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.

A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley

mind for numbersBook – I read this book as a companion to the Coursera course “Learning How to Learn,” which is taught by the author and is, in fact, nearly identical to the book. But for once I wouldn’t brush it off as unnecessarily repetitive; in fact, I’d recommend both the video lecture-based course and the book together. Reading the book really helped drive home some of the key points from the lectures by actually putting them into practice. Spaced repetition and recall – reviewing material some time after you’ve learned it – are easy to do when the book and lectures are covering the exact same material, but you’re a little behind in the book where you are in the lectures, and vice versa. Oakley also recommends trying to recall the material in a different setting than you originally learned it, to build flexibility into your understanding – easy to do when I was watching the lectures at home on my computer and reading the book at work over lunch.

I’m not in school any more, but I’ve been trying to improve my math skills (I got good grades in school by avoiding math wherever possible), and this book & course have offered me some useful techniques for learning, partially just by making it clear what I was already doing instinctively to learn things that come easily to me. Now that I know what those things are, it should be easier to apply them in situations where I have to stretch myself a little more.

The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls

Book – Jeannette Walls recounts her unique and unstable childhood in The Glass Castle: A Memoir. From the outside, life looks like a never-ending adventure for Jeannette and her siblings.  On good days, her father Rex’s wild imagination takes his family across the United States, a family of vagabonds high on wanderlust. But then the bad days came; the money ran out and all their dreams seemed to have expired.

Confined to a dismal town, Rex became a constant drunk, stealing the family’s dinner money to feed his need.  Meanwhile, Jeannette’s mother, Mary was lost in her own world, an artist obsessed with a need for excitement, such that couldn’t be filled by caring for her young children. It was up to a young Jeannette and her siblings to take care of themselves, learning how to live and survive amid the escalating dysfunction and chaos.

Jeannette recounts her youth in a way that retains her parents’ dignity, as unstable as they were.  Readers are able to see her parents as lost souls failing to reach their dreams, forced into a life they didn’t want.  This struggle to find fulfillment in life is something we can all relate to.

Jeannette also wrote Half Broke Horses: A True Life Novel, a prequel of sorts to The Glass Castle.  The subtitle, A True Life Novel, gives readers a clue as to why the book is noted as fiction.  The book was originally intended to be a biography on Jeannette’s grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, but the author was missing too much information for it to be categorized as completely biographical.  However the powerful character  of Lily Smith comes across just as vividly as the characters in Jeannette’s first memoir.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

indexBook- After witnessing a stranger’s accidental death as a child, Doughty has always been fascinated by death and mortality. This leads her naturally to getting a job in a crematory. Far from the sterile and sanitized version of death many people prefer to maintain, Doughty offers a more honest picture of what happens when we die. She tells of cleaning the bones out of the crematory, of smashing bones into “cremains,” and of many, many viscerally gross details that I won’t relate here. Even as just a memoir of her time in the crematorium, Doughty’s memoir is engrossing, informative, and, at times, hilarious.

However, during her time in the traditional death industry, Doughty has come to the conclusion that we as a culture live too far separated from death and dying. In the past, seeing an untreated dead body was not a rare sight. Today, the dead are either cleaned up and embalmed to look like they are sleeping, as in wakes and funerals, or whisked away quietly, as in hospitals where death is viewed as a failure of the medical system. Doughty wants us all to think openly and honestly about death since, after all, it is inevitable.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes will appeal to fans of Mary Roach, who offers a similarly unadorned picture of the human body and its processes.

The Imposter (2012)

Movie – There are some who feel truth is just as good as fiction and at times better. The Imposter is one of those stories that may be better than fiction. For watchers of Spanish cinema, like something out of a Pedro Almodóvar film. It is a documentary about a missing child, Nicolas Barclay. In 1994 a family in Texas reported their son missing. He turns up three and a half years later in Spain. Or does he? The Barclays do not see their “son” for the first time until he is back in Texas. Their child was a blond hair blue eyed boy. The person they are reunited with is neither blond nor blue eyed, with a profound Spanish accent, and seems to look older than 16, which is the around the age Nicolas should be.

The Imposter will take you on a trip with twists and turns throughout only to leave you with more questions. There are questions about the person claiming to be Nicolas. Who is he, what is he doing, and why is he doing this? In addition, why does the family accept this stranger as their son? Serious criminal accusations will keep the viewer questioning what is going on in this family. All of this will leave you with more questions that may or may not be fully answered by the end of the film.

Whether you like true-crime or enjoy fiction, The Imposter will give you a good story, almost as good as, or even better than most mysteries. This one is for those who enjoy mysteries, thrillers, true-crimes, and love plot twists.

Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee

Book – I admit it, I have watched Hoarders. It’s fascinating and horrifying all at once, and even while I felt like a bad person for watching these people’s lives splashed all over TV, I couldn’t look away. But what’s really going on when someone hoards? What are they thinking, and when they’re putting themselves in danger, how can we help them? Randy Frost is one of the few psychologists studying hoarding and its treatments – most therapists and psychiatrists say that it can’t be treated at all – and Stuff is his explanation, for a popular audience, of exactly what’s going on here.

According to Frost, hoarding happens on a spectrum, and a lot of things that are pathological in hoarders are things we all do – using our things as a way to express our identity, for instance, or using our things as a kind of security blanket. This is a little unsettling to read, to be honest, because you can see just how short the distance is from “I am most comfortable when surrounded by my own things” to “I can’t cope with my things going away.” He explains why dramatic clean-outs like they do on TV almost never work, and why they’re sometimes dangerous. I found the whole thing fascinating, and it certainly prompted me to re-think of my own relationship to my stuff.

Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick

Book – Even in the modern age, marriage is the defining question of a woman’s life – even if she decides not to marry, it’s an important decision, sometimes the most important. Through a lens of her own experiences and the stories of women writers she’s found inspiring through her life, Kate Bolick examines ways women have pushed back against this question, carving out lives for themselves in spite of society’s expectations for them.

I wasn’t terribly familiar with most of the women Bolick discusses – Neith Boyce, Maeve Brennan, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Edith Wharton – although I did know some of their work, so I was fascinated to learn more about their lives. Bolick is using a broad definition of “spinster” here. Many of these women did marry, but, she argues, they found marriage to be stultifying and damaging to their work, and so they also divorced or lived separately from their husbands rather than sacrifice their lives to something that didn’t work for them. Bolick compares their solitary lives with her own, where even though she’s never married, she dates compulsively throughout her twenties and thirties.

I enjoyed the historical parts of the book more than Bolick’s memoirs, but I think the personal story is important to the book as a whole. We get to learn not only from famous women writers but from Bolick herself, who struggles with modern expectations in an entirely different way from her heroines.

Microshelters by Derek “Deek” Diedricksen

Book – Deek Diedricksen travels around the world searching for the most creative and interesting tiny structures. His book highlights 59 small structures, including tree houses, tiny houses, caravans, cabins and playhouses. Their uses range from full-time living to vacation homes to backyard writing or zen retreats. Photos, floor plans and narratives offer showcase the clever uses of space and design ideas. Upcycling and recycling are components of most of the structures. Polycarbonate roofing was used for walls in some cases, pot lids and water jugs were used for a window in one structure. Sometimes height was used for additional space, with access through ladders or even staggered shelving. He also has led building and design workshops. Deek also includes chapters on the necessary tools, how to salvage and decorate and offers six plans with construction details. If you enjoy this book, you may also want to check out The Big Tiny by Dee Williams or Shed Decor by Sally Coulthard.

Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? by Guy Consolmagno & Paul Mueller

Book – Lots of people have this idea that science and faith are inherently opposed, but the authors of this book – both astronomers with the Vatican Observatory, one a Jesuit priest and the other a Jesuit brother – are good evidence that doesn’t have to be the case. In six casual, chatty chapters, they discuss everything from the beginning of the universe to the end of it; the nature of Pluto, the Star of Bethlehem, and Galileo’s persecution; and, yes, if they (or rather, if Father Paul) would baptize an extraterrestrial.

The authors are Jesuits, so this is definitely a Catholic perspective on both the universe and on the Bible, but I think it’s illuminating for anyone. They argue that both of those vast and profound entities require you to choose how you’re going to go about understanding them, and that if you choose wrong, you’re just going to be more confused than you started – and they offer examples both from the history of science and from the history of theology.

My favorite chapter, though, was the chapter on Pluto. It turns out that both authors were part of the process of re-defining the elements of our solar system that removed Pluto from the list of planets, and they explain the complicated tangle of human categories, actual celestial bodies, and plain old human emotion that made that process so difficult and controversial.