Write With Me by Vanita Oleschalger

Thank you to Netgalley, Vanita Oleschalger, and Newburn Drive for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Journaling offers myriad mental health benefits. It can reduce depression and anxiety, improve decision-making, promote gratitude, enhance creativity, promote goal achievement, improve writing skills, and perhaps even benefit the immune system. Journaling also assists those who have faced a traumatic event. Dr. Shilagh Mirgain explains that it can be difficult to process the event which can be associated with difficult emotions and traumatic thoughts. Journaling can create a personal narrative that provides distance from the trauma and helps explain it (https://www.uwhealth.org/news/the-benefits-of-journaling/4822).

Yet, not all journaling is effective. The Center for Journal Therapy, for example, advocates the W.R.I.T.E. method: What topic, Review/Reflect, Investigate, Time yourself, and Exit smart (https://journaltherapy.com/lets-journal/a-short-course-in-journal-writing/). I find it can be challenging to focus on journaling and even more so to structure effective journaling sessions. For that reason, I was excited to discover Write With Me to Keep What Matters in Mind.

The author provides an invitation to write at the beginning of the book. Thereafter, each double-page spread features a full-page image paired with a quotation on the left page and a blank, lined page for writing on the right. Some of the quotations are from notable figures such as Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Some of the prompts are thought-provoking and I would expect generate a great deal of insight. Standing out to me was the quote by Friedrich Nietzsche, “ He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

Others seemed very specific and applicable only to a narrow range of readers, for example, “I was raised and measured by a God of someone else’s understanding” or “The voices in your head may not be God.”

A third category of prompts seem so broad or tautological that they aren’t useful, e.g., “Nothing happens until something happens.”

“Whenever I am afraid, there is something wrong with ME” and “Forgiveness = giving up all chance to change the past” seem like they could actually be harmful to those utilizing the book.

In two cases, the author uses her own words when it seems it would be more appropriate to attribute the original quotation: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we always had” instead of “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them” by Albert Einstein and “The way out of fear is to go through it” instead of “If you’re going through hell, keep going” by Winston Churchill.

I thought the book would have been much more useful if it included a brief introduction outlining ways to approach journaling effectively. Additionally, the quotations appeared seemingly randomly. I thought it would be more helpful if they were grouped by theme or if they were designed in such a way that the journal-writer would be completing a goal-directed narrative journey.

BOOK REVIEW: Sammy in the Fall by Anita Bijsterbosch

Thank you to NetGalley and Clovis Publishing, Inc. for providing an advance readers copy of this title in exchange for an honest review.

Sammy in the Fall follows kitty Sammy and his horse companion, Hob, as they find adventures on a rainy, fall day. They pick apples, rake leaves, collect chestnuts, jump in rain puddles, and read a book before bed.

I absolutely loved the illustrations. They are colorful and drawn in a style that really appeals to me. The backgrounds are full of details like little animals, birds, and toys, and I can imagine a child exploring the pictures with delight. However, there are some missed opportunities as well. On one page, the text asks the reader to find baby hedgehogs asleep in their nests, but this is the only explicitly interactive prompt in the text.

The books’ weakness is its narrative. Sammy and Hobs engage in a chain of unrelated events, and not all of them are exclusively associated with fall (such as taking a walk, making crafts, or playing in puddles). The story suffers from a lack of a unifying theme.

The hard copy has a half-page feature that hides then reveals illustrations but it was difficult to see this in the e-book.

10,000 Days of Thunder: A History of the Vietnam War by Philip Caputo

Because I have read a lot about the Vietnam War, I was interested in seeing how the conflict would be presented to young readers (ages 9 to 12 according to the publisher). Accordingly, I was not expecting to learn anything new, but I was surprised to discover unknown details.

Caputo presents events in roughly chronological order in extremely short chapters. Each chapter begins with a call-of box of “quick facts.” These were interesting. For example, one described how American children went to school in reinforced buses before the families of men serving in Vietnam were sent home when the country became too dangerous. Another mentions soldiers didn’t wear underwear because of the risk of jungle rot. Some of the material in the call-out boxes was presented like trivia, as in the above examples, but some of the material was a summary of critical information, such as the role that each president from Truman to Ford played. I wished there had been more consistency in that feature.

The book eskews details for a broad presentation. To some extent, this made sense to me because of the audience; however, some of the battles were condensed so much that the description was nearly perfunctory and much of the political intrigue (e.g., the coup against Diem) was omitted entirely. On the other hand, the book included a chapter on the Australian and New Zealand military contributions which is often ignored. Another described naval operations I hadn’t read about before. Caputo also made a clear link between defoliation agents and birth defects (though he unfortunately used the term “mentally retarded”).

The historical facts are augmented with recollections from veterans. Japanese- American Vincent Okamoto, who was later interviewed for Ken Burn and Lynn Novak’s masterful documentary, The Vietnam War, discusses nearly being mistaken for the enemy because of his Asian features. These memories augment the book but I wish that Caputo had included references regarding the sources of the quotations.

10,000 Days of Thunder contains a wealth of photographs, many of which I haven’t seen before, but the quality is uneven.

I also found that Caputo made some unusual if not distressing and biased choices in the narrative. He characterizes Viet Cong and North Vietnamese operations as terrorist attack. He claimed that attacks after the Paris Peace Accords (1973) showed that “North Vietnam had never lost its desire to conquer South Vietnam.” A more accurate description would claim that North Vietnam never lost its desire to unify the country and eliminate foreign influence.In a caption for a photograph of female soldiers of the South Vietnamese People’s Self-Defense Force, he refers to the women as “girls.”

Most disturbingly, I found that Caputo was biased against Johnson and for Nixon. He intimated that if Johnson had been honest with the country, the public would have been behind the war. That assumes (to my mind incorrectly) that there was a legitimate rationale for going to war in Vietnam. Caputo blames the media for the North’s political victory after Tet, faulting them for broadcasting the immediate reactions of soldiers and the damage to the American Embassy in Saigon without offering sufficient analysis. Caputo glossed over Nixon’s misdeeds, including his sabotage of the peace talks prior to the 1968 election.

I also noticed an egregious error. Caputo asserts that General Giap conceptualized and oversaw the 1968 Tet Offensive. In actuality, he was opposed to the operation which was spearheaded by Le Duan who sidelined Giap by sending him to Hungary for medical treatment.

The book concludes with a chapter on the Vietnam Memorial and one on Vietnam today. I found the ending quite abrupt and thought the book would have benefited with a final concluding chapter.

Overall though I had looked forward to reading this book and had greatly enjoyed Caputo’s Rumors of War, because of the biases and incorrect information, I was ultimately disappointed in it.

Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala

Niru, a senior at a prestigious private school in Washington DC has the perfect life. His family moved to the United States from Nigeria. His mother is a doctor, his father a CEO, and his older brother a medical student. Niru is bound for Harvard in the fall. But Niru holds a dark secret—he doesn’t like girls, a sin that would bring shame to his strict family. He keeps this to himself until his best friend Meredith, who has long-harbored a crush on him, falls apart when he won’t respond to her sexual advances. He finally admits that he thinks he’s gay. She installs apps like Tinder on his phone. From these, his father learns of Niru’s sexual orientation and begins a quest to exorcise Niru of the devil homosexuality. Niru is trapped between what he thinks he should be and what he is. Madeline, daughter of DC political insiders, feels pushed away by Niru and nurses her own resentment towards him leading to a violent confrontation.

Certainly, this book was well-written and timely, but I just didn’t like it. I had a difficult time maintaining focus and I disliked virtually ever single character except perhaps the little seen Global Literature teacher Ms. McConnell. With Niru and Meredith being only eighteen, it’s understandable they would make a chain of poor decisions but it’s harder to tolerate the lack of empathy from the adult characters. Although the very end introduces some possibility of reconciliation and redemption, for me, it was too little and too late to redeem the book in my eyes.

#WeRateDogs by Matt Nelson

#WeRateDogs compiles the greatest hits of Matt Nelson’s popular Twitter feed. Nelson rates the dogs (and a couple of other animals, a horse for example) in user-submitted photographs (never lower than 10/10 or 11/10) and writes hilarious captions to go with them. One caption for a yellow lab reads, “Say hello to Winnie. She accidentally opened the front-facing camera, but then realized she’s flawless and proceeded to take more pictures. 13/10 confident af,” (p. 146).

I also love the captions that chastise people for sending “non-dog” photos. “Okay, how did our editor not catch this? We rate dogs, not Yugoslavian Snow Ostriches. Unbelievable. Please be more careful with your submissions next time… 11/10 would still pet,” (p. 16). Of course, there is no such thing as a Yugoslavian Snow Ostrich—the picture is a dog with his head in a hole in a snow-covered yard.

The book is heart-warming and fun. I highly recommend it. While you’re at it, follow #weratedogs on Twitter and Instagram!