Everything is Normal by Sergey Grechishkin

Everything is NormalEverything is Normal: The Life and Times of a Soviet Kid

by Sergey Grechishkin

Kindle Edition, 336 pg.
Inkshares, 2018
Read: March 19 – 26, 2018

I would spend hours by the balcony window, watching smoke rise from the power station chimneys on the horizon and listening to the suburban trains chug by in the distance. Most of my memories of that time coalesce into a sense of timeless boredom. But after my first taste of bubble gum, something new began to mix with my malaise: jealousy of the kids in faraway countries who could chew such gum every day.

This is the kind of thing that you expect a memoir of growing up in the Soviet Union to be full of — a grim skyline, yearning for something unobtainable, a general malaise. But in Sergey Grechishkin’s book, you don’t get a lot of that — yes, it’s there, to be sure (how could it not be?), but there’s so much more.

Grechishkin writes with a vivacity, a thorough-going sense of humor, a spark of hope that you don’t expect — and are frequently surprised by. He doesn’t paint a rosy picture of the USSR in the 70s and 80s, but he paints a picture of a life with hope. The book focuses on his childhood — particularly school ages — we get a little before, we see him briefly in University, with a hint or two about what happens next. But primarily we’re looking at his time in school. This coincides with the time of Leonid Brezhnev (at least the tail end) through the early days of Mikhail Gorbachev, with all the changes those days entailed. It’s not an incredibly political book — but it’d be difficult to discuss life under these various leaders without mentioning them and the way each government was different from the previous.

A word about the humor — which is all over. We’re not talking Yakov Smirnoff, first off. Secondly we’re not talking about anything that makes light of the hardships, or denies them. But comments that can talk about the hardships in a way that is above to find the humor in the human condition or something else we can all relate to: like

So many Soviet friendships and even families have been formed while standing in lines.

Nothing major — just a quick smile as you read. At other times, he’ll deliver a hard truth about life in the USSR through a joke. Like here, when describing how they couldn’t process the appearance of Western athletes on TV during the 1980 Olympics criticizing their governments:

For those lucky Soviet citizens who were allowed to cross the border, any sort of misbehaving while abroad or giving the slightest hint at being unhappy with the Soviet workers’ paradise would mean no more trips anywhere except to camping locations in eastern Siberia.

You laugh, and then you realize that he’s talking about a harsh or sad reality while you’re laughing. I don’t know how many times I’d think about something being funny or actually be chuckling at something when I’d catch myself, because I realize what he’s actually getting at.

The jokes slow down as he ages and the narration becomes less universal and more particular to his life — looming chances of being sent to Afghanistan, and other harder realities of adulthood on the horizon. It’s still there, it’s just deployed less.

While narrating his life, Grechishkin is able to describe living conditions, schooling, medical care, shopping, food, friendships, family life, dating, Western movies, crime, the role of alcohol in society, political dissidents, and so much more. I enjoyed his discussing the experience of reading George Orwell (via photocopy) or listening to Western pop music — learning that LPs were “pressed at underground labs onto discarded plastic X-ray images.” You can do that? That sounds cool (and low-fidelity). Almost everything in the book seems just the way you’d expect it, if you stopped to think of it — but from Grechishkin’s life experience it seems more real.

This is one of those books that you want to keep talking and talking and talking about — but I can’t, nor should I. You need to read this for yourself. If only because Grechishkin can do a better job telling his story than I can. You really don’t think that this is the kind of book you can enjoy — but it is..

Did I have a happy childhood? Well, it was what it was. From a nutritional and a relationship standpoint, it wasn’t particularly great. But it also wasn’t awful or tragic. It was, when I look back on it now, normal.

Normal was a word that showed up more than once in my notes — despite everything around him, his childhood seemed normal (and its only now that I remember tat the word is in the title). I’m not saying that I’d trade places with him, his life was not easy — or that there weren’t kids in Leningrad who suffered more forms of deprivation or oppression (not to mention kids in less well-off areas in the USSR). But on the whole, he had a childhood thanks to a caring family, a good school, and good friends. Everything is Normal shows how against a bleak background, a normal life can be possible. It does so with heart, perspective, humor and a gift for story-telling. Exactly the kind of memoir that will stay with you long after you finish the book. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I received this book from Inkshares in exchange for this post and my honest opinion.

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4 Stars

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Timekeepers by Simon Garfield

TimekeepersTimekeepers: How the World Became Obsessed With Time

by Simon Garfield

eARC, 368 pg.
Canongate Books, 2018

Read: February 16 – 23, 2018

Time, once passive, is now aggressive. It dominates our lives in ways that the earliest clockmakers would have surely found unbearable. We believe that time is running away from us. Technology is making everything faster, and because we know that things will become faster in the future, it follows that nothing is fast enough now. . . But the strangest thing of all is this: if they were able, the earliest clockmakers would tell us that the pendulum swings at the same rate as it always has, and the calendars have been fixed for hundreds of years. We have brought this cauldron of rush upon ourselves. Time seems faster because we have made it so.

I remember a few books pretty distinctly from my childhood — particularly those I read that were my first forays into “grown up” books — Ian Fleming, Erle Stanley Gardner, Mario Puzo, Richard Hooker, and so on. The first non-fiction book that I remember trying along those lines was Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, which may have ruined me for a lot of the non-fiction that would follow (we can talk about my discernment later). It was funny, it taught me a lot, it made me think of the early US Space Program a little differently than what I’d been taught, and it was told in Tom Wolfe’s voice (which I love to this day). But it cemented the way I look at non-fiction books. Today, when it comes to non-fiction reads, there are a number of ways I tend to judge them (rightly or wrongly) — first (always first): Is it well-written? I’m not saying it has to sound like Wolfe, but does the writer know what he’s doing? Even if I end up learning a lot from a book, if it’s not well-written, I’m not going to like it. Secondly, is it informative? Do I actually learn something, or is it a re-hash of things that any number of books have said (do we really need that many biographies of Abraham Lincoln?)? Thirdly, does it make me think of something in a new way, or challenge my preconceptions (does this examination of Don DeLillo make me re-think White Noise? (I know of no book like this, but would love to read one)). Fourth, this is not essential — but is the book entertaining? It gets bonus points for that.

Simon Garfield’s Timekeepers, clears the bar for every one of these standards. Since he does it more succinctly than I could, I’ll let Garfield sum up the book:

This is a book about our obsession with time and our desire to beat it. . . The book has but two simple intentions: to tell some illuminating stories, and to ask whether we have all gone completely nuts.

He begins with telling the well-known (at least in brush strokes) story about the invention of time zones — but man, did I not understand really how this came about. Then he covers the experiments with the calendar, the clock, etc. tried following the French Revolution (and how some of those experiments live on). We get a couple of chapters on time and the cinema. Music (Beethoven, The Beatles, recording and more), photography, filibustering, the work day, and other sundry topics are covered as well. You can’t forget watch-making, watch-marketing, watch-design, watch-capabilities, watch-symbolism, and a few other watch-related notions that I can’t think of at the moment.

Let’s get to the writing itself. Garfield has a way with words — the number of sentences that I highlighted because of his use of the language is pretty high. If I quoted every one that I wanted to, this post would quickly move into the tl;dr range — and into the copyright infringement range not long after that. It wasn’t just his style, the book simply displays some well-crafted writing. It’s not perfect — but it’s good. I’ll freely admit that not every topic he covered really interested me, but his writing kept me reading — and I was rewarded pretty frequently. Even when my interest waned, his writing would stand out here and there so I could appreciate the how he said it, even if the what didn’t interest me. Rarely, the topics that did grab me would have a paragraph or so that didn’t rise to that level, however. I’m not going to go into specifics on this point, though — I didn’t bother to note those, and I bet that comes down to taste and others won’t think of those passages the same way, and they were brief moments, so they didn’t detract from the whole.

Did I learn something from the book? Much more than I expected to. The chapter on the French experiments alone probably taught me enough to justify the whole book. I didn’t/couldn’t stick with the details of watch-making (I have a hard time visualizing that kind of detail), but even that was fascinating and informative on the surface. Most topics broadened my understanding and taught me something. Also, the sheer amount of trivia that I picked up was great (the amount of time spent recording the first Beatles LP, why pop music tends to be about 3 minutes long, etc., etc.

But it’s not just about the information gained — it’s what that information means (both in terms of the book’s argument(s), but in how the reader considers that information in the light of what they already know and personal experience. Every time that Garfield moves from the “here’s what happened” or the “here’s how this works” bits to the “because this happened” or “because this works” bits, it was something I don’t know that I’d spent too much time thinking about previously. Sometimes those took the form of quick “huh,” moments — but occasionally he brushed against profundity, which I really appreciated.

And yes, Garfield picked up bonus points for entertainment. After the first paragraph in Chapter 1, my notes read “Between the Introduction and this paragraph, I’ve laughed four times. Am going to dig this book.” Later on, I wrote that I didn’t care about the content, really, I was having too much fun reading it to worry about it being right.

There’s room for improvement, I think. If there’s a design to the organization, I’m not sure I see it. He appears to hopscotch around between his topics. I’m honestly not sure how he could have arranged them to flow from one to another, but I do believe it could’ve been done. I think he could’ve lessened the detail occasionally (and increased it in a spot or two). But generally, this is me being nit-picky for the sake of not being a push over. There’s really almost nothing to complain about.

Garfield scores across the board with this one, however. I do think the survey hops around a bit too much without obvious connections between the ideas so that the cumulative punch is less than it could be. In his concluding thoughts, Garfield raises some issues and asks some pointed questions that could be more forceful, more pointed if the preceding chapters had been more clearly linked. Nevertheless, the points were made and I, like most readers (I suspect), had to give some serious thought about my relationship to time and what I actually value. I’ll have to continue this thinking for a while, actually — the fact that I have to — and want to — is because of this book forcing me to consider things I’ve taken for granted about time and how my life is governed. I suspect I am not alone in this.

Thought-provoking, interesting, educating, well-written and generally entertaining — Timekeepers really covers all the bases and covers them well. You’d do well to check it out.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from the swell folks at Canongate Books via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this. I’m very sorry this posted after the release date, my notes had that in March.

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4 Stars

I Am Not Posting About How to Think by Alan Jacobs Today

If I was posting about it, below the pilcrow, you’d see a few paragraphs about the book:

How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at OddsHow to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds

by Alan Jacobs

Uncorrected Proof, 156 pg.
Convergent Books, 2017

Read: October 3, 2017


But now, I just can’t. I’m really surprised I read this all in one day, but there’s something very engaging about this book that you can’t put it down. It’s much more fun than you’d think from the title. But one of the things Jacobs stresses is taking time to think — and this is one of those books I have to ponder about before putting down any thoughts.

(which works out nicely, because I’m beat, and this helps to justify taking a night off — but really, I need to think about it).

(and yes, I also realize that this isn’t exactly the point he’s making — but you’ll have to read the thing to see how much I’m twisting his point)

I’ll try tomorrow, but for the time being: go order this before it comes out and give it a read. Whatever I end up posting will be very positive.

Jamarr’s Promise by Kristin I. Morris & Joseph J. Zielinski, Ph.D

Jamarr's PromiseJamarr’s Promise: A True Story of Corruption, Courage, and Child Welfare

by Kristin I. Morris, Joseph J. Zielinski, Ph.D.

ePUB, 160 pg.
Wisdom House Books, 2017

Read: August 31, 2017


Here’s a book that should apply to a wide variety of people — others who believe that Child Protection Services (using that as a generic term for all sorts of states’ services); those who are convinced that the system will work if we trust it and have the right people in it; those who are convinced that New Jersey’s state government is impossibly corrupt; those who like True Crime; and many others. Sadly, what all these different potential readers get is a poor book.

Jammarr Cruz was a nine-year-old whose Division of Youth and Family Services case worker was unable to keep his mother and her boyfriend from exercising their legal right to take the boy home. She fought it as hard as she could, but ultimately she was thwarted by those over her — the boy went home and died a few months later. Kristin Morris, the caseworker, despite a total lack of evidence of her culpability, lost her job because of it. The book details her efforts to clear her name, get her job back, and make changes to prevent this from happening again. Meanwhile her family suffers, her finances suffer, as does her health (mental and otherwise).

Now, I’m supposed to be talking about the book, not about the events in it. Which is a shame, because I’d much rather talk about that.

The book is told in the present tense — which is a choice that I do not understand. I rarely understand that as a choice in fiction, but in a book that is detailing past events in an actual person’s life? It just makes no sense.

The biggest problem with this book is the length — 160 pages is not enough space to do it justice. 260 may have worked, 350 would’ve been better — I’m guessing on page length, but I know that 160 just didn’t do it. Too much of the book has to be told in summary form, where things had to be compressed and details had to be discarded. Sometimes, it made it hard to follow the sequence, sometimes it made it hard to sympathize with her because months would be brushed aside in a line or two. If they’d taken the time to fully explain how things happened, the reader would have a better sense of the chronology after Jamarr’s death, would better be able to understand what she went through, and how this all had a horrible impact on her family.

Oddly, even given space limitation, there’d be a conversation that would recap the narrative we’d just read (or vice versa). Something else that didn’t make sense to me.

Given the lack of details, the who so much is summed up and the reader is left to fill in many of the blanks themselves, this frequently comes across as a series of Facebook statuses from that friend who is always going on about how difficult their life is — not the reasoned defense of actions made my a competent and caring professional — which is what i think the book was intended to be, and I do think that’s what she is. Also, much of what she says seems more open to criticism and doubt since we’re just given a brief glimpse from a pretty biased source.

This book could’ve been so much better. The tragedy it describes, the injustices it describes deserve something more than this. Morris herself should’ve had a better representation to the world at large than this. But all we’re given is this synopsis of a book, not the book itself (or at least what should be the synopsis of the book).

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of this novel in exchange for this post, my participation in a book tour and my honest opinion. I think it’s clear that my opinion wasn’t swayed by that.

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2 Stars

Book Spotlight: Jamarr’s Promise by Kristin I. Morris & Joseph J. Zielinski, Ph.D


Check back later for my thoughts about this book.

 

Book Details:

Book Title: Jamarr’s Promise: A True Story of Corruption, Courage, and Child Welfare
​Category: Personal Memoir; 160 pages
​Genre: Family & Relationships / Abuse / Child Abuse / True Crime / Murder
Publisher: Wisdom House Books
Release date: May 1, 2017

Synopsis

A True Story of Corruption,
Courage, and Child Welfare

Jamarr’s Promise is the shocking personal memoir of social worker Kristin I. Morris’ fight to protect a nine-year-old child, Jamarr Cruz, that ended in his tragic murder and New Jersey’s Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS)’s denial of its responsibility in the case.

As a caseworker for DYFS, Kristin helped many children and families; it was her life’s passion. Nine-year-old Jamarr was living with his grandparents after his mother’s boyfriend, Vincent Williams, beat him repeatedly. Jamarr told Kristin it was not safe for him to return home. Kristin urgently tried to keep Jamarr safe with his grandparents, but was told by superiors that Latino children are kept in the home at all costs. This time, the cost was Jamarr Cruz’s life. In 2009 after Jamaar’s return to Omayra Cruz and Vincent Williams, Vincent beat Jamarr to death. Not only did Kristin’s superiors at the DYFS block her efforts to help Jamarr, but when he was killed, they blamed Kristin for his death.

Jamarr’s Promise is a call to end corrupt loyalties in New Jersey’s DYFS. It is a call to protect children from Jamarr’s fate and promote child welfare. It is a call for justice for Kristin Morris, who did the right thing and was punished unjustly for it.

The Authors

Kristin I. Morris is an activist who volunteers her time with organizations for women, children and families, including Toys for Tots, She’s Got a Name, and Urban Promise. She has been with her husband Benny since she was nineteen and they have four very active children. She always wanted to help people, by working with the church teaching CCD, pro-life club, soup kitchen, and through charity work.

Kristin earned her bachelor’s in Psychology from Rowan University. After school, she began to work as a social worker for the State of New Jersey’s Division of Child Protection and Permanency, formerly Division of Youth and Family Services. As part of the child welfare system, she found herself watching over New Jersey’s most vulnerable citizens: abused children. She was extremely excited and naïve, wanting to save the world. Working in the city of Camden among the people that needed the most help was extremely eye opening, but revealed the corruption of the inner systems of the Division. Jamarr’s Promise is the true story of Kristin’s battle with the State over the murder of a child she tried desperately to save.

Kristin’s dream is to open and run a foster care organization as a safety net for abused children, and to eliminate the politics and hidden agendas of larger organizations.

Joseph J. Zielinski, Ph.D. is a New Jersey licensed psychologist board certified in both Clinical Psychology and Clinical Neuropsychology. He completed his undergraduate in Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and earned a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. He has been in private practice for forty years as a psychologist, often working concurrently for public schools in special education, in a headache clinic, and in a management consulting firm. He has published in professional journals. He most enjoys working as a practitioner and seeing patients of all backgrounds and experiences.

For seventeen years, Dr. Zielinski has spearheaded the Committee for Prescriptive Authority, a group of pioneering psychologists, to pass legislation allowing trained psychologists to prescribe psychotropic
medications. This is an effort to help the dire shortage of psychiatrists in New Jersey and around the country. Their efforts to help the people of New Jersey are near to fruition.

Dr. Zielinski has been married for forty years, has two grown children and two grandchildren. He is an avid landscaper and is particularly fond of evergreens. He is a fitness enthusiast and a former marathoner.

He enjoys classic rock and live concerts at local venues and attending professional sporting events with his daughter. He enjoys writing screenplays and has pitched a few to Hollywood professionals.

The Vanishing American Adult (Audiobook) by Ben Sasse

The Vanishing American Adult (Audiobook)The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance

by Ben Sasse

Unabridged Audiobook, 11 hrs., 9 Min.
Macmillan Audio, 2017

Read: July 24 – 26, 2017


I typically don’t like to do this, but in the interest of time, I’m just going to use the text from the publisher’s page to describe the book:
Raised by well-meaning but overprotective parents and coddled by well-meaning but misbegotten government programs, America’s youth are ill-equipped to survive in our highly-competitive global economy.

Many of the coming-of-age rituals that have defined the American experience since the Founding: learning the value of working with your hands, leaving home to start a family, becoming economically self-reliant—are being delayed or skipped altogether. The statistics are daunting: 30% of college students drop out after the first year, and only 4 in 10 graduate. One in three 18-to-34 year-olds live with their parents.

From these disparate phenomena: Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse who as president of a Midwestern college observed the trials of this generation up close, sees an existential threat to the American way of life.

In The Vanishing American Adult, Sasse diagnoses the causes of a generation that can’t grow up and offers a path for raising children to become active and engaged citizens. He identifies core formative experiences that all young people should pursue: hard work to appreciate the benefits of labor, travel to understand deprivation and want, the power of reading, the importance of nurturing your body—and explains how parents can encourage them.

Our democracy depends on responsible, contributing adults to function properly—without them America falls prey to populist demagogues. A call to arms, The Vanishing American Adult will ignite a much-needed debate about the link between the way we’re raising our children and the future of our country.
The first third or so is Sasse laying out the problems with the 30-and-younger set (and the parents and grandparents that got them and their society in the sorry state they’re in). The next two-thirds are his suggested solutions, what he believes parents can do to help raise a generation with the necessary rigor and grit to make it. Nothing here can be implemented like blueprints — these are all just things to get parents thinking. Even if the reader disagrees with Sasse (as I do frequently), you get the feeling that he’s more concerned with people and parents thinking about these ideas and doing something about them, even if it’s what he doesn’t think needs to be done.

There’s a chapter devoted to helping our children and teens become critical readers — talking about the necessity of being more than just functionally literate, but people that interact with books — good books, as well as entertaining books. People reading this blog should find a lot to love (and a little to demur with) in this chapter — I almost listened to it twice in a row it was so good.

The book is largely a-political. Yes, politics does enter into it. Yes, if you agree with him (before or after reading the book), it’ll likely lead to certain political moves — but people on all points on the political spectrum should be able to get something out of this book. Just because Sasse is a U.S. Senator, don’t think that this is a book about that. He does highly value “republican” values — but he usually goes out of his way to stress that it’s “small-R republican” he’s referring to. Ditto for the Christian point of view he writes from — Sasse’s very up-front about that, but goes out of his way to show how non-Christians (or even Christians from different traditions) can agree with much of the book, or disagree constructively.

There was problem with the audiobook — there’s no text to refer to. There’s so much that you want to go back and re-read, notes you want to take, quotations/citations you’d like to double check. The literature chapter alone needs to be re-read. And it’s just such a pain to do all that with an audiobook. Trust me, get the hardcopy. The audiobook is a very effective advertisement for the hardcover. It is good to hear Sasse read this himself.

There’s a lot of this book that I just don’t get — I’m not saying he’s wrong, necessarily, but I don’t think he’s always as right as he thinks he is. But I’m telling you, I thought a lot about what he talked about — I talked a lot about the content of this book. I’m looking for ways to put some of this into practice, and wish I’d done a better job of doing it years ago.

Agree with it or not, this is a book well worth reading.

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5 Stars

Dave Barry’s History of the Millennium (So Far) (Audiobook) by Dave Barry, Patrick Frederic

Dave Barry's History of the Millennium (So Far)Dave Barry’s History of the Millennium (So Far)

by Dave Barry, Patrick Frederic
Unabridged Audiobook, 4 hrs., 29 mins.
Penguin Audio, 2007

Read: April 10, 2017


Back in high school, I worked at a public library (shock, right?), and I kept shelving this book — Dave Barry Slept Here, and eventually succumbed and took it home — several times. I fell in love with Barry’s humor, and read him a lot over the next decade — every book, as many columns as I could find, etc., etc. But I eventually stopped, for no good reason that I can think of (it’s probably not Harry Anderson‘s fault) — and have really only read his novels since then.

Still, when I saw this audiobook on the library’s site, it was an automatic click — without even reading the description. This is essentially a reprinting of his “Year in Review” columns for the first few years of this millennium and a review of the previous 1,000 years of human history.

It was hilarious. Just that simple. There’s nothing more to say, really.

In the beginning Frederic played it straight — which surprised me a bit, but I liked the effect. A serious reading of Barry’s goofiness worked remarkably well. Later on, Frederic seemed to loosen up — he even did a couple of decent impressions. I really enjoyed his work on this.

Yeah, the humor’s a bit dated, but funny is funny. This is a great look back at the early part of the 21st Century (and before). I laughed a lot, remembered a few things, and generally had a good time with this.

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3.5 Stars