My Personal Syllabus for 2020

Books HDWhen I was sent to lockdown over two months ago, I was fortunate enough to have an enormous stack of books from the public library. I got a few notes on Instagram about how lucky I was, but, really, I am just a literary glutton. It is not uncommon for me to have over a dozen books out from the library. I have a problem.

Between those books, the ones I own but have not yet read, the backlog on my Kindle, and access to advanced copies from Netgalley, I could easily be locked down for a year and not run out of things to read. That is beautiful, in my opinion, but it also presents a total free-for-all of directionless, indulgent reading. I could only read mystery novels for a year, probably.

Like many people, I have actually had a hard time focusing during this time. I am not sure if I have retained much of what I read, but the mental fuzziness has started to wear off and I am thirsting for some learning. I remembered that in January I created a personal reading syllabus after I read advice about doing so by Haley over at Carrots for Michaelmas. I broke out my list to spark some more purposeful reading.

Kasey’s 2020 Syllabus

  • Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales
  • The Confessions of St. Augustine
  • My Sisters the Saints by Colleen Carroll Campbell
  • Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton
  • The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor
  • The Most of Nora Ephron (been in progress for years)
  • Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait? Alice, Paul, Woodrow Wilson, and The Fight for the Right to Vote by Tina Cassidy
  • Needful Things by Stephen King
  • The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman
  • The Overstory by Richard Powers
  • Joan of Arc by Kathryn Harrison
  • The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
  • Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by John Guy

My reading syllabus was created in the context that I already read a pretty diverse and inclusive range of books, especially in current literary fiction and young adult fiction. The purpose of this list was to pursue some topics or writers that I have been neglecting while reading the big new releases.

The first theme of my syllabus is books by or about the saints. I hope to read more than what is on this list (i.e. books by St. Teresa of Avila and St. Gertrude Stein), but I included some big titles that have been sitting on my shelves for years, partially read or waiting to be started. I used to do quite a bit of spiritual reading, and for what feels like a long, long time it has been crowded out. In an effort to get back to some sort of rhythm in that area of my growth, I have also included books by great Catholic writers who I have read little or nothing by: Flannery O’Connor, J.R.R. Tolkien, and G.K. Chesterton. Over and over, I keep hearing Flannery O’Connor talked about as one of the greatest Catholic writers and I have only read a couple of stories by her. Similarly, Catholic public figures who I respect love Tolkien and, despite my dad’s many attempts to get me to read The Hobbit, I never made it past the first twenty pages. Finally, I also included some nonfiction and novels that I have meant to read for a long time, but never quite get around to. That’s how Stephen King and Mary, Queen of Scots ended up on the same reading list.

I am hopeful that I will be able to make progress on this reading list while still reading my usual pile of the big books of the year. I’ll let you know.

EDIT: So far, off the list, I have read My Sisters, the Saints, which made me weep pretty good. Other books that I have read and enjoyed include: Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, Lakewood by Megan Giddings, Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein, She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman by Erica Armstrong Dunbar, and Death in the Air: The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City by Kate Winkler Dawson.

Have you made a reading plan or list for yourself? What is on your list? I’d love to know!

How to Keep a Notebook


My women’s suffrage commonplace, homestead commonplace, and field book cover.

Keeping a notebook, a journal, a diary has been important to me for as long as I can remember, I think because, although it does not look good on paper, I am very important to me. My relationship with myself has easily been the most challenging—learning to control myself, finding the depths of my lows and reigning in the highs of my highs, learning that there was not some mysterious “real me” lurking underneath all of that, learning how and when to tell myself to cut the bullshit. Much of that has happened on paper. I’m better for it.

Assuming that my experience isn’t extraordinary, counselors probably advise people to keep journals because at some point in the writing of whatever theory you have about why you feel so crummy, you will start to hear the ridiculous egotism of your inner-monologue. Or its cruelty. Or faulty logic. Or maybe we just get tired of ourselves when we have to write out our thoughts. I don’t know. I have a Ph.D. in literature, not psychology.

We English majors, however, are likely to point toward Joan Didion on this subject. In her 1968 collection Slouching Toward Bethlehem, she writes that keeping a notebook keeps us in touch with ourselves. My notebook will not help you. Yours won’t help me.

“It all comes back. Perhaps it is difficult to see the value in having one’s
self back in that kind of mood, but I do see it; I think we are well advised
to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be whether we find
them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and
surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night
and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is
going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we
could never forget.” -Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook”

Keeping a Field Book

IMG_20200425_120350074There are many reasons to keep a notebook, though. As I learned to keep better company with myself, my notes focused more on the world outside my head. After reading David Sedaris’s Theft By Finding: Diaries (1977-2002)I decided that if I really wanted to write well, I should probably start carrying a notebook and writing stuff down a lot more. At first, I tried to keep a notebook in Google Docs. It was simple and always on whatever device was at hand. But it was so easy to completely forget about. And it lacked style. I looked into Bullet Journaling. It’s so cute, but I am just too lazy for the amount of planning it requires and, even with the stencils and skinny-tip color pens I bought, I lack the artistic skill required. I tried and failed to keep The Morning Pages several times. I am, at heart, a chaos muppet. I need a notebook that allows me to sort-of lack discipline.

After my father passed away, I was looking for something in his desk and I found a little leather field book cover, complete with a ~3″x5″ notebook. I resisted the urge to take it, because at that point everything felt sacred and if I didn’t fight the impulse, I would have moved all his random stuff home with me. But, the notebook stuck in my brain. Dad had style. I found an imitation leather version, added it to my Christmas list, and received it from my brother and sister-in-law. Since then, I have tried (and mostly succeeded) to fill one field book per month.

I like the style of a field book for a few key reasons.

  1. Because this style is inspired by surveyors’ notebooks, it does not have the self-reflexive vibe that I previously invested in diaries. These are my observations. Sometimes they are about me; often they are not.
  2. They are little, so I can actually finish a book in a month. That sense of completion propels me into the next book and I get that “yay! fresh notebook!” feeling to keep me going. Before, I would buy pretty notebooks and never finish them, because they felt too precious for the random crap that takes up a lot of brain space. (Many have become commonplace books. More on that in a moment.)
  3. Field books are pocket-sized, so they are easy to slip in my purse, coat, etc.

Very basically, the first five-to-seven pages of each month’s field book are dedicated to lists and trackers, bringing in some of that bullet journal impulse. The rest are free-form.

Here are my suggested field book front pages:

  • A writing log to track time spent writing and on what project. (mine is usually mostly empty)
  • A habit tracker (I make a simple grid. Days of the month go down, habits go across)
  • A list of books read
  • A list of new words learned, their definition, and where I read/heard them
  • A shopping list and meal planner
  • A prayer list (If you do not pray, I still recommend something like this page, so that you can keep track of the people in your circle who are struggling, and come back to it with love. It’s also a good reality check when you’re having a bad day.)

The rest of the book, I fill with notes, overheard bits of dialogue, to-do lists, stray thoughts, descriptions of things I find interesting or beautiful, etc. In other words, the various bits of life that I find wonderful, humorous, or terrible. Most recently, I have been riffing on The Morning Offering Journal to start my days.

I am 18 months into the habit and some months go better than others. Since the COVID-19 lockdown, my notebook has been more abandoned than I’d like, but I’m trying to get back to it. Once I feel like I have earned it, I plan to reward myself with Field Notes’ National Parks series of books, because they are gorgeous.

Keeping a Commonplace Book

Sometimes, I need to keep a notebook that is dedicated to a specific topic. In that case, I make a commonplace book that divides the subject into sections. I fill in these sections as I find relevant information. Currently, I have commonplace books going for our homestead, the history of U.S. women’s suffrage, and a project I’m working on about the saints. Eventually, I will make one about our daughter.

As an example, my commonplace book for the homestead is divided into sections about the Garden; Chickens; Compost, etc.; Alpacas; and Other Dreams & Projects. As I read books and websites or talk to other homesteaders/alpaca farmers, I collect the information into those different sections, making notes of where I learned the information.

The commonplace book on women’s suffrage is divided into: my learning plan, Colorado & The West, National Movement (Including British Influence), Race Issues, Working-Class Suffragists, and a section for keeping track of sources, contacts, and events.

I like to start my Commonplace book with a table of contents and crude tabs to make it easier to find the different sections. Keeping a commonplace book is a very old practice, so there are tons of resources on how and why to make one. I find these sources helpful: Critical Margins, Notebook of Ghosts, and Youtube.

Why do you keep a notebook? What is your favorite method? Is yours really pretty? Let me know below.

Further Reading:

My Favorite Essay to Teach: On Keeping A Notebook — by Jessica Handler

What Kind of Muppet Are You?

The Morning Pages

A Brief Guide to Keeping a Commonplace Book

“Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly
what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened?
Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself
on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify
itself.” -Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook”

(Book Review) The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires

southern_book_club's_guide_to_slaying_vampiresThe Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix is the latest from the author who brought us Horrorstor and My Best Friend’s Exorcism. I enjoyed those two, silly though they were, so I was excited to get an advanced copy of this latest horror-comedy novel.

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires takes place in the early-mid 1990s in a small southern town. After burning out of a more respectable book club, Patricia Campbell is invited to a less-formal “not-a-book-club” that alternates true crime titles such as Helter Skelter and The Stranger Beside Me with less-gritty fiction, like The Bridges of Madison County. After part of her ear is bitten off by an elderly neighbor, Patricia becomes convinced that the woman’s grand-nephew, James Harris, is up to no good–perhaps with supernatural implications. Dubbed Steel Magnolias meets Dracula, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires includes a little satanic panic, a little Desperate Housewives, and shockingly little vampire slaying.

At first blush, I thought that this book was going to be Hendrix’s best yet. As I read further, however, I found myself looking down at the percentage marker on my Kindle and wondering where the vampires were. How had I gotten this far through the story without anything actually happening? That turned out to be most of the book. There are some genuinely funny bits of dialogue in this novel and I loved the interactions between the women. Whenever the husbands or the children barge in, the story starts to get muddled. I actually wonder if this narrative would have been better served by alternating perspectives between Patricia, her friend Slick, and James Harris. At any rate, as much as I enjoyed the characters, I wanted more actual story. At times, the insertion of lurking evil in a very sleepy setting reminded me of the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie. I wanted more of that.

Once I’m back in the library, I would seriously hesitate to recommend this book to fans of horror and of vampire novels. At least in our library, our readers of those genres can tend toward the more purist side of the spectrum. There is really not a lot of vampire stuff in this book. A lot of the times I laughed or felt really drawn into the story were the moments that dwelled more on the true crime books and how people thought Patricia’s imagination had just run away with her. There is some good stuff here about tropes on women as true crime consumers and on the tendency for women’s instincts to get brushed off as hysteria. There is not a lot of horror, despite someone’s earlobe getting bitten off in the first act.

I was provided with a free e-galley of this title in exchange for an honest review.

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(Book Review) Why They Marched by Susan Ware

Why They Marched: The Untold Stories of the Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote by Susan Ware 0219A419-DCB5-43EE-82D2-7EA6C7D60531is a great read for this year, as the 100th anniversary of U.S. women’s suffrage comes up this August. I

Ware does not treat the American suffrage movement as a monolithic, unified group of women, as many less complicated representations have done in the past. Instead, she uses the extended metaphor of a museum to look at artifacts from the suffrage movement and connects them to the stories of individual women, including women of color, working class women, and women who were actually against women’s suffrage.

I especially enjoyed the chapters on Charlotte Perkins Gilman and emerging definitions of feminism; Maud Nathan and Annie Nathan Meyer, two sisters on opposite sides of the debate; and Claiborne Catlin Elliman, who rode her horse 530 miles on a pilgrimage campaigning for suffrage. Claiborne Catlin’s story was especially fascinating to me (and sad; she lost her poor horse). The journey was exhausting for her and in August she wrote in her diary “I’m so tired I wish I had never been born” (Ware 134). Same, girl.

Ware does a nice job of exploring the nuanced way that suffrage intersected with other issues in women’s lives. For example, in a fascinating chapter, she looks at the role of Mormon women, who had the right to vote in Utah, and their conflicted relationship with the movement, which disapproved of polygamy. The book is perhaps at its best when it examines the intersectional feminism of black suffragists who had to fight for their role within the suffrage movement, which was all too happy to exclude them if they had to to get the vote. The chapter about Ida B. Wells and the 1913 suffrage march in Washington, D.C. Wells and other black women were asked to march not with the groups from their states, but in their own group a the back, in order to appease the racist suffragists from the south (eyeroll). Naturally, Wells thought this request was absurd. She said, “it only required that our women should be as firm in standing up for their principles as the Southern women are for their prejudices” (Ware 103). When it came down to it, Wells seemed to acquiesce, but then she came in from the sidelines to march with the other women from Illinois. The Southern women could just deal with it.

This book is not necessarily a quick read. It is pretty dense with information, but the chapters are easily digested, so it makes a good volume to pick up and put down as you have time to read and learn. I recommend picking up a copy and going through the stories of these remarkable women before this August 26th.

(Book Review) Darling Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel

Darling Rose GoldDarling Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel comes out March 17th and is a good pick for fans of the true crime story of Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose Blanchard, dramatized in The Act

In the book, Rose Gold Watts is an 18 year-old girl trying to make her own way in the world after her mother is sent to prison for abusing her for years. In a case of  Munchausen syndrome by proxy, Patty Watts’s earnest belief that her baby daughter is chronically ill devolves into her making Rose Gold sick for years, effectively starving her. Five years later, when Patty is released and goes to live with Rose Gold and her infant son, she starts to wonder if her daughter has really forgiven her or if she is up to something sinister.

Darling Rose Gold is clearly inspired by the Blanchards. Some of the smaller details, such as Rose Gold’s love of Disney and the deterioration of her teeth, echo that real case. Where the story goes from there, however, really had me turning the pages.

I’m having a hard time explaining my thoughts about this book without spoiling the plot twists, so I’ll try to keep it simple. Although the ripped-from-the-headlines nature of Wrobel’s story does knock a few points off for creativity, I think she does an excellent job of taking the character of Rose Gold from an optimistic, if wounded, girl to a woman who has been let down by almost everyone she ever trusted.  The ways that experience changes her psyche seem real, if extreme, and the final twist they build toward was satisfying, if sensational.

This book is not groundbreaking or especially fine literature, but it is well-written, thrilling, and fun to read. I recommend, especially for true crime fans.

(Book Review) The Astonishing Color of After

0AECCA44-045F-483E-9CC5-90E3C9C33632.jpegI checked out The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan from the library last summer and it was still sitting on my shelf when my father died. At that point, I knew that I could not read that book. Not then. So, while I was still home with my mom and sister, I had my husband return it along with all my other library books.

Later, when I was starting to do my own writing about grief, I added it back to my reading list. I am so glad I did.  The Astonishing Color of After is a beautiful book about the raw, unmooring experience of grieving a parent, and about how much we don’t know about our parents, even when we are close to them.

In the novel, after her mother commits suicide, Leigh believes that she has come back as a big red bird. She follows the bird on a journey to Taiwan, her mother’s birthplace, where she meets her grandparents for the first time and tries to learn what the bird is trying to teach her before the end of the traditional Ghost Month. Throughout the story, Leigh uses colors to describe emotions and her art as a way to process her grief. Meanwhile, she is also in conflict with her father, who does not believe she is handling her grief well and also thinks she should be pursuing something more practical than art. There is also a plot involving Leigh’s potentially unrequited love for her best friend, Axel.

Although sometimes young and naive in a way that is usual for a young adult novel, in many ways The Astonishing Color of After is a very mature book. Pan handles issues of mental health, grief, and familial love with nuance and insight. The story is moving and I was very much affected by how she depicts Leigh feeling unsettled and ungrounded after the death of their mother. The sudden death of a parent can be very traumatic and she is sensitive to that as well as to the clinical depression that Leigh’s mother experienced. Additionally, I learned quite a bit about Taiwanese culture through Leigh’s travels as she herself has a lot to learn.

This novel is quite an achievement, in my opinion, it manages to be both mature and insightful and creative and youthful all in one compelling story, complete with some twists at the end.


(Book Review) The Splintering of the American Mind

2383738C-6E9D-4CEA-A3E4-BEB64B26B743In The Splintering of the American Mind: Identity Politics, Inequality, and Comunity on Today’s College Campuses, William Eggington examines the shift on college campuses toward identity politics and the relationship that change has to inequality and a growth in divisiveness in American public life.

The book is very dry and relatively indirect in its argument, but it does does take an expansive look at the relathionship between political ideologies from the left and the right and how their pull on the public sphere and on the public university has resulted in greater fracturing and less of a sense of community.

From the book’s dedication, “to America’s youth, that they may receive the education they deserve—not just for their sake, but for ours” to the conclusion, Egginton is clearly concerned with the effects political partisanship have on education and on community. The book is divided into three sections. Part I: Identity gives a history of the shift toward identity politics in universities, what this shift was reacting against (i.e. exclusion of minorities, the Cannon) and how these changes have resulted in greater specialization of academics and a breakdown of communication between those of different points of view. Section II: Inequality tracks how income inequality has caused inequality in access to quality education from K-12 to higher education. Part III: Community focuses on how the breakdown in communication at the university level has led to a breakdown in community within the broader public sphere.

Egginton argues “Through all this, the left failed to see that while winning the battle over identity, it was losing the war over community. Universities had allowed the liberal tradition, civics, and the American idea of democracy to be painted as the antithesis of identity rather than its very condition of possibility” (5). He further asserts that we are in danger of losing our civic culture (12), and watching the news, it is hard to deny that that seems possible.

Although Eggington is often critical of the move toward identity politics, he still maintains that the greater sensitivity toward language of inclusion has resulted in a much more civil society, particularly among the college educated. At the same time, he is also sensitive to the perspective of those who have been shut out of higher education do to growing income inequality and the change in the economy that has put many out of work. This sensitivity makes his perspective balanced, fair, and measured.

I think there is a lot of value in this book and the issues that Eggerton sets out to explain. Still, I did not really enjoy reading this work. I think it might make a great textbook for a higher ed classroom, particularly in the fields of education and Student Affairs.

(Book Review) White People Really Love Salad

51HbR68i59L._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_White People Really Love Salad: What My Childhood Taught Me About Diversity, Equity & Inclusion by Nita Mosby Tyler, Ph.D.

I have had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Nita Mosby Tyler of The Equity Project speak at three different trainings for the library system in which I work. She is wonderful and a total hero (literally the 9News Person of the Year this year). She is a compassionate and precise speaker and does a wonderful job of clarifying some of the confusing terms that are used somewhat interchangeably when we talk about diversity and inclusion.

In her book, she calls these terms “the Power Four”: diversity, inclusion, equality, and equity (5). What I personally found most helpful was her differentiating between equality–giving everyone the same thing–and equity–giving each person what they need to thrive.

When I heard that Dr. Nita was publishing a book, I was eager to read it. White People Really Love Salad uses thirty short stories about her experiences growing up that she uses to explore different issues around diversity, equity, and inclusion. It is funny, sad, insightful, and a fast, informative read. I highly recommend this book.

Among many insights into doing equity work is this gem:

“You should plant a part of yourself in what you are fighting for and the other part of yourself must always be anchored in other things you care about (community, family, church, etc.). When you are anchored beyond your work, you will find that you are more balanced (literally) and able to be the catalyst for much more.” (3)

One story I found especially interesting was “Grade ‘A'” (47-49), in which Dr. Nita describes her experiences with playing school with her dolls in such a way that reinforces the findings of the Clark Doll Experiments, which were used as compelling evidence in the Supreme Court case Brown v Board of Education, the decision that made segregation in education unconstitutional. As she assigns grades to her dolls, her white dolls got better grades than her black dolls until her mother, noticing the pattern, gradually gave her more black dolls, helping her to change the way she saw them.

In the book, Dr. Nita also includes a story that I heard at one of her trainings. She describes how one night, she got fed up with the inequality she saw in the world and the inability of adults to make things right. She decided to run away from home:

“As my parents were preparing for us to have dinner, I went to the front door. My father asked what I was doing. I told him I was running away from home. I told him grown-ups were too dumb to get the job done. I expected adversity, but instead I got a few moments of uncomfortable silence. Eventually my father spoke as my mother looked on with horror. My father said, ‘Wait right there a second. I need to grab my camera. I want to take a picture of you before you leave so I can always remember what you look like.'” (67-68)

She explains that this moment helped introduce to her the strategy of “the pause.” She describes how there are sentinel moments in life when something big happens, or when something hurtful, stressful, etc. happens and before reacting, a pause can help you orient yourself and find a more productive response than your first impulse. That is solid advice for life changing moments as well as daily life.

In the story that the book gets its title from, Dr. Nita was invited over for dinner by one of her classmates, a neighbor in the all-white neighborhood her family had moved into (123-126). When dinner is served, a bowl of salad is passed around and she takes a comparatively small portion, not understanding that the salad was the meal. She took this dinner as evidence that her classmate was actually poor, despite living in this nice, middle class neighborhood. Hoping to help, her parents prepare a “reverse welcome wagon” by cooking a big meal and delivering it to this poor white family. Dr. Nita uses this story as an example of how not understanding cultural norms can lead us to misunderstand a situation:

“You see, in my Black experience, salad was rarely a part of the meal and in the rare occasions it was, it was served as a small side dish. Seeing it as a main course represented scarcity; the absence of ‘real food.'” (125)

Structurally, White People Really Love Salad is easy to follow. Each of the stories is followed by Dr. Nita’s musings and then space for the reader to jot their own notes and thoughts. I think this book is great for the causal reader but would also make for an outstanding book club book or textbook for classes or organizations invested in talking about equity issues.

(Book Review) Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls

51kHLuiVXCL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_In Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls, Lisa Damour, Ph.D. examines the rising prevalence of anxiety and depression among adolescent girls and offers practical advice for parents trying to help their daughters (and sons) navigate these overwhelming feelings and find coping skills for life.

Whereas many people who write about girls and mental health take a bit of an alarmist tone, what I most appreciated about Damour’s book is that she consistently works to move girls and their parents away from crisis mode, so to speak. Damour begins the book by exploring the role of stress and anxiety in our lives and how to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy stress and anxiety. From there, she guides parents through why their daughters come home and fall apart, or seem so overwhelmed and powerless that nothing they suggest to help is taken seriously. She offers quick, useful models for conversations to help girls and their parents find a calmer center before working through who or what is causing the girl such anxiety.

From there, Damour examines the changing culture around girlhood and various factors that lead girls to feel more and more anxious. Among these topics are: social media, peer group dynamics, sex and changing bodies, academic pressures, and the way beauty is presented in the media. Each section is fairly short, most just a few pages long, so while the book as a whole offers a lot of good advice, parents can also quickly navigate to a particular topic if the need arises and get a quick overview.

Although many parents and teens might feel like running away or suppressing feelings of anxiety in any way they can, Damour provides guidance for how to help girls confront their anxiety and work through what is making them anxious.  She argues:

“Tension and turmoil, we find, are strange creatures. They don’t die down when our daughters avoid them. In fact, when we shrink from pressure and fear, they just take on new, harrowing proportions.

Stress and anxiety can be addressed only when faced head-on. We’re most useful to our girls when we help them confront, and sometimes even embrace, these two fundamental aspects of everyday life. They should ask, ‘What is the source of all this stress?’ and ‘Why am I anxious?’ These are the questions that will help girls master the challenges they face, because the answers put them back in control” (210)

That is sound, empowering advice for humans of all ages and I really appreciate that Damour’s work is fully not in the camp of “Save the Girls!”-type rhetoric. Her book is very helpful and I fully recommend it to anyone who has or is close to an adolescent or pre-pubescent girl. This is good stuff.

Over the weekend, I also watched Brené Brown’s Netflix special, The Call to CourageShe ends her talk in the special with a story about her daughter not wanting to swim a particular event in a competitive swim meet and how she and her husband allowed her to choose whether or not to compete. That story models really well the types of strategies that are discussed in Under Pressure (no surprise, since Brown is a social worker). The talk is worth a watch on its own, but it pairs really well with this book as well.

(Book Review) American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago

51yCSoJDP2L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz takes a look at the large scale culture of violence in Chicago over one summer, 2013, as well as the effect of violence in the lives of specific people and families.

Kotlowitz puts his stories from this summer in the context of ongoing debates about gun violence in the U.S.:

“After the massacre at Newtown and then at Parkland we asked all the right questions. How could this happen? What would bring a young man to commit such an atrocity? How can we limit access to guns? How do the families and the community continue on while carrying the full weight of this tragedy? But in Chicago neighborhoods like Englewood and North Lawndale, where in one year they lose twice the number of people killed in Newtown, no one’s asking those questions. I don’t mean to suggest that one is more tragic than the other, but rather to point out that the national grieving and questioning don’t extend to corners of this country where such carnage has become almost routine. It’s in these, the most ravaged of our communities, among the most desperate and forlorn, that we can come to understand the makings of who we are as a nation, a country marked by the paradox of holding such generosity by such neglect” (7)

Although I found his writing cogent, clear, and moving, I had a hard time keeping my interest from chapter to chapter. I did not get really caught up in the overall narrative of the summer. Rather, I found a handful of the chapters particularly effective. “The Tightrope, a story in four parts”  tells the story of, Marcelo a high school student and survivor of a shooting, who is headed for a successful future until he gets caught up with a string of robberies with his best friend and member of his former gang. The four chapters about Marcello follow his journey through the court system as he fights to get his bright future back.  “Father’s Day” focuses on Mike and his adopted son Victor. Mike adopts Victor out of a terrible group home and tries to give him a chance at a future, but the issues Victor has from has past lead him back to trouble. The chapter explores how Mike and Victor each struggle with their own identity issues and secrets, falling apart and then finding each other again. In “The (Annotated) Eulogy,”  Kotlowitz tells the story of the relationship between Erin and Robert through annotations to the eulogy Erin delivers at Robert’s funeral. The formatting creates a quick and moving portrait of a couple pulled apart by violence, gangs, and the allure of quick money. Finally, the very moving chapters that tell the story of “The Witnesses” dramatize the high costs for those who cooperate with the police. After Ramaine is shot, he identifies his shooter and for years afterward, he is harassed and threatened by members of the shooter’s gang. The story also details the emotional effects on Ramaine’s girlfriend, Kaprice, and little brother, Nijujan. The story is tragic and a compelling case study for the hidden costs of trying to do something about this violence.

I had checked out American Summer thinking that it was a true crime title. Although you could technically put this book in that category, it is more serious journalism and sociological work than it is true crime at its heart. Not everyone will find this book terribly interesting, but the stories it contains and the points it makes about gun violence and which victims really matter in our media are important and well-written.