a need in me to see my characters beguiled. (I mean, it’s not like the story ends well. Anne dies while Richard is on the throne — no spoilers here, you had 400+ years to see the movie — and it’s not even like she does a dignified death.) I did appreciate the historical situating of the marriage between Anne and Richard. It has sparked in me some interest to poke more into their situation and what historical records exist of their marriage. 

Thursday, November 22, 2018

The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler

John Hendrix's The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler was a book that I picked up because it not only looked interesting, but it was also something that I know I will one day want my son to read.

This graphic depiction of a story I had never heard about before was just amazing. I was blown away by the representations of some difficult material, including Hitler and the underpinnings of the Holocaust. Hitler was portrayed as a wolf, so his actual human representation was only presented once. This is important, as any other consisted picture of him might have served to humanize him; rather, seeing him as a wolf in sheep's clothing created a metaphorical yet arresting picture of a man whose need for power destroyed millions of lives. I also found the explanation of the rise of the Nazi party to be incredibly well-done and very clear. It's hard for even those with high level reading skills to grasp onto all of the nuances and details of that point in history, and I felt that this book did a wonderful job making clear what happened along with the timeline. Hendrix put a small box on the corner of the page when he was discussing the military exercises that contained a map showing the areas that the Nazi's had already conquered and that which they were moving into. Not only was this a great story of standing up for your beliefs -- and we will get to that momentarily -- it was also a history book.

I was never aware of the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man of God who believed it was his moral imperative to kill Hitler. Spending time in America and seeing legal racial discrimination, even among his fellow Christians, shapes who Bonhoeffer is and what his faith means. When he returns to his home country of Germany at the beginning of the era we know well from our history books, he wants to bring the active faith he discovered in America. As Germany begins to see its takeover by the Nazi party, he finds himself involved in anti-Nazi activism that puts him on the enemy list, and he briefly escapes to America before realizing that to truly live his faith, he must be in the middle of the storm. He returns to Germany and joins the resistance. He struggles with his belief in the Bible and what he knows needs to happen to save Germany -- and the world -- from a tyrant who was seeking to end the lives of millions of minorities. The question he faces -- is it justified to kill a person to save millions of others -- shapes his activism, and Bonhoeffer becomes central to the plot to kill Hitler.

This is an absolutely incredible story, and one that I want my son to read one day. I want him to know that people don't just oppose hate with their words, but also with their actions even if they seem extreme at the time. We can't prove what would have happened if Hitler had been stopped earlier; it could have been a Medusa situation, or it could have helped good people realize that they were turning into bad ones. Maybe those who sought power would have still pushed forward because this was the way they were taking it. Who knows? But we do know now who Dietrich Bonhoeffer was and why we should be grateful to him. My son will know, too. 

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Sick: A Memoir

Porochista Khakpour's Sick: A Memoir was a popular new release, so I jumped on the bandwagon as soon as it came out. I was unfamiliar with her previous work, and much to my shame. She is a beautiful, compelling writer who drew me in with her prose and her tale-weaving. 

Most likely but as a child, Porochista has never known a time when she wasn’t sick. Things had always felt off for her, and when as a young woman at college in New York she finds herself spiraling down into a series of health breaks, she can’t quite put her finger on why. Although several people mention the possibility of Lyme over the next few years, it’s not until a definitive diagnosis almost a decade later that she can find any sort of short-lives relief. Her work and wanderlust takes her all over the word, but her illness continues to bring her back. 

Porochista’s story is fascinating, and well worth a read. She has many in her life who don’t believe her, and through her story I did a great deal of reckoning with myself over people I have known who have suffered from similar ailments. Was I a non-believer? Did I hurt anyone I loved because of an illness that was hard to diagnose? Quite possibly. I also had to reckon with my own ailments. I have been suffering from extreme exhaustion on and off for four years. It got better with pregnancy and post-partum, but it’s recently started to read its ugly head again. No doctor has taken me seriously, and so I soldier on, grateful that I have the ability to work from home on days when I just have difficulty moving. 

Following Porochista’s journey from childhood to adulthood and colored by this mysterious illness that has lent a cloud cover to her development was fascinating. Her timelining her illness with her relationships was something we can all easily relate to, even though by the time her illness became so bad that she had to leave Germany, I wanted to smack her and tell her to let herself heal emotionally as well as physically. For once, a character listened to me! For a bit, anyway, so by the time she found a relationship after making her way back to NYC I was cheering for her. 

I appreciate that she ended the book with the recognition that her journey is far from over. She talks about the book that she pitched which is not the book that she ended up with due to an unexpected relapse. Her open heart that she lays bare on her pages makes me feel as though she is my friend, and her words strung together on the page have made me think more deeply and honestly about capital-H Health. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

My Body Belongs to Me!

Amazon Prime Day is a beautiful thing. I didn't intend to buy anything more than what we absolutely needed, but when I saw this My Body Belongs to Me! by profamilia and illustrated by Dagmar Geisler, I knew we absolutely needed it.

Clara is a young girl who understands that from being a baby to being a small girl, her body has changed and she is becoming different as she grows. She also knows that sometimes it's nice to touch other people, like sitting close to a friend, hugging her family, and sitting on her grandmother's lap. But Clara most importantly knows that she is the only one who gets to decide who touches her and when they do. She has the right to tell others to not touch her, and to decline when others offer and she does not want it, even if it is someone she knows well, like her parents. And if she tells someone no and they don't listen, she can always go get an adult she trusts, because she gets to choose when and how someone touches her.

One thing that is very important to us in our household is that our child does not have to touch anyone he doesn't want to. I ask him to give high fives, hugs, or kisses to people we know and love, and sometimes he just doesn't want to. It's not a problem; in fact, quite the opposite. Sometimes he doesn't feel like it, even at 16 months old. It's his right, and we want to encourage bodily autonomy with him. I ordered this book for exactly that reason; I wanted a resource that we could read to him that says this very thing.

Over 90% of children who experience sexual abuse and assault know their victimizer. All of this brouhaha over the last few years about transgender men and women using the bathroom of their choice because it puts kids in danger is a bullshit, and not just because of the primary reason that we should respect people's choices with their own bodily autonomy (and, frankly, if you are going to look over my stall to see my genitalia, I am absolutely going to call the cops and report you for sexually inappropriate behavior). The statistic at the start of this paragraph should alarm you, because it's NOT a stranger in the parking lot, but someone your child -- and YOU -- knows. It's someone you might very well trust.

Sex education begins young. It begins when babies are teeny tiny. It's a constant education, not just a single sex talk. It starts with making sure that children know that their bodies belong to them, and they have a right to say no and to be listened to when they say it. I love this book, and the culture of consent that it reinforces.

There is an introduction from the International Center for Assault Prevention recommending this book and providing information as to how to use it with your children to discuss bodily boundaries. There is also a list of resources at the end for parents if they need them. I would also like to point you to RAINN, another great resource if you are in need of help or other resources.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

When Breath Becomes Air

Recently in my apartment building, someone started a book table where they leave books and others can take them. I am not interested in most of the titles, but occasionally one pops out that I have wanted to read. This was the case with Paul Kalanithi's When Breath Becomes Air.

This book is mostly a memoir, but it is a beautiful and arresting treatise on life and love. How do we live to our fullest? Kalanithi tells us, because he did it. Beginning as a child with a deep love of literature instilled in him by his mother, he was encouraged by his parents to delve deep into his curiosity and to learn. In college he continued to immerse himself in his beloved literature as well as indulge his curiosity in how the mind works through biology and the beginning inklings of neuroscience. He then went off to find himself, continuing his studies at Cambridge before moving on to medical school and eventually becoming one of the most sought-after neurosurgeons and neuroscientists in the nation. He married Lucy, the love of his life whom he first met in medical school, and together they had a child when they knew his life was near its end. Other than dying at a young age -- 37 -- he had it all.

But the thing that Paul teaches us in this book that dying is merely the end, but it's not the definition of who we are the lives that we have led. The measure of our worth as humans are the things we have accomplished in between birth and death -- knowledge, love, kindness, and the depth of our souls. In this short memoir, he puts that all to words in the most eloquent, moving, and thoughtful prose I have ever read. His words seared my heart in a reminder of how important it is to reflect on our lives through the lens of thankfulness when we have been given so much. Paul is one of the most gifted motivational writers that has ever existed (and yes, I am not exaggerating), and just a few hours with his gifted mind feels like it was a gift meant for me. It is clear why he would have been incredibly successful as a writer, and his self-education in literature is apparent in his writing.

There are so many beautiful moments in this book to touch on, but I want you to read them for yourself. When Paul is diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer in his 30's, at the height of his career, when he is being pursued by some of the most elite medical institutions, he has to reexamine his life plan. Practicing medicine for the next 20 years and spending the following 20 as a writer isn't possible anymore. He just won't live that long. He has to make a decision to live the last of his days and months to their fullest. He finishes out his residency, he begins this book, and he and Lucy decide to have a baby. This is where I am broken.

Paul's final words in his final chapter broke me as a human. His final paragraph, written to his infant daughter, is the most meaningful work I have ever written. It's simplicity belies the depth of his words and the meaning of life and love for another human. Even if the rest of the book wasn't worth the read -- and it very much is worth every second you will give to it -- those last few words will wreck you.

But you aren't done -- you need to read Lucy's afterword. Reading her bear her raw soul in telling us about her last few moments with her husband was so real that I had to read it in one-paragraph chunks. It was too much to bear in one setting without openly breaking down.

This book as a whole is one of the all time greatest memoirs ever written. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and Other Stories From a Child Psychiatrist's Notebook

The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and Other Stories From a Child Psychiatrist's Notebook: What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love, and Healing by Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D. and Maia Szalavitz came across my radar a while ago, but an old childhood friend recommended it to me recently, so I got it from the library. I was shocked that I had not read it earlier, but it has been indispensable for my work in teacher training. 

Trauma is far more prevalent than we ever could have imagined. Dr. Bruce Perry, a psychiatrist by training, fell into the work of treating trauma in children by accident. From there though, he has built a movement that seeks to give children the space and time they need to process through their pain and experience to learn how to cope in their world. He tells some of his bigger, more memorable stories in this book: his work with the children released from the Branch Davidian compound during the siege; a young girl who witnessed her mother’s murder; children raised in a home of cyclical sexual abuse; and many more. He uses these stories to build a history of what he learned and how it shaped him as a practitioner. He also updates each chapter with the most recent research in order to place each anecdote and subsequent explanation into the most current context possible. 

This book has spurred me to do so much more reading into the recent research on trauma and its effects on children and adults, including health ailments such as autoimmune disorders, mental illness such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder and anxiety, and attachment issues. The roots of this run deep, and the relationship between trauma and human outcomes is staggering. The stories in this book are extreme, and I caution anyone with trauma triggers to proceed with extreme caution. However, it’s important to note that trauma is on a continuum, and it’s not always witnessing a murder or being held in a cage. The common denominator is a lack of need fulfillment from caregivers — and those needs include (per Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs) food, water, shelter, and safety. Love? Sure, that’s important, but it’s not a buffering factor if you don’t feel safe, physically or emotionally. It’s why a parent who physically abuses you can show you love when they aren’t hurting you, but it doesn’t mitigate the lack of safety you feel in not knowing when they will lash out. 

All of this to say that you shouldn’t fear traumatizing your children if you provide for their needs, including safety. I had a conversation with a friend just last night about this, and her concern that she was traumatizing her young child because he gets upset when saying goodbye to the people he leaves. That’s normal, and not trauma. Having your parent spit at you when you are crying is not normal, as an example. 

Now for the importance of this book. This is an absolute must-read for anyone who wants to do any work with children. You will run across the long-term affects of trauma, although most likely not as extreme as the surviving Branch Davidian children, for example. However, the sexual and/or emotional abuse of children is far more common that we could ever imagine, and its effects last long into adolescence.  Knowing how this affects your students is vital to being a caring educator and seeing past just simply placing the blame on students for behavior that very well may be out of their control. 

I would LOVE to do Dr. Perry’s training in trauma treatment, but it’s a bit out of my financial reach for something that just fascinated me but is y directly part of my practice. However, what a gift this man is to the children being served not just by him, but by the practitioners who have learned from him. I’m so thankful for this book — I even purchased it as a reference piece. I can’t recommend it more highly. 

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Whistle in the Dark: A Novel

Emma Healey's Whistle in the Dark came to me through a review somewhere, I believe, and the premise of a teenager missing for four days was fascinating for me. So from the library it came. 

Lana was gone for four days. Her mother, Jen, who only wanted to take a holiday with her younger daughter, hoping it would help them connect and bring Lana out of her depression. It was supposed to be a week of painting in the country. But one night, Lana doesn’t come back to the cabin. After Lana is found wandering a field in the area, she is treated for cuts, bruises, a head wound, and ligatures around her ankles. The family returns home to recover. She is different, though, sleeping with the lights on, jumping at small sounds, and lying about where she’s been. Jen is convinced the answer lies in where Lana was those four days and what happened to her while she was gone. 

The premise of this book gripped me, as I have, of late, just wanted to read some murder and mayhem. However, this book was not that. The whole time, I was reading to find out what happened to Lana, and I was given clues throughout her story as she was recovering, but it isn’t until the end of the story when Jen, about to lose her mind, goes in search of the answers in the place of their holiday. Lana, throughout the book, is at times a typical sullen teenager and at others, a young woman recovering from an experience she refuses to think about. She claims to not be able to remember what happened to her, and the cops are quick to close the case without further evidence of foul play. How far can a mother go to fine out what happened? 

The truth is quite far. I was less than activated by Lana’s story about halfway through the book, and I’m still not sure why. However, I kept pushing forward to explore the relationship between Jen and her older daughter, an exacting lesbian who has gotten pregnant by her best male friend (purposely) and is bringing new life into a family who is struggling with the fallout of a depressive episode and disappearance. I loved this relationship and the contrast it was to that of Lana and Jen, and which informed that relationship. Jen doesn’t understand Lana, but she is clearly close with her older daughter. This was the part of the book I gravitated toward and that which I found to be the most compelling part of the novel. 

Ultimately, Lana was a difficult young woman and a frustrating g character to read — I found myself not caring about what had happened to her. However, I found the rest of her family to be terribly interesting, even Jen in her neuroticism.