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Happy 6th Birthday, SPR!

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, August 30, 2018

The Whistler: A Novel

I may have mentioned this on the blog before, but my husband is the greatest man alive. Not only do I love him for who he is, but he understands and encourages my book obsession. How does that relate to John Grisham's The Whistler? Well, it was one of two books he gifted me for Christmas a couple of years ago -- in hardback no less. Knowing full well that my TBR pile is actually a TBR bookcase that's overflowing. That's love. 

The investigators on Florida’s Board on Judicial Conduct rarely get fired up about their work. There is no shortage of corrupt judges and a big shortage on funding. They do their job, deal with what they can, and go on with their lives. That is, until the day that Lacy Stoltz, a seasoned investigator, gets a lead on one of the biggest cases of anyone’s career. It involves many moving parts — a corrupt judge in the pocket of a mysterious billionaire who no one has eyes on, an Indian reservation and casino, and an informant who changes his own identity too much to keep of track of. It seems like a complicated case but it soon becomes dangerous — no one guessed when they went to law school that they might also lose their life. 

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this novel. It was a slight departure from the Grisham formula while still holding true to the legalistic thriller that he does so well. I don’t remember in the past being drawn to Grisham’s female characters; it could possibly be because he doesn’t often have female protagonists that are strong and smart and the actual lead of the story. I could be wrong — I’m not going back to check right now — but it worked in this story. I quite liked Lacy and her firebrand attitude. I liked that she was a badass at her job but when tragedy strikes, she is still a fully-developed human who dead with things the way we all do — caution and putting walls up and wariness about other people’s motives. 

I also appreciated that this story had twists and turns that I didn’t see coming but even if I had, I would still be left guessing so many details. Those moving parts I mentioned. This was a complicated story that could have twisted out of control but Grisham kept the story centered and grounded in the one solid understanding that power corrupts and the love of money is the root of all evil. I passed this book on to a friend of mine to enjoy as much as I did. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

D.C. Trip: A Novel

D.C. Trip by Sara Benincasa is another one of those books that has been on my bookshelf for a couple of years and I decided it was about time that I picked it up this summer. Oh my god, you guys. Oh my god. I died. 

Alicia Deats is a novice teacher in her first year at a high school in New Jersey. She is madly in love with the awkward and square math teacher, Bryan, and she volunteers to co-chaperone the sophomore class trip to Washington, D.C. that spring. Sivan, Gertie, and Rachel have been best friends since nursery school and are excited about the trip -- Gertie especially once she finds out the boy she has been in love with her whole life will also be on his school trip then, too. They will, however, have to deal with their enemies, the "cuntriad," who are definitely out to get them: Peighton, Brooklynn, and Kaylee. In the meantime, they are expected to learn their history in our nation's capital.

I found this book to be laugh out loud funny. Without a doubt one of the most fun books I have read in a while (because murder and mayhem isn't exactly "fun," if you know what I mean), I found myself sitting outside on my front steps the other day finishing the last 10 pages because I wanted to just enjoy them rather than having to put the book down and come back to it. I walked into my apartment building with a smile on my face and a skip in my step. Benincasa has written a book that just has so much joy and lust for life. She takes her characters so seriously, and that's why they are funny. She is a clearly lighthearted person (I follow her on Twitter and I think she's hilarious), and she gives her characters a full body and soul and that's what makes her writing so on point.

Alicia is a wannabe-hippie and we have all known girls like her who found their "inner spirit" and fully believe in making their own deodorant. One of my favorite quick moments in the story is when the girls catch her removing her dreamcatcher earrings after a discussion of cultural appropriation at one of the D.C. museums. [Insert me giggling here.] She is a little bit of all of us -- a girl who doesn't quite know who she is and where the boundaries are, and at 23 years old she is discovering them. Bryan is a grumpy gus who is hiding his insecurities in his intelligence. On one hand I wanted Alicia to win him over and on the other, I couldn't figure out why she wanted him so badly.

The thing I loved most about this book was the story arc and Benincasa's ability to toggle between one main story line (the class trip) and the two sub-story lines (Alicia loves Bryan and the trio's exploits). It was seamless and easy to read while also being just plain brilliant. Benincasa has a quick wit, and it works in writing for high school characters and their cadences, speech patterns, and emotional needs. Never once did I doubt that she had experience as a high school girl because these characters were so on point. Hell, even Brock, the typical popular boy who is dumb as a rock, was completely on point and absolutely hilarious. When he gets around to reading an emotional book, you will sit on edge while he gets advice from the class punching bag and then reviews the book later on the bus. Just go read it for yourself.

This book was an outstanding summer read and I couldn't recommend it more highly. It was funny and sweet, and now I need to go find more of Benincasa's work so that I can fill my heart with happiness again. 

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Elizabeth Warren: Her Fight. Her Work. Her Life.

Elizabeth Warren: Her Fight. Her Work. Her Life. by Anotonia Felix is a new biography out on Senator Elizabeth Warren, and this one focuses specifically on Sen. Warren’s work and how she came to be such a staunch consumer advocate. 

Elizabeth grew up in Oklahoma, the middle-class daughter of two parents who tried to give her and their three sons a “regular” life. That was until her father suffered health issues and her family went into financial dire straits. Her mother, who didn’t believe women should work unless it was necessary, went to Sears and took a job to keep her family above water. Elizabeth fought her tooth and nail to go to college. From there, to now, was a long road full of gusto, grit, and gumption. 

This biography was overall fantastic in that it provided me, the reader, with an intelligent yet accessible summary of Sen. Warren’s work in bankruptcy law. It’s a complicated subject, and one that is easy to tune out of when in books due to a lack of comprehension. I am one smart cookie, but I get bored when I can’t understand. The big advantage this book has is that Felix breaks down complicated legal concepts for the average reader. She does an incredible job — I now have a much stronger understanding of Sen. Warren’s work and why she is the advocate she is today. 

Elizabeth, always a bright and intelligent child, gave up on college early to marry her first husband. Reading this I wanted to scream into the book, “NOOOOO STOOOOOOPPPP.” We know how brilliant she is and where she is going, so it would all turn out fine, but it broke my feminist heart to watch her make this decision for the reasons she made it. It was important to me to read her story and understand how she became the lawyer and advocate that she is. 

One particular note of importance here is that Felix has done an incredible job of making Sen. Warren’s research and academic work on bankruptcy research accessible for the masses. It still wasn’t simple, but it was laid out clearly in layman’s terms so that we can understand the how and they why of the senator’s academic trajectory. It was so clear, in fact, that I’m going to keep this book to reference it when I need a jolt remembering Sen. Warren’s work and the reasoning behind it. 

Felix has painted an incredibly empathetic portrait of Sen. Warren, and I might have been easily swayed if I were less of a skeptic. I happen to be a fan of Sen. Warren as a woman, an academic, and a politician. I also would expect nothing less out of her biographer than praise. However, at times — most notably the final notes of the book — Felix is a little starry-eyed when writing about the senator. It’s not enough to be bothersome, but it is something that I noticed while wrapping up the book. 

I have already recommended this book three times and I just finished it. It’s well worth a read about the woman behind the watchdog. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Mars Room: A Novel

I read about Rachel Kushner's The Mars Room as a highly-anticipated summer read, so I immediately hopped on the library request train for it.

Romy Hall is on her way to her permanent prison assignment to begin the first of her two life sentences. She has left behind her young boy in the care of her mother, with whom she's never had a great relationship. As she reflects back on the events that brought her there, starting with her work at the strip club The Mars Room, we visit her scrappy life on the fringes of society, her choices and her independence, and the unfair way that systemic issues put her away. She moves forward in her life in prison, creating a life for herself with no hope of getting out, forming alliances and friendships and aching for her baby boy. When there is no hope of seeing the outside again, how do you hold on to what you love the most?

I originally wanted to find out what the life sentences were for -- of course it was murder, but what's the story there? -- and while you find out early on, it takes the whole book to put the pieces together, ending with a flash-bang punch in the gut when you realize that even though every story has two sides, it's only because there are two perspectives. It's not necessarily because both people are right. I think I was oblique enough in that description for those who don't want spoilers, but I'll go in detail in the paragraph below. Skip to the following if you don't want to know some details.

We find out very early on that Romy killed her stalker when he showed up at her new home in a new city, the one she moved to in order to get away from him. This seems fairly cut and dry, because of course she felt threatened. Even though I stick by that throughout my next statements, Kushner did a ram-bam-thank-you-ma'am treatment on the stalker when we hear his story in the final few chapters. In his mind, he was in love with her and only wanted to make sure she was OK by following her around. Now, we know that this would have escalated -- it almost always does -- and I still feel the protagonist was in the right for defending herself. The issue here is the mind of the stalker. It's not a malicious series of events in his mind, even if you and I would agree that his actions were creepy and inappropriate. This is what makes Kushner so remarkable; she doesn't aim to make things black and white and she has an incredible ability to whack you over the head with empathetic story telling.

Romy is a character that I grew to love and I looked back on her life with in hopes that I could fix the things that went wrong. Not her choices, but the things that happened to her that stacked up against her. It's easy to say that her choices led her to those moments, but it's far more complicated than that. She chose to move, she chose a life with a man who could give her just what she needed at that moment, she created a community in her odd little world, but it couldn't spare her the fate that she faced. Reading her tale of her trial was painful because it's the story of so many indigent accused. Whether or not they deserve to serve a life sentence isn't the way of the justice system -- it's about the counsel you can afford. Unfortunately for a large swath of the population in the US, that's an overworked and underpaid public defender. Just listening (well...reading) to Romy's conversation with hers when she calls from prison asking about her son is infuriating. While I understood her anger and despair, I also understood that the public defender couldn't give his all to everyone when they were no longer on his docket.

Kushner's book is a wonder, and it's hard to put down even as you despair over its contents. This is an incredible piece of writing that repulsed me at times, broke my heart at other times, and made me desperate for the survival of the women she writes about. All of this was done because she has an ability to pull her readers in with her prose, her characters, and her story arc. It's incredible, and well worth the time to stick your nose in its pages. 

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Small Animals: Parenthood In the Age of Fear

The second I heard I heard about Kim Brooks' Small Animals: Parenthood In the Age of Fear, I knew I had to get it. It's not just because I am a new parent (well, kind of new), but also because I have strongly felt for some time that in our current time we parent through fear rather than through a desire to lead out kids to be self-determined. (See The Self-Driven Child, if you will.)

Just a couple of years ago, Kim Brooks ran a five minute errand into Target in a suburb of Virginia and left her four year old son in the car. It was a mild to cool day, she could see the car from the store, and he didn’t even notice how long she was gone since he was engrossed in his iPad. That one choice would lead to a years-long fight with the court and child welfare  systems from several states away that ended in Kim not being prosecuted but serving many hours in parenting classes. All because a “Good Samaritan” watched her, filmed her, and phoned the police over an action that is not, in fact, against the law. 

This begs bigger questions in our society about fear-based parenting, the motherhood competition, and how we now view parenting as a cross between a competitive sport and a job. In the first chapter, Kim lays out her story. In the second, she explores deeper questions of why we live in a parenting culture of fear, beginning in pregnancy. It is a fear that grips mostly women, and this theme travels into the third chapter which focuses on the history of that fear and how it primarily affects mothers. The rest of the book explores these themes in more depth as well as the outcome of her own case, including the second-to-last chapter in which Brooks comes to the conclusion that all of this fear-based parenting is creating a generation of guinea pigs -- we don't know how people will turn out when a generation of helicopter parenting has prevented them from ever taking risks. (I can hypothesize on this, and it's not pretty.)

This book is so very important reading for every single person in this society, be you a parent or not. I have been flabbergasted since long before I became a mother how fear-based we truly are as a society. The statistics of stranger danger are sobering because so few children are absucted by strangers. As Brooks repeats throughout this book, the probability isn’t nil, which means that it is absolutely a possibility, but we find ourselves more worried about things that aren’t much of a problem to avoid being worried about things that are. This reflects the research; I recently read a paper that clearly found that humans in the western world tend to worry about things that have a small probability of happening but are in control of humans, such as kidnapping and terrorist attacks, but tend to not think often of things that are more likely to happen through chance and the environment, such as hurricanes and fires. The things I find myself most concerned about for my own child are choking, lead, and subway crashes. (I admit the last one is a bit less probable than I think, but it IS the MTA.) 

I find myself in Brooks’ camp. On one hand, we know better so we do better — with things like car seat safety, SIDS, early allergen exposure. But that doesn't apply to everything. Brooks discusses the child abduction craze of the 1980’s, which I not only remember well, but has had shape my own fears and anxieties. Because it was brought so publicly to the forefront, we tend to over-rationalize stranger abduction and ignore more important statistics such as according to RAINN, 92% of minors who are sexually abused know their abuser. This is convenient to forget when it’s someone we know and trust. We also underestimate actual risks, such as car accidents. People are so afraid of things that are plausible but not likely and less concerned about the fact that over 1600 children each year die in car accidents and another 2.35 million are injured or disabled. You are far more likely to be in this situation than someone taking your child from a parked vehicle. However, everyone has an anecdote, now, don't they?

I find it so interesting how my husband and I have described our parenting with all of these adjectives: lazy, ignorant, hands-off. When you put it in the context of the over-vigilance that is expected in 2018, where our children are never supposed to be left alone and they need to be monitored so that they never get hurt at the expense of exploration and adventure, it’s downright neglectful. But we are far from it. We just expect that our child will be independent, playful, adventurous, and brave. So far, so good. 

However, when I explain this to people who are around us, including my own parents, what they say and what they do are different. Thy say, “That’s so great,” and what they do is helicopter my kid. They say they love our attitude, but then they say, “Watch his head!” Or, “He’s stuck!” Or, “Can he do that?” In theory they like the idea of my child learning for himself, but in practice we have become an overbearing, controlling society regarding children. I find myself more frustrated with the need to control my child's every move than I am with the fact that my child is stuck in the first place. We call it hands-off parenting, and it really, really, really bothers most people.

This book is so very important for everyone to read, and I will add it to my arsenal of books that I send off to my new-parent (and hell, maybe even my old-parent) friends. Along with The Gardener and the Carpenter, The Scientist in the Crib, The Importance of Being Little, and The Self-Driven Child, this is one of the best books on parenting I can recommend. If you want your child to be smarter, put down the books that claim to make them so -- they are bullshit. What will make your child smarter is allowing them to explore, create, and just be.

Will I be a free range parent? You betcha. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Vox: A Novel

Vox by Christina Dalcher was a hot "get" at Book Expo this year, and while I'm hot and cold on dystopia, I thought I would give it a shot. And whoooooaaa -- am I ever glad I did.

"Gripping" is the best word I can think to describe this book. Jean is a cognitive neurolinguist -- or, at least, she was before. Before the Pure Movement, which seeks to silence women and go back to the good ol' days of yore when women worked in the home caring for their families and the men made the money. In order to achieve full submission, women not only had to leave their jobs, but they must also wear counters on their wrists that count the number of alloted words they use per day, typically 100. After that, they are shocked at increasingly high rates a la Milgram. Go ahead and insert your shudder here.

As I'm sure you can imagine, this doesn't go over well with everyone (although you won't be surprised to hear that it works perfectly with many women who love the idea of a docile and obedient life -- unfortunately, I know some of those in real life). Jean is one of those. However, when she is approached by the leader of the movement to go back to work in order to find a cure for the president's brother whose issue falls squarely into Jean's research, she ends up using it to her advantage to fight back. It may cost her everything she holds dear, but what is the point of freedom if you can't taste it?

I ate this book in almost one sitting. I started reading it on a plane ride, and I couldn't put it down when we got to our destination. It's not dystopia really, because it takes place in present day, but it is dystopia in the strict definition. I was full-on captivated by everything, from the first-person narrator, Jean, and her Italian fire and her both love and hate for her docile husband and her asshole teenage son who is swept up in the movement. She was a gripping character and one that I absolutely adored. Her story was one that was frightening but realistic, and it reminded me of The Handmaid's Tale in it's sense of male governance over the female body. She was everything that I love in a female protagonist, and so my hat is off to Dalcher in her ability to craft truly incredible characters.

Now onto the story. Holy moly, this was something. I always hope that these things are far-fetched, but the underlying current of feelings towards women is alive and well. There is a moment where Jean is driving home from work and a man in the car next to her tries to get her attention. When she rolls down her window, he spits into her car. Something similar happened to me more than a decade ago. I was driving down the road when a man whipped out a turn in front of me from a shopping center. I hit the horn while I slammed on my brakes, and this caused the man to lose it. He worked his car until he was next to me and, even with my windows close, he called me cunt and a whore over and over and over again, saying he was going to kill me. Isn't it odd how nothing has really changed? That toxic masculinity has not gone away, and this novel exemplifies it.

I was blown away by this book and I cannot recommend it enough. It is well worth you devouring the story and ripping into it from beginning to end this summer. It will anger you, devastate you, and give you hope in the resistance. You never know who is fighting back within their means. 

Thursday, August 9, 2018

All Happy Families: A Memoir

At Book Expo this year I only had a couple of books on my list that I desperately wanted, so it opened me up to exploring what new works were coming out that interested me. I happened upon Jeanne McCulloch's memoir All Happy Families and was wowed. 

The weekend of Jeanne’s wedding — her mother’s day which she says they will get through with grace even if it kiss them — her father suffers a massive stroke after her mother’s insistence that he be sober for the wedding after decades of alcohol. As he lays in the hospital, Jeanne says her vows to her husband. Her father never wakes. The decision to move ahead with the bwedding reverberates throughout the lives of everyone, including her in-laws. As Tolstoy says, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

This book wasn’t initially on my list to grab at Book Expo, but it sounded interesting so I thought, why not? After picking it up and reading it closely, I thought it would be a great read right away, and was I ever right. McCulloch’s story is, from start to finish, devastatingly beautiful. From her incredibly wealthy family (she can see Park Avenue from her penthouse growing up) to her down-home in-laws who lovingly call her “city girl,” McCulloch’s world in the 1980’s comes alive on the page through those she knows best. Her loving portraits of her father and her mother, as well as her beloved mother-in-law, are more than kind. They are deep, full-bodied, and show the level of care that she feels toward each of these guides in her life. 

I was both horrified and intrigued that the wedding went on as scheduled. I couldn’t even imagine being in a place in my life where it would be more socially acceptable to continue on than to hold. There is a scene where her mother phones the hospital and tells the doctor on call that if anything happens to her husband that night to not call the house — they are having a party. That is so beyond my realm of understanding that it fascinated me. The show must go on, especially when appearances matter. 

The second and third parts of the book are equally unpredictable yet make sense. It’s almost as if this is a perfectly plotted work of fiction, but as we know, the truth is in fact stranger than fiction. The narrative arc is so perfect that it’s almost unbelievable. Jeanne’s in-laws have the perfect marriage while her own parents were wonderful old birds. No one would have guessed that her in-laws marriage would fall apart so spectacularly. How true Tolstoy’s quote is; it turns out that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, and you never know what that unhappiness looks like behind closed doors. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

After the Crash: A Novel

You may remember that I went on a reading hiatus back in 2016 -- I was just dealing with a lot, and my mind couldn't handle additional stimulation. During that time I had a lot of book requests fulfilled and I couldn't make my deadline of reading and reviewing, so I'm catching up on the back catalog now in addition to reading new releases. Michel Bussi's After the Crash was the first on that list.

On an overnight flight from Turkey to Paris, something horrible happens and it crashes into the mountains in France. Every dies -- except for one miracle baby. The surviving family is beyond happy until another surviving family arrives. There were two babies on board, born within days of each other. Which baby is this -- Lyse-Rose, a girl from one of Paris's wealthiest families, or Emilie, the daughter of two working-class parents whose children adore them. Both families desperately want the baby, but only one can have her. Even after the verdict is rendered, the effects of this lost child reverberate for the next 18 years until a small clue gives away the true identity of that little girl.

I was quite surprised at how much I enjoyed this book, even in light of the plot twists that I felt were a bit over the top. There were some murders involved, and at the time it felt a bit overwrought in terms of the plot line. I couldn't put the pieces together of what was going on, and it turns out that this story is very intricate. There were a couple of story lines that went with the main story line, but in the middle of the book they all seemed muddled and related but still not at all. Once the end came, it all came together and made complete sense, but at the time I found myself rolling my eyes more than once.

When it got down to the meat of the story, the overall feeling I left with was intrigue. I loved the ending and thought it was fitting (albeit convenient), and the process of getting there was terribly interesting. Bussi did a wonderful job of setting up mysteries and leading me to the answer. I also found the characters to be quite magnetic. Malvina, the older sister of Lyse-Rose, and Marc, the older brother of Emilie, fight over who the young girl really is. One hopes it is her, the other hopes it is not -- and for reasons you might not expect. The Credule Grand-Duc, the private investigator hired by Lyse-Rose's family for the full 18 years to investigate the true identity of the baby, was intriguing in that he was incredibly unreliable while still being sympathetic and, at times, quite hated by both the characters and myself. He, along with the siblings, made for an odd yet exciting triumvirate.

It was great to pick up this book over the summer and dive into it. It's always so interesting to find a book that you have had for a while but end up reading it just when you need it, and this was that book. It gave me a lot to think about in terms of identity development and the self. 

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Edgewater: A Novel

I have been a fan of Courtney Sheinmel's Stella Batz series for a few years, so I picked up her YA novel, Edgewater, at Book Expo a couple of years back and read it in my end-of-semester reading frenzy.

Lorrie and her sister were abandoned by their father when they were small kids, and their mother ran away with her boyfriend a few years later. Since then, they have been raised by their Aunt Gigi who suffers from mental instability. Their once grand estate on Long Island, Edgewater, is notoriously in shambles and they live as though an episode of Hoarders has come to visit. Lorrie has been able to put it all out of her mind while she is off at boarding school. Suddenly, though, her trust fund left by her mother has run out and she must return home to set things strait. While there, she runs in to Charlie, the wealthy son of a senator and presidential hopeful. If only she could know that their lives would become inextricably linked...

I was pleasantly surprised at how I drank this novel down, and quickly. I figured out the twist fairly early on -- Sheinmel foreshadows well -- but it didn't ruin anything for me. The gift in this book is the character development. Sheinmel has written some compelling women in this story, ones who are flawed and messy but so strong and willful. Those are my favorite kind of female characters. Lorrie is a force, and her determination to fix the mess that her family is in is admirable and beautiful to watch, because she bends until she breaks. Oh, what a bend it is though. Her first-person accounting of this moment in time shows the reader that she desperately wants to be more than what her family is portraying on the outside -- broken, decrepit, and hanging on by a thread. She uses the trust fund her mother left her when she ran off to Europe with her boyfriend to better her circumstances -- attending boarding school with her best friend, taking up riding, purchasing her beloved horse, and attending riding camp in the summer. When all of this falls apart, she must find the money in order to keep her standing. Watching her claw her way out of the mess that her aunt has gotten her in was amazing.

One of the things that struck me about this characterization was the character arc that Lorrie took from the beginning to the end of this story. She could have remained an absolute brat, but instead she became an empathetic, caring human being who could dig deep and accept the truth of her life circumstances as well as one could. The twists and turns of this story came naturally within its confines, and watching Lorrie develop as a character fit right into the story development like a missing puzzle piece. Charlie was also a defining character, and one that served to bolster the development of Lorrie as a character and a human being. This is not a lovey-dovey fairy tale, but rather the development of a relationship of two young people who are driven to their choices by sheer circumstance.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I was glad that I pulled it out of my TBR pile when I did. It hit the spot for a summer day, and I felt as though I were living in the book as I was reading it. (SPOILER ALERT!) I was quite sad when I knew that Lorrie would sell Edgewater, because as it finally began to be cleaned out and up, I could see in my head the beauty of the estate and the manor it could become again. I wanted to buy it myself and take it on as a fixer upper. But alas -- fiction is, by definition, not real.