Category Archives: Non-Fiction

Q&A With Debbie Stier, author of THE PERFECT SCORE PROJECT

I recently reviewed (and loved) Debbie Stier’s The Perfect Score Project, a book about her year spent studying for and taking the SAT seven times. Debbie graciously agreed to do a Q&A on EDIWTB. Here it is:

debbie-stierQ: At what point in the project did you decide that you would write a book about it? 

A: I started poking around the SAT in the summer of 2010 and was instantly hooked. It took a few weeks before I declared on my blog that wanted to try for a perfect score.  At the time, I was thinking I’d take one SAT!

But then a publisher called and said, “that’s a book,” at which point I came up with a “book structure” i.e. taking every test every time it was offered in 2011 (7 times) at different test locations (5, because I had to repeat a few), and trying out 12 different methods of test prep (i.e. 1 per month).

I was going to write a “consumer report” on the SAT and test prep.

Then, my kids rebelled halfway through and an unanticipated layer was added to the story: how to motivate a teenager to care about the SAT.

Q: This must have been a difficult book to organize, considering that you had so many concurrent efforts going at once. How did you keep everything straight so that you could divide up the topics so neatly into chapters?

A: An author told me to have the structure down before starting to write, which I took seriously and spent months figuring out. The story part of the book is written chronologically, which was easy; trying to figure out the point of each chapter took months of sorting through notes.

After the first draft, I pulled out the “hard [SAT] info” and put it into boxes within the narrative, which freed me up and I was able to tell the story more easily.

Q: Was it difficult to isolate the distinct impact that each study method had on your test-taking ability? 

A: Yes, though I always knew the project was an anecdotal experiment, not scientific.

Q: Has your audience been mostly parents, students, or educators/test industry professionals?

A: I wrote the book with parents in mind and have been surprised that many have given it to their kids to read after finishing. I probably wouldn’t have shared all my “secrets,” had I known there would be teenagers reading!

I also get a lot of email and calls from educators and test industry professionals, which is gratifying. From the reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, the audience seems to be evenly divided between parents, students, educators and test industry professionals.

Q: Did you take time off from your publishing job to do The Perfect Score Project? 

A: Yes! There is no way I could have written a book and held a job at the same time.  I couldn’t even look at the Internet while writing. It took total and utter focus.

Q: You love the SAT, but for most kids it is a dreaded experience that they are happy to put behind them. Given your perspective on the test, do you think it is a useful barometer for colleges to evaluate achievement, ability, and the likelihood of success?

A: I think the SAT is an accurate barometer one’s mastery of the skills tested: reading, writing and math – at one moment in time.  I’m living proof that you can improve significantly, so it’s definitely a test of ability, which is why I don’t think it’s an accurate predictor of “success in life.”

I read one study that said your high school’s SAT average is a better predictor of success in life than your personal SAT score. That seems more accurate to me.

Q: Any more books on the horizon or are you back to your day job?

A: Not sure!

I’m in the midst of writing another book about educating my daughter Daisy (now home schooled), and, she is writing a novel that I’m in the midst of editing.

My guess is that her book and proposal will be finished before mine.

Q: Did you enjoy recording the audio of The Perfect Score Project?

A: I loved it!  I’d do it again in a heartbeat, though I wish I’d taken diction lessons before I recorded it!

Next time!


I am a fiction girl who hasn’t taken a standardized test since the LSAT in 1991. My kids are too young for me to be worried about the SAT yet, which they won’t take for another 7 years. But when Debbie Stier’s The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering The Secrets of the SAT arrived in the mail, I knew I wanted to read it, right away. I had met Debbie at a conference a few years ago and learned about the project and its accompanying blog, and was eager to read the book. I was not disappointed.

The Perfect Score Project is about one year (2011) during which Stier, the mother of a then-high school sophomore, decided that in order to help her son prepare for the SAT, she would take the test all 7 times that it was offered and try every variety of test prep/study method/resource/tutor available to her, whether in person or online. She did it all: Princeton Review, Stanley Kaplan, Kumon, the College Board’s own materials, private tutors, message boards, Skype calls with other SAT-obsessed people across the country, study books, and online courses. Stier, who hadn’t taken the SAT seriously when she herself was in high school, dedicated herself completely to the effort. Each month, she tried a different study method, throwing herself into each new discipline or process with enthusiasm and unflagging energy.

There is a lot to like about The Perfect Score Project. Stier makes a huge amount of information manageable to follow and digest. She’s very organized: each chapter deals with a different component of the SAT (scoring methods, testing locations, etc.) or a study method. There are sections interjected throughout the text with bullets of important information and takeaways, like Essay Advice, SAT Grammar, Guessing, and Five Questions to Ask a Potential Tutor.

Stier is also a good storyteller. This topic could be dry or confusing, but Stier makes it clear, compelling, and even funny. As I mentioned, I am a reader of fiction. I rarely read nonfiction, and when I do, I often have trouble sticking with it. But with The Perfect Score Project, I was eager to get back to it. Stier manages to create suspense – will her scores improve over the course of the year? Does test prep actually work? Will her son get on board? – that kept me very interested.

I respect Stier as well for revealing so much about herself – her SAT scores (which are for many people a closely held secret), as well as her struggles with parenting her teenage children and the spectacularly bad summer that brought their issues to a head. She is unflinchingly honest in The Perfect Score Project, whether she’s talking about her poor math skills or her myopia when it came to getting her son motivated to study.

Finally, I learned a lot. I will definitely return to The Perfect Score Project when my daughters are ready to start studying. There is a lot of good information about how the test prep companies differ and the various tutoring styles available. Stier even spends a chapter on how to choose a testing location. (Hint: fancy private schools aren’t necessarily the way to go.)

The Perfect Score Project was a really fun, informative read. I  mostly listened to it on audio, which was narrated by Stier.  I can’t imagine anyone else speaking her words. It’s such a personal book - I felt like she was riding in the car with me. I have always feared that I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on non-fiction on audio, but I had no problem with The Perfect Score Project.

Depressing-o-meter: 2 (it’s not depressing at all, unless you start thinking about how much you’ve forgotten since high school)

Stier has agreed to do a Q&A on EDIWTB in the coming weeks – stay tuned!

UNREMARRIED WIDOW by Artis Henderson

“Unremarried Widow” is the classification given to military wives who have lost their husbands but not remarried since their deaths. Artis Henderson was in her mid-20s when she met her future husband, Miles, in a dance club in Florida. She was a bit unrooted at the time, hoping to become a writer but without much of a game plan. Her connection with Miles – an Army pilot from Texas – took her by surprise, and she fell in love with him despite her misgivings about marrying into the military. Artis and Miles married just a few months before he was deployed to Iraq, and not long after that his Apache helicopter went down in a sandstorm, killing Miles and his experienced co-pilot.

Unremarried Widow is Henderson’s memoir of her short time with Miles and her grief over his devastating accident. She is unflinchingly honest – about the conflicts they had while he was in Iraq, about her numbness after his death, about her feelings about his fellow soldiers who survived their deployments and returned home. Unremarried Widow is compulsively readable (I devoted a few late nights to this one) and painfully sad. It’s an important book to read, not only for its exploration of grief, but also for its depiction of the sacrifices made by military spouses.

One theme in Unremarried Widow focuses on Henderson’s relationship with her mother, also an unremarried widow. Artis’ father was killed in a plane crash when she was only 5 (she was in the plane with him at the time). Her mother was beyond stoic after losing her husband. Artis describes: “My mother… who I rarely saw cry after my father’s death and who had done such an effective job of erasing him from our lives that he had been lost to me. My mother, who never remarried. Who was permanently, unpardonably alone. Who I had tried my entire life not to become and whose fate, despite my best efforts, I now shared.” Artis’ model of widowhood – her mother -  was not the right model for her, and she had to understand her mother’s perspective before she could turn to her mother for support.

I also found Henderson to be refreshingly offbeat, sort of a free spirit among the regimented Army life that became hers by default. She didn’t toe the line, often to her disadvantage, but she lived an honest life, and loved and appreciated Miles for who he was, including his dedication to the Army.

Increasingly, I find myself drawn to books about military life – I loved You Know When The Men Are Gone and have Sparta, The Yellow Birds, and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk on my TBR list. I thought that Unremarried Widow was an excellent read and I highly recommend it.

I give Unremarried Widow an 8 on the Depressing-O-Meter. Obviously the subject matter is incredibly sad, and Artis’ honest look at loss gives it great depth and power.


I am 80s music-obsessed. (After all, look at the name of my blog.)  When I learned that the original MTV VJs were coming out with a memoir, I knew I had to read it. I don’t read much, if any, non-fiction, but I made a happy exception in this case.

I thoroughly enjoyed VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave, told through the voices of Alan Hunter, Martha Quinn, Mark Goodman, Nina Blackwood, and, posthumously, the late J.J. Jackson. Those five were the original hosts on MTV when the network launched in 1981. Gavin Edwards interviewed the four and threaded together their responses to create a loose narrative detailing the six years after the fledgling network launched.

There’s lots of good behind-the-scenes scoop here – what the musicians who dropped by the studio were like; the parties and concerts the VJs attended while working for MTV; how being revered by millions of high school kids affected their personal lives. It is fun to read about how clueless they all were about MTV was when they took the job, and the impact that they – and the network – eventually had on television, music, and pop culture. The interrelationships between the five, who were were very different but quickly thrust into immediate intimacy, are also pretty interesting. They each adhered to a type – the snobby music critic, the kid, the comedian, etc. – that mostly defined them throughout their tenure together. There are some funny anecdotes about how low-rent the early days were: they rented cars to go to concerts together; they didn’t even get to watch the videos before they talked about them on air; they all shared a dressing room; and they each got a clothing budget of $500 every three months.

I didn’t have cable TV in the 80s (DC was very late to get cable and I was already in college when it finally happened), so I sadly missed the early years of MTV when some of my favorite artists were on heavy rotation. I spent a lot of this book feeling wistful for what could have been: afternoons after school watching Simple Minds, Police and U2 videos and getting to know these VJs as well as so many other American teenagers did.(Instead, I have been relegated to watching 80s videos on YouTube in my 40s after going to reunion tours at the 9:30 Club.)

If you’re still reading this review, then VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave must appeal to you on some level. Give it a try – it’s a light but surprisingly engrossing read about a unique time at the intersection of television and music. MTV will never again be what it once was, nor will the music industry, but VJ: The Unplugged Adventures at least memorializes those bygone days.

In my next life, I want to be a VJ on MTV. (That ain’t working, that’s the way you do it…)


First, I want to announce the winner of the Stella Bain giveaway. Congratulations to Anna from Diary of an Eccentric, who won a copy of Anita Shreve’s latest novel. Thank you to everyone who entered – this was a very popular giveaway!

Second, happy Christmas break! If you’re anything like me, you’re enjoying a slightly less hurried pace, fewer things at home that need to get done (like homework), and the joy of having two weeks off from making lunches. I pack my 9 year-olds’ lunches every morning, and it is one tasks that I don’t look forward to. I have a hard time coming up with creative, healthy foods to pack day after day, and I end up always resorting to the same tired lunches, which has to be pretty boring for my kids. I try to get a protein and a fruit in every day to balance out the carbs, and I am mindful of sugar, but I’m sure the nutritional value of the lunches I pack could be improved.

To the rescue… J.M. Hirsch’s Beating the Lunch Box Blues. Hirsch is the national food editor for the AP and blogs at Lunch Box Blues, where he chronicles the lunches he packs for his son. Beating the Lunch Box Blues is full of ideas for lunches that are definitely better than the lunches I pack, but not out of the realm of the possible. Hirsch describes the book as “a cookbook-meets-flipbook approach to thinking about lunch, allowing you to page through fresh, healthy ideas for awesome, affordable meals”.  He opens with a few ideas to save time – making too much dinner so that leftovers can be packed the next day, trusting crazy ideas like pretzel sandwiches, embracing the thermos, and involving the kids in the whole process.

What follows is like an annotated Pinterest board of lunches that you can peruse and try based on your own aptitude and your kids’ tastes and special dietary needs. I love that some of the lunches are things you might not think to pack in a lunchbox – steamed dumplings, couscous and veggies, tortillas with cheese and corn, shrimp cocktail, or cucumber sandwiches. Hirsch doesn’t bother with recipes – he assumes people know how to make the few-ingredient dishes he features – but he does include beautiful photos that provide guidance about what to pair the lunches with and how to pack them.

The proof is in the pudding: my daughter went through the book and put a post-it on every page that had an idea she liked. Here is what it looks like now:


If, like me, you’re slogging through the mid-year lunch rut, I *highly* recommend picking up a copy of Beating the Lunch Box Blues. It is totally worth it. (You’ll probably even be inspired to pack these lunches for yourself.)

Thank you Simon & Schuster for the review copy of Beating the Lunch Box Blues!


Non-fiction alert!

Just finished Saturday Night Widows by Becky Aikman, which is the chronicle of a year in the lives of six unlikely women who came together to help each other through a challenge they each faced: widowhood. Aikman, a widow in her mid-40s, struggled to find other women in her shoes who could help her deal with her grief and find a way to move forward. She tried a support group but found herself out of place among older, grieving women who were not interested in moving on and reestablishing their lives. So she decided to form her own group. She networked and found five other women who had recently lost their husbands, and formed a group to see whether they might be able to help each other.

The Saturday Night Widows – Becky, Tara, Dawn, Lesley, Denise and Marcia – were very different from each other. Some had kids, some had moved on to new relationships. Their husbands had died in different ways – cancer, heart attack, suicide, alcoholism, accident. Yet they had open minds and hearts, and building on monthly meetings (usually on Saturday nights), they ended up forming a tight bond that continues to this day. They discussed all of the difficult topics they were facing – what to do with their husbands’ possessions; how to handle dating; how to afford living in expensive Manhattan apartments on one salary. They pushed themselves to try new things – spas, lingerie shopping, cooking classes – all the while relying on each other for support, honesty, and moments of levity that were badly needed.

I was worried that Saturday Night Widows might be boring, but it wasn’t. I liked how Aikman teased out each woman’s story (including her own), weaving them through the year of monthly Saturday meetings, which provided the narrative infrastructure of the book. I enjoyed learning about each woman and how her individual arc of grief both differed from and mirrored that of other group members. Most of all, I liked these real, relatable women. I suspect that the book skips over a lot of the more private issues these women faced, but there was enough in here to give the reader a really good sense of who they were and what widowhood is like.

I discovered Aikman’s public Facebook page last night, and it was fun to see photos of the Saturday Night Widows and some recent updates about their lives. It’s rare to have the opportunity to follow up with characters in a book after you finish them, so this was a treat. I look forward to more updates on the page.

Finally, I started Saturday Night Widows on audio but thankfully transitioned to the print version about 1/3 of the way through. I can’t recommend the audio. The narrator is way too perky and upbeat – she’s a terrible match for the subject matter of Saturday Night Widows. She sounds like she should be narrating children’s books, not a memoir about widowhood. And her individual depictions of the six women were very exaggerated. I was so glad to switch to the print and let Aikman’s voice shine through, not the perky narrator’s.

I really enjoyed Saturday Night Widows and look forward to keeping up with these remarkable women via social media!

Guest Review: SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED by Anne Lamott

You know how when some bloggers go on vacation or maternity leave, they line up guest posts so that their blog won’t go dark during that whole time? Well, I’m neither on leave nor on vacation, but this blog has been darker than I’d like these last few weeks. Thank you to Nancy Shohet West for sending me a guest review for EDIWTB to help brighten things up!

Here is Nancy’s review of Some Assembly Required by Anne Lamott:

Back when my friends and I were in that typical early-30′s phase of either trying to conceive, going through pregnancy, or at the very least contemplating our proximity to one of the aforementioned categories, Anne Lamott’s newly published memoir of single parenting, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, was all the rage. Many of us were already big fans of her novels and essays, and we devoured her poignant, brutally honest, sometimes painful and often humorous account of deciding to become a first-time mother at the age of 36.

So I imagine I’m not the only reader who did a double take last year when I glimpsed the headline of the book review stating that Anne Lamott had just published a memoir of grandparenting. Sure, Baby Sam Lamott has made recurring appearances in his mother’s published essays throughout the years as he progressed through the adventures and phases of boyhood and adolescence. But fatherhood? Has time really passed so quickly that the infant from Operating Instructions is old enough to be a father?

Well, yes…. and no. And therein lies the hook of Lamott’s newest memoir, Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son (the title itself deserves a prize for cleverness, in my opinion). Indeed, not so very many years have gone by at all since the first book: Sam became a father at age 19; his sort-of girlfriend Amy was 20 at the time. He was an art student living on his mother’s dime in a San Francisco studio apartment; she was a cosmetologist receiving support from her own parents; their relationship pre-baby was mercurial. And as just about everyone likely to pick up this memoir knows, new babies are not known for making tempestuous relationships get easier.

But the elder Lamott tells the story of her grandson’s infancy and first year with the same admirable candor that marked her own memoir of parenthood. Back then, those who liked the book — not everyone did — celebrated her rough-edged honesty about both the magical and the abhorrent aspects of coping under difficult circumstances with a new life; the good news is that Lamott hasn’t changed much. She still worries about the health, well-being, and financial viability of a new infant — while also adoring him for his beauty, innocence, and perfection; and she still draws heavily upon a network of friends and faith community to help her through the hard times, only this time it’s with her grandson rather than her son.

Yes, she’s still the same funny, anxiety-prone, insecure, mystical Anne Lamott that she was twenty years ago, and this is both the good news and the bad news. Those of us who savor her blend of casual, profane and profound insights into life will find her unchanged… and yet once in a while I was tempted to implore, “You’re a 56-year-old best-selling internationally renowned author! Can’t you shed just a little of the insecurity and self-doubt?”

But she can’t, because that’s who she is and who she has always been. She’s been willing to share that with us for the past three decades, and now, with the new challenge of being a good grandmother, mother-to-an-adult-child, and pseudo-mother-in-law (the status of Amy and Sam’s relationship remains tenuous throughout the book; for the curious, Google makes it easy enough to find out what has happened with them in the two years since the book ended), she’s still sharing. She dotes; she frets; she loves; she questions; she prays. Yes, Anne Lamott is a flawed, imperfect work-in-progress… as we all are, and as she would be the first to tell us about herself.