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Saturday, October 14, 2017

Book Review: The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater

This is a powerful, horrifying, important true story that everyone—not just teenagers—should read.

Two high school students were on a city bus in Oakland, heading home. Sasha, who is agender and prefers the pronoun "they," was napping. Richard, an African-American boy from public school, was messing around with a couple of friends. One boy dared him to set Sasha's skirt on fire, which he did. Stupid, absolutely. But he had no idea that some fabrics would whoosh up into a ball of flame as if Sasha had been dowsed in gasoline (he had thought it would be a small little fire that Sasha would pat out with their hands, and then be mad at Richard, but that would be the end of it.) Sasha was very badly burned and Richard was brought up on hate crimes charges, facing life in prison.

Ms. Slater does an excellent job of fully telling both sides of the story, who Sasha and Richard truly were, what their backgrounds were, how they grew up, and how they both came to be on that bus that fateful afternoon. She is non-judgmental and has empathy for everyone involved. Like the books The Other Wes Moore and The Short Tragic Life of Robert Peace, this book shows how sometimes it's a fine line, a single small thing, that can turn someone's life completely upside down for the worse. I'm not excusing Richard's behavior at all but it wasn't maliciously intended—it was meant to be a (very, very stupid) prank.

Everyone should read this powerful and amazing book. It is being published as a young adult book, but all adults ought to read it as well. It's beautifully written, compelling and page-turning, as Ms. Slater had great access to everyone involved. I even think this should be (and will be) taught in schools. Teenagers, without fully developed frontal cortexes, don't always foresee the consequences of their actions, and sometimes those consequences can be devastating.

This review is a part of Kid Konnection, hosted by Booking Mama, a collection of children's book-related posts over the weekend.

I got this book for free from my work because it is published by Macmillan, my employer.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Book Review: The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris

I like science books and I like medical books, but at times, they can be a slog. Not this one though! I think Ms. Fitzharris's book is the most readable science/medical book I've ever read. I breezed through it.

In grade school we all spent about one day learning about germ theory and, as kids, we dismiss it as it's crazy to think that people didn't understand that germs caused illnesses. And then in high school we get one paragraph in history class about how President Garfield died not from being shot, but from dozens of doctors (and others) sticking their dirty, unwashed fingers into his gunshot wound unnecessarily, giving him a raving infection which did kill him. But that's pretty much it for most of us. If you're lucky, you'll know that Listerine is named after a Doctor Lister, but that's it.

Turns out Dr. Lister was an important and fascinating man. He came of age and went to medical school at a time before germ theory was widely known and accepted, when the best skill a surgeon could have is speed. He studied under a Dr. Liston whose claim to fame was that he could take off a leg in under a minute. Sawing through a femur is really hard, so that was a real feat. Hundreds of people would pack into the surgical theaters to watch his prowess with the saw. But Lister saw the theory in Pasteur's research into germs and understood that it was correct and it was what was killing people. It took a very, very long time to catch on. (Garfield dies decades after Lister had been publishing his findings.) He developed a bath of acid to use to clean all the instruments and everything in the operating room, including the hands of the surgeons and assistants, and his death rates went down. To us, it's a no-brainer, but he had to argue against men who had been wearing the same unwashed surgical coat (sometimes even passed down from multiple other doctors--still unwashed) as a point of pride for decades. It was an uphill battle. Thankfully, he did eventually win over hearts and minds, but it took a horrifically long time.

Steeped in Victorian medicine and history, this biography is so smoothly and eloquently written, that it flies by. I zipped through it in short order, and learned a lot along the way.

This book is published by Macmillan, my employer.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Book Review: Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life by Shelley Tougas

Charlotte and her family move a lot, but she's tired of it, and she likes living in Kentucky where they know which church in their neighborhood has the spaghetti supper and which church has a big Sunday brunch. So when her mother announces they're moving to Walnut Grove, Minnesota, so that she can continue her burgeoning children's writing career in a place infused with the spirit of Laura Ingalls, Charlotte feels Laura Ingalls is ruining her life. So when they arrive and she's assigned an essay at school about Laura Ingalls, that's what she titles it.

Normally she's okay with moving but this time, she was sick when school started so her twin brother Freddy started without her, and when she arrived, she found to her shock that he'd made friends for the first time and she felt left out. They'd always been a team. Now she has to hang out with her younger half-sister Rose instead and also with the girl upstairs (they rent the basement from her grandparents) who she doesn't really like. And over the course of the year, eventually Charlotte starts to fit in, make friends, and understand Walnut Grove.

On the surface, this is a great book for 11-year-olds about moving and making friends and fitting in. However, there's a lot more meat to it for more mature kids (or for adults). Kids not ready for the more mature material won't really notice much of it, such as that in Kentucky it was really important that they knew which church had which free meal on which day, because these kids are poorer than they realize and are getting the majority of their meals this way. Their mom is doing the best she can but she has a bad track record with men (see the missing fathers of her kids) and it's hard to chase your dreams while raising three kids solo.

You certainly don't need to have read the Little House books to enjoy this book (although there are Easter eggs in it for those of us who have). It's helpful to know the books exist, but anything else you need to know is well covered.

This book is poignant, at times worrisome although with a hopeful ending, and some very real kids who leap off the page with personality and emotions. I absolutely loved it. She left the door open for a possible sequel which I would leap on eagerly. I think any middle school age kid would enjoy it, and Laura Ingalls Wilder fans will devour it.

This review is a part of Kid Konnection, hosted by Booking Mama, a collection of children's book-related posts over the weekend.

I got this book for free from the publisher, my employer, Macmillan.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

My Month in Review: September

The Month in Review meme is hosted by Kathryn at Book Date.

I note the non-Macmillan books in this post with a star.

I'm starting to slow down a little bit. Couldn't keep up that breakneck speed. Also, I moved last month, and I'm in my travel season, so I have a lot on my plate. Six seems like not very much though. But it was nice to take a small break and read a few non-Macmillan books.

Books completed this month: 
Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller*
How Hard Can It Be? by Allison Pearson
Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard (audio)*
The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich (audio)
The Royal Art of Poison by Eleanor Herman
The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough (audio)*

Books I am currently reading/listening to: 
Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

What I acquired this month (non-work books):
Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life by Amy E. Herman. This is the first book an account has talked me into at a store.

At SIBA I got:
Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult by Bruce Handy
The Stowaway: A Young Man’s Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro
It's All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree by A.J. Jacobs
The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home by Denise Kiernan

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Book Review: Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani

Priyanka is teased by school (where she wants to just go by "Pri," which is easier and less easy to make fun of), her favorite uncle has had a new baby which makes her feel neglected, and her mother won't tell her anything about India, her father, or why she emigrated to America. Then, in an old suitcase in a closet, Pri finds a beautiful pashmina, which, when Pri wears it, seems to take her to India, where a peacock and an elephant show her around to all of the amazing and wondrous sights. Pri wins $500 in a comics contest and, frustrated by her mother's reluctance to tell her anything about herself, she insists upon going to India. At first her mother says no, but that same day Pri's aunt calls, and the two sister who haven't spoken in the 16 years since Pri's mother left, agree that Pri can go and stay with her aunt.

When Pri gets to India, she discovers the pashmina stops working for her. Also, India isn't quite as gorgeous and amazing as the images she'd seen--the elephant and peacock had left out the dirt, the poverty, and the lower classes. But Pri's aunt, who teaches school to the lowest caste of children, is game to show Pri the real India. They end up going on a quest to find the maker of the pashmina. Along the way, Pri learns a lot about herself. And she gains a real respect for her heritage, shown most simply when she says, upon her return, that she wants to go by Priyanka again.

The magic of the pashmina is an interesting vehicle to hang the story on, as it both incites Priyanka's real interest in India, and yet gives her a sanitized version of it, and it also seems to show other people their future—is that just a future, or is it the future? The illustrations are pretty much just two-tone except for the ones when the pashmina's magic is in full force. It has the effect of going to Oz and switching from black and white to color, but it also in a way felt like it diminished the everyday, real life of Pri and her family. I liked what the artist was going for there, but I wish somehow the everyday life had ended up more vibrant. That said, it's a wonderful and touching coming-of-age story, not just for the children of immigrants, although that's certainly something nearly everyone can identify with if you go back far enough (certainly in this country), but also just for the appreciation of different cultures and for our ancestors, no matter who we or they might be.

This review is a part of Kid Konnection, hosted by Booking Mama, a collection of children's book-related posts over the weekend.

This book is published by Macmillan, my employer.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Book Review: Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York by Roz Chast

I vividly remember my first trip to New York City as an adult, visiting my friend Mary. I remember her explaining the subway system to me, although I found it pretty intuitive and could quickly get around on my own, using just a tiny credit-card sized map I pilfered from a hotel room. I remember after I moved to New York, figuring out that Q buses go to Queens and M buses go to Manhattan, and figuring out that the street/avenue numbering system in Queens and Brooklyn is 90 degrees turned from Manhattan. When you figure these things out, a very daunting and frightening place like New York, quickly becomes manageable. So long as an address isn't way downtown where the streets have names, I can find it without a map. Ideally, you'd know the cross street, which is something locals know to ask, and which Roz Chast explains to her daughter in this book.

Ms. Chast wrote/drew this book for her daughter when she was preparing to go to college in Manhattan. Roz had grown up in Brooklyn and lived in Manhattan for many years, before moving to the Connecticut suburbs to raise her kids. Going to college is scary no matter where you're going. I went to a tiny town in North Carolina, and I was scared I wouldn't find my way around the campus and wouldn't be able to figure out a class schedule and all sorts of things like that. This book is one you certainly don't have to be a New Yorker to enjoy--most every big city has this moment. In April, I finally figured out the way the Metro in DC works. I'd ridden it at least a half a dozen times previously, and on that trip I nevertheless ended up going the wrong way once, and missing my stop another time, but I have figured it out! It's such a feeling of mastery, and you gain so much confidence with each nugget of knowledge gained about how to navigate our large and confusing world. Ms. Chast's unique illustration style goes perfectly with the frenetic and anxious city that she both loves and yet doesn't want to live in.

I got this book for free from the publisher, my employer, Macmillan.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Book Review: The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs by Janet Peery

I love contemporary family stories by the likes of Anne Tyler and Jane Smiley, and this book falls squarely in that arena. Its' the author's second novel, twenty-five years after her first one (which was a National Book Award finalist.) And it's a story most everyone can relate to (or if you can't, just look at your parents' lives, or just wait): adult children dealing with their aging parents. It's something I've seen my own parents deal with in the previous decade, which certainly has made me think about when that stage will come for me and my siblings. In fact, we've already more or less divvied up our parents in terms of who gets primary responsibility for each one. And that's not a terrible idea as five disparate siblings trying to agree on tactics in Ms. Peery's book, does not go well.

It doesn't help that all of the siblings are also dealing with their own issues, and most of them have an addiction problem or two (it does tend to run in families after all.) This family has a lot of the usual stereotypes: the one who went to college and escaped the midwest for Boston, the flamboyant gay one with AIDS, the troubled son who's been in and out of jail, and so on. We see the story from the different perspectives of these three of the five siblings, as well as from their mother's. We go through roughly a year, with medical, emotional, mental, physical, and financial troubles along the way. On the one hand, not a lot happens. On the other hand, it's a very accurate portrayal of real life, with flawed characters that can hit close to home.

I got this book for free from my work because it is published by Macmillan, my employer.