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Children of the Core by Kris Nielsen

51b3onsmfnl-_sy300_-1 Children of the Core
by Kris Nielsen

If you’re a parent of school-aged children in the U.S., you’ve probably heard of Common Core by now.  What is Common Core, and why is it so controversial?

Common Core is a set of educational standards for grades K – 12 that has thus far been adopted by forty-four U.S. states.  The Common Core Standards Initiative (CCSI) sets forth what children across America should learn at each grade level in mathematics and English/language arts, with the end goal of ensuring that every child in the country graduates from high school “college and career ready.”

It sounds really good on the surface.  But there are many problems with Common Core and the associated standardized testing, and there is a growing body of educators and parents who see Common Core as a very bad thing for kids, schools, and teachers.  There are many people who believe that anything will be better than No Child Left Behind – an initiative that has resulted in “drill and kill” teaching, teaching to the test, and students who memorize facts only to do well on the standardized tests they are pressured to perform well on because their teachers’ jobs and the future of their schools depend on their test scores.  There are others who see CCSI as NCLB on steroids.

Kris Nielsen is a former teacher whose letter of resignation to his school district went viral in 2012.  Nielsen is intimately familiar with Common Core from an educator’s perspective, and has written this book, Children of the Core, to caution parents and offer advice on how a peaceful resistance can be staged in order to prevent Common Core from taking over the U.S. education system before it’s too late.

It sounds alarmist and the stuff of conspiracy theorists, but there actually are some truths about Common Core that every parent should question and be concerned about.  Children of the Core is very eye-opening, and I’ll be using it to provide some talking points when I meet with my school district’s superintendent next week to discuss Common Core in our district.



Mating For Life by Marissa Stapley

Mating-for-Life-by-Marissa-Stapley Mating for Life: A Novel
by Marissa Stapley

I received an advance copy of this novel, slated to be released this summer, from bookbrowse.com.

Set in Canada, at the heart of the story are four women: Helen and her three daughters, Fiona, Ilsa, and Liane, each fathered by a different man.

Helen is an aging former folksinger who became well-known not only for her music, but for her insistence that she didn’t need any man.  She has moved in and out of relationships throughout her life seemingly as cavalierly as playground relationships.  Now that she is in her sunset years, she finds herself suddenly grappling with a longing for a more permanent companion.

Fiona, Helen’s oldest daughter, projects the image of the perfect mother and wife, living the perfect life.  It’s a brittle facade, however.  Behind closed doors, everything is as far from perfect as she can imagine, and when her husband reveals a long-kept secret, Fiona’s world crumbles.

Ilsa is the beautiful middle daughter.  Married to a “staid” older man and the mother of two young children, Ilsa feels restless and suffocated by her life, and enters into a dangerous liaison that can only bring heartache.

Liane is the youngest of Helen’s daughters and unhappily engaged when a handsome writer enters her life.  Soon she breaks off her engagement and jumps headfirst into a new relationship, trying to navigate her role as girlfriend and “step-something” to his two daughters.

This novel is about couplings and uncouplings, and really doesn’t cover anything new.  Each chapter opens with a description of a different animal’s mating habits, and that animal then makes a cameo appearance somewhere in the chapter.  The story is told in alternating voices, but because it’s told not only in the voices of Helen and her three daughters, but also several other supporting characters, I felt that there were a few too many voices, and the story became a bit muddled.

Still, the writing is good, and it’s an enjoyable story, even if it’s forgettable and not deep or profound (although I think it tries to be?).  Chick-lit; good, light, beach reading.


Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne

519QdZq5fjL Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History
by S.C. Gwynne


This book, which I’ve been reading over the past week or so and just finished about thirty minutes ago with tears in my eyes, kind of blew me away.

My husband bought this book for me on a whim a while back (sweet man – he knows that the way to my heart is through books), and it sat on my to-read shelf gathering dust with a lot of other books until I recently read One Thousand White Women for my book club.  I found that book to be a pretty romanticized and often cheesy depiction of life with Indians in the untamed American west, and it left me very curious about what life was really like in that time and place.  Empire of the Summer Moon delivers.

Told in meticulous and beautiful detail, this historical account of the rise and fall of the Comanches, the most fierce and powerful Indian tribe America ever saw, is absolutely riveting – and in some ways turned my ideas about “how the west was won” upside down.  Despite the sanitized version of history I grew up with in school, there has always been the knowledge that the Indians were here first, and the white people came along and spread disease, enslaved Indians, and stole their land.  The truth, apparently, is more complicated than that.  While it is true that the white people did those things, it’s also true that long before white people came to America, the Indians were fighting each other, as well as Spaniards and Mexicans over land, and murdering and enslaving each other.  America has a bloody, bloody history dating back to the very beginning.

Central to this historical account of the Comanches are the stories of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son, Quanah.  In the 1830s whites began settling in Texas – at the time, a desolate land isolated from civilization.  The land was virtually free for the taking, but whites venturing there were takingimages their lives into their own hands, as the Indian presence was a grave menace.  The Parker family was one such family that, despite terrible danger, decided to settle in the southern part of Texas.  They built a fort to protect themselves against enemy Indians – a collection of log cabins to house the extensive family, a main fort, all fenced in by razor-sharp cedar posts and a reinforced, bullet-proof gate.  On a fateful day in 1836, however, the gate was left open, and the fort was raided by Indians.  Many Parker family members were killed, and a handful taken prisoner by the Comanches – among them, nine-year old, blonde, blue-eyed Cynthia Ann.  While the other prisoners were eventually killed or ransomed back to their white kinsfolk, Cynthia Ann was adopted by the Comanches and fully assimilated into the tribe – so much so that future attempts by whites to buy her back from the Comanches failed – she flat out refused to leave her Indian family.  She married and had three children and spent twenty-five years as a full-fledged Comanche Indian squaw.  Eventually, she was captured by whites and returned, against her will, to her white relatives, where she spent several miserable, despondent years until her death.  Cynthia Ann’s story is heart-wrenching, and raises ethical and humanitarian questions that are impossible to answer.

smallOne of her children was Quanah, twelve years old at the time of his mother’s re-capture by white men.  Quanah went on to become a great Comanche warrior and war chief, and was one of the last hold-outs of the Comanche nation against the whites.  Eventually the Comanches numbers dwindled thanks to buffalo hunters that virtually wiped out the Indians’ food supply over a period of years, to white man’s diseases, and actual combat between whites and Indians, and the last of the Comanches, led by Quanah, surrendered and began the demoralization of reservation life.  Somehow Quanah assimilated well into the white man’s world, refusing to look back, and he became a highly respected and prosperous man.  Quanah never forgot his mother, Cynthia Ann, and his search for her grave and insistence on being buried next to her were extremely moving.

This frank history is not for the faint of heart; it is filled with graphic accounts of horrific, almost unimaginable atrocities Indians perpetrated on whites, on other Indians, and which whites committed against Indians.  There were parts that actually gave me bad dreams.  Nonetheless, it’s a necessary read, I think, for anyone who wants to understand the true history of America – or at least an integral portion of that history.

Despite the heinous, bloody crimes of the Comanches, I was left at the end feeling a great sense of loss for the majestic days when the Indians roamed free and wild.

A truly breathtaking book.


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Growing Up Godless: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Kids Without Religion by Deborah Mitchell

Unknown Growing Up Godless: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Kids Without Religion
by Deborah Mitchell

My initial introduction to Deborah Mitchell came a little over a year ago by way of an article she wrote for CNN iReports entitled Why I Raise My Kids Without God.  The title of the article alone spoke to me; I was curious to see what another parent had to say on a subject that has been fact in our house for years.  As it turned out, Debbie’s article went viral and, I believe, remains the most viewed and shared iReports article on CNN of all time.  I was so impressed by her article, and appreciated and agreed so much with what she wrote that I did a little digging and found that she also has a blog, Raising Kids Without Religion, of which I’ve become a loyal reader over the last year.  I’ve also had the privilege of corresponding with Debbie privately and getting to know her on a personal level.  Imagine my surprise when she contacted me and asked if I would be interested in making a contribution to her forthcoming book that would be coming out in the spring of 2014!

Growing Up Godless is that book . . .

Read the rest of my review, and enter to win a free copy of Growing Up Godless here.


The Anti-Romantic Child by Priscilla Gilman

9780061690273 The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy
by Priscilla Gilman

Where to start?

I honestly can’t decide if I loved this book or disliked it.  I suppose both.

In this memoir, Gilman tells of her idyllic childhood and the pain that was wrought by her parents’ split when she was ten.  Always a pleaser, she spent much of the next couple of decades trying to fulfill the wishes and expectations placed on her by her family and teachers, pursuing a life of academia.  Through it all, she pines for the romanticized version of her early childhood and longs to replicate it with children of her own.

When her first child is born, he is different from what she had expected from the beginning: he is “floppy” and not the cuddly child she had envisioned.  In fact, he resists most forms of physical contact and in many ways appears an island.  As Benj progresses into toddlerhood, he remains distant, he is clumsy and slow to meet gross motor milestones, and is plagued by inexplicable anxieties and tics.  At the same time, he begins reading fluently by age two and shows a remarkable capacity for memorization, and an obsession with letters, numbers, and lining up and ordering things.

“Part of what made my dawning realizations about Benj so disconcerting and devastating was that I had thought I knew him so well.  After the initial sense of alienation and despite my continued sense of a fundamental difference or distance between us, Benj, with all his quirks, had become utterly familiar to me.  There had been no one more familiar to me than my son.  I had considered myself totally tuned in to his needs and had accepted him on his own terms.  In fact, I had embraced him for what he was, because I still wanted to be the devoted mother of the romantic child I’d imagined; even if (or especially because) the child didn’t match the ideal, my love for him would.  But now I wondered: was this acceptance instead based on a ‘fond illusion of my heart’ (Wordsworth, ‘Peele Castle’)?  Was it a kind of denial, a refusal to help or even accurately perceive him?  To question your grasp of your child is to suffer a great loss.”

Every aspect of Gilman’s life is informed by the poetry of William Wordsworth, of which she is both a student and a professor, and her book is liberally peppered with Wordsworth poetry that acted as both knife and balm to her mother’s heart.

Around the age of two and a half, Benj’s issues become troubling enough that Gilman decides to begin the process of having him evaluated.  Certain aspects of her story resonated so strongly with me with regard to my own child who has Down syndrome:

“Now, with the outside world’s judgments and prescriptions infecting our family, with the knowledge that we would have to have him formally evaluated in clinical settings, our peaceful happy private life, a life in which we – not teachers or doctors or therapists – defined his value and his identity, was gone.  Benj was still his same sweet self, but my entire sense of him, of our family, of his and our future had changed.”

I could very much relate to that feeling of loss relating to allowing the sterile, clinical world intrude on our family to assess our child and break him down into scores and numbers and deficiencies.

Benj is diagnosed with hyperlexia (which is like the opposite of dyslexia) and a myriad of delays, sensory issues, and obsessive-compulsivity, and so begins his entrance into special schooling and intensive therapies.  Indeed, nearly their entire lives seem to be taken up with various therapies for young Benj.  Meanwhile, Gilman leaves academia behind and her fairy-tale marriage breaks up, due in large part to a polarization in her and her husband’s feelings about their son’s issues.

Gilman’s prose is beautiful and from the heart; she is a gifted writer and tells her story vividly.  I think what I found frustrating – as a parent of a child with special needs myself – was what I perceive as a juxtaposition, or maybe just waffling, between Gilman’s determination to accept her son and value him exactly as he is, rejecting notions of achievement-based valuing of human beings, and a strong sense of ableism and very much wanting to normalize Benj as much as possible,  by relentlessly plunging him into therapy after therapy aimed at changing him.  Perhaps, however, her summing up of her feelings explains it best:

“Wordsworth has strengthened my commitment to simultaneously helping Benj integrate into society and honoring his differences.  Our therapeutic efforts have been, of course, designed to help Benj be more ‘romantic’: more spontaneous, imaginative, intrepid, playful, connected to others.  But even while striving so hard to help Benj become more romantic, I always wanted to remember that Benj’s antiromantic traits are valuable and wonderful and an essential part of who he is.  They are strengths and gifts.  I never want them denigrated or dismissed as ‘splinter skills.’  Both my reading of Wordsworth and my experience with Benj have taught me the danger of the very idea of ‘normalcy.’  I will always resist mightily any orientation or approach that sees Benj as a problem or somehow ‘broken’ rather than as simply and profoundly himself.”

It was perplexing to me that her son never received a formal diagnosis; so much of what she describes seems like autism, but that may admittedly be my own misconceptions and assumptions.  I wondered if it was a form of denial on her part, or a manifestation of the ableism I perceived in her.  And yet, she explains very eloquently,

“Despite numerous evaluations over the past seven years by developmental pediatricians, psychologists, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, and psychiatrists, Benj has never received an official label or diagnosis.  He clearly has shades of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and could be grouped under the headings of sensory-integration disorder and social-pragmatic language disorder; now, as he gets older, I often describe him as ‘borderline Asperger’s,’ usually as a kind of shorthand when I need to succinctly explain why he’s in a special school.  I’ve always been ambivalent about the idea of labels.  They’re undeniably useful for securing the much-needed therapies and special services, but I’ve often wondered how a label would be helpful in understanding Benj.  Would a label make people more sympathetic to him?  Or would it get in the way of appreciating the complex, intricate person Benj is?  How much detail, nuance, subtlety do we lose when we slap labels on people, and especially on still-developing kids?  Reducing Benj to a label would me the loss of mystery, romance, respect for the idea of identity as something that can never be precisely defined of fully known or mastered.”

But there are children like my own who are born with a recognizable, inescapable diagnosis or label; and so, while I fully appreciate Gilman’s hesitancy at using labels, I can’t help but also recoil a bit at her feeling that labels are reductive.  In reality, sometimes they can’t be avoided, for all of their pitfalls.

This is a very different sort of memoir that I’ve read before, generally and pertaining to having a child with special needs, in large part because it is so heavily informed by the author’s passion for literature.  Despite my misgivings, it has definitely given me pause to consider how other parents approach disability.

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One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd by Jim Fergus

33512 One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd
by Jim Fergus

This novel is a western with a twist: the recounting of a fictional agreement between President Ulysses S. Grant and the Cheyenne Sweet Medicine Chief, Little Wolf, wherein the U.S. government traded 1,000 white women for 1,000 horses, as told through the detailed journals of the fictional May Dodd, a participant in this “Brides for Indians” program.

Torn from her children and committed to an insane asylum by her family for taking up with a man beneath her class (official diagnosis: “promiscuity”), young May is offered release from her bondage if she will volunteer to serve in a top-secret government program whereby 1,000 white women (all “volunteers” but also outcasts – asylum inmates like May, prostitutes, women with poor matrimonial prospects, and the like) will marry Cheyenne braves and produce children with them, such children which are viewed as potential gatekeepers to assimilate the Indians into white culture.

May, along with the rest of the first installment of white women volunteers, heads out to the prairies to live among the savages, but not before May has a quick, passionate affair with an Army Captain charged with escorting the women on their journey into the wilderness.  Once among the Indians, the women, gradually overcome their fear of the Indians and their disdain for life away from the comforts of civilization.  May herself is chosen by Little Wolf to be his wife, and she grows to love and respect him.  As the women conceive children with their Cheyenne husbands and assimilate into Indian culture far more than they ever manage to introduce the Indians to the ways of white civilized culture, the U.S. government has second thoughts about fulfilling its end of the bargain with the Cheyennes and decides to not only renege on its promise to deliver the balance of the 1,000 white brides, but to take back by force land given the Indians.  And so, any peaceful relations between the Indians and the while people are lost, and May and her fellow volunteer brides are, of course, caught in the middle.

This book has received very good reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, and won a Fiction of the Year Award in 1999.  I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t think it was a stellar book.  The story is an interesting one, but parts of it seem very contrived and highly unlikely (for instance, identical twin sisters marrying identical twin brothers and each producing a set of twins – I don’t think the author understands the hereditary factors of producing twins, especially that identical twins are not hereditary at all; a small thing, perhaps, but as a mother of twins myself, this bit of unreality bugged me), and I could have totally done without the cheesy romance aspect of the story.  More than anything, though, I just found May to be annoyingly full of herself, and generally unlikable.  That really took away from the story for me.

This is the current pick for my book club; out of five stars, I’d probably give it two and a half.


Ghostbelly by Elizabeth Heineman

GhostBelly_stroke_400px Ghostbelly: a memoir
by Elizabeth Heineman

Every once in a while, a book falls into my hands that rips my heart out a little, and keeps me awake at night.

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.” – Franz Kafka

Ghostbelly is one such book.

Elizabeth Heineman, or Lisa to her friends, has lived an unconventional life, making unconventional choices.  So, it’s not surprising to those who know her when she falls in love anew in her mid-forties and decides to get pregnant at the age of 45.  What might be surprising, however, is that she chooses to have a home birth, eschewing the barrage of unneccessary medical interventions routinely present in the medical model of maternity care and childbirth.  It is not a decision Lisa makes lightly; she agonizes over it, researches it, and ultimately chooses a home birth attended by a certified nurse midwife because Lisa believes in evidence-based practices, and nobody she consults with can offer her any concrete medical reason that she would not be a good candidate for an out-of-hospital birth.  Indeed, regardless of her “advanced age,” she’s extremely healthy and fit and is deemed “low risk” by the hospital midwives she sees through a good part of her pregnancy, as well as her family practice doctor.

After an easy, happy, uneventful pregnancy that continues past her due date, Lisa goes into labor one November evening in 2008.  Something goes terribly wrong during her labor, however, and her longed-for baby, nicknamed Thor, is stillborn.

What ensues is the story of a woman  whose love for the child she never saw draw breath is inseparable from the gut-wrenching grief she inhabits over her loss of Thor.  Making yet more unconventional choices, Lisa demands more than the half-hour allotted time with her dead baby’s body that the medical examiner’s arbitrary protocol allows; she and her partner, Glenn, instead spend six hours with Thor that first morning in the hospital, cradling him, lovingly examining him from head to toe, rocking him, singing to him, and talking to him – as loving parents do with their new babies.

“I see Thor.  I feel him.  I smell him.  They have handed him to me in a blanket, and he is heavy in my arms.  I rock him and smile at him and sing to him and kiss him and inhale him.

“Glenn watches me and cannot understand: I seem happy.

“He is right.  I am happy, because in this strange new life I have just begun, the life of the mother of a dead child, this is what counts as happiness: I have my baby, I am cradling him and talking to him, and they will not take him away in half an hour, and so I am happy.”


“This is what I want to do in those six hours.  To take that moment, in which Thor will not grow six hours older, and inhabit it fully.  To fully absorb Thor, because it will be our only chance.

“And because this is so important, other things can wait.  Like crying.  Like thinking about Thor’s absence.  I will have a lifetime to explore Thor’s absence, every inch of it; to acquaint all my senses with it, to inhabit it.  Any time we spend crying now, bewailing his death, will be time lost to things like singing to him, touching him, things we only have a few hours to do.  Thor’s absence will not last just a moment, not even a stretched-out moment.  It will occupy time.  First he will be dead a day, then a week, then a month, then a year.  I will have the rest of my life to explore it, and its exploration will require the rest of my life.  But the time to explore Thor’s absence is not now.  Now is the time to explore Thor’s presence.”

The next day, after an autopsy is performed, Lisa and Glenn visit the funeral home where Thor rests until his burial is carried out.  They are surprised when the funeral director talks about Thor as if he matters, as if he were a person, a real baby, and not just a corpse.  “Uncle Mike” as he becomes known to them, encourages them to visit Thor whenever they want, and even to take him home for visits, which they do.

Lisa, of course, agonizes over what went wrong after such a wonderful, low-risk pregnancy.  Why did Thor die?  She unflinchingly analyzes her choices and the events that led to Thor’s death.  While she came to believe that Thor might not have died had she planned a hospital birth rather than a home birth, she does not condemn home birth or midwifery care as one might expect after such a catastrophic loss; rather, she condemns the alienation and isolation of home birth midwives in the U.S.; if home birth and home birth midwives were not placed on the fringe by society and the medical community, if midwives were treated as colleagues and invited to collaborate with doctors, it is likely that situations like Lisa’s wouldn’t arise.

“I believe Thor is the statistic for unnecessary death in an out-of-hospital setting.

“I believe someone else’s child is the statistic for unnecessary death in a hospital setting.

“I believe that a single unnecessary death during home birth prompts calls for abolition of out-of-hospital midwifery.  I believe that hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths in hospitals prompt suggestions for voluntary reform.  I believe the difference lies in the imbalance of power between hospitals and midwives, not the comparative level of risk of home birth versus hospital care.”

Lisa contacted me a few months ago and asked me to read and review her book (I have to say, I am so incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to “meet” some wonderful authors this way; Theresa Shea and George Estreich also come to mind), and gave me a synopsis, so I knew going in what the gist of her memoir was.  To be honest, I was a little scared to read it; I expected it to be morbid and maybe even macabre.  It is decidedly neither morbid nor macabre, although it surely takes the reader out of a comfort zone.  On a personal level, this book moved me in so many ways: aside from sharing a name with the author, we share religious views, and I, too, chose home birth (three times) and gave birth to a baby at an advanced age (44).  I can’t help but feel a connection to Lisa and her story, though I’ve never lost a child.

Searingly honest, gripping, and articulately emotional, this is a story that needs to be told – and a story that needs to be read.

For more information about this author and her stunning memoir, check out ghostbelly.com.


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