Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Book Review: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Author :Truman Capote
Title: In Cold Blood
Narrator: Scott Brick
Publication Info: New York, NY : Random House Audio, p2006.
Previously Read by the Same Author:


This is one of those books that’s long been on the list of “Why haven’t I read this yet?”  In Cold Blood is known for being the prototypical non-fiction work written in the novelistic style and a forerunner of the true crime genre. Through Capote’s extensive research he is able to recreate before, during, and after of a brutal quadruple murder in Holcomb, Kansas from the points of view of the victims, perpetrators, investigators, and variety of friends, neighbors, and townsfolk.  Capote’s writing style is impeccable and the story is griping. Yet there’s a nagging doubt in my mind of just how much of this is true to life and how much was designed to make a good story.  Despite being a well-written story, there’s also is a gratuitousness to it that left me feeling a bit dirty afterwards.

Recommended booksMidnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt  and Zeitoun by Dave Eggers.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Walking Dead Vol. 23: Whispers Into Screams by Robert Kirkman

AuthorRobert Kirkman
Title: The Walking Dead Vol. 23: Whispers Into Screams
Publication Info: Image Comics (2015)

The last volume of The Walking Dead introduced the Whisperers, a group of people who wear skins of the dead so they can walk and live among the undead.  In this volume, a girl from the Whisperers is captured and during her captivity, Carl befriends her.  Meanwhile, Maggie is facing opposition as leader of the Hilltop community.  It’s a nice change of pace to take the focus off of Rick for once. I feel that these issues are kind of dragging their heels for now, but there’s a lot of potential that could be building for the Whisperers’ story.  They could become the next group our heroes have to fight a war against (god, I hope not), or there could be a more nuanced story of how these different types of survivors interact.
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: How To Raise a Wild Child by Scott D. Sampson

Author: Scott D. Sampson
TitleHow To Raise a Wild Child
Publication Info: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015

Dr. Scott of Dinosaur Train fame wrote this book about how parents and other concerned adults can inspire children to “Get up, get outside, and get into nature.”  This grew from the concern over the increasing disconnect of children from nature – known as “nature deficit disorder” – that has negative consequences both for children’s development and for the environment.  Sampson writes of his philosophy and gives tips on how parents can share their love of nature, mentor them, and help them tell their own stories.  It’s a great book, probably worth a reread to distill the advice to practical everyday use.
Favorite Passages:

“Our present dysfunctional worldview is founded on an erroneous perception: the existence of humanity outside nature. Despite the fact that nature provides the raw materials for our economy and that we clearly live on a finite planet, economists continue to regard the natural world as a subset of the economy, and speak of limitless growth. Yet the opposite is clearly true: our economy is a part of nature, as evidenced by the dramatic economic effects caused by topping ecological limits. A second, closely related perception is human dominion over the natural world. Seeing ourselves as external and superior to nature, we feel entitled to exploit natural “resources” at will. Adrift in a sea of objects, we’re left without any meaningful home, let alone a desire to protect and nurture the places we live.”


“In this book, my use of the term wild child refers to something entirely different—a child sharing deep connections with nature and people. Both kinds of connections are literally impossible without healthy mentoring from adults. We are social beings and, as we’ll see, connections with the natural world are strongest when a youngster has multiple mentors. Nature connection thrives alongside people connection.”


“Among mammals, only the Norwegian rat even approaches the global range of humans, co-occurring with us on every continent except Antarctica (though, it must be added, rats accomplished this feat by hitching a ride on our ships).”


“When many people think about helping children to connect with nature, they imagine themselves striding purposefully out into the wild, child in tow, to teach the youngster how to chop wood or use a GPS or go fishing or whatever. Certainly some elements of mentoring entail exactly this kind of one-on-one instruction. But the vast majority of the time, it’s best to follow the child’s lead. Kids of every age have innate longings that manifest themselves outdoors. Your job is to determine what those longings are and feed them. So, difficult though it may be, the better option most of the time is to push gently from behind rather than to pull from in front. Take your cue from the original Mentor, guiding from the back of the boat. Your reward will be watching the child’s eyes light up with curiosity, propelling him to the next mystery.”


“In the end, nature mentors take on three distinct roles. First is the Teacher, the person who conveys information. Second is the Questioner, the one always seeking to ask that next query to pique curiosity and engagement. Third is the Trickster, the clever Coyote who hides in plain sight, able to leverage a child’s longings to stretch edges. The most effective mentors limit their role as Teacher, focusing instead on embodying both Questioner and Trickster. The great news here is that you don’t need to be an expert. The bad news is that you’ll often need to stifle the urge to offer answers and think instead about how you can extend the learning experience with a provocative question.”


“But here’s the most important thing. Nothing, absolutely nothing, will spark your child’s passion for nature more than your own embodied passion for the natural world.”


“So if we continually exchange matter with the outside world and if each of us is a walking colony of trillions of largely symbiotic life forms, exactly what is this self that we view as separate? You’re more bipedal colony or superorganism than isolated being. Metaphorically, to follow current bias and think of your body as a machine is not only inaccurate but destructive. Each of us is far more akin to a whirlpool, a brief, ever-shifting concentration of energy in a vast river that’s been flowing for billions of years. You’re not merely connected to nature through the web of life. You’re interwoven with it, living in constant exchange with the natural world through your skin, your breath, your food, and the countless microbes on and in your body.”


“Consider this thought experiment. If you were tasked with designing the ideal learning environment for children, do you think you would ultimately opt for four-walled rooms where students are required to sit quietly for long periods, ingest streams of facts in one-hour gulps, and endure incessant testing in hopes of receiving good grades? Whatever your answer, I’m quite certain that few kids would vote for such a system.”


“In contrast to the careerism (“learn to earn”) model of schooling currently dominant, place-based education is grounded in values such as community, sustainability, and beauty—promoting exactly the kind of radical shift required if we are to renew the human-nature bond and preserve a viable planetary ecology and economy. Innovative educators have shown again and again that local surroundings provide an engaging context to communicate virtually any topic, from history and math to reading and science.”


“One of Sobel’s mantras is “No tragedies before fourth grade.” Too often we teach young children about climate change, species extinctions, and vanishing habitats before they’ve even had a chance to connect with the natural world. Rather than engagement, the result is often alienation, with children feeling a great sense of loss and pessimism about the future. So, before we burden kids with the crises of our time, let them establish a bond with nature. Once they care, protection will follow.”


“Seek out stories from the lore of indigenous peoples native to where you live. These tales are frequently grounded in local nature: plants, animals, and landforms. They often convey memorable narratives of how particular animals got their names, of plants used for medicinal purposes, and of places held sacred. And they typically embody a spirit of deep nature connection, with humans fully embedded in the web of life. One example is North American Indian Tales, by W. T. Larned. Think about using stories like these as an entry point to understanding the native peoples that lived in your region prior to the arrival of Europeans.”


“Several years ago, I received a phone call from an executive at the Hollywood-based Jim Henson Company. She told me that they were creating a new educational television series aimed at preschoolers, with dinosaurs as the main hook, and she asked if I’d like to get involved. The ensuing conversation went something like this: “What’s it going to be called?” I asked. “Dinosaur Train,” she replied. “What?” I stammered. “You can’t call it that.” “Why not?” she asked calmly. “Because dinosaur paleontologists like me have to remind people regularly that humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time. Sticking them together on a train just perpetuates the myth.” “No problem,” she said. “We’re only going to put dinosaurs on the train.” I paused, took a deep breath, and blurted out, “Well, that’s just brilliant.”


Recommended booksFifteen Minutes Outside: 365 Ways to Get Out of the House and Connect with Your Kids by Rebecca Cohen, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv,  Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry) by Lenore Skenazy
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Myth of the Spoiled Child by Alfie Kohn

Author: Alfie Kohn
TitleThe Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom about Children and Parenting
NarratorAlfie Kohn
Publication Info:Tantor Audio (2014)
Summary/Review: The current generation of children are often described by the media, politicians, and even parents as entitled and narcissistic.  Alfie Kohn shows through his research that 1. similar statements have been applied to children for centuries, 2. there’s no evidence to show that these statements are true for any generation, and 3. strategies and policies for parenting and education formed by a belief that children are particularly “spoiled” today are actually harmful to children.  This is a fascinating book that offers a lot of research that shows that parents and teachers are actually too controlling.  There’s an idea that life is all about competition and the kids “better get used to it now” which forces children to experience everything as a competition rather than a learning experience.  As Kohn succinctly states “Competition undermines achievement,” which is something our leaders and policy makers fail to understand especially when it comes to children.  Definitely a must-read book!
Recommended booksReign of Error by Diane Ravitch,  Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood by Steven Mintz, and Free Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy.
Rating: ****

Book Review: Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving

Author: John Irving
TitleLast Night in Twisted River
Narrator: Arthur Morey
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2009)
Previously read by the same author:

Another sprawling, epic novel by John Irving.  I haven’t read one in a long time.  This one tells the story of Dominic, the cook at a logging camp, and his son Daniel, who grows up to be an author.  Irving frequently refers to them as the Cook and the Writer.  After an accidental murder at the camp, the father and son are forced to flee and the novel follows them throughout their lives from Boston’s North End to Iowa City to Brattleboro, VT and finally to Toronto.  All through this time they keep in touch with the gruff logger Ketchum, who looks out for their pursuer. Along the way there are common Irving themes of coming of age, sexuality, unhappy relationships, and unpleasant people. Daniel’s life as an author strongly parallels Irvings, and Irving seems to be trolling his readers to make one think that this is autobiographical.  But there’s also a lot of insight into creativity and the writing process as well.  Despite being the putative central character, Daniel isn’t particularly interesting or well-defined (perhaps purposefully).  Dominic and Ketchum and various minor characters  provide a number of entertaining scenes and tangents.  Overall this is an enjoyable novel, but like many of Irving’s works could deal with some heavy pruning and more of a sense of purpose.
Rating: ***

Book Review: Out on the wire by Jessica Abel

Author: Jessica Abel
Title: Out on the wire : the storytelling secrets of the new masters of radio 
Publication Info: New York : Broadway Books, 2015.

I received this as a free book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

Out on the Wire is a comic book about the production of NPR radio shows and podcasts, or perhaps the nerdiest thing I’ve ever read.  Through the graphic art medium, Abel details her interviews, observations, and storytelling processes of the creators of This American Life, The Moth, Radiolab, Planet Money, and Snap JudgmentFor lack of a better term, these programs are called “narrative journalism” and storytelling is central to all of these shows.  I’m a big fan of all of these podcasts and it is fun to see comic representations of the faces behind the voices (not to mention learning how to spell Chana Joffe-Walt). Abel’s approach is an effective way of using art to create a documentary.

Recommended booksFeynman by Jim Ottaviani, Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh, and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.
Rating: *** 1/2

Book Review: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

AuthorTa-Nehisi Coates
TitleBetween the World and Me
Publication Info: New York : Spiegel & Grau, [2015]

Written as a letter to Coates’ teenage son Samori, Between the World and Me is an extended essay on the control of black bodies which have been subject to slavery, segregation, incarceration, and murder throughout United States history.  Coates regrets the necessity of African-American parents to have to teach their children to behave better than everyone else and avoid interaction with police and other authorities in order to protect their bodies, and the regret that this does little to protect their children.  Coates illustrates the book with incidents from throughout American history and his own life. Central to this work is the murder of his college friend Prince Jones by the police, for which the officer face no sanction.  Coates finishes the book with an interview with Mabel Jones, the mother of Prince.  This is the most important book I’ve read this year and one I recommend that every American should read.
Favorite Passages:

“The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant “government of the people” but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term “people” to actually mean. In 1863 it did not mean your mother or your grandmother, and it did not mean you and me. Thus America’s problem is not its betrayal of “government of the people,” but the means by which “the people” acquired their names.”

“And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy”

“Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.”

“When our elders presented school to us, they did not present it as a place of high learning but as a means of escape from death and penal warehousing. Fully 60 percent of all young black men who drop out of high school will go to jail. This should disgrace the country. But it does not.”

“Very few Americans will directly proclaim that they are in favor of black people being left to the streets. But a very large number of Americans will do all they can to preserve the Dream. No one directly proclaimed that schools were designed to sanctify failure and destruction. But a great number of educators spoke of “personal responsibility” in a country authored and sustained by a criminal irresponsibility. The point of this language of “intention” and “personal responsibility” is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. “Good intention” is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.”

“‘White America’ is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, ‘white people’ would cease to exist for want of reasons. There will surely always be people with straight hair and blue eyes, as there have been for all history. But some of these straight-haired people with blue eyes have been ‘black,’ and this points to the great difference between their world and ours. We did not choose our fences. They were imposed on us by Virginia planters obsessed with enslaving as many Americans as possible. They are the ones who came up with a one-drop rule that separated the ‘white’ from the ‘black,’ even if it meant that their own blue-eyed sons would live under the lash. The result is a people, black people, who embody all physical varieties and whose life stories mirror this physical range.”

“The birth of a better world is not ultimately up to you, though I know, each day, there are grown men and women who tell you otherwise. The world needs saving precisely because of the actions of these same men and women. I am not a cynic. I love you, and I love the world, and I love it more with every new inch I discover. But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful—the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements. And this is not reducible to just you—the women around you must be responsible for their bodies in a way that you never will know. You have to make your peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie. You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.”

“All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to ‘be twice as good,’ which is to say ‘accept half as much.’ These words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket. This is how we lose our softness. This is how they steal our right to smile.”

“I did not yet know, and I do not fully know now. But part of what I know is that there is the burden of living among Dreamers, and there is the extra burden of your country telling you the Dream is just, noble, and real, and you are crazy for seeing the corruption and smelling the sulfur. For their innocence, they nullify your anger, your fear, until you are coming and going, and you find yourself inveighing against yourself—“Black people are the only people who…”—really inveighing against your own humanity and raging against the crime in your ghetto, because you are powerless before the great crime of history that brought the ghettos to be.”

“And all the time the Dreamers are pillaging Ferguson for municipal governance. And they are torturing Muslims, and their drones are bombing wedding parties (by accident!), and the Dreamers are quoting Martin Luther King and exulting nonviolence for the weak and the biggest guns for the strong. Each time a police officer engages us, death, injury, maiming is possible. It is not enough to say that this is true of anyone or more true of criminals. The moment the officers began their pursuit of Prince Jones, his life was in danger. The Dreamers accept this as the cost of doing business, accept our bodies as currency, because it is their tradition. As slaves we were this country’s first windfall, the down payment on its freedom. After the ruin and liberation of the Civil War came Redemption for the unrepentant South and Reunion, and our bodies became this country’s second mortgage. In the New Deal we were their guestroom, their finished basement. And today, with a sprawling prison system, which has turned the warehousing of black bodies into a jobs program for Dreamers and a lucrative investment for Dreamers; today, when 8 percent of the world’s prisoners are black men, our bodies have refinanced the Dream of being white. Black life is cheap, but in America black bodies are a natural resource of incomparable value.”

“The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free. In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.”

Recommended books:The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin.
Rating: ****1/2


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