Archives for posts with tag: book review


Before Betty Shabazz became an activist, educator, mother and wife to Malcolm X, she was Betty Dean, a young and ambitious girl growing up in Detroit.

For the first seven years of her life, Betty lived in Georgia, where she was raised by her aunt, Fannie Mae. “BETTY BEFORE X” follows a young Betty as she moves to Detroit to live with her mom and her mom’s new family. Although the novel is a fictionalized account of her childhood, LLYASAH SHABAZZ, daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, and award-winning author RENEE WATSON based the story on real people, events and facts.

Betty loves her family and is an attentive older sister to her three half-sisters, but she struggles with feeling like an outsider in her own home. While her sisters play, her mother often expects her to clean and keep house.

Her activism begins because of her associations with certain friends and neighbors, particularly Helen Malloy, who steps in as a mother figure when Betty’s actual mother fully rejects her. However, events such as the lynching of a black couple in the South, the shooting of a black teen in Detroit and discriminatory hiring practices in her community fuel her work as a young activist.

Betty Before X highlights the different forms activism can take, as well as the polarizing effects it can have within an oppressed community. While the Housewives’ League encourages its members to only shop at stores that employ black workers, characters such as the mother of Betty’s friend Phyllis are angry about boycotts that exclude low-income families not able to shop at more expensive stores.

Like the story itself, Betty’s character is nuanced and realistic; she experiences anger, acceptance and happiness in equal measure when faced with friendship troubles, family problems or racism. Betty joins the Housewives’ League as a volunteer, handing out flyers and welcoming guests at luncheons; as she becomes more knowledgeable in the work, she takes on more responsibility, though she remains nervous when approaching strangers, particularly adult ones who view Betty and her organization as troublemakers.

She is also a pre-teen girl, with all of the joys and sorrows that come with that stage in life. She loves listening to records by popular acts such as Sarah Vaughn and Billy Eckstine, spending her allowance at the candy counter and talking about beauty products and boys with her best friends.

Overall, Shabazz and Watson’s story is both authentic and inspirational, and the story is compelling enough to classify as a page-turner. Don’t pass on the end papers. The author’s note, timeline and afterword provide important and interesting information that links the young Betty in the story with the important woman she became.


Reviewed by Tammie Benham

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), rules Daniel’s life.  When the “zaps” hit, he gets stuck in a self-destructive pattern that can last for hours.  The zaps are particularly relentless at bedtime when he believes if he doesn’t complete his “routine,” he will die.

In this coming-of-age story, Daniel’s best friend since grade school, Max is the star quarterback for the Erie Hills Elephants.  Daniel spends most of his time as the Substitute Kicker trying not to be noticed and arranging cups of water for his team mates.

Despite his many idiosyncrasies, Daniel is a typical middle-school aged boy.  There is a girl he likes who may like him back.  Max encourages Daniel’s blossoming friendship with Raya while holding off the less-than-nonchalant advances of Clara.

Just when things between Daniel and Raya are beginning to turn into the possibility of something more, Psycho Sara, who talks to no-one at school and doesn’t even speak to her own mother, starts to talk to Daniel.  Daniel might have ignored Sara if not for her cryptic naming of him as a fellow, “Star-Child.”

Afraid that he may be just as crazy as Sara has been labeled, intrigued that Sara isn’t nearly as crazy as everyone believes her to be,  and feeling a strong sense of belonging with Sara that he doesn’t feel as strongly with Raya, Daniel is caught between what’s familiar and what might be an exciting adventure.

As the state football finals approach, Daniel is caught in another dilemma.  The starting Kicker is suddenly ill and he is placed into the spotlight.  Through a series of events, the pressure and expectations on Daniel continues to increase, along with his anxiety.  Finding it more and more difficult to hide his “zaps,” he wonders how long he can keep his craziness hidden.  The only person who seems to see the hidden Daniel is Psycho Sara.

OCDaniel is an interesting look into the world of someone suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  Anyone who is not familiar with how debilitating OCD can become will have their eyes opened by this inside look.  Children wondering about their inability to control certain patterns in their behavior may see themselves.  Ultimately, this is a book for those who are feeling different and looking for a place to belong.

It never ceases to amaze me that every other day, it seems, there’s a new story in the media about something being bad for you. Or good. Sometimes the same thing is bad one day and good next time you hear about it (or vice versa). So, I was eager to check out a clever flip-over book, Bad News About What’s Good for You/Good News About What’s Bad for You by Jeff Wilser. Wilser writes mostly for magazines but has four books to his credit as well. This one combines two of my favorite things: information and humor.

How can it be that coffee/wine/nuts/fat/you-name-it is bad for you? No, wait, good for you? No, wait. . . A lot of it can be explained by the simple fact that television and radio outlets are constantly on the alert for “the latest thing” to grab our attention. Unfortunately, it seems that the two best ways to grab our attention are one, fear and two, easy answers. So, if they can scare you with “how coffee is killing you,” works for them. If, a month or two later, they can tout “drinking three cups of coffee a day cures everything that ails you,” there you go. So, easy enough to understand the motivation behind the good for you/bad for you “news” cycling constantly, but how do they make the claims? Our old friend statistics.

As Disraeli (according to Mark Twain) said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” Other books I’ve read (like Freakonomics and its kin and the previously reviewed Less Medicine, More Health have opened my eyes to the ways that data can be twisted like a pretzel to make a point, whether it’s valid or not. There’s a lot of that going on with the good/bad information out there. Small, sometimes tiny, studies are used as proof that something is good or bad, never mind that only 100 cases were looked at. Failure to account for other factors shows up a lot. Maybe the fact that people who floss regularly have better health is tied, not so much to flossing, but to those who floss regularly also being higher on the socioeconomic scale and able to afford better food. Or maybe flossers also tend to have something else in common which improves their health like eating less sugar to avoid dental decay. At any rate, there’s a lot of bad science out there being used to persuade us to eat/do one thing or avoid another.

So, you say, could you be specific? What’s good/bad/who-knows-which for you? Let’s take the aforementioned coffee. For years, we were warned against coffee, particularly the pernicious caffeine it contains. Heaven knows why coffee/caffeine was so condemned since, it turns out, that coffee (in reasonable amounts, mind you) can have some really positive health effects. Lowering the incidence of oral cancer and Type II diabetes, improving long-term memory, and an overall decrease of 10% in death rates. Wow! Sounds pretty good! Well, at least until the next study comes out.

On the other side, how about something we all know is good for us? Stepping away from food (hard as that may be for me), we’ll look at something I’ve read about in the aforementioned Less Medicine, More Health. The we-all-know-it’s-best annual physical. Weren’t we all taught in health class in school that we should all get an annual physical? It’s the “gold standard” of health care, right? Catch it early, get it fixed in the best case. Worst case? Spending a few dollars and a little time to find out nothing’s wrong, right? Well. . . Not so fast. There can be distinct downsides to annual physicals and arrays of tests. False positives lead to unnecessary tests and treatments that can cause real harm in addition to simple unnecessary worry. I’m not saying (nor is the author or any responsible party) that you should never see a doctor. If you have symptoms or a family history that warrants concern, by all means seek medical advice and help. If, on the other hand, you live healthily, feel well, have no symptoms and no genetic predispositions to worry about, take the annual physical off your to-do list. Or not. Maybe next week there will be a study proving that annual physicals would save 100,000 lives a year. I guess we’ll just have to wait and watch the news.

Well-written, informative and amusing, I recommend Bad News/Good News to get the info on kale, red wine, yoga, procrastination and apologizing and a plethora of other things that are bad for you. Or good.


Having followed the debate on the cost of healthcare for some years, I was intrigued to see  on our new book shelves. Dr. Welch is a practicing physician and a professor at Dartmouth Medical School. He has written two previous books, one of which (Overdiagnosed) we also own. I’m checking that one out next!

The book is broken down into seven chapters, based on often made, but erroneous, assumptions. We, as medical consumers, make assumptions based on incomplete, overstated, and just flat out wrong information and “common sense.” Making healthcare decisions based on bad assumptions leads to wasted money, time, and effort and (far too often) bad outcomes for our health. At least that’s what Dr. Welch is telling us and I found his arguments persuasive.

Assumption 1, that “All risks can be lowered,” causes us to scare ourselves silly on a regular basis when we read (and believe) all the medical news out there. Coffee will kill you. Eggs are deadly. Apple juice and rice are lethal. Too much (or too little) sleep causes premature death. All these, and far more, are among the things constantly being touted as risks for illness and/or death. Some of these alarms are later downplayed or refuted. Have some coffee with those eggs, they tell us this week. Problem is, even if there are risks associated with something, what degree of risk are we talking about? Some things have well-known, documented, statistically significant risks. Smoking is a prime example. Smoking is a known cause of lots of cancer and heart disease. Stopping smoking is one of the best things you can do for your health (aside from not starting). It’s well established that some amount of exercise is good for your health. Controlling really high blood pressure or extreme diabetes are no-brainers. Wearing a seat belt? Darn good idea. These are risks that are real and that can be controlled. Many other risks are maybe not so much a risk as the media would scare you into believing, and trying to control them may do more harm than good. What is often overlooked is whether the benefit of risk reduction outweighs the cost, both financially and in outcome. There are always risks associated with medical interventions. You might be allergic to a drug or simply suffer more of those lovely side effects they race through on the television ads. “Including death” is often one of those “side effects” mentioned. Even controlling known risks can have bad consequences. Medications taken to control high blood sugar can cause low blood sugar, which can lead to unconsciousness or worse. That’s not to say you should ignore diabetes, but it may be better to ask your doctor about trying to lower it some, through diet and exercise, and look at A1C levels to determine what your blood sugar is over time than to monitor closely and try for tight control. For those with Type-2 diabetes, that may be the wave of the future—moderate control over long term blood sugar with less intervention and less frequent (stressful) monitoring. Dr. Welch points out that he was responsible for a patient’s broken neck because he diagnosed him with diabetes, and tried (as was the only practice at that time) for very tight control. Testing had shown treatment was working, but one day the control got too tight, his blood sugar got too low, and he passed out and crashed his car. He survived, and later testing showed his blood sugar was only moderately elevated and Welch stopped his medication and kept an eye on it. No more loss of consciousness, no diabetic coma, no problem.

Assumption 2 is that “It’s always best to fix the problem.” Well, maybe not. If you’re a man of a certain age and are diagnosed with prostate cancer (as a prime example), the best thing to do may be “watchful waiting.” By age 60, over half of men autopsied (who did not die of prostate cancer) were found to have some degree of prostate cancer. Prostate cancer is often very slow growing, and treatment can cause severe side effects. It may well be, in many cases, better to watch and wait than to “fix the problem” immediately, particularly for illnesses that may progress slowly and for which treatment is problematic.

Assumption 3, “Sooner is always better” builds on that, while Assumption 4, “It never hurts to get more information” ain’t necessarily so. For Assumption 5, “Action is always better than inaction” fleshes out more of the subject of Assumption 2.

Assumption 6, “Newer is always better,” is fairly obvious if you think about it. There have been numerous drugs introduced in the past few years that have been pulled off the market because it turned out they killed people.

Assumption 7, “It’s all about avoiding death,” reminds us all that death is inevitable and we need to consider quality of life versus quantity. If treatment will only (probably) add a short time to your life and will (probably) make you sick or keep you in the hospital, you should weigh the risks and rewards. Perhaps you want as much time as possible, period. Perhaps you would rather have more quality than quantity of life. Whichever you would prefer, you need to have the risks and options explained and your wishes carried out without the medical professionals making assumptions and proceeding accordingly. It’s your life.

To sum up, I found the book very interesting in an intellectual way (sort of a medical Freakonomics) on one hand and, on the other hand, a much more visceral read about life, death, and what comes along with each. There are lots of personal stories, and nothing excessively academic and the author writes with a good deal of humor, as well. Interesting and thought-provoking, and I’m off to read Overdiagnosed!

“The Stranger” is an incredible story of deception, mystery and suspense about the power of a secret and how a lie can completely snowball into something much larger and how conspiracies can spiral dangerously out of control.

Adam and Corrine Price are living the American Dream, or so it seems. The Prices have a comfortable life in a rich New Jersey suburb — a big house, good jobs and two wonderful sons. What they don’t realize is that their world is about to fall apart.

One evening at a school sports meeting, “The Stranger” sidles up to Adam as he waits for the meeting to start. He tells Adam something that completely rocks his world — that Corrine faked a pregnancy that supposedly ended in a miscarriage. The Stranger provides a couple more details and then disappears. Adam gets a description of the car and the license plate number.

Adam is clueless as to why a complete stranger would approach him or even know these things about his wife. When his curiosity overcomes his doubt, he investigates Corrine’s computer history. To his dismay, he learns that his wife purchased items from a website called

When Corrine returns from a conference, Adam confronts her with what he has learned. She doesn’t deny his accusation, but she doesn’t want to discuss it with Adam at that moment. She wants time to think. The next morning she is gone. Corrine texts Adam that they need some time apart, and she asks him to take care of the boys.

Adam tries to find Corrine, and in the process, he understands her reasons for lying. He wonders if it really is a big cause for concern or if it will even damage their relationship. While he is searching for his wife, Adam becomes the prime suspect in her disappearance.

In efforts to trace The Stranger, Adam discovers that The Stranger has shattered other people’s lives with frequently tragic consequences. When a woman is murdered in Ohio, small town Police Chief Johanna Griffin gets involved. Chief Griffin tries to understand why her good friend Heidi was killed. Her investigation uncovers a connection between Heidi and The Stranger.

Chief Griffin and Adam work together to find this stranger who seems to be sharing destructive secrets from people’s pasts, some of which turn out deadly. What is his motive for ruining complete strangers’ lives?

In this psychological thriller, the author gets inside the heads of his characters and presents them in such a way you understand their thoughts, the good and the bad. The short chapters alternate between the main characters and their perspectives.

A totally unpredictable plot, with numerous twists and turns, causes the tension to build throughout this chilling novel. Coben’s novel touches on themes of living the good life, the love of family and Internet privacy. His is a fascinating take on how little privacy you really have online.

Television and film actor George Newbern delivers an outstanding performance in his narration of the audiobook. He brings Coben’s fully drawn characters to life, especially that of main character Adam Price. In addition to the audiobook, regular print and large print copies are available at the Joplin Public Library.

I’ve always been interested in the communist witch hunts of the 50’s and some of my favorite acting moments are from the movie In the Heat of the Night, so I was immediately drawn to Lee Grant’s memoir, “I Said Yes to Everything”.

The big picture of Lee Grant’s career is that she got off to a big start in theater and then in Hollywood, getting an Oscar nomination for her first film, “Detective Story” at the age of 24. Almost immediately after that Grant was blacklisted. From the age of twenty-four until she was thirty-six, prime years for an actress, Grant remained blacklisted and was not allowed to do any film or television work. Fortunately for her, the theater did not accede to the blacklist and she was able to continue working in that venue. Her first Hollywood role after her blacklisting ended was as the victim’s widow in In the Heat of the Night. Numerous roles followed, both large and small, in television, movies and theater making hers one of the most successful post-blacklist careers. Too soon, though, middle age occurred and roles became less desirable.

In 1975, the American Film Institute created a program to help women get into directing, and she took part in the first round. As she puts it she would no longer “have to depend on the kindness of strangers” to create. Her husband produced her short film for the AFI, leading to a long collaboration with Grant directing and her husband producing.

After seeing herself onscreen in a B-movie she did in Canada, Grant realized that she was beginning to look her age and that future acting jobs would not be leading lady parts, but old ladies. She decided to step away from being in front of the camera all the time and move behind it more. Her first commercial film was a documentary about women striking at a bank in Minnesota, “The Willmar 8.” She has gone on to do many other documentaries, including “What Sex Am I?” (one of the first looks at the LGBT community) and “Down and Out in America” which won the 1986 Best Documentary Oscar and has also directed a number of films for television.

The book is an interesting read. Grant is nothing if not candid. Her language is frequently salty, and she spares no one, including herself. It is a pretty even mix of her personal (hard to say “private” given her candor) and professional lives. Some of it is funny, much sad. Her personal relationships have been, for the most part, less than rosy. Her first marriage brought her stepsons who she loved a great deal, but lost after the marriage ended. Her second marriage has lasted many years, but has certainly not been of the storybook variety. Her relationships with her daughters have gone, in one case, from idyllic to awful to good and, in the other case, from bad to worse to better. Her friendships have similarly been all over the map. Many one-time friends became enemies, others have remained steadfast ending only in death. Much space is devoted to her second husband, parents and maternal aunt all of whom had profound (if not always good) impact, less to children and in-laws.

There are, of course, anecdotes about actors, directors, and others like one-time boyfriend Burt Bacharach, and those she has worked with or with whom she was associated via the blacklist. Indeed, the blacklist runs through nearly the entire narrative, rearing its ugly head from time to time both professionally and personally. Joe McCarthy and HUAC have a lot to answer for. Summing up, an interesting life to read about and an interesting, if not particularly happy, life to have lived.

Book jacketAs a life-long cat person, I was intrigued when I saw Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet by John Bradshaw. It’s a bit heavy-going, consisting primarily of scientific information rather than the usual anecdotal information found in cat books, but there’s some very interesting material here.

The first several chapters deal with the history (both evolutionary and domestic) of the house cat. There is archaeological evidence that cats have lived with humans for over 10,000 years, but recorded historical evidence only  beginning about 3,500 years ago in Egypt. The history of cats in Egypt is bizarre and quite interesting. Cats were evidently both beloved as pets and used as sacrifices, although the two types seem to have been quite separate, with the sacrificial cats being bred in catteries by monks.

There’s also information about how cats got from one part of the world to another as well as lots of information on feline genetics. All very interesting material, particularly the section on cats being true carnivores. Dogs can fairly easily be fed a vegetarian diet since they are actually omnivores and can manage to use alternate protein sources. Cats need much more protein than dogs and even require specific types of protein for optimal health, including those that contain the amino acid taurine. Bradshaw states that cats cannot taste sugars (which I understand to be the standard scientific view) which leads me to wonder (not for the first time) why I have had several cats who just loved peaches. Ah, the mysteries of cats.

Scientists can be as dense as anyone else, but it was rather shocking to find out that studies were done in the 1950s showing that since puppies need to be handled by humans from the seventh week of life in order to be well-adjusted to interacting with people that it was simply assumed that the same held true for kittens. Canines and felines are vastly different animals, whether wild or domesticated, so making that assumption was rather dim.

Turns out, kittens need to be socialized to human contact earlier than puppies. Three weeks seems to be the optimal time, shortly after they can see and hear. Before that, they are almost entirely driven by their sense of smell as well as sensing heat (to find their mother and littermates). So, kittens born in a home where they are more likely to be handled regularly are more likely to make good pets than those born in a shelter unless the shelter takes the time to make sure kittens are handled at least fifteen minutes a day, preferably more.

There’s an interesting section on catnip which I will leave for you to read, but I will mention that only about two-thirds of cats are susceptible to it but that big cats (lions, tigers, whatnot) are also affected by it. I would give a couple of dollars to see a big cat on a catnip high!

Another interesting behavioral note was on cats and boredom with toys. I’m not likely to try to duplicate the author’s studies, but he found that cats who bore quickly with toys (and that’s most of them, in my experience) like toys that show evidence of change. That is, they like things they can tear up better than those that remain undamaged. It seems that cats equate toys with prey and if they can’t tear that darned mouse up, they can’t be bothered.

Quite a bit of space is devoted to cats and their relationship to other cats. Bradshaw takes great pains to point out that cats do not adapt to the presence of other cats nearly as well as dogs adapt to other canines in the household. Many cats would prefer to live without any other cats at all, but even those who will accept other cats should be introduced very carefully. He suggests getting two cats from the same litter if at all possible if you want more than one cat, but outlines a specific method for introducing a new cat into a home with an existing cat. It is a method I’m familiar with and one that most cat behavior books reference, but a very good idea for the inexperienced cat owner to find out about.

There is, of course, a section on cats and their relationship to people as well. I was familiar with most of the information there, but there were some interesting thoughts and anecdotes.

The final section is about the cat of the future. Bradshaw is concerned, given the genetic link to how friendly a cat is likely to be as well as how cat-friendly and how prey-driven, that the cats best suited to domesticity are usually neutered and that the less suited (feral cats) may be the primary breeding stock in the future. It’s certainly a conundrum.

Overall, a very interesting book but not a quick, light read. This book and many others on cats, dogs, and other pets are available at the Joplin Public Library, so come down and have a look.