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.

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.