Monday, December 30, 2013

My Beloved World - Sonia Sotomayor

In general, I am fascinated by the memoirs/biographies of Supreme Court Justices - it's such an incredible accomplishment to be named to the Court and the work ethic of each justice, even the ones I don't agree with politically, is bound to inspire.  Sotomayor's book chronicles her life up to her Supreme Court nomination, so does not include details about the intricacies of the Court, which probably wouldn't be appropriate so early in her tenure.  This is amazing story of a Latina growing up on the wrong side of the tracks with distractions all around her and no expectation of her amazing achievements.  At times, I was a little disappointed in her writing style - it seemed a bit too sensational, and her portrayal of herself as a naive girl from a small town in the shadow of the Ivy League towers was a bit incredible at times.  While I have no doubt that going to college was an incredible culture shock, some of her "humble-brags" were a bit annoying.  That being said, I loved this book for the consistent examples Sotomayor noted of her benefactors and mentors.  She contrasted the sacrifices made by her mother for her education, with the opportunities provided to her cousins.  It made clear that so much goes in to achieving this level of success- it is not simply luck, or affirmative action, or whatever excuse people want to give for discounting her incredibly hard work - or denying the opportunities they themselves are given every day, but may or may not take full advantage of.  Sotomayor is an absolute role model and inspiration - not just for minority girls growing up in New York, but for all of us who strive to be better and who are constantly evaluating what it takes not just to be a great person, but to also be a good one.

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls - David Sedaris

I feel like I should start every review of a Sedaris collection with, "Well, it's not as good as Me Talk Pretty One Day, but..."  So, given that caveat, no surprise, but I enjoyed this.  I had the pleasure of seeing Sedaris do a reading recently, and he read one of his essays from this book, plus one of the pieces he claims are meant for teenagers to memorize when they need to present monologues at school.  That explanation (while made slightly in jest, I think) made some of the pieces in this book a little more understandable, but in general, I didn't enjoy those ones as much as the personal essays he is known for.  What I love about Sedaris is his ability to go from completely inappropriate to completely poignant in a matter of paragraphs.  His recent piece in the New Yorker about his sister's suicide is a perfect example.  While there weren't any essays in this collection that stood out for me, for anyone who adores Sedaris, this is along the same lines of most of his work and certainly good for a laugh or two.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Racketeer - John Grisham

It doesn't matter how much worse and formulaic these Grisham novels get as the years go on, I will still read them as fast as he can write them.  The Racketeer features an inmate at a Federal Prison, Malcolm Bannister, who has information about the killer in the recent homicide of a judge.  As law enforcement's leads grow cold, Bannister's information becomes all the more valuable - and he's willing to trade it for his freedom.  There are some pretty clever, and not all that predictable twists and turns that kept this one an interesting and worthwhile read (especially for fans of Grisham and a good mystery).

Americanah - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I don't have as much time as I'd like these days to read fat fiction books - but one of my favorite books is Half of a Yellow Sun, so when I heard the author had come out with a new book, I knew it would be worth the time investment.  Americanah is about a young Nigerian woman, Ifemelu, who moves to the United States.  Once here, she finds herself confronted often with the issue of race - in a way she never was at home - not only is she black in America, but she is also African, with all the importance that distinction holds for herself, and often more importantly, for others.  While Ifemelu goes about her everyday life - falling in and out of love, finding and losing employment, spending time with friends, family, and the internet, she observes issues of race in each interaction.  Ultimately, she moves back to Nigeria and is reunited with a childhood love.  At times this book seemed simple in its story-line, but at the same time infinitely complex in its observations about identity and what defines who we are and how we view ourselves.  Definitely worth a read and a re-read.

French Kids Eat Everything - Karen Le Willow

This book has the unfortunate distinction of being published about four months after Bringing Up Bebe - it focuses on many of the same themes and reaches the same conclusions about the differences between spoiled and pampered American children, and their perfect French counterparts.  Of course, I'm joking, but I couldn't help but have that negative reaction while reading this - and feeling a little bored only because I had just read it all in Bringing up Bebe.  I agree in general that many American children these days seem to rule the roost, throwing tantrums that their parents invariably succumb to, and in general behaving badly.  And, because I have three children who are relatively picky eaters, I'll read anything that has suggestions about how to overcome this.  I didn't really learn anything new from this book - but it did reinforce for me the idea of introducing foods to your children over and over - and just because they turn their noses up once, twice, twelve times, doesn't mean you stop.  As someone who didn't really start eating vegetables myself until my late 20s, I believe that our palates change as we grow older, and that we can train them to enjoy new foods.  So, I try it with my children, but I draw the line at being too strict about it, or denying them food that they will eat, if they refuse to eat the ones I've initially served.  While I am not in the business of running a restaurant out of my kitchen, I do think there needs to be some give-and-take with kids when it comes to food.  I also enjoy snacking, I think it's fun, and it gives me enjoyment.  Does it sometimes mean I'm not that hungry for my actual meal?  Yes.  Do I think that's the end of the world?  No.  So, my kids are also snackers, and I think that's just fine.  I don't expect them to be able to sit quietly through a three-hour meal.  I can do that as an adult if I have to, but I don't want to, and they shouldn't be forced to either.  Bottom line, I appreciated many of the ideas of the French that were shared in this book (and Bringing up Bebe), but I don't generally see a need to overhaul my way of life - despite the fact that my children and I are hardly the model of healthy eating.  I want my kids to have a healthy relationship with food - to enjoy it, but not depend on it.  I don't want them to feel ashamed of eating or feel like there are a million rules that surround it.  Cooking and eating and sharing a meal with friends and family are some of my greatest pleasures in life.  I hope that I can impart that to my children - while throwing in a few vegetables here and there for the ride.

Poser: my life in twenty-three yoga poses - Claire Dederer

I am admittedly a sucker for these self-improvement memoirs, and I am a fan of yoga, so I picked this one up about a mother who takes on yoga and uses it as a vehicle for reflecting on her life.  In general I liked the idea - trying to slow down a bit and appreciate life - even with all its imperfections and hassles.  But, there were moments in this book that really turned me off - I felt like part of her purpose in tackling this subject was to become more open-minded and less-judgmental, but it seemed like in many of her descriptions of life and the people around her that she looked down on others who didn't seem to have it as together as she did.  She also seemed so intent on keeping up appearances in terms of only serving her children organic products, buying the right kinds of toys, and even practicing a certain kind of yoga - that I really felt that she was shallow and insincere.  I just read a slew of reviews of the book - mostly positive by people who felt they could really identify with the author.  I just couldn't and found the book a bit repetitive and self-indulgent.  Not quite the experience I'm looking for from my yoga.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio - Terry Ryan

As I struggle to keep my household together with only three children, I find myself drawn to books about families with large numbers of children - if only in the hopes of gaining some advice about how to make it all work.  Evelyn Ryan, the heroine of this story, is the mother of ten children.  And while she is married, her husband is an alcoholic who squanders his meager income.  So, Evelyn turns to jingle writing - entering any and every contest she can get her hands on - coming up with clever phrases and rhymes just to earn a few extra dollars to keep her family afloat.  This is one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction stories to me- that one woman could win so many of these contests is pretty amazing, but that this sporadic unpredictable income is the best means she seems to have for keeping her family from the streets is incredibly odd.  This was an incredible story of how people facing difficult odds can dig deep to really come up with creative ways to keep a roof over their head and food in the refrigerator.  Fascinating on many levels - and the contest entries, while I didn't always understand them, were really quite entertaining.