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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, December 27, 2018

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

David Grann's Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI has been on my to-read list for a while, but with so many physical books actually on my shelf, it has been relegated to the wish list. This summer, while at the beach, my best friend handed me her copy and told me I had to read it. I was ecstatic.

In the early 1920’s members of the Osage tribe in Oklahoma began dying off, some suspiciously and others through outright murder. At the time, most white settlers could not care less, as they viewed the Indians as less than human and despised the Osage for their shrewd maneuvering of the oil system to claim headrights to the liquid gold underneath their reservation, making them all wealthy beyond belief. The headrights, however, were the key to this mystery, as they could only be obtained through inheritance — no Osage could sell their rights. Could there really be a cold-blooded plot to murder dozens of men and women simply for their fortunes? As Hoover’s FBI is in its infancy and the feds as we know them were just starting to take shape, this case, known by the Osage as the Reign of Terror, would become the cornerstone of the bourgeoning agency and would remain a  source of devastation to the descendants of a people who deserved so much better. 

I found this story, and this book about it, to be absolutely fascinating. I didn’t want to put it down, and I was thrown by the calculated, cold-bloodedness if it all. Interestingly, the mastermind of a large amount of the murders comes out mid-way through the story, and it’s almost unbelievable because you’ve come to know the man as someone doing good. I found it odd that as much as I love murder and mayhem, and as much true crime as I read, that wi would be flabbergasted by the white man’s lack of limits for wealth. To look at a group of people as genuinely inhuman and as lacking the same humanity that you have is just something I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around. It’s not that I don’t believe it — after all, we have all seen how cruel humanity can be — it’s just that when confronted when something this diabolical and cruel, it’s difficult for someone like me to grasp it. I wouldn’t even begin to imagine a plot like this, so it’s not a surprise that I have a hard time wrapping my head around it. 

Grann’s writing is wonderful and easy to read without being pedantic, and I appreciate the adaptability of the journalist to reach a lay audience. I loved the weaving of the Osage murder plot with the beginnings of the FBI, and he was wonderful at combining the information that we needed to know about the FBI and which would enhance our understanding of the Osage murders without burdening us with minutiae. I can see why this book was a bestseller and why it was consistently rated as one of the top non-fiction titles of the year it was published. 

It’s a strong and important retelling if a piece of hurtful history in Osage history and, frankly, in American history. Our country’s treatment of the Natives in so many ways was beyond cruel, and then to read it as personalized as Grann has made it here slaps you in the face. It only started with displacement and genocide and then it continued on with guardianships of the Osage fortunes, declaring Natives as incompetent and essentially forcing them to marry white man and women, and then turning a blind eye to their systematic murders for greed. When we say that as Americans we are “better than this,” we can pick up a book that extols the history of our dehumanization of the people who owned our land before we did and we can hopefully recognize that no, we aren’t — but that we can learn from history and choose to be better from here on out. 

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Orson Scott Card's A Town Divided by Christmas.

This book brings me a good bit of joy, as I've been waiting a long time to write this post. At BookExpo this year, I arranged to get Orson Scott Card's A Town Divided by Christmas from his very hands, with his autograph for my husband for Christmas. Ender's Game is one of his favorite books, so when I saw that he would be signing advanced review copies of his new book, I made it a priority. 

Of course I was going to read it first, which I did before I wrapped it. I had to hide it in my dresser drawer under another stack of books in hopes that he would never go through it. I then had to plan to read it in one setting on a day when he had a long day at work. It was a success and not too difficult at 108 pages. Also, it was a good read. I don't know much about Card's other work other than it's more fantasy based than this novel is, but I like what I have seen so far.

Spunky (aka, Dr. Spunk) is a post-doc who knows she will soon need a job. Her mentor receives a big grant based on her research, which focuses on whether there is a "homing gene" involved in small towns with residents who don't leave. She heads to Good Shepherd, North Carolina with her annoying but incredibly smart co-post-doc, Elyon, and sets up shop to sequence as much DNA as they can while also interviewing residents to create an ethnography of the town. They are hoping to be in and out by Christmas. Except that pesky part where they both end up falling in love with residents of the town and find that they don't want to leave. After all, if they leave before Christmas, they won't be able to see the dueling pageants put on by the split Episcopals which occurred after that fateful holiday season of 1930. Southerners understand that this happens. Outsiders -- well, they either catch on or they don't.

I was quite taken with the characterization; Card has a hankering for writing very real, very full characters. Left in the hands of a less skilled writer, I would have been incredibly annoyed that this story came up with these conclusions so quickly. (After all, as I said, this novelette is only 108 pages.) However, Card has deftly crafted a whole series of characters, not just Spunky and her co-worker, who jumped off the page and came to life within a few paragraphs. His prose and his dialogue serve the characters well, and they read as so very real. Having a background in the ivory tower myself, I felt like I knew the two of these very well. I know people just like them.

I was quite taken with this story and I found myself wonderfully surprised that I was able to get this book, and the surprise came from my own enjoyment. I'm glad I was able to get this for my main squeeze (love you babe!), but I was also happy that I found the time to sneak in a quick read before I had to wrap this up for him. It's a lovely holiday read, and you still have time to get it in before the new year!

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Marvelous Maravilloso: Me and My Beautiful Family

Marvelous Maravilloso: Me and My Beautiful Family was a pick up from BookExpo this year for some family fun reading. It's about a young girl who sees all of the colors of her world bright and clear, and she takes us, her readers, through her life in a tour. She even sees the color of the people in her world, including her mommy and daddy who are different colors. Her mother is like crema, and her father is like chocolate. She herself is like cafe con leche. What a lucky girl she is!

I love love love that this book incorporates Spanish seamlessly; it's a natural part of the story and it's written in when it feels like it should be. One page talks about where her grandmother lives, and the next refers to her as "Y mi abuela." It feels so natural and the connections are so clear.

It's also a lovely story of a girl who is of two cultures, and she moves between them seamlessly. She does this because she sees the beauty of the world in all of its amazing colors and differences. There are three pages in the back of the book that lead the reader to discuss race and discrimination with their children, which is always helpful if you need a little guidance as to how to address these issues with small children. It can be difficult, but it is so necessary, and children are open to these discussions if you begin having them early. This book is a wonderful jumping off point for those discussions, and I'm so happy I picked it up. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Girl with a Pearl Earring

I have a whole bunch of older books that I buy when I go to bookstores while traveling, books that I've always wanted to read or that I should read because everyone has. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier was one of these. I wasn't too keen on picking it up as I don't care for period pieces, but once I did I found myself absolutely captivated. 

Griet is almost sixteen when her parents inform her that she will be serving as a maid to help with family finances. She is sent to work for the Vermeer family, and one of her tasks is to clean the painter’s studio without moving a single thing. She struggles in the beginning to find her place in the house, with a fiery mistress, an ever-pregnant wife, and a stoic master. As the painter takes to Griet, she takes to him as well. His talent fuels her. When a wealthy patron known for his indiscretions takes to Griet, her master seeks to shield her from his advances. His efforts lead to one of his greatest works — but the end of Griet. 

I went into this novel hesitant for several reasons. First, I tend to not be into period pieces not historical fiction. I’ll give it a shot, but I’m more of a contemporary murder and mayhem kind of girl. Second, this was such a big hat that I was sure it would be overhyped. I have learned my lessons the hard way. I had purchased this at a used bookstore somewhere forever and a day ago, and since I was trying to work through some older books to sell back to the used bookstore this summer, I thought I would pick it up. I was wrong to be hesitant, as it was a great piece of work. 

I found Chevalier’s writing style to be compelling. I was interested in enough in her storytelling that I continually wanted to come back to find out where the story was going. It was a slow burn — this is not a high-octane, action-packed thriller, so there needs to be an element of languid prose to be able to keep me interested in what’s going to happen next. The key in why I enjoyed this so much was in the author’s weaving of the complicated pattern of Griet’s life. The characters served to move the story rather than the other way around. Chevalier made this work to deliver a carefully crafted story that was so vivid it felt real. 

Griet’s father plays a small role, but it is her relationship with him that drives the plot line and reveals moments that otherwise might not be revealed. Pieter, the butcher’s son who takes a fancy to Griet, is not a loveable guy but is necessary to what will be Griet’s ultimate breaking point in the Vermeer house. I even found myself rooting for him even though I didn’t actually like him. Again, that’s a touchpoint in this novel. Vermeer wasn’t even terribly likeable but he was compelling as a character nonetheless. 

I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this novel, and now I’m curious to check out the film and see what I think of it. I had never seen it, although I’m familiar with Scarlett Johansson as the lead and WOW, is that ever a 1:1 match. Talk about on point. However, I find myself wanting to live with the characters I developed in my mind with this book, as Chevalier has created such a vivid picture for me. Only time will tell. 

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Bringing Adam Home: The Abduction that Changed America

Les Standiford's Bringing Adam Home: The Abduction that Changed America was one of the novels I chose to "check out" from Amazon, along with a bunch of children's books and a book on the history of Budweiser. (What can I say? I have eclectic taste.)

This book is incredibly in-depth, closely examining the Walsh case from start to finish. In the event you haven’t heard of it, Adam Walsh was a six-year-old boy in Florida who disappeared from a Sears store while his mother was just in the next department. This was the late ‘70’s/eary ‘80’s when everyone was a bit more trusting and severely less fearful than we are in 2018/19. He wanted to play with a video game console, and there was no reason for his mother to say no. His head was found a couple of weeks later several miles away, and his body was never found. It would take almost three decades to name his killer even though it only took months to identify him. 

Standiford’s book bookended a long, sordid tale of Otis Toole, the killer of Adam and many others, with the Walshes. That was, to me, the most interesting piece. I ended up skimming over a lot of the middle of the book because I found Toole to be egregiously disgusting and I didn’t care to hear the details of his crime. I was much more interested in the details of the day that Adam disappeared and the aftermath of that. The relationship between the Walshes and Matthews, the investigator that ultimately solved and closed the case for them, intrigued me more than the sordid and pained life of someone like Toole. 

Going even deeper than that, I was horrified by the police work done in the case. Toole confesses mere months after Adam’s killing, spontaneously even, and because it didn’t fit the narrative the investigators had about the crime, they ignored the confession or brushed it aside as false when challenged. It angered me to no end, as the Walshes could have had some sense of closure early on if the man had been identified and at a minimum had charges brought against him. These two people, Adam’s parents, had to spend almost 30 years wondering exactly what happened, as the police delay told them nothing. Even as John Walsh featured his son’s case on America’s Most Wanted and the tips came in, the police went to great effort to cover up their mistakes. If I had any faith left in criminal investigators, this shook that deeply. Unfortunately, it appears the doggedness based in their biases was much more common than we want to know. 

Ultimately, this was an interesting book about the Adam Walsh kidnapping and murder, and its detail and clarity was well worth the read for the true crime nut. It was one of the two cases that I really feel shaped our understanding of child abductions by strangers (the other being Etan Patz) and changed how Americans view the right to a carefree childhood. In fact, there is a direct connection to Small Animals, which I reviewed last fall. We were never the same, and we can never go back. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Touchpoints: The Essential Reference for Your Child's Emotional and Behavioral Development

My husband has been working at a downtown theater these past few months, so when we head down to meet him for dinner I will often swing by The Strand and see what used books look interesting. I've reviewed books by Dr. T. Berry Brazelton before, and I happen to be a fan of his work from a professional standpoint as well as a personal one. I found Touchpoints: The Essential Reference for Your Child's Emotional and Behavioral Development and I picked it up for a dollar to use with my early childhood development classes.

I found this book to be a great reference for new parents and those who may be skittish about whether their kids are "on the right track." Funny enough, last night I had a childless friend over along with a parent friend, and CF said that just about everyone she knows with a child is worried about whether they are developing correctly except me. She said this laughingly, but it's true. A big part of that is my work; I teach human development and understand it intimately, and I also understand that resilience is the norm. I don't freak out easily, and I would like to urge others to as well.

That's where Touchpoints comes in. I found most of the information to be reassuring to the general public, and the thrust of the book is a noble one: that there are certain times where you will see your pediatrician and you will wonder if what you are doing as a parent is correct. (Short answer: most of the time it is, so chill out.) The first section of this book goes over 13 touchpoints starting in pregnancy and ending at three years. Each of these touchpoints talks about what Dr. Brazelton expects to see when you walk into his office and how most of what he sees is normal. Emotional and behavioral development are just as important as physical development, and they are also the most nerve-racking to find a balance with new parents.

The second section covers challenges to development such as allergies, divorce, illness, and school readiness. The last section discusses allies to development such as grandparents and your doctor. Overall I found this book to be a helpful one, although it did contain some inaccurate information regarding cognitive development. Some of this can be chalked up to this book being published in 1992 (26 years ago for those of you whom have trouble with math) and it's more than fair to say that understanding of cognitive development especially in children has grown and changed tremendously in that time. The rest of it can be attributed to the difference between medical doctors and psychologists. There is a difference in what people learn and why, and just like I would never purport to know about the inner workings of a baby's body, it's fair to say that sometimes pediatricians aren't up to date on the latest research outside of their field.

One thing that I like to make sure all parents know is related to chapter titled, "Lying, Stealing, and Cheating." Actually, it came up in conversation last night, too. Lying in children under four is a sign of appropriate cognitive development. This doesn't mean that you don't correct them according to your values, morals, and ethics, but it's important to remember that children are not small adults. They have a developmental trajectory and cognitive map that is different that what we have as grown ups, and that should be respected. We often assign motives to children's actions when really, they are just in a constant state of learning and absorbing. Appreciate that all of it is a part of development, and it's your job as a parent or caregiver to shape the clay but understand that clay is malleable and fragile. Children are constantly learning and growing into adults, not as adults. 

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Knish War on Rivington Street

I mentioned somewhere previously that one of my goals at BookExpo this year was to buff up my children's library, and I specifically was on the lookout for diverse books. The Knish War on Rivington Street by Joanne Oppenheim and illustrated by Jon Davis fit this bill. 

It's the story of Rivington Street in lower Manhattan, which for generations served a large immigrant Jewish population. Benny is a young boy whose mother's knishs were so famous that she was able to open up a knish store on Rivington Street. Then one day Mrs. Tisch opens up a competing knish store across the street, and her knishes are fried and square. Who has ever heard of that?!? 

The two knish sellers each begin lowering their prices in order to compete with one another, and when that isn't enough, each store resorts to crazier and crazier tactics to win customers. The war heats up, and it comes to a head when the Mayor shows up to sort out which knish is the best. Which one will he choose?

Based, albeit loosely, on a true story -- yes, my friends, there was actually a knish war on Rivington street! -- this lovely, lovely children's book is simply a delight to read. It has a great message -- that one person's success doesn't take away from that of another -- and it is told through an entertaining and easy-to-grasp story of two boys who are simply caught in the middle of their parents' feud. I am just madly in love with this book, and I hope that one day my son is as well. 

The best part of this book (well, I don't know if it's the best, but it's certainly wonderful!) is that the last page of the book has recipes for both baked and friend knishes! My son isn't old enough to get the connection yet, but as soon as he is, we will make knishes after reading this book on a cold winter afternoon. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Dry: A Novel

Dry, a new young adult novel by Neal and Jarrod Shusterman, needs warning before you pick it up. It’s incredible, but also a little hard to swallow right now (pun completely intended) if you are aware of the effect of climate change on the Earth’s current water situation. It was so realistic it was painful at times. 

The Tap-Out, as it will be known for generations to come, was not entirely unexpected, but they were never really sure that it would actually come. After all, water has always seemed to be an unlimited resource. But the day the taps ran dry was the day that their worlds changed, and Alyssa was front and center to witness it all. She and her parents and little brother are just a little too late to the warehouse club to buy up water -- after all, how long could this really last? When her parents go to collect some from the desalination machines, they don't return. Alyssa, along with her brother and their survivalist neighbor (who just happens to be madly in love with Alyssa) have to get out of town before neighbors start killing each other. Their journey might take their lives, but they won't stop until they at least try to save them. 

This young adult novel was heavy, for sure. There were times when I felt my chest grow heavy and panic start to set in. I am quite concerned about the water issue; there is plenty of evidence leading to the conclusion that we, as an industrialized society, are running out of water. The conflicts in the middle east can be traced back to scarce water resources. After all, humans can't survive without it. It's incredibly frightening to me, and this book did not quell those fears. In fact, the Shustermans' story felt remarkably realistic, and that's what makes the book so outstanding yet so frightening. 

Researchers have a good understanding of why humans believe the crazy things that they do. We know, for example, that humans living in the Western world tend to overemphasize events that are statistically unlikely (especially if they are man-made) -- think stranger abductions. However, humans tend to ignore or underemphasize events that are statistically likely and dangerous -- think building homes in hurricane territory and staying even when warned to evacuate. It's cognitive bias at work. It's also a matter of ignoring things we can't control and overemphasizing things we can.

All of this to say that it's no surprise that many people don't take this seriously. All of the estimations that scientists have made about population growth, demographics, resource scarcity, and climate change have all changed drastically in the past decade -- and they are speeding up, not slowing down. Things will change much more quickly than we think. The Shustermans have captured this in their story. Kelton, Alyssa's neighbor, has grown up in a survivalist family, seems a little nutty at the beginning of the book, but boy was I grateful for him (and his regimented, authoritarian, conspiracy-nut father) by the end. The boy was prepared to n-th degree, and I'm not going to lie when I say that I am contemplating following suit.

Everything about this book -- the desperation of the neighbors, friends turning on each other, new alliances being formed, the government not doing anything to help while leading the people to think that they are -- every last thing felt true-to-life, and it left me shook. It was an outstanding book, and I can't recommend it more highly. Now I'm going to go build my home off the grid and I hope you have a nice day.