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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, February 28, 2019

Long Road to Mercy: An Atlee Pine Thriller

I think at some point I told you about my family's tradition (began last year) to give a book on Christmas Eve and then spend the day and night reading. This year my husband wanted to get me something that would surprise me, so he picked out David Baldacci's newest, Long Road to Mercy

Altee Pine is doing what she does best as an FBI field agent assigned to A small area in Arizona. It’s what she prefers to the stuffy, suited world of the East Coast. Her domain includes the Grand Canyon, so she is called out one morning when tour guides find a mule dead and a client missing. Little does Atlee know that this confusing case will lead to twists and turns, dips and peaks, leading her on a chase for people from the Southwest to the Northeast that don’t seem to exist yet are putting national security at risk. It’s literally a matter of life and death for Atlee and many residents of the United States. 

I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Baldacci’s work overall. It shouldn’t surprise me — the man is a prolific crime writer with dozens of tomes to his name — but as this was my first foray into Baldacci-dom, I found myself quite pleased with the book overall. He weaves a tight narrative, keeps me on my toes, and builds suspense so that it keeps me plowing through the pages with a forcefulness that mimicks the protagonists’. This wasn’t a page-turner in the sense that I absolutely had to find out what happened next; rather, there was a forcefulness to the mission to support to Pine in discovering the truth that Baldacci made me feel was my responsibility. 

Pine was also a great character. She has her flaws and her weaknesses, but she is a hard-ass who has no shame in being exactly who she is. She loves her job and also doesn’t take shit from anyone, as attested by the hole she punched in her wall to get a suspect to talk. She slowly and skeptically let’s her secretary in to become her unexpected partner, and while she is hesitant, I came to see the deep humanity in this character. I loved how smart she was — and how she owned it — and how Baldacci used his character as the backbone of the story that drove it. I’m unsure that this particular mystery would have been solved without Pine. 

The best surprise? My husband’s name in the final pages. He didn’t know anything about this, but imagine how my jaw absolutely dropped when I read this. 

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family's Fights for Desegregation

Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family's Fights for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh is a book I picked up to read to my son on one of our airplane trips. I found myself blown away by this book because it is not only child-friendly, but it’s full of rich history that I was able to use in my teaching. 

Sylvia Mendez was a young girl in California when her father moved the family to Orange County to help run a farm left by a family moved to a Japanese internment camp during World War II. (The book doesn’t mention this part, but I think it’s an incredibly poignant point in this story.) When Sylvia’s ain’t took her, her brothers, and her cousins to register them for school, her aunt was told that Sylvia and her brothers had to go register at the Mexican school. Her cousins — with lighter skin and a French last name — could stay. Her aunt refused to register any of them, and they all went home. This fired up Sylvia’s father and mother, who went above and beyond to ensure that their children would have the same education that their neighbors had. Their fight went all the way to the Supreme Court, with a ruling stating that children of Latino heritage were entitled to an equal education as their White peers. 

This was a lovely story, and a wonderful book, and not long after reading this to my son, the Mendez case came up in my urban schools course. We read about it in several readings and watched an adult Sylvia testify before the Civil Rights Commission. It was quite moving. It also confirmed that this book was quite accurate in the depiction of the Mendez case and Sylvia’s experience. I wanted to read this book to my students, but we ran out of time as we do in all classes that have strong conversation sparked. I’m so happy I found this book, and even though I had to return it because it was a borrowed book, it’s on my son’s wishlist. After all, I can learn to share. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling

In the fall I attended a weekend-long workshop in Philadelphia, and the Airbnb we used was across the street from the Eastern State Penitentiary, the first major prison in the United States. Thankfully my mom is a big ol' nerd like myself and was stoked to tour it. It was absolutely fascinating, and I picked up Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling by Sabrina Jones and Marc Mauer in the gift shop. I like supporting cultural institutions, and since I haven't yet read Mauer's original book, I thought this would be a good addition to my bookshelf.

I wasn’t aware that this was a graphic retelling of Marc Mauer’s Race to Incarcerate, which in full disclosure I haven’t read but need to purchase and dig into, so I was quite pleasantly surprised to find this was quite literally a retelling. From start to finish this retelling was clear, concise, and easy to read. I was able to follow the history from the dawn of prisons and the modern penitentiary to our current day obsession with incarceration. I am thankful that my mom was so interested in visiting Eastern State when we went, because I learned a great deal that, when combined with this retelling, opened my eyes to a new angle in understanding incarceration in the United States. 

What we know of present-day prisons began in earnest in the 1970’s. Our prison population as grown exponentially in the past four decades to the point where the population is equivaent to a small state. While this book doesn’t go into detail regarding financial statistics, this costs a great deal of money. If you have been paying any attention at all lately to the concerns regarding the privatization of prisons, you know that you have cause for concern. Prisons are big business, and we have our obsession with punishment to blame beginning with everyone’s favorite conservative icon, President Reagan. Not a single political leader in the upper echelon of our government has sought radical prison reform. 

One thing that I have been meditating on that came up in this book is the role of prisons. Obviously this book is connected with The New Jim Crow — Michelle Alexander even wrote the introduction — and so these thoughts are nothing new to me. However, I’ve come to a conclusion about prison. You have one of two beliefs about the role of imprisonment: you either believe that it serves to punish or that it serves to support penitence. You might be able to tell from this where I stand.

(Side note: I do believe that there will be incarcerated persons who will never be interested in repentance as it were. That is why things like life sentences exist for what are supposed to be the most egregious crimes. At that point, I do see that punishment becomes the only option. However, shouldn’t punishment be a consequence of a lack of repentance rather than never having the option to become a productive member of society?)

You can see what people believe in the ramifications of post-prison life, including the lack of standardized services helping newly released men and women get on their feet, the box that one must check stating they’ve been convicted of a felony, and disenfranchisement of formerly incarcerated persons, to name just a few. We get to make a decision as the generation in power regarding what we want to do with the humanity we’ve been given. There’s much more on this subject than this little blog post — seek it out, dive into it, and think about the information that may not match what you think you know and believe. 

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive

I picked up Stephanie Land's Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive at BookExpo last year as it was touted at the Adult Book Buzz panel as one of the hottest releases of the year

Stephanie is like many in America, but in ways that you might be uncomfortable speaking about. She grew up in poverty, and in early adulthood, she was working service jobs when she meets Jamie, who will become the father of her child. They agreed that their romance would be a fling — Stephanie had dreams of college in Missoula. When she becomes pregnant, she wants to give Jamie the chance to be a father, but instead she finds herself in a domestic violence situation with nowhere to turn. When she finally gets away, she finds herself dependent upon government assistance for everything from rent and electric to childcare — this while working long hours doing manual labor. Even while keeping her head up and trying to stay afloat, she deals with people remarking, “You’re welcome,” to her while she checks out in the grocery store with her EBT card. Her story is one that is repeated all across America — an entire swath of our population lives on less than $2 a day. 

Land is a profound writer who hits the shapest notes of strength and pride while still baring her soul for her readers. This book is no pity party; rather, it’s the story of a woman of tremendous strength who wants her reader to understand that when you live in poverty, there is never any getting ahead. The moment you do, you find yourself knocked down again — something as simple as a car not starting wreaks havoc for months on the loves of those living on an hourly minimum wage. Savings is a pipe dream. Land weaved her tale for us in a tight knit that made me empathize with her plight and angry at her circumstances. While you may feel there’s not much you can do, this is inaccurate. 

You can’t hate social programs and then say we can’t, as one of the wealthiest countries in the world, gauantee a living minimum wage for workers in every sector. Welfare is dead, and it has been for years. If you are paying attention, you know this to be true. Land goes into tedious detail explaining what life is like when you are on assistance — it’s almost a full-time job just to get what you need to be able to work. It’s a different application for everything (occasionally you get lucky and some applications double up), and each visit to each office takes hours on end. This is assuming that you never get sick and don’t need to take off work to go to a doctor. These minor inconveniences to people with salaried jobs are major catastrophies for people — mostly women, mostly single mothers — who fear losing what difficult-to-find work they had in the first place. 

That’s if you are lucky enough to have a regular work schedule, which Land finds when she begins working for a cleaning company. My heart broke for her when she entered into a relationship destined to fail — when it finally ended I was hopeful that she could make it on her own. I was angry when the doctors called her a bad mother for her living conditions — we are all trying to do our best with the circumstances we have. I  rode for her when her car went out of commission, the circumstances of which you will need to read for yourself. Land is an outstanding writer, and she brings us along on the journey that starts when her daughter takes her first steps in a homeless shelter. 

I’m always amazed when I listen to how some people speak of those on government assistance, and the coded language they use to describe those they feel are below them. Little do they know that the summer I lost my job, I sought out SNAP to help ease my financial burden. I qualified, but the process of obtaining them was so time consuming that I wouldn’t have been able to work what jobs I could find babysitting. It was an eye-opening moment for me, as was my visit to the unemployment office for a mandated job-training course. We were all treated like absolute morons. It was sobering to be sure. 

This isn’t a plea for empathy so much as it is a call to give Land’s book an open-minded read. Live in her world for a few hours, and imagine yourself in her shoes. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting

You know I love a good parenting book, so when I read the blurb about Jennifer Traig's Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting I was completely sold. 

One peice of advice you get as a new parent — and arguably one of the most well-intentioned yet completely useless — is to trust your instincts. After all, parenting is natural. Everyone knows how to do it! Except...

You should be a little more familiar with history. It turns out, there is nothing even remotely natural about parenting. Humans have spent centuries making absolutely stupid decisions about their children. There is a reason people have been horrible forever — it’s because they are products of their environment and child-rearing. As I like to tell everyone, when we know better, we do better. However, it’s also fair to point out that since the late ‘70’s, the Western world has taken the very new concept of “parenting” and run with it. The pendulum has swung in the opposite direction and humans still generally suck. 

But don’t worry! Just trust your instincts. It’s natural

I loved this book as a cultural history of parenting. I’ve railed in previous posts about how parenting has become a verb and it’s done some damage to adults’ self-worth and beliefs about themselves. Here, Traig has selected a few big topics and has given us a concise yet very full history of parenting advice from as far back as it was written. Some of it is horrifying, some of it is funny, and some of it is absurd. Occasionally you will find advice that is on-point. She takes  us through birth to feeding and toddlerhood to adolescence. You would be surprised at some of the recommendations that you should maybe still think about today. 

However, humans have been offering unsolicited and stupid advice for generations upon generations. Traig pulls it out in this book and presents it to you as-is with a side of self-depricating humor. She’s not interested in giving you parenting advice; she’s just telling you about the absurdity that lies in the history of men telling women how to parent. Because if we are really going to get down to brass tacks, that’s the history of child-reading advice. (The best is when the men either didn’t have children of their own or gave them away to be raised somewhere else.)

It took me a hot second to adjust to Traig’s asides in her writing, but once I did I thoroughly appreciated her jabs at history and her willingness to own her parenting choices. This is not a holier-than-thou retelling, and she’s strait forward in making sure you know that she’s just trying to get by. However, she knows that you are too even if you present yourself as a perfect family on social media. (I’m also calling out you all who like to throw in a “what a crazy day!” post every once in a while. We know you. We see you. We know you are full of shit.) It turns out parenting has been hard across history for different reasons, and at the end of the day, this book just celebrates us all getting by in whatever way we can.