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2013’s 5 Star Reads!

January 4, 2014 Leave a comment

Since 2011, I’ve been dedicating a separate post from my annual reading stats post to the 5 star reads of the year.  I not only thoroughly enjoyed assembling the 5 star reads posts, but I also go back to them for reference periodically.  It’s just useful and fun simultaneously!  Plus it has the added bonus of giving an extra signal boost to the five star reads of the year.

With no further ado, presenting Opinions of a Wolf’s 5 Star Reads for 2013!

Image of a bicycle with a bag of money on its back is under the title of the book in red.The $100 Startup: Reinvent the Way You Make a Living, Do What You Love, and Create a New Future
By: Chris Guillebeau
Publication Date: 2012
Publisher: Crown Business
Genre: Nonfiction Lifestyle
Themes: independence, success, small businesses
Summary:
Guillebeau investigated what makes microbusinesses (small businesses typically run by one person) successful by conducting a multiyear study interviewing more than 100 successful microbusiness entrepreneurs.  Here he presents his findings on what makes for a successful microbusiness and offers advice on how you can become a successful microbusiness entrepreneur too.
Current Thoughts:
I refer to things I learned in this book at least once a week.  Guillebeau offers practical advice for the aspiring small business owner on everything from choosing an idea that will work to setting the right price to marketing.  The things I’ve been able to try from the book so far have worked.  This book shows what happens when a nonfiction book bases its advice on solid research.

Black silhouette of birds and trees against a moon and a red background with a face just discernible in it.The Curse of the Wendigo (The Monstrumologist, #2)
By: Rick Yancey
Publication Date: 2011
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Genre: Horror, YA
Themes: love lost, the nature of good and evil
Summary:
Will Henry, 12 year old orphan and assistant to renowned Monstrumologist, Pellinore Warthrop, is shocked to find a refined woman on Warthrop’s doorstep.  She is the wife of Warthrop’s best friend who has now gone missing in rural Canada while looking for the elusive wendigo (aka werewolf).  Warthrop insists that there is no such thing as a wendigo, but he agrees to go looking for his missing friend anyway, even if he believes his mission was ridiculous and an affront to monstrumology’s reputation.
Current Thoughts:
What I remember when I think about this book is the beautiful language and the dual setting of the horror.  Setting the book both in rural Canada and urban New York is part of what made it feel so unique to me.  A horror that travels instead of being trapped in one setting isn’t seen as often.  The book is beautiful and grotesque at the same time. A rare find.

Image drawn in largely dark colors of a man's plasticene face with rectangular wings behind him.Man Plus
By: Frederik Pohl
Publication Date: 1976
Publisher: Orb Books
Genre: Scifi
Themes: transhumanism, artificial intelligence
Summary:
The first Earthling reworked into a Martian would be Roger Torraway.  Martian instead of Earthling since everything on him had to be reworked in order to survive on Mars.  His organic skin is stripped off and made plastic.  His eyes are replaced by large, buglike red ones.  He is given wings to gather solar power, not to fly.  All of which is organized and run by his friend, the computer on his back.  Who was this man? What was his life like? How did he survive the transformation to become more than human and help us successfully colonize Mars?
Current Thoughts:
This has a scifi plot that both explores an issue I’m interested in (transhumanism) and managed to surprise me at the end.  It’s a short book that makes you think and has compelling three-dimensional characters.  I’ll definitely be keeping this one and seeking out more of Pohl’s writing.

Red lettering on a yellow background stating "A Queer and Pleasant Danger" black lettering around the edge says the subtitle of the novel, "The true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology, and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady she is today"A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology, and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She is Today
By: Kate Bornstein
Publication Date: 2012
Publisher: Beacon Press
Genre: Memoir, GLBTQ
Themes:  religious abuse, trans rights, gender, Borderline Personality Disorder
Summary:
Kate Bornstein is a playwright, gender theorist, and queer activist.  She chose to write a memoir as a way to reach out to her daughter, Jessica, who is still in the Church of Scientology, and thus, must not speak to her.  Her memoir talks about growing up Jewish in the 1950s, feeling like a girl inside a boy’s body.  It then talks about why and how she joined Scientology (still identifying as a man, Al), climbing Scientology’s ladder, marrying, fathering Jessica, and finally getting kicked out of Scientology and becoming disillusioned.  From there the memoir explains to Jessica how and why Al decided to become Kate and talks about the person behind the queer theory, trying to explain who the incredibly unique parent she has truly is.
Current Thoughts:
This memoir is engaging right from the title and stunning in the level of honesty Bornstein displays.  Bornstein eloquently presents the reality of being trans, entering a leaving an abusive religion, and the complexities of gender.  An incredibly readable memoir that stays with you.

Woman standing in front of electrical storm.Succubus Dreams (Georgina Kincaid, #3)
By: Richelle Mead
Publication Date: 2008
Publisher: Kensington
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Themes: the grayness of good versus evil
Summary:
Seattle’s succubus, Georgina Kincaid, has a lot on her hands between dating her human author boyfriend, Seth, (and not sleeping with him to protect his life energy), adjusting to her new managerial position at the bookstore, and her usual succubus requirement of stealing good men’s life energy by sleeping with them.  So the last thing she needs is another new assignment from hell, but that’s what she’s getting.  Seattle is getting a second succubus, a newbie she has to mentor.  When she starts having dreams about having a normal, human life and waking up with her energy drained, it all turns into almost too much for one succubus to handle.
Current Thoughts:
This series glows in my mind as a favorite that I will return to again and again.  This book is where I truly began to fall in love with it.  The third entry shows that urban fantasy can be more than monster of the week.  It does what genre does best.  Ponder real life questions in an enjoyable wrapping.

Woman in white and wearing a cross standing in front of a foggy sky.Succubus Revealed (Georgina Kincaid, #6)
By: Richelle Mead
Publication Date: 2011
Publisher: Kensington
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Themes: soul mates, forgiveness, personal growth
Summary:
Seattle’s succubus, Georgina Kincaid, is incredibly happy to be back together with her previously ex boyfriend, Seth Mortensen.  But getting back together with him came at the price of hurting his once-fiancee and having to leave her previously loved position managing the bookstore.  It’s all worth it to be with Seth, though.  But then a transfer notice comes in, sending her to her dream job in Las Vegas.  It’d be a dream come true, except Seth can’t come with her because his sister-in-law has cancer.  Georgina starts to wonder just why so many elements seem to keep coming together to try to drive her and Seth apart.
Current Thoughts:
This an amazing series finale that reveals so many aspects of the overarching plot that I wanted to go back and re-read the whole series immediately just to look for more of the overarching plot that I was oblivious to the first time around.  It’s a wrap-up that is satisfying without making everything too perfect for the characters.  It has a lot to say about love and redemption. And it made me cry.

Redheaded woman in a sexy leather top standing in front of fog.Succubus Shadows (Georgina Kincaid, #5)
By: Richelle Mead
Publication Date: 2010
Publisher: Kensington
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Themes: facing your past
Summary:
Seattle’s succubus, Georgina Kincaid, cannot believe she has been roped into helping plan her ex-boyfriend’s wedding.  It’s enough to make anyone depressed.  But she can’t afford to be depressed, because every time she starts to feel down, a mysterious force tries to lure her away to what must be a dangerous place.  Georgina is fed up with all of these mysterious attacks on Seattle.  It just doesn’t make sense.  What is making them target Seattle? And seem to be maybe targeting her?
Current Thoughts:
The penultimate book in this series isn’t afraid to go dark places with tough questions.  It also addresses the issue in urban fantasy that a lot of people joke about: gee that’s sure a lot happening in this one town!  Mead addresses this in a tongue-in-cheek manner that also ties into the overall plot.  I was amazed at how well this series incorporates both all the things that make urban fantasy fun (demons! sex! supernatural battles!) and an overarching plot that tugs at the heart strings and makes some of the bizarre things that happen make sense.

Simple cover image containing a broad off-white background on the top third of the cover and a red background on the bottom two thirds. The book's title and author are printed on the background.The Time Machine
By: H. G. Wells
Publication Date: 1895
Publisher: New American Library
Genre: Scifi, Classic
Themes: dystopia, time travel, evolution, class divides
Summary:
Nobody is quite sure whether to believe their eccentric scientist friend when he claims to have invented the ability to travel through time.  But when he shows up late to a dinner party with a tale of traveling to the year 802,700 and meeting the human race, now divided into the child-like Eloi and the pale ape-like ground-dwelling Morlocks, they find themselves wanting to believe him.
Current Thoughts:
I’m so glad I added this scifi classic to my list of books I’ve read.  I of course had heard of the general idea of the Morlocks and the Eloi, but reading about them for myself, I was easily able to see how this became a classic.  It kept me on the edge of my seat, concerned for the scientist’s safety, even while exploring issues of inequitable class divides and pondering the future direction of the evolution of the human race.

A green and white book cover with an image of a woman and her reflection.Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers
By: Karyl McBride
Publication Date: 2008
Publisher: Free Press
Genre: Nonfiction Psych, Nonfiction Relationships
Themes: overcoming adversity, mother/daughter relationships, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, abuse
Summary:
A guidebook for adult women raised by a mother with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).  Dr. McBride is a therapist with many years of experience treating daughters of NPD mothers and also with treating people with NPD.  Additionally, she herself is the daughter of a woman with NPD.  The book is divided into three sections to help the daughters of mothers with NPD to heal and take charge of their lives.  The first section “Recognizing the Problem,” explains what maternal NPD looks like.  The second section, “How Narcissistic Mothering Affects Your Entire Life,” explains the impact NPD mothers have on their daughters, both as children and as adults.  The third section, “Ending the Legacy” is all about healing from the NPD mothering and breaking the cycle of Narcissism.  Dr. McBride offers clinical examples from her practice as well as detailed, clearly explained exercises to aid with healing.
Current Thoughts:
This is one of the best books I’ve read for adult survivors of abusive childhoods.  It works because it focuses narrowly on one type of relationship and one type of dysfunctional, abusive childhood to be overcome.  McBride explains what happened to the adult survivor when they were a child, how that affects them now, and how to overcome it.  She does this while neither excusing nor demonizing the mother’s behavior.  A great book for anyone with an interest in how mothers with NPD affect their daughters.

Book Review: A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She is Today by Kate Bornstein (Audiobook narrated by Alice Rosengard)

June 27, 2013 Leave a comment

Red lettering on a yellow background stating "A Queer and Pleasant Danger" black lettering around the edge says the subtitle of the novel, "The true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology, and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady she is today"Summary:
Kate Bornstein is a playwright, gender theorist, and queer activist.  She chose to write a memoir as a way to reach out to her daughter, Jessica, who is still in the Church of Scientology, and thus, must not speak to her.  Her memoir talks about growing up Jewish in the 1950s, feeling like a girl inside a boy’s body.  It then talks about why and how she joined Scientology (still identifying as a man, Al), climbing Scientology’s ladder, marrying, fathering Jessica, and finally getting kicked out of Scientology and becoming disillusioned.  From there the memoir explains to Jessica how and why Al decided to become Kate and talks about the person behind the queer theory, trying to explain who the incredibly unique parent she has truly is.

Review:
I was feeling bad about how far behind I’ve fallen in writing up reviews for the books I’ve finished reading, but with the historic DOMA ruling in the US yesterday (giving official federal support to marriage equality), I’m really glad I had a GLBTQ book in the queue ready to be reviewed.  And not just any GLBTQ book. An amazing one!  You can’t read that title and not be intrigued. It’s impossible.  I spotted it on tumblr and instantly knew I had to read it.  A memoir about a transwoman who was a member of Scientology?! It’s the intersection of three topics I find fascinating.

Kate is unabashedly honest about the fact that this book exists as a letter to her daughter, Jessica.  The prologue explains that this memoir came about as a way for Kate to reach out to Jessica and her children, even after Kate has passed away.  This lends a tone to the book of an elderly neighbor sitting down to tell you their life story, and you finding out gradually that your elderly neighbor is, in fact, a bad ass, and age has nothing to do with how cool a person still is to this day.  And Kate doesn’t hold back because of this perspective.  If anything, she is more brutally honest than she might otherwise be.  She wants Jessica to have a whole, clear picture of who she is.  Flaws and all.  One technique that I thought was brilliant for a memoir and helped establish trust in truth between the reader and the author was the fact that Kate would tell a family story she heard growing up and then say, well, that was a lie.  I thought it was true, but it turns out what people told me was a lie.  Given that, how can we ever know what really is true? Just because we think something is true doesn’t mean it is.  It’s an excellent grain of salt to be given in a memoir.

After the prologue, Kate tells her story chronologically.  Her story can be roughly summarized as the following sections: growing up a gender queer person, joining Scientology, break-down after getting kicked out of Scientology and coming to terms with her queerness, transitioning, life as a lesbian trans activist, finding BDSM, and overcoming depression and suicidal thoughts.  It’s an emotional rollercoaster ride, and one cannot help but feel empathy for this person just struggling to find a place in the world.  Personally, I think Kate’s life story is an excellent argument for breaking down the binary gender divide.  A lot of Kate’s struggles come from the rigid gender norms and expectations placed upon her by others.  It would have been much simpler for people to have let her be gender fluid, and indeed, Kate in more recent years has come to be an activist for gender fluidity and queerness (as is evidenced by her book Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us).  This memoir of course explores trans issues, but it also is an amazing gender queer memoir.

The Scientology section was surprisingly mundane compared to what I thought actually happens in Scientology.  Yes, there was abuse and lies and many other things going on that demonstrate the fallacies of L. Ron Hubbard, but honestly none of it was that much worse than religious extremists of any religion.  Scientology expects its followers to cut themselves off from people deemed poisonous and to proselytize non-stop.  It takes over the lives of the people in the upper-echelons, controlling every aspect of their lives.  We can see all of this in Kate’s years in Scientology, and while it was interesting, none of it is shocking to anyone moderately informed on Scientology.  I actually was more interested in how Kate wound up joining Scientology.  Scientology teaches the the soul is genderless, and you also reincarnate.  Everyone has been in both male and female bodies.  Kate (then Al) found this incredibly comforting.  It’s possible that his soul was just more frequently in female bodies, and so that’s why he felt like a girl inside.  What an appealing concept to a confused, unsupported trans or gender queer young adult.  I think this part of the book demonstrates clearly why it’s important for families and loved ones to be supportive of their glbtq teens and young people.  You don’t want a harmful group of people snapping them up with promises of understanding and caring and information that sounds more supportive than the people they live with.

Interestingly, the much more shocking section was the one in which Kate discusses discovering BDSM and getting pleasure from pain.  Kate was part of a BDSM triad for quite some time, and this is addressed.  It does, however, come with a warning for Jessica and readers who might not want to hear the details so they can easily skip over it and still get the most important information without getting all the details.  I thought that was a nice touch from Kate, showing her maturity and openness.  Of course, I read that section, and I will say that Kate had a more intense BDSM relationship than you tend to see in literature, and it was interesting to read about.

It’s also interesting to note that from the prologue Kate is honest with the reader about being diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder years ago.  This is not something I knew coming into the book, and I don’t think Kate’s mental illness played very much into the book.  I certainly think she would have had a better time coping with her mental health issues if she had had a supportive environment for her queerness.  Even within the GLBTQ community, she was ostracized for some of her less mainstream beliefs within that community.  It’s sad that even a community of people ostracized by the larger society, people can still be unaccepting and unloving.  In spite of the fact that the book talks a lot about depression, self-injury, and other mental health issues, I am hesitant to label it as counting for my Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge.  I don’t want the casual reader to think that I’m equating being queer with having a mental illness.  However, the fact remains that Kate herself states she was diagnosed with BPD, and trans and queer people certainly can have mental illnesses.  One does not cause the other, although certainly I think lack of acceptance and loving increases symptoms of mental illnesses.  In any case, for this reason, I am counting this read for the challenge, but I want to be crystal clear that this is due to Kate’s BPD and NOT her queer/trans orientation.

The narration of the audiobook was perfect.  Thankfully, they chose to use a female narrator throughout, which fits perfectly with the image of an older Kate Bornstein telling her life story to her daughter.  Alice Rosengard was a perfect narrator.  She became Kate in my mind, and there’s not a better complement you can pay a narrator than that.

I feel like I’ve rambled a lot about this book.  It’s hard to succinctly discuss a memoir as unique as this one, let alone a book you love as much as I loved this one.  It’s amazing. It’s unique.  It does exactly what a memoir should do. It tells a unique life story in an engaging way that forces the reader to put herself into someone else’s shoes and feel empathy and maybe even come out of it with a changed worldview, however slightly.  I strongly recommend this book to everyone, really, but especially anyone with an interest in GLBTQ history/theory/studies or an interest in the first few decades of Scientology.  I will definitely be reading more of Kate’s works, myself, and want to thank her for being a pioneer, in spite of everything.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol

August 30, 2012 Leave a comment

African-American girl standing near a pole.Summary:
Jonathan Kozol’s books about his social justice work among inner city children in the 1980s and 1990s brought attention to the starkly uneven educational opportunities presented to children in America.  Now the children he originally met are young adults, and through this memoir telling of his friendships with them, he explores their lives and what it means to be successful when everything is stacked against you.

Review:
Long-time followers of my blog know that my undergraduate university (Brandeis University) seeks to instill in its students a sense of social justice, and that certainly worked with me.  So when books like this pop up, I’m instantly interested in reading them.  True equality means equal opportunities and safety for all, and a book like this is a bit unique in that it doesn’t just look at inequalities but also examines the long-term effects of attempts at intervening and helping people who basically got the short end of the stick.  Kozol succeeds quite well in analyzing what has worked and what hasn’t in the Bronx where a large part of his social justice career has been.

The chapters each focus on a different child, although a couple of children get their own chapters.  Kozol met the children either in one of the infamous 1980s NYC homeless shelters or at an after-school tutoring program offered at a church (St Ann’s) in the Bronx.  There are a few things that are immediately apparent from observing the long-term trajectory of these kids, which is why a book like this is so valuable for social justice work.

First, all of the kids who were homeless or who spent a long time in homeless shelters had many more problems and difficulties later in life.  It is clear that homelessness has a long-lasting negative impact on children, no matter how many good opportunities come to them later in life.  Similarly, girls seem to stand a better chance than boys of climbing out of the poverty they grew up in.  Kozol never makes any clear speculative statements as to why he thinks this is, but the multiple lives we observe clearly demonstrate that boys are more targeted than girls both by the crime lords and by the police.  They are both presumed to want to participate in crime and presumed to already be participating in crime.  If you live in just this neighborhood and see just this world where almost everyone you see except maybe a parent or a teacher expects you to become a criminal, it’s no wonder that the boys are struggling more than the girls.  This is a great example of how patriarchy hurts men too.  These assumptions about masculinity and roles in the community are hurting them.

The other big theme of the book is of course how educational inequality entrenches classism and racism.  Kozol has spent most of his career working in improving education so it’s not surprising this is a theme of the book.  One thing that stood out to me was how quickly kids are lost if they never get a firmly established literacy and sense of confidence in their ability to learn.  Once kids start getting held back a grade or fall below grade level, it is incredibly easy to become discouraged and turn to what appears to be an easier life of crime.  And it’s not the kids’ fault that they are struggling at school.  The class sizes are too large, the teachers are frequently inexperienced or, in the case of one school, were never even trained as teachers at all.  There is frequent teacher turnover, too heavy of a focus on just getting the kids to pass the achievement tests and not establish real learning and literacy.  There is a real problem with violence and bullying.  The list goes on and on.  It goes beyond the schools though.  Outside of school the children are never truly safe.  There are shootings and stabbings and rapes, and we’re not talking down an alley. We’re talking in the lobby or stairwell or elevator of their apartment buildings.  How can anyone focus on learning and growing up when that is all around them?  It’s a big problem, and one that is not easily solved.

Kozol ends the book by talking about what he sees as progress and how the now grown-up kids he worked with see possible solutions.  He’s adamant that even small gains are gains.  He views any child whose life ultimately is one of peace and self-worth as an accomplishment, whether they even completed high school or not.  To a certain extent I agree with him, but to a certain extent I agree much more with one of the grown-up kids (who just so happens to be about my age) who argues that small changes aren’t good enough.  That the inequality is so deeply entrenched that we must truly rock the system and not just save one child at a time.  She does ultimately agree that the small changes are still worthy of praise and is working on a degree in sociology so she may go back to the Bronx and focus in on small changes. That then is the question at the heart of this book and one for which there are no easy answers. How do we fix this problem?

It’s difficult to say who this book will appeal to.  It’s not a clear treatise on the educational system or social justice.  It is one man’s observations of the lives and life stories of inner city youth he worked with.  It is not academic per se but it’s also not exactly a memoir either.  I think perhaps that it will appeal most to anyone whose day to day job involves having small influences on the education of individuals.  It clearly shows how much impact one person can have on another person’s life, particularly when it comes to education and literacy.

Overall then I recommend this to those who work in education whether formally or informally.  It is encouraging to see the perspective of an older person who has clearly seen how his life work has impacted the kids he worked with.

4 out of 5 stars

Source:  Netgalley

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Book Review: January First: A Child’s Descent into Madness and Her Father’s Struggle to Save Her by Michael Schofield

August 8, 2012 2 comments

Blonde girl running with the words "January First" imposed over her.Summary:
Michael and Susan thought their daughter, January’s, high energy levels and vivid imagination were the result of her high IQ, but when she turned five her imaginary friends started to tell her to do bad things like hit her baby brother or throw herself out of windows.  Soon it became apparent that her imaginary friends were actually hallucinations.  What followed was a harrowing struggle to get their daughter diagnosed and treated.

Review:
It’s rare to see a memoir by a father.  There are a ton of memoirs by mothers but not a lot by fathers, particularly not by fathers of daughters.  Put this together with the fact that Jani (her parents’ nickname for her) has childhood-onset schizophrenia, and you have one unique book.

This is an excellently told memoir.  It opens with Michael speaking about having his daughter’s diagnosis now and struggling with all the barriers toward a normal life presented not just by her illness but by the world we live in.  He talks about how some people argue that it’s impossible to diagnose a child with a mental illness, let alone schizophrenia, and of course some people even suggest that Jani is possessed by demons.  He gets the denial.  It’s scary to see a child consumed by an illness that is completely arbitrary in choosing its victims.  But he says,

Denial is not going to help Jani or any of the other mentally ill and schizophrenic children I have come to know. What they need is acceptance. What they need is for us to be telling them “your illness does not define you.” We cannot go inside their minds and “fix” them. But we can fix the world so they can live in it.  (location 90)

That speaks very strongly toward the whole reason I created the Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge, and I knew then that this was going to be not just a unique read, but a challenging and good one.

After the introduction, Michael tells the story in a linear fashion.  He does a good job remembering how he felt in the early days.  His immense pride at his daughter’s high IQ and creative mind coupled with a determination to help her succeed and be herself.  It’s fascinating to see, as an outsider, how early there were warning signs that something was not quite right with Jani but that Michael and Susan (her mother) attributed to a positive cause.  I think that’s typical of parents and indeed of anyone who loves someone.  They were looking for the best.  Believing in the best for their daughter.  They may be that moderately annoying couple on the play date who just insist their daughter with inappropriate behavior is gifted, but seeing it from Michael’s perspective makes that make sense.  Most people (with the exception of parents with Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome) don’t want to believe that their child is sick.  So of course you exhaust every other option first.

This of course makes Jani’s move toward violent behavior at the age of five that much more heart-breaking to read.  I’ve heard and read stories and documentaries of how difficult it is for parents of young adults who become schizophrenic but at least they are adults.  To have this happening to your five year old is completely terrifying.  How do you control a child for whom no punishments seem to work?  Who is more concerned with appeasing her hallucinations than with obeying her parents?

I certainly don’t agree with all the parenting choices the Schofields made in the first five years of her life (and for the record, neither do all of the psychiatrists), but none of their choices would create schizophrenia.  Being overly lenient with your kids won’t make them hallucinate and become this violent at the age of five.  This is one of those occasions where you don’t always agree with the choices the memoirist made, but you’re also not right in the heat of the battle.  It’s far easier to say, “oh, you should have done this,” when it’s not your child who’s being lost to a mental illness right before your eyes.

That’s the thing about this memoir.  Michael is so obviously completely honest.  He tells things that happened that don’t present him in the best light.  He is completely forthcoming in his own shortcomings, but he reiterates over and over how much he loves his daughter and wants to keep his family together.  This combination does for this memoir what a lot of memoirs don’t have: it lends a complete sense of validity to the story as a whole.  Michael is so honest about the emotional struggle of it all that even though you may not like him as a person, you respect him as a father.

This level of honesty combined with his writing ability make this memoir a strong call.  A call to parents of children who are other-abled (whether mentally or physically) that they are not alone.  It’s also a call to the rest of us who are not one of these parents to take a moment to think how difficult it must be and go easier on the parents and the child.  I know I for one might think the next time I see a kid throwing an epic tantrum, “Maybe that child has an illness” instead of “Sheesh, do a better job, parents.”

Overall, this is a well-written memoir presenting the unique perspective of a father caring for a daughter with a mental illness.  It also provides one of the few accounts of childhood-onset schizophrenia.  Highly recommended to parents with special needs children, as well as to anyone who enjoys memoirs and the different perspectives reading them can bring.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Counts For:
Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge

Book Review: The Bedwetter by Sarah Silerman (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

July 10, 2012 Leave a comment

Sarah Silverman in a uniform.Summary:
Sarah Silverman is a petite, Jewish comedienne from New Hampshire who has written for SNL and has her own show The Sarah Silverman Program. This is her memoir.

Review:
This review needs a bit of backstory.

Once upon a time, I was dating a guy who is now so universally loathed by myself and my friends that we usually just refer to him as The Douche. Sometimes The Dickwad.  One of his all-time favorite comics was (is?) Sarah Silverman, I’m not sure if that’s because A) he finds her funny B) she’s from NH and Jewish and he’s from NH and Jewish or C) he secretly wants to bang her. It is possible it is all three.

Sarah Silverman's signatureIn any case, I am not a fan of Sarah Silverman myself, but when I saw that she was coming to Brookline Booksmith to do a live reading and signing of her new book, I bought tickets for us to surprise him with. Because I am seriously that awesome of a girlfriend. I kid you not.  In any case, I did also buy myself a book to have signed because who goes to a book signing and reading doesn’t get a copy signed?

When I say that I’m not a fan of Sarah Silverman I don’t mean oh I don’t really know I never watched or heard or blah de blah. That’s not how my relationship with my ex (The Douche) worked. He liked her, ergo I wound up watching basically everything she ever did. I don’t dislike the woman, but honestly her sense of humor is not my style. It doesn’t offend me, but it also doesn’t make me laugh. The most she might get is a snort.

You can see how non-plussed I was by the whole event from this Friday Fun! post I did about it. (You may notice that post doesn’t mention my ex at all. Painting on the wall, Amanda. But I digress).  In fact, the main things that stood out to me at the event were A) how poor Sarah seemed like an introvert who really just needed to be given a cup of tea and sent away from this huge crowd and B) how mortified I was by my ex trying desperately to be all “Hey I’m from NH too!” during the book signing. Dear Sarah, if you are reading this, I was the girl cringing next in line while you somehow managed to not be like “Wow another Jew in Brookline who has been to NH. I am shocked.” Also, we compared signatures later and my name got an exclamation point and a heart, which his did not. I told him that meant you liked me better. Possibly not true, but it was fun to use during fights, so.  Brownie points to you, girlfriend.

In any case!  Oddly, I still had this book, unread, on my shelf, signed by Sarah, over a year after my relationship with the ex dissolved. If that doesn’t say Bottom of TBR Pile I don’t know what does.  But, I think it’s important to know the backstory of I’m not a fan and I got this book going to a book signing with my douchey ex who embarrassed me in front of a celebrity and I couldn’t pick it up for over a year due to a combination of first missing my ex while simultaneously loathing him then after that faded to just not being a fan so why would I pick up a book I would probably find not funny anyway?

Because I’m ocd about my tbr pile that’s why.

So. Knowing all of this, you will understand why my review you are about to read is more like “hey I’m a librarian so who might want to read this and what would they think” as opposed to “omg I love Sarah Silverman and here’s what I think of her book.” Capiche?

This is a memoir that says a lot without actually saying all that much.  Sarah tells us some things about her childhood and adult life without actually getting into the nitty gritty real details of who Sarah is.  The deeper moments we get are the best in the book–when she talks about struggling with depression in her pre and early teens and about being a long-term bedwetter.  Beyond that, we don’t really get to know Sarah. What makes Sarah tick. How does she feel about being an agnostic while her sister is a rabbi on a kibbutz, for instance? Or how did it feel to have a relationship so abundantly in the public eye? (Hers with Jimmy Kimmel. Side-note: I’m Fucking Matt Damon is the only thing she’s done that I find uproariously funny).

Ok, I get it, some people aren’t comfortable talking about more personal stuff (even though that’s what people want in a memoir).  But she’s a celebrity. She’s got unique experiences that can’t be all *that* personal.  Like maybe she could talk a bit more about what being backstage at the MTV VMAs was like. But all we get is “oh the comics don’t get to see the act right before them.”  Kind of disappointing.

There’s also the fact that the memoir is not particularly linear.  It kind of swoops around in an ADD manner.  Some readers might enjoy that. Others might be turned off. Again, that could be the sense of humor that I just don’t get.

Overall, it’s not a bad memoir. It’s not like it was torturesome to read.  It just falls short of the level of information that people kind of expect from a celebrity memoir.  It’s possible that it’s an uproariously funny piece of writing, but you’d have to be a fan of Sarah Silverman’s sense of humor to be able to determine that, which I am not.

Recommended for fans of Sarah Silverman with the understanding that it’s more a piece of comedic work than a revealing memoir.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Brookline Booksmith

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Book Review: To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron (Audiobook narrated by Steven Crossley)

May 15, 2012 7 comments

Building in front of a mountain.Summary:
After the death of his mother, who also was his last living family member, Colin set out on a journey to the mountain of Kailas in Tibet.  The mountain is holy to both Hindus and Buddhists and is closely associated with the process of dying and crossing over.  Through his eyes we see the people of Tibet and his emotional journey.

Review:
I am not sure if words can describe what an epic miss this book was for me.  The combination of British western eyes othering Tibetans, an entire chapter dedicated to his father’s big game hunting, a surprising lack of emotional processing of death, and the *shudders* British accented narrator imitating Indian and Tibetan accents…..oh god.  It was painful.

I see nothing wrong with a Western person traveling and appreciating something revered in another culture.  If it is done right, it can be a beautiful thing. A lesson in how we are all different and yet the same.  Yet through Colin’s eyes I felt as if I was very uncomfortably inhabiting the shoes of a colonizing douchebag.  Perhaps part of it was the narration style of Crossley, but it felt as if Colin was judging and caricaturing all of the Tibetans and Indians he met.  There was so little empathy from someone supposedly on this journey to deal with death of loved ones.  You’d expect more from him.  I could accept this perspective more if either Colin learned over the course of the trip or this was an older memoir, but neither is true!  This is a recent memoir, and Colin is the exact same self-centered prick he was when he went in.

Similarly, Colin when he is not othering the Tibetans and Indians is either reminiscing joyfully on his father’s exploits as a big game hunter and basically colonizing douche in India or giving us a history lesson in Hinduism and Buddhism.  Ok?  But he’s not an expert in these religions and also that was not the point of the book?  A few explanations here and there, sure, but if I wanted to learn about Buddhism or Hinduism, I sure wouldn’t be getting it from a travel memoir from an old British dude.  I’m just saying.

Overall, this is an incredibly odd book.  It is a book out of time that feels as if it should have been written by an understandably backward gentleman traveler in the early 1900s, not by a modern man.  I honestly cannot recommend it to anyone.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: A Dog Named Slugger by Leigh Brill

April 4, 2012 1 comment

Face of golden retriever.Summary:
Leigh Brill recounts in her memoir her life before, during, and after her first service dog, Slugger, a golden retriever with a heart just as golden.  Leigh had no idea her cerebral palsy could even possibly qualify her for a service dog until a similarly disabled fellow graduate student gave her some information.  Her touching memoir tracks her journey, as well as the life of Slugger.

Review:
This was my first book borrowed from the kindle lending library, and it was such a great experience!  I know people were skeptical that maybe only low-quality books would be available, but this one is absolutely stunning.  I sort of wish I had bought it, just to support Leigh’s service dog efforts.

It’s difficult for me to describe what a pleasure this book was to read.  It covers three areas that are a passion of mine–animals as beings worthy of rights, the experience of any type of disability and the extra difficulties that come with that, and the need for universal rights.  Top this off with the fact that this is a memoir, a beautifully written one, and I was left nearly speechless.  Leigh’s descriptions of learning to communicate with Slugger, Slugger’s unconditional love healing her heart, and the discrimination she faced in public areas with a service dog, they all left me feeling so connected to her.  It’s impossible not to be touched by a story of how an animal changes a person’s life.  But how an animal changes a disabled person’s life, a person with a disability that is less obvious than others, a person who other people have laughed at and neglected to help.  It’s just yet another example of how powerful the human/animal connection can be when we let it.

Of course, this gorgeous experience wouldn’t be possible without talented writing on the part of Leigh.  She manages clear, chronological story-telling without missing the opportunity to reflect on how various experiences affected and changed her.  She strikes an eloquent balance between reflecting on her relationship with Slugger and talking about her experiences as a disabled person.

Overall, this is a beautiful memoir that eloquently discusses the companionship of animals, as well as the experiences of a woman with cerebral palsy.  I highly recommend it to all, but especially to those with an interest in memoirs and disability studies.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle Lending Library

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Book Review: Trespasses: A Memoir by Lacy M. Johnson

March 21, 2012 1 comment

Barbed wire traveling through words.Summary:
Lacy grew up in Missouri to a traditional, poor farming family that never bothered to keep track of its European roots.  Through interviews with her family members and a series of personal vignettes, Lacy explores what it is to be white and poor in America, the farming community, and the odd in-between Missouri inhabits as not quite southern and not quite midwestern.

Review:
The concept behind this book is excellent.  The execution is discombobulated with a few gems at best, off-putting to the reader at worst.

I think what is most difficult about this book as a reader is that we jump around through time and situations with no guidance.  Who is Judith?  How is she related to Archie?  For that matter, how is she related to the author?  We have no real idea.  I’m not against the jumps around the family time-line as a method in contrast to the more traditional linear timeline, but the reader needs to know who we are reading about.  I honestly think an intro with a simple, straight-forward family tree would have helped immensely.  Instead we have to wait until later in the book to determine who these women are that the author is speaking about.  It leaves things confused.

Then there’s the narration style.  It jumps from “you are so and so” to third person to first person past to first person present without any real rhyme or reason.  I can appreciate the style of the individual vignettes.  Individually, they are well-written.  But assembled together into one single book where they are all supposed to tell a cohesive story, they are puzzling and off-putting.

The absolute strength of the work is when Lacy puts down her story-telling mantel and simply talks about the history of the terms “white trash, cracker,” what it is to grow up white trash, what it is to change class setting from poor to academic.  These were interesting and relatable.  I believe this is the author’s strong point and would encourage her to pursue this in future works.  It is certainly an experience that she is not alone in having in her lifetime.

Overall although the concept of this memoir is strong and unique, the method of time-jumping vignettes and constantly changing narration styles make for a confusing read.  I would recommend you browse a copy in a library or a bookstore if you are interested in the author’s writing style or one or two particular vignettes, but not venture beyond that.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Falling For Me: How I Hung Curtains, Learned to Cook, Traveled to Seville, and Fell in Love by Anna David

January 31, 2012 9 comments

Polka-dot book coverSummary:
Anna David is a successful writer in her mid 30s living in NYC when an overwhelming depression hits her.  She’s still single.  What’s wrong with her?  While fighting off tears in the self-help section, she finds a copy of Sex and the Single Girl by Helen Gurley Brown, which was a bestseller in the 1960s.  Essentially a guide to being happy single while still keeping an eye open for Mr. Right, Anna instantly connects with Helen Gurley Brown and decides to spend the next year challenging herself and taking advantage of everything being single has to offer.

Review:
It should really need no explaining why I picked this book up.  I’ve always been the relationship type (even when I tried not to be), but I also won’t settle for just anybody, and sometimes that combination leads to some ennui.  I was hoping I would find a connection to and insight from Anna, and I was certainly right about that.

The very first chapter has Anna breaking down in line for food in her head, basically saying, “I’m going to be alone forever,” and going on from there adding that she’ll be the crazy old maid cat lady and going further and further on into ridiculousness that really doesn’t seem that ridiculous when it’s your brain saying it to yourself.  I knew instantly that Anna and I would get along.

As opposed to a lot of other single gal memoirs, the focus is neither just love yourself the way you are nor fake everything to land a man.  It’s more like….Do you have any idea how lucky you are to even have this phase in your life?  You’re single!  You can do anything, go anywhere, decorate however you want, and etc…  Anna realizes that she hasn’t been taking full advantage of the things being single affords to her.  Things like deciding to house swap and live for a month in Seville (try doing that with a baby) or taking French classes in the evening or spending the day rollerblading and winding up in a park in the sun.  So Anna isn’t just trudging along being herself.  She’s pushing herself to try new things, go new places, and yes the future Mr. Anna may be there, but even if he’s not, she’s still having a fun time doing it.

The book also addresses another common issue among single women and, well, people in general–grass is always greener syndrome.  Anna eventually realizes that she seems to think all of her problems will just disappear if and when she gets married, when that is really not the case at all if you pay an iota of attention to married couples.

One specific line in S&SG that I keep thinking of—“I’ve never met a completely happy single girl or a completely happy married one”—and how it’s helped me to see that I’m somehow convinced that getting to the next stage will make me instantly joyous.  (page 36)

The other thing that is sooo relatable that Anna talks about is how it’s so easy to become so desperate for a partner that you start trying to change yourself for him or worry constantly about whether or not you’re good enough for him, when that’s not how dating is supposed to work!

You spend all your time trying to manipulate a guy into wanting you to be his girlfriend when what you should be doing is enjoying yourself and then later figuring out if you even want him as a boyfriend.  (page 205)

There are definitely things about Anna that I don’t like or I disagree with (for instance, she eats veal and foie gras, ahem, the book almost got thrown across the room at that point), but even though we’re different, we’re also the same.  We’re two single gals who are wondering why everyone else seems to be coupling up but me?  What Anna slowly realizes over her year-long experiment is that there is no timeline for love and marriage.  It’s not like it’s a game of musical chairs and she’ll be left the only one without one.  Maybe her music is just playing at a different speed.  I think that’s a really important thing to remember and touching to see someone else struggling with, because it’s far too easy to start pressuring ourselves and the men we date into situations that just aren’t right for either of us.  It’ll happen when it happens.

This is a rare instance when I feel the need to sort of reveal the ending.  I was worried the book would end with Anna abundantly happy in a relationship, kind of like Eat, Pray, Love, which honestly would only have made me more depressed.  Like the book was all about yay singlehood but I still landed a man, right?  But no.  Who Anna falls in love with is not a man, but herself.

Here’s what I’ve come to understand: I used to not really believe I deserved thick, gorgeous panels for my windows or to pull books from a bookshelf specifically selected for my apartment. It didn’t occur to me that I was worth cooking homemade chicken soup for or dressing in beautiful clothes. I thought I was half a person because I didn’t have a partner but that when I had one, I’d do those things for him. Now I see that I’m entirely whole so that if and when I find him, we can be two whole people together, not the person and a half we would have been.  (page 305)

Yes, yes, yes!  Finally.  A book about being single and loving yourself and taking care of yourself and being a whole person as just you.  Sure, the professionals tell us that, but it’s super-nice to get to hear it from a gal who could easily be somebody I have bimonthly cocktails with.

I highly recommend this book to any single ladies in their 20s and up.  It’s a nice reminder that we’re not the only ones learning to love ourselves and be patient for the right person.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Public Library

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Book Review: Brothers (and Me): A Memoir of Loving and Giving by Donna Britt

January 19, 2012 2 comments

Old photograph in bottom right corner of Britt's family.Summary:
Now in her fifties, Donna Britt, an award-winning and ground-breaking black, female journalist, takes a look back at her life to see what has influenced her the most.  She is unsurprised to find that her life has largely been affected by loving and giving to brothers–black men she’s both related to and not.  From growing up surrounded by three blood brothers, to loving brothers, to raising them, Britt discusses the universal influence heterosexual women’s love for men has on their lives, as well as the unique aspect of loving a race of men persecuted in the United States and raising her three boys in the face of the odds stacked against them.

Review:
Britt’s career as a writer shows in her memoir.  It is the most well put-together memoir I’ve read in quite some time.  Each chapter looks at a key event in her life in order of it being lived, but also looks at the impact those events had on her as a person.  She does this by starting with a photograph and an anecdote related to the event, then moves on to describing the event in detail.  Everything in her life, though, is impacted by her brother, Darrell’s, death at the hands of two policemen in his early 20s.  This terribly unjust incident and how it flavors the rest of her life is the simplest and most effective anti police brutality message I’ve ever read.  Was her brother threatening the officers? Maybe.  But all it would have taken was for those two men to aim to stop rather than to kill to prevent the loss of someone’s loved one.  Britt says later in her memoir that she knows that those officers just saw “a crazy black man” and not a person, and it is now her goal to always see the person, not the stereotype.

Britt, like other memoirists I’ve enjoyed, never takes a “poor me” attitude or tone, in spite of the fact that she really could given the loss of her brother, being raped, and a first marriage to a man who soon got lost in cocaine addiction.  Not to mention her second husband’s affair.  Yet, through all of this, Britt’s resilience is evident.  She constantly tries to improve not just the world but herself.  Britt has an ability to look at herself without rose-tinted glasses.  She knows her own faults, primarily that she’s a perfectionist and expects too much from people.  I think that’s what makes her so relatable and sympathetic.  She’s an imperfect person struggling in an imperfect world, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t right about the injustices she’s seen throughout her life.

I think any female reader who has a brother can understand the other central question in Britt’s memoir–How exactly did these boys who were our brothers who loved us and pranked us and guarded us with their fists when we were young grow up into these baffling men?  Boys are easy to understand.  Men, not so much.  That’s even the case with Britt’s own brothers, one of whom grew from a rebel into a religious man who changes his name from Steve to Melech and whom she barely speaks to anymore.  Why is it when boys become men and we go from girls to women that communication becomes so hard?  Hard, but rewarding and not impossible.  Sure, no answers are offered, but it’s nice to see this experience through someone else’s eyes.

Beyond social justice and the universal communication difficulties between men and women, Britt’s memoir also clearly demonstrates an issue that is sometimes hard to explain–that of privilege.  Those born with privilege sometimes have a hard time understanding what, exactly, it is those without it are speaking about.  I sometimes wonder myself if I’d understand privilege if I’d been born a white MAN instead of a white WOMAN.  Britt with a gift of subtlety makes this clear.  She talks about needing to be extra perfect, extra good in order to combat the stereotype of the useless black children.  Of feeling like she’s representing the entire race when she’s the only black student in her graduate class.  Of the fact that maybe if her brother had been white and acting crazy the cops might not have shot him.  Of being extra concerned when her son shoplifts because he probably wouldn’t get away with just a slap on the wrist if he got caught.  Instead of talking loudly about privilege, it’s simply evident throughout her entire life and the lives of those around her.  I would hope that anyone reading this would start to see how inequality survives today, even if it’s not as institutionalized as it once was.

Overall, this is a powerful memoir by a humble woman that again demonstrates why it’s important to listen to the life stories of those older than us.  There is always something to learn or to relate to from their life journey.  I, naturally, don’t always agree with Britt or her choices, but I respect her commitment to living the best life she can.

I recommend this memoir to fans of the genre, especially, but also to those with an interest in racism in 20th century America and relationships between men and women.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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