We Believe the Children by Richard Beck

41hLd81ByvL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Book – In the mid-1980s, dozens of childcare providers were tried, and some convicted and imprisoned, for sexual abuse of children on an unprecedented scale. While in some cases abuse really occurred, the charges were massively inflated, the product of accusations made by children who had been through hours and hours of aggressive interrogation and “therapy” designed to help them recover memories they had suppressed. Into the 90s, adult women were coming forward with allegations of abuse, often connected to Satanic cults, that they had not known about before the memories had been “recovered” in therapy. And by the year 2000, almost all of the charges and convictions resulting from these kinds of allegations had been dropped or rescinded.

Beck does more describing the situation than explaining it in his book, covering the groundbreaking McMartin trial (one of the longest and most expensive in American history) in great detail, but also drawing connections with other, similar cases going on around the country. Beck puts the whole thing down to a growing cultural discomfort with the disintegration of the nuclear family and the development of new therapeutic techniques that turned out to be more damaging than helpful.

The McMartin case broke six months before I was born, but I remember reading about it as a teenager in connection with the West Memphis Three, a group of teenagers who were convicted as part of the “Satanic panic” and only released in 2011. I’ve always been amazed – and a little scared – at how huge the whole thing got before anyone was willing to step up and say, This is ridiculous, this cannot possibly be real. The destruction of one accused family is chronicled in Andrew Jaerecki’s documentary Capturing the Friedmans, which Beck mentions in the book.

Amy (2015)

51qTjmoHjhL._AC_UL320_SR228,320_MovieAmy Winehouse lived a short life. In the documentary Amy, the director, Asif Kapadia tries to tell a story of someone looking for help but not being able to help herself during good times.

The documentary follows the short life of Amy Winehouse as told through clips of personal home movies, pictures, performances, interviews, and backstage footage at the Grammys. Winehouse was a troubled soul trying to make it through a life that may have been more than she could handle. Her music came from the depths of emotional suffering. Her gift to transfer those emotions into song gave her the break she was looking for into the music scene. It was also the reason she could not continue.

Throughout the film, the director uses interviews with Amy’s parents, husband, and friends to narrate Amy’s story. They paint a picture of someone who was a free spirit, a good singer, and a troubled person looking for some guidance. The director paints her family as people who did not step in when Amy needed them the most. Her parents, mainly her father, did take offense to his portrayal in the film. Her mother did not object to her portrayal.

The film will cause you to analyze Amy’s life and those around her. Questions will arise about the role her loved ones played in her life. Finger pointing will definitely happen. In all the viewer will need to come to their own conclusions on why Amy’s life was cut short. Fans of the singer, and people who enjoy biographies of celebrities will enjoy this film. There is no speculation of who is to blame in the death, only a story being told of someone who was enduring deep sadness and how she coped with it.

Born With Teeth by Kate Mulgrew

51H2ypUp9XL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Book – Kate Mulgrew, best known for playing the first female Star Trek captain on Voyager and as Red on Netflix’s series Orange is the New Black, has not published a typical celebrity memoir.  It has no co-writer, no gossip, and very few references to any costars.  She does not dwell on those who helped her, or how lucky she is.  The emotional center of Mulgrew’s story is the difficult choice she made at the age of 22, at a crucial stage in her career, to give up a daughter for adoption, and her successful attempt to get in touch with her daughter many years later.  Despite having many lovers (sometimes simultaneously), a successful career, and two sons, Mulgrew always felt a regret for this loss that haunted her. Mulgrew’s story ends before the present, just as she has reconnected with her daughter and come to an agreement with the man she (currently) loved, but I hope she will write another chronicling the rest of her career and providing closure that I felt this memoir lacked.

Those reading for insider details of her career on Voyager, as I initially was, will be disappointed, as only a chapter covered this entire time in her life, but fortunately, the details of Mulgrew’s personal life are just as satisfying. Born With Teeth is an entertaining and poignant read even if you’ve never heard of her before.

All the Time in the World: A Book of Hours by Jessica Kerwin Jenkins

timeBook – Books of Hours are the most common book we have from medieval history – beautiful, elaborate manuscripts created for one (very wealthy) person, providing them with a list of holidays throughout the year and prayers throughout the day. Inspired by this format, Jenkins has created a kind of uber-trivia book, a collection of small historical stories and interesting bits of information that match up with the hours of the day and the months of the year.

The cherry-blossom festivals of Japan, duelists who dreaded getting up in the morning more than the upcoming duel, writers’ personal schedules and national holidays, recipes and recommendations (including a recipe for Nostradamus’s aphrodesiac jam, and a recommendation not to try it), historical snapshots of Renaissance Florence, 1930s Shanghai, and desserts that you set on fire before serving – this book has a little bit of everything. More in-depth than a usual trivia book, but without a wholly defining theme, other than the passage of time, I found this perfectly wonderful for curling up on a rainy day with a cup of tea.

$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer

two dollarsBook – Composed of material gleaned from personal interviews, Edin’s account focuses on the most disadvantaged in our society: those who have heads of household who are not working and who do not receive welfare, with cash incomes of about $2 per person per day. For comparison, even those just below the poverty line have about $18 a day per person. While the very poor may have food stamps, and sometimes even rent assistance, what they lack is access to cash. Those Edin interviewed would report donating plasma, recycling cans, and even (illegally) selling food stamps for $0.60 on the dollar just to get some cash income, a necessity to buy clothes, school supplies, and other incidentals not covered by food stamps.

The very poor can be found all over the United States. Edin interviewed, for example, a large family in rural Appalachia, a single mother and daughter in Chicago, and an extended family living all under one roof in Cleveland. The events that triggered extreme poverty varied, but the constant that Edin observed is that it only takes a little bit of misfortune to go from poor to extreme poverty. Triggering events such as losing a job at Wal-Mart because of no gas in the car and getting fired because of a $10 cash register discrepancy were enough to catapult two of Edin’s subjects to extreme poverty.

$2.00 a Day will appeal to fans of Edin’s other works on poverty and, for a more personal take on poverty, Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America will appeal.

The One-Page Financial Plan by Carl Richards

financialBookThe One-Page Financial Plan: A Simple Way to Be Smart About Your Money discusses overall strategies for setting up a personal financial plan. Richards emphasizes letting go of the past and the need for perfection that often paralyze the process. Your plans should fit your goals and lifestyles; there is no one-size-fits-all plan. He guides you through analyzing your spending values and gives examples from his own life and clients. I liked his focus on examining your personal motives and setting your goals to reflect them. One person may have travel as their primary financial expenditure, while another person may direct their finances toward saving for a college fund. Richards also asserts that analyzing your spending habits will help you determine if you need to to redirect your funds. He stresses that this exercise is not to make you reduce money toward what you enjoy doing, but to identify and reduce spending on items you deem non-essential. This book inspired me with its emphasis on setting up a financial plan that makes sense for today and that takes the ups-and-downs of life into account.

El Deafo by Cece Bell

el deafoBook – After becoming very sick as a child, Cece began to lose her hearing.  El Deafo chronicles Cece’s experiences, from going to school, making friends, and using a hearing aid device.  El Deafo is the perfect mix of fiction and biography.

Inspired by real life experiences, this is a beautifully illustrated story told in graphic novel form.  As someone who really hasn’t read a lot of comic books, I found the artwork to be very refreshing.  The characters reminded me of my favorite childhood tv show, Arthur, with their animal likenesses.  Each character has rabbit-like features, with a pink triangle nose, and tall ears.

One of my favorite things about this book is Cece’s description of her hearing aid, the Phonic Ear.  Young Cece  introduces the device as bulky, unattractive, and heavy; it makes her feel awkward and uncomfortable.

In school, her teacher wears a microphone that is connected to the device.  With her earpieces Cece is able to hear every word her teacher is says, both in the classroom, and  any other place in the building!  With her newfound powers of hearing, Cece discovers her inner superhero, El Deafo.  I adored the honest and charismatic narration of this little girl, and hope you will too.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015)

going_clear_blue_poster_285Movie –Going Clear is a documentary about scientology. It is told from the perspective of former members. The director, Alex Gibney gives the viewer a history of the organization, its founder, the current head of scientology, what is expected of its members, and tactics employed to address critics. Two celebrity members are showcased momentarily. But just enough to keep the viewer interested and with enough information to ponder as the film goes on.

The topics mentioned above are weaved into the film as former members reveal their experiences in scientology. They each bring a different perspective due to belonging to different sectors of the organization. The viewer is given a different look at what scientology was for each member, and how and why the members chose to leave. The film flows very well and kept me interested throughout. With much of the narrative being told by former members, I feel the film gives them an avenue to inform people why they should steer clear from the organization.

Scientology is shrouded in controversies due to treatment of members, what it expected of said members, their beliefs, and tactics of attacking it critics, as well as members who have chosen to leave the organization. As a result of this film, the director, HBO, the former members in the films, and critics who have reviewed the film have all been threatened with litigation from the organization. This is one of the tactics mentioned in the film, “Fair Game”. Meaning everyone is fair game when it comes to criticizing the organization.

As a kid I remembering seeing commercials for Dianetics. The erupting volcano, with the title of book coming into the frame. I remember wondering what it was and it must be a good book if it has a commercial. That’s as much thought a ten year old kid raised Catholic put into it. After seeing Going Clear, I’m so glad it never went any further.

Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh

Book – What do a PhD candidate and a gang leader have in common? They both have a vested interest in the life of gang members and their actions. Sudhir was a graduate student at the University of Chicago during the late 80’s and throughout the 90’s. In Gang Leader for a Day Sudhir befriends J.T., the leader of the Black Kings, a gang on the Southside of Chicago. The two have a chance encounter when Sudhir is trying to get surveys filled out by tenants at a Chicago projects high-rise. This meeting will lead them to develop an interesting relationship that will span over 10 years.

J.T. shows Sudhir what it takes to lead a gang and how the gang operates. Sudhir learns that gangs are structured and operate very similar to most corporations. The major difference being the products (drugs), and employee discipline delivered when gang members do not meet organization expectations, which comes in the form of violence.

Sudhir broke the mold for sociological studies when he performed this research. Normally sociologists use surveys to collect data on why subjects feel the way they do. Sudhir decided to immerse himself in gang culture in order to find out what gang life was like, how the community dealt with the gang, and why J.T. returned to the gang life after having attended college and a job at a downtown business. Sudhir also develops relationships with several community members and leaders allowing Sudhir to obtain a better understanding of life in the projects of Chicago’s Robert Taylor homes.

I listened to the audiobook and would like to recommend it for those trying audiobooks for the first time. The reader had a voice that made me want to listen and kept a good pace. Audiobooks can be tricky because many factors will affect the listener’s experience. Readers with interest in true crime, gang culture, and sociological studies will enjoy this book.

Sickened: the memoir of a Munchausen by proxy childhood by Julie Gregory

Book– Munchausen by proxy is a rare form of child abuse characterized by faking or exaggerating symptoms of illness in a child, usually to gain attention from the medical community.  Gregory recounts a harrowing childhood spent in hospital rooms, performing illness (or actually being made ill) to satisfy her mother’s craving for attention. Her mother alternates between deliberately starving and abusing her, turning the rest of the family against her, including her helpless father, and cossetting her with attention. Gregory focuses on the strategies she used to survive, such as stealing food from other students’ lunches and from convenience stores.

The writing is at its best when Gregory is understating her situation; like most works of this kind, overly dramatic language can often actually take away from the impact of the story. She includes scans of her own medical records from the time and it is chilling to see how willing some doctors were to believe her mother’s stories. While Gregory obviously escapes her mother’s orbit, as of Gregory’s memoir, there are still children in Gregory’s mother’s care.

Sickened will appeal to fans of memoirs chronicling mental illness, complicated family relationships, and difficult upbringings.