Just Mercy

img_7112Book: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Date Read: November 15 to 30, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I heard about this book some time during the last school year, at one of our district PBIS Meetings (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports). Each school has their own systems in place to support behavior proactively—teaching expectations, building community, and reinforcing those expectations throughout the school. A few times throughout the year, the coaches from all of the elementary schools gather to share ideas, successes, and get input on our practices. An additional focus in the last few years has been equity.

Equity. Not to be confused with equality. The idea of equity goes beyond the idea of everyone getting the same thing, to the recognition that individual circumstances matter in what is needed to create an equal outcome. Not everyone needs the same thing to have the same potential outcomes. Representation matters. When it comes to literature, many often characterize this by saying that children who are minorities need to see characters that look like themselves. This falls short. Diversity in reading is important for everyone—not just the people who fit in a particular category.

Bryan Stevenson tells the story of working on the case of Walter McMillian: a man who has been sentenced to death for murder, but maintains his claim of innocence. As the circumstances that lead to Walter’s arrest and imprisonment are laid out, the reader has an interesting view of the justice system: how things fall into place in an investigation, how individual circumstances impact progress, and how many opportunities there are for things to go wrong.

Walter’s story is told interspersed with many others: specific cases of executions, sentences for life imprisonment, and statistics of crimes and punishments that readers will find shocking. This was an excellent read; an important read; also one that will intermittently turn your stomach and/or bring you to tears. There is injustice and redemption, progress and frustration, and so many places where we can do better as a society.

While we would like to think that our justice system follows the adage that “justice is blind,” there is clear evidence that it is not. Perhaps in light of this, we should consider things differently. Maybe justice should not be blind: background and circumstances matter. If we strive for equity, we need to acknowledge that there are differences in how our system treats individuals, and adjust accordingly.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Books that cause tears really put a lot of pressure on us lap cats. 2 paws.”

Interested in supporting the work discussed in this book? Find more information and donate to the Equal Justice Initiative at: http://www.eji.org

Butts Are Everywhere

img_6759Book: Butts Are Everywhere by Jonathan Stutzman

I first saw this book in an Instagram post from Penguin Publishing, and knew immediately that it was going to be a must have coming into the holiday season. It was in consideration for all the kids on my list—but I decided to mix things up some for the others, and only purchased this one for my siblings’ kids. (Honestly though, this is a gift for my brother just as much as for my nephew, right?) My nephews are 4 and 2; my niece is 3. For them, a butt is just about the funniest thing on the planet. Although none of them are old enough to read, they were delighted to see the butt illustrations on the cover of the book when they opened their gifts.

This gem is an ode to butts everywhere: the small butts, the smooth butts, the large butts, and the furry butts. There are just so many types of butts that can be discussed! Obviously, there is plenty of silliness and laughs abound with the topic of butts. There is some educational information mixed in along the way, with a list of many other names used for butts, as well as some fun facts about the many purposes of butts in both humans and animals. Of course, no book about butts would be complete without mention of toots. Just like butts, there are many different types of toots—and all of them are perfectly normal, even if they do sometimes stink.

In addition to being a book that kids can laugh along to, this could be a good start to a conversation about bodies and body positivity. The book celebrates all types of butts: every size, color, and shape that they come in. The book wraps up with a reminder that even though we sometimes laugh about them, our butts are an important part of us; and you should never forget: Your butt is awesome!

Boris’s Thoughts: “You are so immature.”

Penguins and Other Seabirds

img_3709Book: Penguins and Other Seabirds by Matt Sewell

Date Read: March 23 to 24, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

If you have been around Books On My Cat awhile, you may have noticed my affinity for penguins (especially when it comes to children’s literature). While this does not quite follow in that line, this charming little book would be a delight for penguin aficionado. It caught my eye in the discount section of a new bookstore I visited some time back, and I decided that it definitely needed a good home.

I read through this one quickly, as it is not really written to be a lengthy endeavor. It would make a nice “coffee table book”—something to set out and peruse at your leisure. The book is informational, but written much more casually than any sort of text or nature guide. There is a relatively short blurb for each bird, accompanied by a watercolor drawing. I definitely found the information shared to be interesting, but really enjoyed each of the drawings. They were well done and, well, delightful. Each was a simple and straightforward portrayal, although still managing to include a good amount of detail.

I would also like to share a laughable moment that I had while reading. As I mentioned, I thought the drawings were well done, and took note of several throughout. Midway through the book, I was a bit discouraged to find one that did not seem to be done so well: the Crested Auklet. It looked a bit like a cartoon character, with the beak bent into a sort of smile and eyes that seemed much too simplified. I decided that I needed to check out the actual bird for comparison, and to my surprise, the drawing had been spot on!

Minka’s Thoughts: “Do you think penguins would want to play with me? Maybe the hopper ones? Can we hop together? 4 paws if we can play!”

How to Talk to Your Cat

img_2724This fun little non-fiction children’s book was brought to my attention by my school librarian—she noticed that the cat on the cover looks a bit like Boris, and thought he might be interested in reading! How to Talk to Your Cat provides a good introduction to cat behavior and some general information in interpreting what your cat is trying to say. Of course, as a book intended for children, it’s not a definitive guide. There are a few items of cat behavior included that I would consider a bit questionable, plus a few items that contradict things I have read recently. I suppose some of this is inevitable in a book that was published nearly 20 years ago.

The book starts with the history of domestic cats, referring to something I have heard a few times from other sources: humans did not domesticate cats; cats domesticated themselves. From there, it moves on to cat greetings, and communication via scent, sound, and body posture. The book wraps up with some more behavioral information—typical habits for indoor and outdoor cats. Along the way there is some advice in communicating and living with cats. I believe it is said a few times that cats tend to have the attitude that we belong to them, rather than the other way around. I’m not quite sold on this, but I think there is some truth to it. Boris knows that there are some limits to his running of the household. I am the keeper of the treats, after all.

Although I would still consider this a picture book, it is quite heavy on text. Most of the pictures included are for demonstration, with a few additional illustrations to fill in along the way. The drawings are fairly simple and cartoonish, which I think feels appropriate with the style of the book. There are a few photos of the author (Jean Craighead George) included, intermingled with the cartoonish cats. It feels a little silly—especially the picture of her on hands and knees rubbing heads with a cat. I suppose this is one way of keeping interest for kids who might otherwise be off put by the lengthy text passages on each page. I can see this as a good book for older kids who have an interest in cats or pets, or perhaps animals in general, but would not necessarily make a general recommendation for this one.

Boris’s thoughts: “A well read cat like me clearly has much more to say than this book would suggest. 2 paws.”

Hillsdale: Greek Tragedy in America’s Heartland

img_2352Date Read: October 2 to 19, 2019

Rating: 2 (of 5) stars

This was my choice for a somewhat loose interpretation for the October prompt from The Unread Shelf Project: a book that scares you. I do not have a ton of true horror options on my shelves, and even then I would not quite say that horror themed books really scare me. This one was the scariest I could think of, the true bottom of my to read list pile. It’s outside my normal realm, and I bought it on a whim because it was on a display of local interest books at one of my favorite bookstores. This was about 10 years ago; since then I discovered that it has the lowest average Goodreads rating of all my books. Now that’s terrifying.

I tried really hard to go into this with an open mind, but it did not take me long to figure out why the book had been poorly received. The story itself is intriguing: the president of a prestigious, historically conservative college finds himself in the midst of a scandal after the death of his daughter-in-law, shortly after she has claimed that the two had been involved in a nearly 20 year affair. To add to the drama, there are some unusual circumstances surrounding her death, which is ruled a suicide although never fully investigated. While I do not mean to advocate for the exploitation of an obviously tragic situation, I feel like this could have been made very interesting. However, the flaws heavily outweigh any intrigue in the content. This book is not well written. It reads very much like a textbook—a poorly edited textbook.

Many of the chapters feel disjointed, with tangential information that does not add anything to the story. Some of this I understand, in sharing the history of the college and the family of the college president. However, there were areas where it not only did not add to the story, but also simply did not make sense. When we learn that Lissa wanted to move the family to Colorado, do we really need several pages detailing the history of the city where she wanted to move? There were other sections that seemed to have been rearranged during editing, but never fully reviewed. For example, there were specific individuals with names included, but no explanation of who they were or how they were related to the story. In most cases, this explanation came later; sometimes several pages later. In at least one case, pointed out to me by a friend who attended the college, there is a person who is misidentified as connected to the university during that time.

Even disregarding these errors, which could have easily been resolved with a strong editor, there were pieces of this book that did not sit well with me. In some ways, there is a sense of injustice here: a woman is dead, there are questionable circumstances surrounding this, and it is never fully investigated. Rapoport seems to feel this, as he details the shortcomings of the investigation. There are even hints that perhaps Lissa’s husband, George IV, had something to do with her death, including possible motive and opportunity. However, this is quickly brushed over in favor of more details on how the scandal associated with Lissa’s death lead to the downfall of George III as the college president.

Lissa’s claim of the affair was used as evidence against George III, although it could not be substantiated. Perhaps this is unfair, but is that really the most important point of this story? What is the “Greek tragedy” referred to in the title: the death of Lissa, or the loss of George III’s job? The chapter that talks of Lissa’s death and the shortcomings of the investigation ends with a quip about George III and his new wife’s experiencing the “airline industry’s equivalent of a near-death experience” by being forced to watch the same poor movie on four long flights they took in the two days after Lissa’s death. This is not only tangential; it is disrespectful.

Unfortunately, this book did live up to the poor reviews that influenced me to continually push it down in my list of books to be read. It is also unfortunate, I suppose, that there is always more to say about books that are disliked than those that are enjoyed. I still will not quite claim that I wish I had not taken the time to read this. I do think that it is a story worth telling; I wish it had been handled better than this.

Boris’s thoughts: “Can we finally put this one away now? 1 paw.”

Outliers

img_2215Date Read: September 2 to 30, 2019

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

With my focus on some spooky children’s books in September, I am a bit behind with my normal posting. This book was actually my September pick for The Unread Shelf Project—a book that you can buddy read. Surprisingly, I do not have a big group of friends that read. One of my friends has been trying to read more, so we decided it would be fun to pick a book that was on both of our “want to read” lists. We ended up deciding on this one, as the one that we thought could lead to the best discussion.

While we did not actually get in as much discussion on the book as we had expected, I am glad that we decided upon this one. This is the third of Malcolm Gladwell’s books that I have read, and I really do find much of his work fascinating. However, I feel like I have to say that I find it a bit limited. There is a ton of great research referenced here, and so many great thoughts, but in the end, this really is a work of “pop psychology.” Is there something to it? Yes, probably. But I’m also not quite prepared to take all of Gladwell’s conclusions as fact. Despite this, I think it’s a great starting place for thinking and learning. I just think that the case of “Outliers” is more complicated that laid out here.

It may seem like a strange jump, but this book made me think about my brother’s speech at his friend’s wedding this summer. My brother was the Best Man at the wedding of two amazing friends of our family, and I was lucky enough to be present at the wedding as well. In his speech, my brother referenced some incredible accomplishments shared by the couple—a self renovated home, a successful business, and the wedding itself, which was very much planned and decorated “from scratch.” My brother shared an important belief he feels is connected to all this: if there is something you want to do and you don’t do it, you didn’t want it enough.

Perhaps this is a simplification as well, but I think it speaks to one of the missing pieces from Gladwell’s conclusion. Genetic potential, opportunities to practice, and being born at the right time in the right place can put you ahead of the game—but there is still a drive to that accomplishment that is unaccounted for. It may be true that 10,000 hours of practice is a “magic number” to become an expert or a master in a field; but it is also true that it takes a certain amount of personal drive and dedication to be willing to put in that time. So you did not become a master at the task you wanted? There’s nothing wrong with that, of course; but remember: you did not want it enough to dedicate the amount of time needed to do it.

Boris’s thoughts: “The only thing I want to be a master at is napping. I think I’ve got a pretty good start on my 10,000 hours or practice. 4 paws.”