Browse Category: Book Review

The Last Days of California

It’s Christmas, so that means one thing: It’s time to read books about the end of the world.

Of course, The Last Days of California isn’t about the end of the world, not really. It’s about a family and the lies they tell themselves and each other, and the complicated, broken way that they’re holding themselves together.

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Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

My friend who is the source of 90% of book recommendations, Kaitlyn, has been telling me to read this book for years. I finally had some free time after finals. I remembered that I enjoy reading books, and that I should, ahem, read a book.

The Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is a memoir about death. The author, Caitlin Doughty works at a funeral home in the crematory. Her reason for taking this job is a fascination with death, rooted in a horrifying childhood experience with death.

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I picked up Ghost, by Jason Reynolds, in doing research for Creative Writing Club. I’m working on the fiction unit, and looking for a mentor text to have my kids read. In doing this research and preparation, I read the book. This is the first wholly young adult book I’ve read in a while, and I really liked it. Ghost is Castle Crenshaw’s nickname. Castle eats sunflower seeds all the time, a habit he picked up from his dad, who was abusive towards him and his mom. They ran away from his dad, hiding in the back room of a convenience store, and Castle has been running ever since. His dad is in prison now, and Castle is struggling, understandably, to cope.

One day, Castle is hanging out by the track near his house, and he races another kid who is on the track team. The coach notices how fast he is, and recruits Castle for the Defenders track team. As he joins the team and begins training with them, he becomes a better runner and builds a strong relationship with his coach.

In reading this book, I realized that I’ve read very few books that focus on sports, and I’ve never read a YA book that is centered on any kind of athletics. I liked it for that – it was interesting and unique, with a likable main character. I’m still working out the particular details of how I will include it in the Creative Writing Club curriculum. There are parts of it that I think my kids could learn a lot from, with how Reynolds fleshes out Castle’s character and shows the person he is.

The World’s Largest Man

The Worlds Largest Man by Harrison Scott Key, on a blanket with sandals nearby
The World’s Largest Man by Harrison Scott Key

I read a book!

Years ago, this would not have been a noteworthy development in my personal life. As a child, I was a voracious reader, powering through book after book. And then jobs and college and teaching came along, and they took up my time, and I don’t read for pleasure like I used to.

That’s changing this year, right? At the beginning of the year, I declared my intentions to publish a book review every month, and now it’s June and…this is my first book review.

It’s important to set big goals for yourself, even if you fall short of them.

Harrison Scott Key spent his early childhood in Memphis, and this memoir opens with this explanation of the south and storytellers and it paints this image of slow, quiet Mississippi. He gives some background on his family, and how his parents ended up together, and about telling his daughters stories about growing up in Mississippi. It’s setting the stage for being a storyteller about Mississippi.

The first Mississippi story starts with this bit, which sums up the experience of explaining that you live in Mississippi to people who have not lived in Mississippi.

This funny thing happens when people ask where I’m from, especially when I’m at academic conferences, where people are so often from uninteresting places.

“Mississippi.” I say.

“Oh, wow!” they say.

I can tell they’ve never seen a real live racist before, or at the very least someone who’s related to a racist, or has seen one in the wild. It’s exciting for them. They want to tweet it. They want to write a memoir about it.

“So,” they say. “What’s Mississippi really like?”

He moves on to writing about his father, and about his family abandoning Memphis for a more rural lifestyle in Mississippi. Key’s father is a living, breathing stereotype of a rural southern man. He’s interested in hunting and sports, but not sports like running or soccer, manly sports like football and baseball.

The family moves to Mississippi, and Key’s father is intent on creating a farm. Key and his brother are roped into working to create this farm with him. When Key goes to school in Mississippi, his peers are a world apart from his classmates in Memphis – they are bigger and tougher than him, they know how to hunt, they sport injuries from outdoors behavior and questionable judgement.

In Mississippi, Key’s father takes him and his older brother hunting frequently. His brother takes to it, Key does not. Personally, I have never been hunting and have zero intention to ever go hunting, but the passages about it are entertaining and resonate on a level of failure to live up to expectations.

That theme of failure to live up to expectations flows throughout the book, breaking at a key moment – Key’s father is the coach of a peewee football team, and takes Key, who is in high school at the time, to play in a game. Key crushes it. He crushes it against children who are much smaller than him, but crushes it nonetheless.

The book loses steam when focus shifts from Key’s childhood in Mississippi to adulthood, when he is married and struggling in his relationship, when he is a father who is sometimes not as present as his wife would like. It loses steam because we transition from a focus on those unique stories about his dad to more ubiquitous stories about struggling in adulthood in the way we all sometimes struggle in adulthood.

Was this book great? The first two thirds were. The last third? I read it but I didn’t love it.

Buffering: Unshared Tales of a Life Fully Loaded

Last night, I finished reading Buffering: Unshared Tales of a Life Fully Loaded. It was excellent, really – it’s a deeply personal memoir by Hannah Hart, of My Drunk Kitchen fame. Honestly, this book surprised me. Hart is awesome, and I love her YouTube channel, but I did not expect this book to be as vulnerable as it is. I expected this to be a pretty simple story – telling about how she reached YouTube fame by getting drunk and cooking, telling about some of the experiences she’s had as a YouTuber and content creator, that kind of thing.

Instead, this book was an intimate story about her troubled childhood. Hart’s mother has schizophrenia, and went without any kind of treatment for much of Hart’s childhood. This meant that Hart grew up in a home that was filthy, with a parent who was not fit to take care of herself, let alone care for her children. Hart was also raised Jehovah’s Witness, which is another dimension she touches on in the book.

The clean, easy way for this story to work would be that Hart had this troubled childhood, then she went off to college, then My Drunk Kitchen, then she lived happily ever after. Instead, life is messy, and she writes about the ways her mother’s mental illness has affected her today, and her more recent struggle to win conservatorship over her mother and care for her within a system that doesn’t make things easy. The memoir feels as though the ending is unfinished, and it works in the context. Hart’s struggle with her mother is still a work in progress, and it’s not clear what will happen next.

This was a compelling read, even if it was not the easy, funny memoir I expected. Parts of the book were funny, for sure, but it also had moments of pain and depth that I didn’t know to expect.

Dispatches from Pluto

I heard of Dispatches from Pluto sometime when I first found out I was placed in Mississippi, it was recommended by someone from TFA, as a depiction of life in the Delta. I had been meaning to read it for a while, but hadn’t gotten around to it.

I finally got around to reading it, courtesy of the Jackson Hinds Library System* and it was a really quick read – it was entertaining throughout.

The premise is that Richard Grant, a British journalist who’s been living in New York, moves to Mississippi with his girlfriend. Before moving there, he experienced the same thing I did when I told people I was moving here: people who had never been here telling me that it would be awful, everyone would be racist, and everything would be backwards. Grant states his purpose clearly, at the very beginning.

One of my hopes in writing this book is to dissolve these clumsy old stereotypes, and illustrate my conviction that Mississippi is the best-kept secret in America. Nowhere else is so poorly understood by outsiders, so unfairly maligned, so surreal and peculiar, so charming and maddening.

He had met a woman named Martha in Oxford years before he moved to Mississippi, and she had told him about the Delta, and tried to take him on a tour of the Delta. Years later, he came down for a tour. He stumbled upon a plantation house in Pluto, and persuaded his girlfriend to move there with him.

The book depicts a sort of exploration of things that are specific to Mississippi. The author goes to Parchman State Penitentiary, discusses the schools in Leflore County and Whitman County Elementary, with some details about the Barksdale Reading Institute and all the work being done to improve that school. The author plays golf with Morgan Freeman and a dentist who worked at Parchman, and covers the campaign for mayor of Greenwood.

I always want to ask people who live in the Delta how realistic they think this is – I know there isn’t a single story of the Delta, but does this book paint a picture that people living in the Delta recognize? Sometimes it seems unrealistic – his story covers a lot of unique people and places, but fails to acknowledge the high poverty rates and the lack of healthcare that many people face in the Delta. Those are likely a more realistic depiction of life in the Delta than playing golf with Morgan Freeman.


I read this book because I heard someone recommend it, then I found out that it was set in Mississippi. 
One-click checkout, it arrived a few days later.

This is the first novel I’ve read in a while, and the first young adult novel I’ve read in a longer while. Most of the reading I’ve done lately is for school, so it’s nice to take a break from that. 

This book was set in Mississippi, partly, but most of it doesn’t take place there. The book follows Mary Iris Malone, Mim, a teenager with schizophrenia, as she leaves Mississippi for her home, Cleveland, OH. Her father and stepmother have recently moved to Mississippi, she hates it, and she wants to go home to be with her mom. She steals money from her stepmother to buy a bus ticket, then rides the Greyhound. Various disasters occour, at which point she’s making her own way back to Cleveland, with new friends she’s met along the way. The narrative includes diary entries, which were effective in giving us more of Mim’s personality, rather than making the book just a series of events that happen to her.
The story was interesting because Mim is interesting – she’s a strong character who has a distinct way of viewing the world. Throughout the book, I sometimes wondered if what she was saying was entirely accurate. Throughout the novel, there are mentions of the medication she takes for her schizophrenia, and partway through, she stops taking it. There wasn’t any major shift when she did, but it left me wondering if everything in the novel was as it seemed. 

The ending of the novel tied everything up a little too quickly for me – there wasn’t space for Mim or the reader to understand the entirety of what happened, and it left me wanting more depth.

The Defining Decade

I’ve been seeing a lot of buzz lately about The Defining Decade, so I decided to read it. It was…alright.

The thing that really bothered me throughout the book was the assumptions that the author made about the things that 20-somethings will want in the future. There’s this idea, that everyone wants to (or should want to) settle down, get married and have kids and buy a home. It’s true that some people want that, but it felt a lot like the author thought of that as the rule, and that people who want different things in life are somehow deviant.
There was also this trivializing vibe that I got at various points in the book. There was one story, about Cathy, who didn’t have a great track record in romantic relationships, and often used music to make herself feel less alone. Apparently, she told Cathy “Your iPod is whispering in your ear. It was keeping you company, but now it’s like a good friend turned bad, keeping you over in the corner away from other relationships where you might learn something new. It is turning your life into a dark, looping rock opera.” and then Cathy said “My iPod is my friend…maybe my closest friend.” Maybe this really was the case for Cathy, that she had this destructive relationship with her iPod, but it just came off as condescending. Jay also wrote “You might be surprised by the number of hours a week I spend hearing about Facebook. Many of my clients feel their lives on Facebook are evaluated, even judged, daily. They reluctantly admit they spend hours posting pictures and comments, flipping through them again and again, trying to see their Facebook pages as others will. They imagine their ex-girlfriends reacting to how they look now.” It read as though the author was saying “All of these millennials are only capable of having emotional relationships with their iPods and their Facebooks!” I expected that the book would focus a little more on the more serious issues that millennials face — the fact that they’re entering an economy that expects them to spend significant time working for free, saddled by more student debt than any previous generation. 

There were some good things about the book, though. I liked the concept of identity capital, which I had never heard of before. Identity capital is all of the stuff that makes you the person you are, the things that you use to define yourself. For instance, this blog, and going to school, and having worked at my summer camp, those are all pieces of my identity capital. 
The thing I really did like, was the feeling throughout that if someone in their 20’s doesn’t exactly have their life on track, it’s still very possible for them to have a good life. I’m constantly worried about my future, and I feel like every single choice that I make is going to have a huge impact on my whole entire life. I know that thought process isn’t reasonable, but it’s hard for me to get out of that mindset. There were a couple stories in this book about people who had been out of college for several years, but hadn’t worked any professional jobs, and were sort of aimless in their careers. Things work out for all of them in the book, and I’m assuming that they live happily ever after, fulfilled in their careers and personal lives.
Should you read it? I can’t give you my wholehearted recommendation, but if it’s a topic that you’re interested in—if you or someone you care about is a millennial who is terrified of everything, or who feels sort of aimless in their life, then this could be a worthwhile read. If you’re a baby boomer who thinks that millennials are a waste of space and should just get a job already, then you probably shouldn’t read this. But, then again, if you’re that person, you probably don’t give a damn about what I think you should do.

Hacking Your Education


Dale J. Stephens thinks that I should drop out of college. A little over a year ago, I found the UnCollege website, which Stephens started after he dropped out of college after his first semester.  Stephens has been unschooled since he was in sixth grade, and he believes that it’s far more effective to educate oneself than it is to go to school, whether it be elementary school, or university.

I’ve been looking forward to Hacking Your Education for a while, and I read it pretty quickly.  It starts out by discussing the expectation that young people will go to college – older adults often ask Stephens where he goes to school and what he’s studying. He also discusses the path that so many people seem to follow in life: Do well in school, ace the SAT so that you can get into a good college, and do well in college so that you can have a successful career/life.  Stephens has opted out of that.  His reasoning is, if the best learning happens outside of the classroom, why would anyone pay $40k/year to spend time inside of a classroom?

Many students go to college without a clear idea of why they are there.  Stephens writes that college makes perfect sense for people who want to enter licensed professions, like nursing, architecture, or law, but for someone who wants to go into either a new, or old profession, there isn’t a need for college. New professions are things that didn’t exist twenty years ago, like social media experts, and old professions are things that have been around for a thousand years, like artists and writers.  If young people are interested in something new or very old, then they might benefit from not graduating college with tens of thousands of dollars in debt.  Stephens points out that recent college graduates are often unemployed or underemployed, which somewhat discredits the idea that going to college will get you a good job in your field.

Stephens guides readers through the process of making a to-learn list, which is an exercise that could benefit anyone, whether or not they’re college-aged.  You start out by writing a list of everything you want to learn more about.  This takes a surprisingly long time to come up with, because it’s not a question that people ask themselves very often.

Here’s my list: design, writing, public speaking, how to make websites, French, Spanish

The next step is to further define what each of those items means. I have to ask myself if I want to become fluent in French, or if I just want to be able to ask where the bathroom is.  It might help to consider how you can learn different things, and where they’re applicable.

Here’s what that brings to my list: Become skilled in graphic design and lettering by doing a 365-style graphic project, learn more about fiction writing by writing one short story every month, give a talk in front of 50+ people, learn how to make a WordPress template and move the blog to WordPress, become fluent in French, gain a basic knowledge of Spanish.

Now that I’ve made each item more specific, each thing seems more actionable and achievable.  I’m also aware that it would be incredibly difficult to do everything at once. However, it wouldn’t be much of a time commitment to learn two French words every day, and it wouldn’t take too long to write a short story every month.  If I started those two things right now, in a year I would have learned 730 words in French and written 12 short stories.  That’s not a bad return on four hours of work every week, given that I spend at least four hours every week on Tumblr.

Stephens discusses the idea of collaborative learning groups, which can give unschoolers some of the benefits that college gives.  In a collaborative learning group, people who are interested in a certain topic gather on a regular basis to teach things to each other and discuss the things that they’re learning. For instance, if I was to start a collaborative learning group around literature, I would find people who are interested in joining the group, then we would choose books to read and then meet to discuss them.  This is something I’d be interested in implementing in my own learning – it seems like it has all the benefits of taking a class, but without the students who are unmotivated and uninterested in learning.

Next, Stephens goes over the different ways that people learn. I’m surprised that he spent the time to explain this idea in his book, because I thought it was well-known concept.  I know that I learn best by reading and writing – in middle school and high school history classes, I would write down my notes, then rewrite them with a different wording and with more information than what we learned in class. I would think that other people have found out how they learn best too.

Throughout the book, Stephens is biased against going to college, which he seems to be aware of.  I think that there’s a benefit to college, when students are motivated and take their learning into their own hands, but Stephens assumes that if someone chooses a traditional university, they expect to spend four years being spoon-fed information. Stephens has been unschooled for years, and he seems to believe that it comes naturally to everyone. I believe that there would be a noticeable adjustment period where students would learn to seek out knowledge and build their own structure for learning. I also wonder about privilege – Stephens is a white man, who probably has some class privilege.  Is is possible for someone who doesn’t benefit from those privileges to succeed in the same way that Stephens has?  Is there some danger in spreading the UnCollege idea to people who aren’t very motivated about college? I know someone who’s in high school now, and uninterested in the idea of college.  It seems like they’re uninterested because they don’t want to do any sort of work, not because they are motivated toward other things. If they read this book, would they take it as a reason to skip college and play video games all day?  Maybe they would.  They’re not the target audience, but they might hear the message anyway, and take it the wrong way.

This book gave me the little extra push to do a few things that aren’t a hundred percent about self-education.  I’ve been thinking about doing a week without sugar for a while, but when Stephens mentioned it in his book, I was motivated to actually try.  I’ve read that getting up at six can do wonders for productivity, and when Stephens wrote about it, that made me try to get up at six today.  I didn’t quite make it, I got up at 7:15, but that’s an awful lot better than getting up after noon, like I did yesterday.

Every college student should be doing something on their own. You could start a blog, get an internship, start a nonprofit, write a book, learn a language, or just learn something that you want to.  If you’re in college, and you expect a degree to be the only thing that you need to get a job when you’re done with school, than you are sadly mistaken.

I enjoyed Hacking Your Education, and I think I’ve learned quite a bit from it.  I’m not planning on dropping out of college right now, but I could see myself taking a semester to go to school part-time and work on my own projects more. I think I’m also placing less value on the degree – I realize that it doesn’t matter all that much if I finish school or not, as long as I can end up doing what I want to do. This book has given me some reassurance in the benefits of self-education and the value of starting your own thing.  I would recommend it to anyone nearing the end of high school or who is in college who isn’t quite sure that they need to go to college.
If you’re interested in buying the book, you can find it at IndieBound, or Amazon.
tl;dr: Hacking Your Education was good and you should try to learn stuff.
Also, if you’re in Grand Rapids and you’re interested in a collaborative learning group about literature, then you should email me.  I want to start something.

Designing Media

The concept of going a day without media, whether it be books, music, tv, movies, or the internet, is unimaginable.  Media is a huge part of our lives, and the ways we consume and produce it are changing.  “Designing Media” focuses on that changing atmosphere.

The book is comprised of interviews, divided into sections based on what sort of things they do in the media.  Every interview is worth a read, and they’re all pretty compelling.  I particularly liked the interviews with Chris Anderson, Craig Newmark, Ira Glass, and Jane Friedman.  For a book that’s non-fiction and fairly information-dense, it’s remarkably readable.
In the book, the idea of the internet being a popularity contest is mentioned by several people, which I find interesting.  It sort of makes me question if I’m looking at things online because they’re popular, or if it’s because a I want to.  I think it’s varying combinations of the two, but it’s worth thinking about.

Also, Bill Moggridge designed a website that is incredibly effective, compared to other book websites.  Most book websites are “Here’s the cover, here’s the author’s bio, here’s the summary, here’s the Amazon link.” This website says “Here’s the book, and here’s loads of content from the book.”  The website is useful in it’s own right, and points users toward purchasing the book.
I’d recommend “Designing Media” to anyone who’s interested in the different and changing ways that media is created and consumed.  Bill Moggridge wrote another book, “Designing Interactions” which I think I’m going to read in the future.