non-fiction Friday: To the End of June, the intimate life of American Foster Care by Cris Beam

end of june

To the End of June: the intimate life of American foster care by author, professor, and teacher at a women’s correctional facility Cris Beam is a harrowing look into the current state of the foster care system in America. Annually, nearly 650,000 children from birth to age 18 are in foster care. Let me put it this way: the population of Washington, DC is around 632,000. All of the foster children in America could fit into DC. That is horrific.

Beam uses her book to describe the bleak reality of foster care – from parents not working to get their children back, abuse from foster families, low budgets and staffing for Family Services departments, etc. People want babies – and are willing to endure international policies and extravagant court costs to get them – but won’t go through half of that effort (and significantly less cost) to give a forever home to older children or teenagers.

Maybe foster care agencies could do more recruiting among the parents who are looking to adopt privately or overseas and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got kids right here.’…there’s a chance – but if a mom takes her baby back, you’ve provided a young person with a vital foundation. It sounds terrible, but if you lose that baby you could try again. It sounds terrible, but that sounds a lot like pregnancy. Or like love.

Foster Care isn’t easy, and Beam absolutely makes sure that her readers are aware of that. She doesn’t paint pictures of unicorns and rainbows. But she does give great advice for those who are considering or are struggling with their foster children. She quotes Francine Cournos – former foster child and former deputy director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute:

Right up front we need a more therapeutic foster care model in which parents are trained to understand that when kids come to them they’re going to be distrustful, cut off, and too traumatized to make an attachment.

But it will be worth it! Giving a safe, loving, comfortable home and living situation to a young person whose past has been fraught with pain, anger, neglect, and/or sadness, could mean the difference in that young person becoming a stable member of society, or one that falls into a poor mental and/or emotional state, life of crime, homelessness, or worse. Because that is the reality.

Mary Keane, an adoptive mother who runs foster parenting training and recruitment classes in New York said that foster care, but definition, means personal sacrifice:

Parents should do [foster care] because the kids need it. Otherwise they’re going to be disappointed. You do it because you want to help a kid and because you enjoy seeing them grow. The gratitude for what you’ve done might come later. Like after 5 years of Hell.

While that may sound like nothing you’d ever want to get involved in, plenty of adults (single or married) are drawn to help. Not for the financial return they get from the state for housing and taking care of a foster child. That amount is abysmal. It’s about the desire to help.

Read-alikes: 
If you’re interested in learning facts, without personal agendas being shoved down your throat, read Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink. The Pulitzer prize-winning investigative journalist researched the heck out of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of Memorial Hospital. But it wasn’t just the physical structure that failed, but the emergency preparedness of the staff who couldn’t save everyone.

Recommended for:
I implore you to read this book if foster care or domestic adoption is on your mind. Even if you’re just moved by the Wednesday’s Child commercials you see on TV or by the South Korean pastor-turned-orphanage director Lee Jong-rak who created the baby Drop Box.

I attended a foster care and adoption information session last night in Fairfax County. Adoption has been in my heart for many years – even those teen and young adult years when I was convinced I’d never have children due to my complete lack of patience and tenderness – so attending the session was just to get a little information. I have never considered foster care because I was (am) afraid of loving someone, then having them taken from me. Then again, when they leave, chances are they’d be going back to their birth families (good!) or an adoptive home (unless I chose to adopt them). So that’d be a positive move! Regardless, the option has been tabled for now, as my husband and I are no where near ready for such a life-altering task.

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review: Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

counting

Some authors just know what they are doing. Holly Goldberg Sloan is one of them. In April 2012 I read I’ll Be There, a heart-gripping story of two boys on the run from their abusive and psychotic father. Their interaction with the beautifully composed character named Emily made for a novel with staying power. Sloan did it again with Counting by 7s, this time using a quirky adopted girl and her crew of equally-quirky friends.

Willow Chance is a young lady with gumption, questions, and a penchant for the number 7 and the color red. Adopted as a baby, Willow’s parents support her inquisitiveness to the point of letting her turn their backyard into a full and lush garden. She is a character full of humor, despite not meaning to be. Luckily Sloan never lets her readers laugh at Willow, but just chuckle at her candidness.

Everyone else orders spicy pickled tongue sandwiches. I don’t eat meat. And organ meat is a whole other category of stuff I wouldn’t want to chew.

When we are finished they bring us each a bowl of vanilla ice cream and sprinkles on top. The girl next to me starts to cry when she sees the sprinkles. I’m wondering if she’s worried about the long-term side effects of consuming artificial food coloring. It’s a valid concern.

But tragedy strikes, leaving her without her parents, her garden, and everything she loved.

Are you looking for something?‘ I want to say that yes, I’m looking for anything that could make a world gone flat return to its original shape…

Luckily, a crew of unlikely characters find their way into Willow’s world, giving her a reason to get up, then a reason to garden, then a reason to ask questions again. The Nguyen family is realistic, but not so fully-formed that they take away from Willow, or even the oddest character I’ve read in a while – school counselor Dell Duke.

I don’t want to know how you did it. I want to believe that you’re magic.

Willow’s ruminations on life are  sometimes sad, sometimes hilarious. In real life, I imagine I would sometimes find her annoying – but characters are real people, and real people are annoying sometimes. It’s likely, though, that I would adore her and want to care for her like Ms. Nguyen does.

Recommended for:
Fans of Rainbow Rowell’s works might enjoy this for its realism. Also, if a teen is looking to read about death, either as a way to cope or to learn more about the grieving process, this would be a good book to pick up.

Read-alikes
I recently read Bridge to Terabithia for the first time ever (yes, ever) and found similarities in the two novels. Death, from the perspective of a young person with no experience with the topic, is dealt with in a sensitive but realistic manner.

non-fiction Friday: French Milk by Lucy Knisley

french

French Milk by Lucy Knisley is a charming graphic memoir about a 20-something’s trip to Paris. On the eve of college graduation, Lucy and her mother embark on a 6-week trip to Paris to take in the sights, smells, tastes, and every other sense. Rough drawings of the foods they eat, sights they see, and art they ponder over are cute enough…but don’t draw the reader into Paris. Which is a shame, because I really wanted to see Paris. To taste it. I understand that the nature of graphic novels/books is that the images give more than the sparse words, but in this case I feel like both were not rich enough. Then again, perhaps because of my own 3-day excursion to Paris, as well as my many readings on the City of Lights, I was unable to dive deep into the black-and-white drawings and quick touches on the Louvre and foods, probably because I already knew what they looked and tasted like, so I wanted description akin to my own knowledge of them.

I also found Lucy’s

Recommended for:
Someone who has not yet been to Paris. This is a good “starter book” because you can read/see smattering of many things without diving into too rich detail, which may leave you confused or overwhelmed.

Read-alikes: 
Bon Appetit! the delicious life of Julia Child by Jessie Hartland has similar simple drawings but so much more is packed into each page.

Review: Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink

Five-Days-at-Memorial-by-Sheri-Fink

Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink is a true account of – using emails, conversation transcriptions, interviews, newspaper articles, and TV reports from the day leading up to, and the days immediately after – Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August, 2005. The second half of the book covers the ensuing legal events, and has its own impressive set of bibliographic entries. This book is well over 500 pages, and very little space within those pages is wasted.  Want to know what happened that day? Read this book.

The book began with a history lesson of New Orleans, her floods, and her hospitals – specifically the hospital known as “Baptist”, originally called Southern Baptist Hospital, renamed Memorial Medical Center in 1996, now Oschner Baptist Medical Center after it’s Katrina-era owners sold it. Once considered the pinnacle of technologically-advanced medical centers, Baptist (er, Memorial) became a horror story when the levees broke. When power was disrupted, medical staff – most who requested the hurricane shift because hospitals were known to be some of the strongest structures in the city, and because they could bring their families – had to take heroic measures to save the more than 150 patients stranded in the building. Patients were carried up six flights of stairs in order to reach the deteriorating helicopter landing pad, where a helicopter may or may not have been waiting for them. (For everyone’s sake, I will not delve into the response of emergency units, FEMA, National Guard, etc. because we all know it was a chaotic clusterflunk that undeniably resulted in the loss of lives. Suffice it to say that patient and staff evacuation from the hospital was erratic, at best.)

The last third of the book was the aftermath. Not just the city repairing itself, but the legal proceedings based off the belief (of many) that unnecessary euthanasia had been carried out among the sickest patients. That ending lives was considered the last and best way out, instead of waiting for rescuers. Dr. Pou was acquitted of all charges, but the fact remains that death was hurried along in quite a few patients.

Fink concluded that New Orleans’ tragedy eventually helped save lives. The time she devoted to the modern day discussion of triage – assigning a level of urgency among patients – was brief but, for me, the most fascinating part of the book. She reported on hospitals that took to the meeting rooms to discuss their own triage standards for possible future catastrophes. The entire state of Maryland took on the topic as a community, hosting discussions with medical professionals, patients, and laypeople at libraries, community centers, hospitals, nursing homes, etc. The results of those conversations were shocking. Not every parent felt that their children should be saved before an adult. And not every senior wanted to be saved.

Sometimes individual medical choices, like triage choices, are less a question of science than they are of values. In a disaster, triage is about deciding what the goal of dividing resources should be for the larger population – whether maximizing number of lives saved, years of lives saved, quality of life, fairness, social trust, or other factors.

I am glad I read this book, as it gave me a lot to think about. This was more than an expose on Baptist (Memorial) Hospital post-Katrina. This wasn’t finger-pointing reporting. This was detailed, well-researched, and open-minded reporting.

Recommended for:
Fans of investigative journalism will appreciate the vast bibliography Fink composed and utilized in writing this book. And the details are enough for any fiction fan to feel like they are in the stifling rooms.

Read-alikes:
Zeitoun by Dave Eggars, because it covers the same city during the same hurricane, but with a Syrian man and wrongful imprisonment. So intense and so well-written. (What has happened to the main character since the book was published is even more mind-blowing.)

Wednesday reads: Paris, Paris, Paris

Sometimes I get on a kick. My current kick (read: obsession) is Paris. Again. Listening to The Sharper Your Knives the Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn doesn’t help. Nor does watching Julie & Julia. Or The Devil Wears Prada. You could argue that I am torturing myself, and I wouldn’t deny it. So why not continue my French obsession and read a graphic novel-memoir?*

french

 

French Milk by Lucy Knisley is the graphic representation of Lucy’s journal from the 6 weeks she spent in Paris with her mother – both of whom were celebrating monumental occasions – college graduation/entering adulthood and turning 50 years old. There are even a few black and white photographs included in the book, which are in stark contrast to the simple black and white drawings the author sketched.

 

dream thieves

 

The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater!!!!! Ahhh!!!!! (That is all. I’d say “read my review of book 1” but I am embarrassed to say that I did not, in fact, write a review of it. I find that hard to believe, but, the blog don’t lie.)

 

 

*Yes, I know novel and memoir mean completely different things. But what if I’d written “graphic memoir”? You’d think I was reading the autobiography of Heidi Fleiss or something.

review: Reality Boy by A.S. King

realityA.S. King has a way with words. A way that makes me cry. Not like it takes much to make me cry, but there are some books that do it to me, and it is genuine. This is one of those books.

It’s also one of those books that makes me question why we – Americans, humans, decent people – think certain things are okay. Why is it okay that we put children on reality TV shows, often in unflattering situations? Just for a good laugh? Or to make us feel better about our own not-so-great family lives? “Man, we sure are effed up, but at least we aren’t like those crazy fools on TV! Honey, grab me another beer!”

I should tell you what it’s about. That’s what a book review should begin with, right?

Reality Boy by AS King is about Gerald. He is sixteen now, but was only six when his family was on a reality TV show that is a lot like Supernanny – an actual TV show that puts a British nanny into an American household to whip the kids and family into shape. Gerald’s family was on the show, and his actions led him to be ridiculed and bullied over the past ten years. Dubbed “the crapper” for his penchant for defecating in random locations around the house – shoes, closets, tables, beds –  Gerald was thought to be acting out when in fact it was the only way he could think to respond to the violent sociopath living right under his own roof.

Gerald attends anger management classes, practices stress-reducing techniques including deep breathing and going to a safe place in his head, all in order to stay calm and not violent. Sometimes he is successful, other times not. Gerald’s story is a very difficult one to read, but one that just has to be true. There’s no conceivable way that real-life “reality kids” are not as scarred as the fictional Gerald. No way can a film crew walk into their lives and leave it in a better state.

I’ve been a reality TV show fan for many years. I love Top Chef, Rock of Love (yeah…the Bret Michaels show), Biggest Loser, Bachelor, etc…but those are adults. Adults who know what reality TV is like, that they can be portrayed as someone they are not by creative editing, that it is a game to be played. But those are adults. I have no sympathy for them. But when children are pulled into this crap, I can’t stand it. Even if it’s not a competitive show, even if it’s just a look into their lives – a la the Duggars – it is not okay. They didn’t ask for the cameras. They have no idea that what is filmed can be edited to make them look whatever way the producers think will grab more viewers.

Reality Boy is believable. It is scary and sad, but hopeful. Gerald, and a couple people in his life, hope for a better future. There is despair, but there is also hope. And for some people, that is what helps them push through each and every day.

Recommended for: 
Boys, girls, teens, and reality TV show fans (for the behind-the-scenes chapters. I wonder if King did any research into that).

Read-alikes: 
Eleanor & Park
and Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, for their gritty realism.

review: & Sons a novel by David Gilbert

gilbert

& Sons by David Gilbert is a story about the men of the Dyer and Topping families over a brief week, but also throughout their entire lives. Told in the present, yet full of flashbacks and memories so rich you would think the narrators had just endured the pain of the memories, & Sons is about the fathers, the sons, themselves…and they are all described in such descriptive detail that the reader feels a bit voyeuristic, knowing such deeply personal things about the men who make up these fictional New York families.

Beginning at the funeral of Charles Topping – the best friend of renowned yet reclusive author Andrew Dyer – Topping’s son Phillip narrates the event, and the inner thoughts of every Topping and Dyer gentleman in attendance. After moving in with the eldest Dyer, one of the many uncomfortable moments Phillip makes the reader endure, Phillip watches Andrew and his three sons in a second attempt to fuse himself into the lives of the Dyer men. Long obsessed with the author, wishing to be another of Andrew’s son, to be a Dyer son’s best friend, to be Andy Jr.’s favorite teacher, Phillip observes the family’s quick recovery after years of estrangement, followed even more quickly by a crash.

There might be no gods, but we are still their playthings.

Life, I’m convinced, is filled with far more near misses than we dare to imagine. Late in waking up, missing a train, not answering a phone, going down 79th Street instead of 80th Street – how many of those moments have spared our life?

I found myself submerged in Gilbert’s writing. I was sitting in the pews, I felt the chill of the early Spring air, I felt the creak in my arthritic bones. But I felt all of this without reading anything as mundane as “it was cold out”. And I felt the resentment, the lust, and the hollowness, usually more than one at a time.

 

In my defense, I loved her. Then again, I’m guilty of easily falling in love, of confusing the abstract with the conrete, hoping the words might cast me as a caring individual and dispel my notions of a sinister center. I believe in love at first sight so that I might be seen.

I have no brothers or sons, but the familial intimacy – or lack thereof, depending on which character was expounding on their past or their present – is one that I believe some adult readers can relate to. The novel’s themes are relevant to most adults, and would be life-changing for teens if they were mature enough to realize that they can, in fact, learn from others’ mistakes.

Fathers start as gods and end as myths and in between whatever human form they take can be calamitous for their sons.

Read-alikes:
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach is quite similar to this, as it is a deep, layered look into quite a few characters who each could be the star of their own book.

Recommended for:
Adults, men or women, who enjoy description and language.