February in Review

Monday, February 28, 2011

February in Review

My free reading time is just around the corner.... I can feel my fingertips grazing the edge! Just need to write some thank you notes (to my internship supervisor and my internship professor whose class I was in about nine times in a row) and then tie up some small, loose ends and I will be all set!! I'll be staying on at my internship part-time in addition to my full-time job but I have no worries about being able to manage it all and still read a lot. This month I read six books, just under half of what I did last month. But remember, I sort of suspected I'd have a smaller month. And six is not bad! Only two of those were reviewed this month so there is more to look forward to next month!

As for this month, I started with an old psychological character study I'd had on my TBR for a while, Lying on the Couch by Irving Yalom. That was followed up with the memoir about the woman whose boyfriend gave her his kidney, Moonface by Angela Balcita. And as I sit here
and watch the Oscars co-hosted by James Franco (clearly I'm writing this post the night before you're reading this), I can say I also reviewed his book, Palo Alto, this month. That was an intense bunch of short stories! Next came a totally fascinating non-fiction, Gang Leader for a Day. I then wrote about a new website for e-books, Top Suspense Group. I had a giveaway for three winners to choose from one of four e-books. I never did pick those winners so I have done so now: Heather, Kimberly, and Michelle. (I will be sending you e-mails!)

The next book up was an old classic that I essentially read for the first time (not counting 7th grade since I didn't process it to my memory at all then), To Kill a Mockingbird. And for
Valentine's Day I reviewed a fun collection of how-they-met love stories in the best city in the world, Heart of the City: Nine Stories of Love and Serendipity on the Streets of New York. I let you all know about a fun event coming up, the UCF Orlando Book Festival, (Michelle, if you're reading this, I WILL e-mail you back!), and then reviewed a surprisingly fascinating, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. The next two I thought were just alright, Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser and The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino. I followed that up with my first author/book spotlight for the UCF Orlando Book Festival, Christina Diaz Gonzalez's The Red Umbrella, and then I did a throwback for one of my favorite childhood books, Anne of Green Gables. And rounding it out for the month was Jodi Picoult's latest (coming out tomorrow), Sing You Home. Unfortunately, I didn't care for this one and came away slightly offended.

There's one book I'm excited to talk to you about in March. I just finished reading it and am working on the review, but it was a fantastic non-fiction. I've got two blog tours coming up as well, but other than that not much specific planned. We'll just see where it goes!

Sing You Home

Friday, February 25, 2011

Title: Sing You Home
Author: Jodi Picoult
Pages: 480
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Atria (Simon & Schuster)
Pub. Date: March 1, 2011

I've always loved Jodi Picoult's books and the controversies she explores, the discussions of morality she elicits. But I have to say, I didn't feel it with her latest. I don't want to give away too much, especially because most of the synopses and professional reviews I've read are strangely vague...

But basically, Sing You Home, starts off with a couple who has some infertility issues. The infertility issues in and of themselves don't really turn out to be a big aspect of this book (well sort of but not in the way I had expected) but do lead to the greater question of what constitutes a family. The other main issues explored are gay rights (well, really what I consider just human rights) and evangelicalism.

I had some problems with this book, though I do applaud Picoult for trying to use her latest book to educate on this topic. I already have my opinions on this topic in that I believe that what's really at stake are human rights, and it appalls me as much as any other human rights violations, the way some gay people are treated. However, even so, I felt almost offended at the way the information was presented by being put in my face. Rather, I more respect the media that incorporates gay couples into every day situations to show how "normal" they are rather than drone on about it. I think the people she was trying to make a point to would have not responded well to the droning on. In fact, Amanda recently mentioned this concept in her review of If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous (which I loved). Or think Modern Family which is one of my favorite shows! By treating gay couples just like any other couple, the writers create a normalcy that I know Picoult was trying to portray. Instead, what she did was devote the first half of the book to outright telling the reader how normal everything is that this couple does and if you don't think so, well you better believe it!!! In fact, she went so far as to explain how this couple's relationship was much better than the heterosexual one the one character was initially in for various reasons. Picoult compares the two to show how being in a straight relationship wasn't necessarily the best. But I ended up coming away from that feeling confused... was she just trying to portray the normalcy of gay relationships? Surely she wasn't trying to say that gay relationships are better than straight? Because she tried to relate why the relationship was better to it being two women who could better understand each other, when to me what was really being described was a basic, healthy relationship, pretty much just like the one I have with my husband. Not to mention, part of the reason this couple was living such a life of bliss was because they'd only been together for maybe a month!! Most relationships are in the "honeymoon" phase at this point. So if the point was to sway readers who don't already believe that all relationships, regardless of genders, are normal, then she probably failed because I imagine that anyone who disapproves would not have been swayed by this faulty argument.

So, I was already feeling frustrated at explicitly being told what to think. Then I realized, halfway through the book, that I wasn't sure what the typical "Picoultian" controversy was (hehe, see what I did there?) I mean, I got what issues she was illustrating, but at that point I felt maybe she was only going to describe every day life for this couple rather than moving on.

Well, the controversy finally arose and that part I did find very interesting and a great question to ask, but I just wish it had started maybe 100 pages earlier. And while I typically enjoy courtroom scenes, my one gripe with this second half of the book was that the characters were so obviously used for the purpose of spouting off research that our author wanted to give to our scientifically-minded readers. It's actually possible that this is true with all her books and that I only noticed it here because at that point I was searching for flaws...? I don't know.

In the end, I finally grew to connect to the characters and get into the story. I even really liked the way it ended. I love reading about non-traditional families and defining what a family truly is, so in that sense, this ended up being a good read. I just am sensitive to human rights issues and feel that they have to be handled so carefully for those who most need to be educated, and I fear that this may not be the book to do it.

I suppose I'd be remiss in leaving out the music aspect of this book. The main character, Zoe, works as a music therapist, and the book comes with a cd that is supposed to be Zoe singing. Each song is a chapter in the book. (Jodi Picoult wrote the lyrics). I only listened to about the first half and thought it was okay. The first song was catchy, I thought, and some of the rest sounded sort of "folksy" to me. But I thought adding a music cd to the book was an interesting concept.

Throwback Thursday: Anne of Green Gables

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Throwback Thursday – this is an event hosted by me! It used to take place weekly, but is now once a month on this blog. It is the time to recognize those older books… an older book you’ve always wanted to read, or one that you have read and love; maybe one from your childhood; or review an older book -- how about even a classic! Leave a comment here and feel free to take an icon and use it on your blog! Also feel free to do this on as many Thursdays as you like. =)

This month's throwback is:

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

From bn.com:
Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, brother and sister who live together at Green Gables, a farm in Avonlea on Prince Edward Island in Canada, decide to adopt a boy from an orphan asylum in Nova Scotia as a helper on their farm. Through a series of mishaps, the person who ends up under their roof is a precocious girl of eleven named Anne Shirley. Anne is bright and quick, eager to please and talkative, and extremely imaginative. She is not beautiful, but is interesting-looking, with a pale countenance dotted with freckles, and long braids of red hair. She would really like to be called Cordelia; but she insists that if you are to call her Anne, it must be spelt with an 'E', as that spelling is "so much more distinguished." Being a child of imagination, however, Anne takes much joy in life, and adapts quickly, thriving in the environment of Prince Edward Island. She is something of a chatterbox, which initially drives the prim, duty-driven Marilla to distraction, although shy Matthew falls for her immediately.
*sigh* Ohhh how I loved this book. (My copy is this exact cover). I got the whole eight book set for Christmas (I think) from my grandparents one year. I think it was probably another couple years after I got it before I even cracked open this first book. Once I finally did, I fell in love with Anne of Green Gables and read it many times after that first time. In fact, it may have been my favorite book as a child. Just in writing this post and searching for this picture online I had so many great memories of this book. I had this desire to open it up and read it again right now (but realistically I don't have time for that right now). I used to love reading about adoptions and orphans so this was the perfect story and character for me. And I loved how Anne looked at the world. And I loved how she named everything... to this day I have a fascination with names of places, neighborhoods, etc. and am sad when I don't like the name of something... like the name of the city I live in is so not pretty and that makes me sad, LOL. But I like the name of my neighborhood alright, hehe. And I love her focus on spelling of things and how it makes the word seem different just from being spelled differently. I read maybe the 2nd or 3rd book in this series but never got much further. But this one is definitely a classic! Love it!

The Red Umbrella: UCF Orlando Book Festival Spotlight

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Christina Diaz Gonzalez is one of the authors who will be at the UCF Orlando Book Festival. Here is some information about the book and author straight from her website (which is gorgeous!) And also, while I have yet to read this book, you can check out a glowing review by Juju at Tales of Whimsy!

About the book:
In 1961, two years after the Communist revolution, Lucía Álvarez still leads a carefree life, dreaming of parties and her first crush. But when the soldiers come to her sleepy Cuban town, everything begins to change. Freedoms are stripped away. Neighbors disappear. Her friends feel like strangers. And her family is being watched.

As the revolution's impact becomes more oppressive, Lucía's parents make the heart-wrenching decision to send her and her little brother to the United States—on their own.

Suddenly plunked down in Nebraska with well-meaning strangers, Lucía struggles to adapt to a new country, a new language, a new way of life. But what of her old life? Will she ever see her home or her parents again? And if she does, will she still be the same girl?

Based on the real events of Operation Pedro Pan where over 14,000 Cuban children were sent to the U.S. in the two year period between 1960-1962, this novel depicts the pain of losing one’s homeland and showcases the generosity of the American spirit. (christinagonzalez.com)

About the Author:
Christina Diaz Gonzalez was born in a small Southern town, but she was always very aware of her Cuban heritage (loving both grits and Cuban pastelitos). She is the author of the highly acclaimed children’s novel, THE RED UMBRELLA, which reviewers from publications such as The Washington Post, Publisher’s Weekly and School Library Journal have praised as being exceptional, compelling and inspirational. Ms. Gonzalez’s novel (the story of a 14 year old Cuban girl who is sent to the U.S. in 1961 in order to escape Castro’s communist revolution) showcases the generosity of the American spirit and highlights the pain of losing one’s homeland. Her second novel, A THUNDEROUS WHISPER, is to be released in Spring 2012. (christinagonzalez.com)

The Devotion of Suspect X

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Title: The Devotion of Suspect X
Author: Keigo Higashino
Translator: Alexander Smith
Page: 298
Genre: Mystery
Publisher: Minotaur Books (St. Martin's Press)
Pub. Date: February 1, 2011 (translation; original Japanese in 2005)

This was a different kind of read for me. I picked it up spontaneously during a trip to Borders without ever having heard anything about it. Then when I got home my hubby mentioned he saw it on Barnes & Noble's Best of February list. So I thought... good! Sounds promising!

I spent most of this read wondering where it was going and if it really was going to be as simple as it seemed. The types of things I said to myself while reading this included, "this is like mystery/crime 101" and "is the mystery genre new to the Japanese?" It started out with a woman, Yasuko Hanaoka, who kills her abusive ex-husband after he unexpectedly shows up at her house. Yasuko's neighbor, Ishigani, happens to be a genius mathematician who is in loooove with our Yasuko. So he comes to the rescue to help her hide the crime. He uses his logistical smarts to come up with a foolproof alibi. Yasuko and her daughter, Misato, meanwhile do everything he says without really understanding why. All they know is that they best do whatever he says.

But complications arise when an old peer of Ishigani's, Manabu Yukawa, shows up. Probably the only person who can match Ishigani in intellectual ability, he starts to unravel Ishigani's formerly solid alibi. And an old client of Yasuko's, Kudo, also ends up in the picture and ends up leaving Yasuko feeling ambivalent, unsure if showing Kudo affection will cause Ishigani to stop protecting her. Ultimately, we learn exactly what lengths Ishigani will go to protect his beloved Yasuko.

I wish I had known a little more about the story before reading it (which is unusual because I typically like to know less). But I think if I had known more, I may have enjoyed the read more along the way. That's why I sort of included more in my synopsis here than I normally would. Because I was unclear about the direction of the novel, I felt a little frustrated at first. Once I realized the story was about this alibi and Ishigani's love for Yasuko, it started to make more sense and was enjoyable. The different names was difficult to get used to at first, but once I got used to them I found them less distracting. (I love saying their names out loud because they sound so pretty, lol!) And at first I felt the structure of the sentences was so simple that I didn't think I could get into it... sort of felt like reading a children's book. I don't know if this was something that happened in translation or if the original writing was like that. I pretty much forgot about it after a while, though. And then the ending was great. There was a twist that was placed well in the story and made the whole read worthwhile. The more I think about it the more I like how it turned out after all.

In all, not quite the amazement I expected but a really good read anyway.

Triumph of the City

Monday, February 21, 2011

Title: Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier
Author: Edward Glaeser
Pages: 352
Genre: Non-Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Press
Pub. Date: February 10, 2011

Synopsis from bn.com:

A pioneering urban economist offers fascinating, even inspiring proof that the city is humanity's greatest invention and our best hope for the future.

America is an urban nation. More than two thirds of us live on the 3 percent of land that contains our cities. Yet cities get a bad rap: they're dirty, poor, unhealthy, crime ridden, expensive, environmentally unfriendly... Or are they?

As Edward Glaeser proves in this myth-shattering book, cities are actually the healthiest, greenest, and richest (in cultural and economic terms) places to live. New Yorkers, for instance, live longer than other Americans; heart disease and cancer rates are lower in Gotham than in the nation as a whole. More than half of America's income is earned in twenty-two metropolitan areas. And city dwellers use, on average, 40 percent less energy than suburbanites.

Glaeser travels through history and around the globe to reveal the hidden workings of cities and how they bring out the best in humankind. Even the worst cities-Kinshasa, Kolkata, Lagos- confer surprising benefits on the people who flock to them, including better health and more jobs than the rural areas that surround them. Glaeser visits Bangalore and Silicon Valley, whose strangely similar histories prove how essential education is to urban success and how new technology actually encourages people to gather together physically. He discovers why Detroit is dying while other old industrial cities-Chicago, Boston, New York-thrive. He investigates why a new house costs 350 percent more in Los Angeles than in Houston, even though building costs are only 25 percent higher in L.A. He pinpoints the single factor that most influences urban growth-January temperatures-and explains how certain chilly cities manage to defy that link. He explains how West Coast environmentalists have harmed the environment, and how struggling cities from Youngstown to New Orleans can "shrink to greatness." And he exposes the dangerous anti-urban political bias that is harming both cities and the entire country.

Using intrepid reportage, keen analysis, and eloquent argument, Glaeser makes an impassioned case for the city's import and splendor. He reminds us forcefully why we should nurture our cities or suffer consequences that will hurt us all, no matter where we live.

Thoughts: I feel pretty bad about this, but I couldn't get into this book and ended up only reading it in parts. I thought I would try it because I've been really into non-fiction lately, and the topic of cities and where people live and why is interesting to me. And it's not just that I adore NYC... I love living in cities in general. I'm pretty happy in Orlando considering all the perks I have living here. It's ironic because I have more of an independent, reserved, personality but the thought of living out in the country far from people is horrifying to me! I prefer to live in heavily populated areas with lots of people that I don't know (LOL). In fact, I was really sad when my next door neighbors recently moved out even though we didn't say more than hi if we saw each other.

Well, I found this book chock-full of information and containing examples from cities all over the world. To be honest, that's something I don't think of that often. I am blindly naive sometimes at realizing how industrialized so many other countries are in addition to the States.

But, alas, even though I've been into non-fiction lately, I think I'm still leaning more towards the human interest stories, and this was too fact based and economic for me. (For a semester in college I thought I would be an accounting major... long story... but economics is what did me in).

So, while I found this book to not be for me, it definitely is the highly informative and thorough book on urban economics that it purposes to be.

Follow the rest of the tour here.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Pages: 369
Genre: Non-Fiction
Publisher: Crown (Random House)
Pub. Date: February 2, 2010

For some reason, I never paid much attention to this book when it first came out. I don't know that I ever read the synopsis or even realized it was non-fiction. Then it started appearing on "best of 2010" lists all over so I took a look. Maybe it was knowing the praise it had already received, but I was immediately intrigued and decided I had to read this.

Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951 while in her early 30's. During this time of segregation, Ms. Lacks was treated on the "colored ward" of John Hopkins Hospital. Prior to her death, her doctor had taken some cervical tissue for biopsy and kept some of the cells. The cells were taken and kept without Ms. Lacks's knowledge or consent. Ms. Lacks's doctor, George Gey, essentially landed on a gold mine: Henrietta's cells continued to grow and multiply at an astonishing rate and became the first "immortal" line of cells. Whereas most scientists had difficulty figuring out how to culture cells so they would stay alive, Henrietta's cells continued to divide indefinitely. The potential for the use of the cells was, then, unfathomable.

Dr. Gey started using these cells for research and sent cells to researchers around the country for use in their research as well. Henrietta's cells became known as HeLa and are still used in research today. The accomplishments that are attributed to research with her cells is astounding. Research using her cells led to the vaccine for Polio, which is one of the most significant achievements. However, there are a host of other things her cells have contributed to including in vitro fertilization, cancer research, effects of radiation on cells, discovery of DNA, and her cells have even been sent to outer space to research the effects of space on human cells.

Henrietta's family was in the dark about her legacy until twenty years after her death. And they only learned about "the cells" because not only did some random reporters start approaching them, but the doctors at John Hopkins also approached them for "testing" when in reality they were looking to acquire cells from each of them to compare to the HeLa cells.

There is so much more in this book about the infamous cells, what they were used for, and the scandal associated with it. There was a moment near the beginning of the book when I wondered how an entire book on this topic could possibly maintain my interest, but it really did. Although there's so much to be said about the cells themselves, there were other aspects to this book as well. It was about Henrietta's family, the controversy (that continues to this day) over whether or not we have rights to our own tissues, about race, and medical testing in general.

Henrietta's family lived in poverty. They suffered from medical ailments because they couldn't afford health care. They were limited in education and couldn't really even understand the concept of Henrietta's cells once they learned about them. In many ways they were also exploited as a result of their lack of knowledge. For years after having samples taken from her, Henrietta's daughter, Deborah, thought she was actually being tested for the cancer her mother died from. Researchers and reporters came knocking on their doors throughout the years, yet never provided the family much information at all. And though the family thought it was unjustified that their mother's cells were used without anyone's knowledge, they didn't think to hire a lawyer or pursue it any further. (Of course, in today's litigious society, babies are practically born suing doctors for snatching them from their cozy wombs so had this occurred 50 years later it may have been different).

The author, Rebecca Skloot, provided a lot of material to mull over as it pertains to human rights. It wasn't until within the last 30 years that informed consent even became required, much less regularly practiced. But even though we've come far, these types of things continue to happen. In fact, there really is no recourse for our tissue samples being used for research since, technically, it's considered "waste" that we have "disposed" of and is, therefore, no longer ours. Yet, if the topic of human rights and medical testing doesn't make you squeamish enough, let's bring race into it. Remember, it wasn't until even the 70's that the Tuskegee Study (in which African American men with Syphilis were unknowingly tested by not being given readily available treatments) was officially discovered and terminated. Many still believe that some of these men were specifically infected with Syphilis by doctors for research purposes.

It wasn't so long ago that some colleagues and I were having a conversation with a fellow colleague who is a professional, well-educated, African American male. We were talking about medical issues and he hesitated, stating he felt uncomfortable seeking medical treatment because of the "lore" that was unofficially passed through his family about African Americans being unknowingly used as research subjects. He believed it was happening to this day. (Maybe it is... we wouldn't really know if you think about it). He went so far as to say that if he were being operated on or was on his deathbed and a rich, potential benefactor were in need of an organ, there is some thought he would not be saved on purpose so that his organ could be used. I think most of my colleagues and I were shocked at this belief system. But, after reading this, I can see why such paranoia exists. Rebecca Skloot didn't just skim the surface with information on the HeLa cells; she interacted with the family (gaining their trust was no easy feat) and brought the family to the forefront. She explored the effects these ubiquitous cells had on the family (and oohhh did it affect them).

The research in this book was well-done, the writing well-done, and the human aspect of it well-portrayed. I learned a lot from this book about an important aspect of science - the cornerstone of cellular research -- and also had quite a lot to think about. And the effects this whole thing (even the writing of this book) had on the family was profound. Definitely a worthy and significant read.

UCF Orlando Book Festival

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

I'm so excited to tell you about the Orlando UCF Book Festival coming up in April! This is the second annual UCF book festival. I didn't get to go last year because I already had plans for that day. But this year, I, along with Heather and Sandy, will be participating in the event by highlighting the attending authors/books as we get closer to the event and blogging at the event. I believe we will be spending some time with the authors while we are there which should be super fun! Plus... I graduated from UCF so it might be sort of fun to go back. Except for a few events at the arena, I haven't actually been back on campus since!

Stay tuned for more information about the event and authors. And if you're in the area, plan on attending the event on April 16, 2011!!

Heart of the City: Nine Stories of Love and Serendipity on the Streets of New York

Monday, February 14, 2011

Title: Heart of the City: Nine Stories of Love and Serendipity on the Streets of New York
Author: Ariel Sabar
Pages: 232
Genre: Non-Fiction; Stories
Publisher: Da Capo Press (Perseus Book Group)
Pub. Date: January 11, 2011

Happy Valentine's Day!! ♥ ♥ ♥

You must realize how excited I was when I saw this book. I'm surprised I didn't hear more about it before it came out. But as soon as I saw it I realized it would be the perfect book to review for Valentine's Day! And every story in this book takes place in my favorite place ever!.... NYC!!

Now, I've veered far from those romantic ideals I had as a young girl and the "love stories" you find in a lot of fiction. I feel like, despite being in a very happy marriage, that I'm far too cynical to enjoy them sometimes. BUT, there is something to be said about those love stories that are true. Maybe they're more believable because they really happened? Or maybe it had just been a while and I was in the mood for some good love stories. Whatever it was, I really enjoyed this book.

In the introduction to this book, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, author Ariel Sabar, discusses how place has such a hidden force in how people meet and in what transpires from there. He also discusses a little about what makes New York City one of the greatest in the world. Inspired by his own parents' story of meeting in NYC, Sabar broke his book down into the stories of nine couples ranging from the 1940's to the 2000's who met in various parts of NYC. Some lived there at the time and others met while passing through. Each of the nine stories also takes place in a different part of NYC: Central Park, on the street, on the subway (one of my favorites!), at Grand Central Station, at the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, in Times Square (another of my favorite stories), at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and at Washington Square Park.

Each of the stories warmed even my cold, cynical heart. (Okay, I exaggerate about my coldness, but nevertheless, these stories did what they intended). Immediately after finishing each story I flipped to the back to read the postscript and find out what happened to the couple at the completion of their story of meeting. I loved how through their stories I was able to re-visit each of these famous locations. (Have I mentioned how much I love NYC!!) After reading these stories I immediately felt like writing one of my own. (I never did, but I might get around to it one of these days). Some of these couples didn't have the easiest beginnings either, but those ended up being a testament to true love and couples who were meant to be together. Basically, I loved reading each of these stories and I think you will too!

So how did you meet your significant other?

This book can be found on my

To Kill a Mockingbird

Friday, February 11, 2011

Title: To Kill a Mockingbird
Author: Harper Lee
Pages: 376
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing (Hachette Book Group) (this cover)
Release Date: 1960 (original)

I didn't quite read this in time to join the
50th anniversary festivities put on by Harper Collins but did make it during its 50th year. And despite having to read this for school in 7th grade and then going to see the play, this is the first time I truly have read it all (and didn't have any memory of any parts I may have read before!) This is also my sister's favorite book so we did a mini read-a-long together.

I'm so glad I finally read To Kill a Mockingbird! The amount of social commentary hidden behind the plot and the young girl's education about life surprised me, and I realized why this has been hailed as an American classic! This was a book about the treatment of people and the hypocrisy by many; it had remnants about the judicial system and its merits and faults; it was about society as a whole that, despite being set in the 1930's and published in 1960, is sadly depictive of today. While laws have changed and people may have come a long way, there are many areas of the country and many people who still prescribe to prejudice. And Harper Lee artfully illustrated all of this through the innocent eyes of a girl from the age of six to the age of ten: ages during which minds are impressed upon and beliefs are developed.

What I believe many people love about To Kill a Mockingbird is also the characters. Scout (otherwise known as Jean Louise Finch) is a naive, inquisitive, tomboy of a girl. She adores her older brother, Jem, and her father, Atticus, and considers herself engaged to their summer visitor, Dill. I mentioned to my sister after reading approximately 50 pages that Scout is a brat! But as I read further I realized Scout is just very young in thought and questioning the world around her (rightly so!) And I know others love the character of Atticus. Raising his children on his own after his wife's death (with no little help from the housekeeper/nanny, Calpurnia), he embodies the true Christian attitude of love for others and doing what is morally right. He treats his children well and teaches them to do the same for others.

One thing I didn't really get was how Scout referred to her father by his first name. It wasn't really explained, either, except for one short paragraph where a neighbor reprimands them for calling their father by his first name. I gathered from that paragraph and conversation with my sister that it had to do with his laid back style of parenting (which was frowned upon by others in the community) and the fact that there was no mother in the picture. However, I think Atticus is a great example of a parent who raises his children well. Another example of a parental role-model even for people in the current day.

I felt this was truly an important book and could clearly see why it is a classic. I will say, however, that 7th grade is likely too young to read and thoroughly appreciate this book... at least, in my case it was but I am so glad I returned to it as an adult.

Top Suspense Group (E-book giveaway!)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

For those of you who enjoy reading mysteries/thrillers and other suspense-type groups, I want to introduce you to a new website that is hosted by a group of thriller writers.

Top Suspense Group

Here is a quote from their site, "Finding well-written, professionally presented ebooks can be an overwhelming task. Top Suspense Group provides a beacon for readers searching for the very best in suspense fiction. Our writers are award winning and nominated authors, well reviewed, and have been named to prestigious best of the year lists from places like NPR and the Washington Post."

The site has an index of all the books available and also breaks them down into Crime, Mystery, Thriller, Horror, and Western. Each book is available in kindle or nook version at a very low price. The books are some backlist and some newer. There is also a blog. It's sort of a neat site, so check it out.

And in honor of the new site, I am able to host a giveaway. THREE winners will win their choice of an e-book:

VOLUNTARY MADNESS by Vicki Hendricks
BLUE MOON by Ed Gorman
THE WALK by Lee Goldberg

Just fill out the form below to enter. I will choose winners on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2011.

Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Title: Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets
Author: Sudhir Venkatesh
Pages: 283
Genre: Memoir; Sociology; Crime
Publisher: Penguin
Pub. Date: January 19, 2008 (hardcover); December 30, 2008 (paperback)

Wow! The simple quote by The New York Times on the cover describes this perfectly... "riveting"!

And in the first line of the foreword, Freakonomics co-author, Stephen J. Dubner, states, "I believe that Sudhir Venkatesh was born with two abnormalities: an overdeveloped curiosity and an underdeveloped sense of fear."

That hooked me! Did it get you too?

In 1989, Sudhir Venkatesh was a typical sociology graduate student at the University of Chicago when he decided to join a research project on urban poverty. With surveys in hand, naive Venkatesh headed over to the projects of Chicago, widely known as the most dangerous in the country, to question some residents on their thoughts of being "black and poor". He quickly (and I'm talking immediately in this first interaction) realizes his research isn't going to be so easy. But, ultimately, Venkatesh builds a friendship with the local Black King's leader, J.T., who, under the assumption that Venkatesh is writing J.T.'s biography, allows Venkatesh access to all types of gang activity. Venkatesh maintains his research for almost a decade, and is confronted with some scary moments, some realizations, and a new reality of the life of urban poverty.

There were moments in this book that outright shocked me. It's funny because there was a part of me that wondered if, on a very small scale, I might be able to relate at all to Venkatesh's story. By no means have I had the type of access he had to the inner workings of a gang, but with my various jobs as a social worker and currently as an in-home community therapist, I have spent a large amount of time in homes in neighborhoods and "projects" throughout the Orlando area that are less than desirable. I've interacted with kids with quite the criminal histories but with whom I felt comfortable (and protected). My friends have remarked with a variety of concern and bewilderment at this aspect of my job(s), and I have always maintained that I typically have felt comfortable and at ease in most of these homes because the people have almost always been very cordial and welcoming to me. Although, I do realize that neighborhoods are often on their best behavior when social workers show up. But I've also had some scarier moments; and I'm not fond of the neighborhoods where everyone hangs out by their cars whilst blasting rap music and staring me down, or sitting in stairwells watching me as I walk to the door. But, here's where I was naive because whoa, the situations Venkatesh found himself in were scary and unequivocally dangerous. In fact, after the first scene of the book with what happens to Venkatesh when he tries to ask some gang members to fill out a survey, I was shocked and can't believe he had the cojones (hehe, love that I fit that word into my review, lol) to return! (I don't want to spoil what happens in this first interaction, but the author does talk about it in the video about the book on amazon...)

What Venkatesh ended up learning, though, was that the intricate workings of a large gang operate much like a business and often are depended on by neighbors for safety. It was quite the complex operation! And the way they look at their life and the "good" that they believe comes from selling crack to drug users. The lives of the individuals were fascinating as well. In fact, J.T., the gang leader Venkatesh befriended, had a college degree and had returned to the projects voluntarily. Some other members were currently in school, and some did have aspirations beyond the gang.

Venkatesh could truly have filled volumes with his experiences. He interacted with so many different factions of the gang, and his whole experience lasted just under a decade. But he was disciplined in condensing his experiences to fit the needs of a memoir. (Don't you hate when memoirs become self-aggrandizing and go on for too long?) Well, this book doesn't do that at all. In fact, there are a few moments in the book where Venkatesh refers to previous incidents he had seen or of which he had been a part; these were moments that were in themselves surprising and crazy, yet with everything else he discussed, he didn't even need to include these moments in the main part of the book -- even for the shock value.

I really enjoyed this fascinating read that was both shocking and revealing in more than one way. Definitely read this if any of these topics are of interest to you!

Palo Alto

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Title: Palo Alto: Stories
Author: James Franco
Pages: 196
Genre: Fiction; Short Stories
Publisher: Scribner (Simon & Schuster)
Pub. Date: October 19, 2010

You may know James Franco as the actor (producer and director) who starred as the son of Green Goblin in Spiderman or as the stoner in Pineapple Express or as the love interest of Julia Roberts in Eat, Pray, Love (I haven't actually seen that movie but I gathered that was his role... I could be wrong).

Well, the actor who possesses quite the host of artistic outlets is now debuting his writing in a book of short stories based on the city he grew up in -- Palo Alto. I don't know anything about Palo Alto, so it's possible that what I got from the book is missing that little piece, but I wouldn't consider it a hindrance. His stories are (unfortunately) universal to teens all over the country. The stories are all somewhat related only in that they all focus on a core group of adolescents in Palo Alto. Each story is is narrated by a different person (with a couple duplicate narrators) and they make random appearances in each others' stories.

Now, Franco has received mixed reviews, but I really liked his style of writing. It was simple enough which made it engaging, but the messages were fairly profound. I really think, based on his literary style, that he will do well if he decides to write more. That being said, these stories were intense and explicit. They are certainly not for everyone, and I wouldn't recommend them for anyone who is very conservative. The teens in these stories are dealing with the drudgery that is adolescence, especially that of adolescents who get caught up in the worst situations with their peers. One of the ones that hit me the hardest was Chinatown which is actually broken up into three smaller stories. In this, a new Asian girl in town randomly loses her virginity to the narrator who then takes advantage of her by essentially pimping her out to boys throughout the city. She wearily complies, giving "blow jobs" to whomever she's told to, even having them line up one after another for her. This reminded me of a segment of Oprah in which they talked about this pandemic sexual attitude (or maybe lack of self-esteem) that has led to these self-deprecating and dangerous activities. I also know, due to my work in the field, that this type of behavior isn't uncommon in our adolescents, not even with just the "at risk" population.

Some of the stories involved issues of bullying. In American History a boy takes on the assignment in class of realistically acting out the role of a southern man during the civil war by pointing out the merits of slavery, only to later realize others didn't consider it an act and plan on avenging his words. In I Could Kill Someone, a victim of intense bullying makes the decision to kill a fellow classmate to end the torment.

Despite being about young adults, this is not a book for young adults. For those readers who dislike the aspect in young adult books of partying, sex, and drugs as regular activities, this may not be for you, because these stories are raw and in your face. But there's also a sad truth to these stories. One that makes me a little terrified to ever have a teenager of my own one day.

This was a quick read with each story averaging about 15 pages. And like I said, the writing style was engaging. As with any short story collections, there were a few where I'm not quite sure I *got* what the point of the story was, but overall I thought the book had a degree of acumen that Franco expressed well.

And on a happier note, if nothing else, this book allowed me to finally solve the mystery of the children's books author and illustrator I have been searching for years to identify!


Thursday, February 3, 2011

Title: Moonface
Angela Balcita
Pages: 220
Genre: Memoir
Publisher: Harper Perennial (Harper Collins)
Pub. Date: February 1, 2011

I know it’s been said again and again, but reviewing memoirs is such a difficult thing to do; the contents of these books are the authors’ actual lives, so to critique them in any way just seems wrong. Anyway, it’s been a few days since I finished this one and I’ve had time to let it simmer in my mind. While I didn’t at all dislike the book while I was reading it, I do feel that it took time to mull it over for a while to really appreciate it. This is probably because I had all these outrageous expectations for it that it fell short of, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that it is definitely well written and is a great story to tell.

Moonface is the author, Angela Balcita’s, story about parts of her life during which she struggled with kidney failure. The subtitle of the book is, A True Romance, because it tells the story of her boyfriend, Charlie, donating her one of his kidneys to her, rescuing her from her illness and being on dialysis.

This really was an enjoyable memoir, but, unfortunately for me, it was tempered by not being quite what I thought it would. I went into this memoir with certain expectations: of it being hilarious; of it being wholly a story about a new boyfriend donating his kidney, of the preparations, and all the love that must have emanated from a coupledom so fierce that even without making traditional commitments (such as marriage) her boyfriend committed to undergoing surgery and giving away a kidney. While Moonface (named after Charlie’s nickname for Angela) does touch on these elements, the delivery of it was more lukewarm than I expected. It didn’t come off as a story about him giving her a kidney but, rather, had that as one element of the story of her illness and of their lifeline as a couple. The different glimpses into their story weren’t always in chronological order -- overall the story did move chronologically, but in each time frame the stories seemed a little scattered. The eccentrically titled chapters were funny but also a little distracting for me; I found I had to return to the chapter title at the end of each chapter to figure out how it fit or what it meant. And this book wasn’t quite as hilarious as I expected either. There were definitely parts that made me smile and parts that made me tear up, but I wouldn't necessarily consider this a comedic memoir (other readers disagree with this though). Moonface also wasn’t a mushy-gushy love story, but this actually made it more authentic. Angela and Charlie are a cute and great couple, but they're also real people dealing with real life. There were times when I could feel the insecurities Angela felt when questioning if her boyfriend regretted his decision and her so badly wanting her body to not reject Charlie’s kidney, because if it did, would that be a sign?

Overall, this was a short, tepid, yet enjoyable, memoir about a young woman diagnosed with kidney disease and how her life works around this. Despite the critiques in the preceding paragraph, I did enjoy this read. Whether Angela's dealing with another transplant, trying to maintain a good relationship with her boyfriend, or excelling in school/work, she continues to live her life with this disease, and that was, for me, the interesting part of this memoir, with the “love story” being just one of the many elements contained within.

Lying on the Couch

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Title: Lying on the Couch
Author: Irvin D. Yalom
Pages: 369
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Harper Perennial (Harper Collins)
Release Date: July 18, 1997

This book had been on my "must-read" list (self-appointed just because it looked interesting, not because I'd heard anything about it) for quite some time. I finally sat down and read it, and I have to say, I'm not sure that I got it. Maybe it went over my head, or maybe I'm over-analyzing something that wasn't meant to be that profound. There were parts that really engaged me, while other parts that didn't were interesting enough for me to keep on going, but ultimately I'm not sure that it was quite what I was expecting. Well, I know it wasn't, but what I'm not sure of is what I was expecting.

Lying on the Couch follows the stories of two psychoanalysts, Ernest Lash, and his therapeutic supervisor, Marshal Streider. Marshal is a pretty old-school psychoanalyst with rigid boundaries who is fairly narrow minded about different techniques. Though seeking training and supervision, Ernest is more thoughtful and open-minded about the topic and has been leaning towards more honesty in the therapeutic relationship and more of an authentic relationship between therapist and client.

A main focus of this book was the lives of the therapists themselves and their dynamics with their clients, as well as the behind-the-scenes look into therapy or what the therapists were thinking about during the sessions and outside them. We also learn about a few of the clients they are seeing; for instance, Ernest is seeing a woman, Carolyn, who unbeknown to him is the forsaken wife of a previous client of Ernest's -- a client whom Ernest had encouraged to leave his wife. Carolyn has her own dirty reasons for entering therapy with Ernest and in being not quite honest with him, and this leads to some interesting therapeutic dynamics, especially when Carolyn's plans don't necessarily pan out. We also meet one of Marshal's clients, Shelley, who enters therapy because of a gambling problem but not really to overcome it -- more to improve it. And, of course, neither Ernest nor Marshal are impervious to their own demons that eventually manage to play out while in the course of providing therapy to others.

Was this a character study, a therapy study, or something else? I'm not sure. Maybe both. As a budding therapist, myself, I did find the "case studies", if you can call them that, interesting. I imagine that any fan of psychology would, in that sense, enjoy this book. I did find that the content felt a little "heavy" at times, but that may be more attributed to comparison of the light content and writing of some books I just recently finished. One interesting writing technique the author employed was providing a thorough glimpse into conversations; each person's contribution to the conversation would be a large paragraph, and the entire conversation would be played out. You don't typically see this in a lot of fiction as they tend to focus on just the most purposeful parts of the conversation. At times I felt it made things long, but, in another sense, it was refreshing to hear everything being said.

I'm familiar with some of Yalom's theory of the "here and now" in therapy as well as the relationship between the therapist and client. I've only read probably about half of his non-fiction book of an open letter for the new therapist, and I have to say there are some things he says that I completely relate to, but other things are a little too much for me. I'm not at a point where I feel the client and therapist should focus quite so much on their relationship rather than the client's issues. That's how I feel in general, and since there was a lot of focus on moving in that direction (at least for the therapist, Ernest) in the book, I couldn't completely relate to everything in the book.

And there was this one small part of the book where the most experienced therapist of all the characters, Marshal, is essentially obtaining therapy from a lay person (well, when it comes to therapy, at least), and the whole point of that confused me.

So those are my thoughts on this novel, where Lying on the Couch means more than just physically "lying"... despite my mixed feelings on it, Yalom did prove himself to be a smart, engaging writer, so I still plan on reading at least another of his books. For now, I'm satisfied with knowing that even experienced therapists have struggles they must work on for themselves.