Blog-o! Notes from

Tue, 02 Jan 2007

Since I last posted I have started making notes on the books I read in an old-fashioned paper-and-pen notebook, which is part of the reason I haven't posted about books; I feel like I've thought about the books quite enough between reading them and then making notes, I don't really want to face them again in the blog. So I am trying to decide if I should give up blogging about books at all. On the one hand I feel as if books are the only thing of substance I write about, and I sort of like putting my reading list out there and sharing the finds and the books to avoid; I know there is at least one person who gets ideas about books to read from my list. On the other hand I don't know if anyone else particularly cares what I read and what I think about it, so maybe it's not worth blogging about and I should stick to the paper book log.

Anyway, all that aside I would like to write about what I read in the rest of 2006, for completeness.

The Baby Project by Sarah Ellis is a young adult novel about a teenage girl who gets an unexpected baby sister, and how the new addition pulls the family apart and together.

SPOILER: Of course there is the obligatory tragedy which forces everyone to confront their demons and become better people. Tragedies in young adult fiction often seem to heavy-handed and morose and obvious. "We must have something terrible happen to these people to move the character development forward." As opposed to the tragedy happening because tragedies happen, which I suppose happens in life, but I feel like fiction should be a little more sensible. I don't know how an author finesses that fine line of having things happen to move the novel forward without it being obvious that this thing is happening to move the novel forward, but it's nice when they manage it. Which Ellis didn't here, but otherwise it's a good story with well-drawn characters.

Reading Series Fiction by Victor Watson seemed like a nice complement to the book about reading like a professor. It's about series fiction for children, which apparently is an under-studied genre in the world of children's literature. Watson gives a nice overview, with lots of analysis of various series, as well as effectively skewering Enid Blyton. This is a must-read for anyone who is interested in children's literature.

Confessions of an Organized Homemaker by Deniece Schofield is a book about how to get organized. I can't remember the layout or concept of this book, but I wrote down a bunch of good ideas from it, like keeping jigsaw puzzle pieces in big Ziploc baggies and getting rid of the boxes (which always fall apart, don't stack nicely and generally make life hard); keeping all dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, rice, etc) in Tupperware containers which stack neatly, rather than in the original packaging (of course I use cheap and cheerful Gladware instead). This was a useful book with lots of similar good ideas.

Johnny Kellock Died Today by Hadley Dyer is a young adult novel set in Halifax in the fifties. I don't remember much about this apart from a favourable impression and appealing characters, and another tragedy but a much more finely drawn and subtle one.

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert is a book about what makes people happy. This is very nicely written; I enjoyed reading it not just for the content but for the author's voice. It's an interesting book about where happiness comes from, what makes us happy, how we deal with tragedy, and how to make decisions that will make us happy in the future. It's probably a good idea for everyone to read this book. Everyone who wants to be happy, anyway.

The Car and the City by Alan Thein Durning is an overview of how cars and cities work together, or rather how they don't work together, and how we can create cities which improve our lives and lessen our dependence on cars (which are pretty much synonymous in my mind). Useful book, easy to read.

The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy Boston and Autumn Term by Antonia Foster are both discussed in the aforementioned Reading Series Fiction book. Green Knowe is about a little boy who is sent to live with an ancient relative in a spooky old house, and the friends he makes there; Autumn Term is an excellent representative of the English Boarding School genre. Both are very good and I will suggest the girls read them when they are older.

I did not finish Allergy: History of a Modern Malady by Mark Jackson. I thought it would be more chatty, more lighthearted, but it turned out to be a dense discussion of the history of allergies in medicine, and I gave up after a couple of chapters.

Blue Shoes and Happiness by Alexander McCall Smith and Cold Moon by Jeffrey Deaver were good easy reading.

The March of Unreason: Science, Democracy and the New Fundamentalism by Dick Taverne is a really nice comparison of anti-scientific doctrines and beliefs with the old religious fundamentalism. Taverne discusses the role of the media and post-modernist thought in the mongering of fear of such diverse bugaboos as multinational companies, pesticide, genetic modification, and modern medicine. His arguments are sound and this book is very thought-provoking. It's also nice to think that one doesn't have to go around being scared and cynical all the time.

Kindred by Octavia Butler is an awesome book. It's about a modern (well, seventies) black woman who is sent back in time to the slavery-era South to save a white man who will become her ancestor. Imagine the best possible book with that scenario, and that's what Butler has written. I am glad to have found this author because she wrote a lot, and you know I am always running out of things to read.

I didn't read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell because I wanted to, but because every else in the world has read it and I felt left out. I'm glad I did, though, because it's interesting and Gladwell is always a pleasure to read. It's more of that same brain stuff like in Stumbling on Happiness and The Paradox of Choice, and the more I know about how the brain works the more in control I feel, and the more I understand about the world.

The Fourth Horseman by Andrew Nikiforuk was really disappointing. It's a book about plagues and pandemics, and I love a good plague. One of my favourite units in History was on the Black Death. But in my notebook I wrote "A discussion of various plagues and pandemics through the ages, fatally marred by the author's disdain for doctors, technology, and facts." It's a weird book; at one point Nikiforuk talks with disgust about how underwear was originally worn to protect more valuable outer garments from body soil. Isn't that why we wear underwear now? I mean, except Paris Hilton, for whom outerwear is underwear. He also goes into a wistful reverie about the good old days when half of children born didn't make it to age five, and old people were really respected because there weren't so many of them. He speaks with disdain about the "germ theory" of disease, the radical theory that microorganisms are the cause of many diseases. And a cornerstone of modern medicine. I think Nikiforuk is a kook in journalist's clothing; this book was a jarring contrast the The March of Unreason.

Little People: Learning to See The World Through My Daughter's Eyes by Dan Kennedy is a book by the father of a little girl born with achondroplagic dwarfism, about his journey to understand why she was born different and what that means for her future and for the world she will live in. It was an interesting book and a good read. It was also fun to read the bits about the Roloffs, because I know you watch Little People, Big World every week like I do. Or at least you should.

Break No Bones by Kathy Reichs is better than the last one — she's back to her usual formula and it's working. Although I hope she resolves this husband/boyfriend love triangle thing, it's starting to drag on.

So that was a lot of books and it took me a really long time to write about them; was it worth it? I don't know; I'm just really tired.

[Posted at 23:45 by Amy Brown] link
Mon, 11 Sep 2006

I feel like I haven't updated for ages, but it has only been a couple of weeks. But what did I read? I was working on A Son of the Circus by John Irving for a while, but I got stuck on it. I think I am trying too hard to look for symbolism and subtext and stuff and not just blasting through the story like I usually do. Or else it's just not very interesting, I am not sure which. I'll get back to it sometime.

After I gave up on that I read Bloodletting And Miraculous Cures by Vincent Lam, a collection of connected stories about a group of medical students in Toronto. I quite enjoyed these stories; Lam is an effective writer with a nice turn of phrase, and I enjoyed getting a glimpse into the lives of medical students and doctors. (Lam is a Toronto doctor as well as a writer.)

And I feel like I must have read some more but I guess blocking on the Irving book just felt like reading a lot.

I am trying to work on keeping notes when I read but mostly I forget to do it. I am not sure how to take notes when I read fiction; what should I write down? I think I will try noting when I think something is an image or a metaphor, and then go back and try and figure out what it means later. With non-fiction I really need to make a note at the end of each chapter on what the chapter was about. I recently recommended a book to a friend; she ended up hating it but it has been so long since I read it that I can barely remember what I liked about it. So I just had to nod; "yeah, book sucks. Right."

Must... get... smarter...

[Posted at 10:21 by Amy Brown] link
Fri, 25 Aug 2006

The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping our children thrive when the world overwhelms them by Elaine Aron. After Delphine decided she hated music class because the leader was too loud, a friend recommended I read this book. It is about the 15 to 20 percent of children who are apparently highly sensitive, and how to parent them effectively without making them miserable.

So is Delphine highly sensitive? Kind of... she's unusually sensitive to noises, and to the emotional state of others. Combine the two and logically you could determine that she is very sensitive to noisy expressions of emotion, as we saw at the music class and as Baba's friend Ann found out. (She had cause to gasp loudly in surprise in Delphine's presence once; Delphine cried a lot, and ever since then Delphine has periodically mentioned, "Ann shouted, and then I cried. Why did Ann shout?")

It does make her easy to discipline by shouting at her, but I'm not a big proponent of the "Discipline by Scaring the Shit out of your Child" method, so I try to avoid it. (Easier said than done, since shouting is what I do when I'm angry, and getting angry is what I do when I'm depressed, and depressed is what I get alarmingly easily, it seems. More about that later, though.)

Delphine's not sensitive to other things that the book discusses though; she doesn't care if her food touches, and she isn't bothered by tags on clothing or seams on socks or tactile annoyances of that nature. Thank goodness, because it seems like it would be irritating to have to work around those kinds of sensitivities. I am quite sympathetic to Delphine's sensitivities because I think I share them (I will read the adult version of the book sometime and see) and so I can quite easily understand her and figure out what is going to upset her, especially now that I have read this book and know what patterns and situations to watch for.

I wouldn't read this book if you don't think you have a sensitive child, because that would be borrowing trouble — if you don't have to worry about this stuff I would strongly recommend you don't. But if you think your child might be sensitive, or seems to react disproportionately to certain situations, this book is probably worth a look.

Vices of My Blood by Maureen Jennings is a murder mystery set in Victorian Toronto, which is just brilliant. I love getting a picture of what Toronto was like in the past, and Jennings does a great job painting that picture. The characters are appealing and the mystery was good; what more can you ask?

How To Read Literature Like A Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide To Reading Between The Lines by Thomas C. Foster. I am frankly a little pissed off that I haven't read this book before. I have been hinting around needing a book like this for ages — when I read How To Read and Why by Harold Bloom, I thought it really failed to discuss the How part. This book does.

The book is a high-level discussion of the symbolism found in literature: every trip is a quest; eating is always significant, usually of communion or trust among the eaters; weather is usually about something other than weather; and so on. Foster also discusses sonnets, and briefly (one chapter each) touches on Shakespeare, the Bible, Children's Literature, and mythology (mainly Greek) as precursors or fodder for allusions or roots or — there must be a word for this but I can't think of it — anyway, stuff that writers allude or refer to in order to enrich their text. Foster discusses intentionality (did the author really mean that to be a symbol/allusion/pattern? Answer: yes.) and irony, and then caps the whole thing off with a short story to practice your newfound skills on.

I love this book. I might buy a copy. It makes me wish I had read it before I read Cat's Eye because I am sure I missed a whole lot in that book by just reading for plot. But I have the rest of my life to try and read more deeply.

It made me think, though. First, reading like a professor seems like a lot of work; you have to keep track of symbols, you have to look for patterns, you have to try and figure out where you have seen this story or this character before, you are always looking for the next layer or layers of meaning below the simple action and dialogue in the story. And is it worth it? Do you really get that much more out of the book? I guess you do, or else no-one would bother.

And then, after you have been doing that for a few years and get good at it and do it automatically, mustn't it be horribly disappointing when you pick up a normal book, a potboiler someone left at the cottage or something, and you keep trying to find depths of meaning that just aren't there?

Like when you are used to watching Buffy and Firefly, and you watch a regular show and you realize that the enticing hints being dropped will never be picked up on, that the characters really are as one-dimentional as they seem, that the really obvious foreshadowing is actually just plain foreshadowing and not the clever misdirect you assumed it would be.

It must be like when you drink Manischewitz kosher wine and at first it tastes like sweet grape juice and you are waiting for the hit of spiciness or mellowness or depth that you would get if it were a good wine, like maybe ice wine... but instead it just turns sour and flat.

And another thing. The short story he gives as an example to practice on. It's a lovely story and being the simple-minded lass I am, I enjoyed it for the characters and the plot and the setting. Then I re-read it and tried to find the symbolism and allusions and the meaning, and I came up with a couple of pretty good insights. Then I read the professor's interpretation, and as it turns out the end of the story is a big huge, kind-of-obvious reference to Persephone's journey into Hades which I entirely missed, not surprisingly because I know nothing about Greek mythology (although Foster did helpfully present the myth earlier in the book, so I can't entirely plead ignorance.)

But now I have this idea that reading like a professor is like solving a riddle, and that in this case I have failed. I know that isn't entirely true; I'm sure that having been able to see that allusion contributes to one's appreciation of the story and therefore it is valuable, but I enjoyed the story for what I got out of it without making that connection. But I can't help but feel like I got it wrong, somehow, and that I have to "solve" each piece of literature as if it were a mathematical problem.

Thus I conjure up an image of myself poring through heaps of classics trying to figure out the hidden meaning, and triumphantly snapping each one closed and setting it aside as I "decode" it. "Figured out that one! Next!" Which I am sure is not the point.

[Posted at 10:42 by Amy Brown] link
Fri, 11 Aug 2006

It has been way too long since I did this, and I have read about a thousand books. I hope I don't miss any.

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell is a book I read before. Since we own a copy, and it seems to be a book that is still being referred to quite a lot (notably in Child's Play by Silken Laumann) I thought I would give it another whirl. It's still an interesting and thought-provoking book about the reasons why people do things, and I am glad I gave it another read.

It was alarming, though, to realize how little of it I recalled from the last time I read it. It made me realize again how little I actually absorb of the books I read. So I have started taking notes while I read, which is incredibly geeky, but it's such a waste of time to read so much and not really take any of it in. Plus it's an excuse to buy myself some cool notebooks and pens. (The real reason I had children is so I could buy school supplies every August.)

Porgy by DuBose Heyward. I got this out of the library because it was mentioned on the flap of the dustjacked of a wonderful picture-book rendition of the lyrics to Gershwin's "Summertime", and I was intrigued that Porgy and Bess started off as a novel. A few pages into the book I was tempted to give up on it because of the annoying phonetic handling of vernacular ("Yo' bes sabe yo' talk for dem damn dice.") which makes the book nigh-unreadable until you get used to it, and that creepy early-1900s racism ("Crown was crouched for a second spring, with lips drawn from gleaming teeth. The light fell strong upon thrusting jaw, and threw the sloping brow into shadow.") But for all that I kept going because I wanted to know what happened next, and I was interested in the characters, and it turned out to be an enjoyable and thought-provoking read, with a couple of excellent turns of plot.

When Anger Hurts Your Kids: A Parent's Guide by Patrick Fanning, Kim Paleg, Dana Landis, and Matthew McKay. I ordered this book from the library because I have some trouble controlling my temper, and when I get angry I tend to do the kind of mean things to my children which appall me when I see other people do them on television. Nothing terrible, and I don't think it is bad enough to do any irreparable harm, but I still don't like to be an asshole parent, even just on occasion. Especially since every mean thing I do to Delphine, she turns around and does to Cordelia. Nothing quite like the mirror of a child's mimicry to show you how you really are.

So this book had some useful advice, most of which I already knew. It covered a lot of information about what to expect from children at different ages — apparently a lot of people who get angry at their children do it because they have unreasonable expectations. That's not my problem, I have a pretty good handle on normal childhood development. There was also information about how to talk to yourself about a situation; instead of saying to yourself, "She's dawdling to get on my nerves, she knows we are running late and she is deliberately sabotaging me", you should say "she is at a stage where she doesn't like to be hurried, I need to give her lots of warning,..." But I don't see Delphine as vindictive or deliberately difficult, either. So that's not my problem, either.

My problem is that I get irritated when I ask her to do something and she doesn't, and that she is at a stage where she is defiant towards me specifically because I am her mother, because she is asserting her independence from me. So I tell her to do something, and she automatically says "no" because that is the stage she is in. Which is all well and good, but sometimes I am just not up to jollying her along and distracting her and offering reasonable choices, sometimes I just damn well want her to do what I tell her to, and now. So I shout at her. My problem is that I need to get more sleep and to not be in constant physical pain, or fear of it, so that I have the patience to deal with her. The better news is that she seems to be moving out of that defiant phase into something a little more reasonable.

Clean and Green: The Complete Guide to Non-Toxic and Environmentally Safe Housekeeping by Annie Berthold-Bond. I have been looking for a useful book on hippie housecleaning ever since the smell of my usual all-purpose cleaner started to make me feel ill. I read a couple that were useless, and then I got to this one, which is about perfect. It goes over all the ingredients you will need to make your own safe(ish) cleaning supplies, discussing what they are and how they work, and then offers about a million recipes for each application. I used to seek the one perfect recipe for each product (all-purpose cleaner, tub scourer, etc) but I think this way is better, since it allows you to tailor your cleaners to your needs.

Anyway, I liked this book so much that I went out and bought a copy, and it now lives in my kitchen for easy reference at any time. I like how making your own cleaning products brings an element of creativity to the cleaning process.

The only concern I have with this book is that it treats Borax as if it were as non-toxic as vinegar and baking soda, which it really isn't.

The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey.

This book is a collection of essays, one for each team in the World Cup finals, about football and the countries themselves and how they relate. Some of the essays are more about football, some of them are more about the country, some of them aren't really about either, but most of them are good and interesting and added another dimension to the whole World Cup experience.

I had this on order from the library months ago, but it only came in just before the end of the World Cup. I managed to squeeze in a couple of essays — Italy and France, of course, and Brazil and England — before the Final. The Brazil essay, by John Lanchester, has a wonderful description of why football is such a beautiful game, and so thrilling and hard to watch:

That's what you learn, as soon as you start to play and watch football: that football is difficult and beautiful, and that the two are related. Players kick the ball to one another, pass into empty space which is suddenly filled by a player who wasn't there two seconds ago and who is running at full pelt and who without looking or breaking stride knocks the ball back to a third player who he surely can't have seen who then, also at full pelt and without breaking stride, crosses the ball at sixty miles an hour to land on the head of a fourth player who has run seventy meters to get there and who, again all in stride, jumps and heads the ball with, once you realize how hard this is, unbelieveable power and accuracy toward a corner of the goal just exactly where the goalkeeper, executing some complex physics entirely without conscious thought and through muscle-memory, has expected it to be, so that all this grace and speed and muscle and athleticism and attention to detail and power and precision passion comes to nothing, will never appear on a score-sheet or match report and will likely be forgotten a day later by everybody who saw it or took part in it. This is the beauty and also the strange fragility, the evanescence of football.

Access All Areas by Ninjalicious is a book about urban exploration, which is the fine art of going places you're not supposed to go, mainly abandoned buildings or parts of buildings, construction sites, drainage systems, and the like. This book is very well-written; Ninjalicious (if that is his real name!) is funny, persuasive, passionate, and strongly moral, which makes it all the more miserable that he died (almost exactly a year ago) of some stupid liver disease. So donate your organs, people, you won't need them after you're dead.

Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic by John De Graaf, David Wann, and Thomas H. Naylor is a book which I'm sure I must have read years ago in my anti-establishment, screw-The-Man days, but which I don't remember at all. It is all about how Americans decided sometime in the fifties to put money and things before time, so now we (they) are all working their asses off to earn plenty of money to buy things they don't have time to enjoy, and how stupid is that?

They covered some very interesting material about philosophical insights into leisure time; the fact that this stuff is new to me suggests that I didn't actually read this book before, because I am all about the leisure and I am sure I would have remembered it if I had come across it. Apparently plenty of very intelligent people have thought long and hard about the need to take time away from work and walk around or read or garden or mess about in boats. I thought I was just lazy, but no, I was walking in the intellectual footsteps of some of the greatest thinkers in history.

The authors tend to profligately blame affluenza for all the troubles of our time, from obesity to pollution, which is mostly fair but gets a little hysterical after eight chapters. Anyway, thought-provoking, interesting, I give it two thumbs up.

Bringing Back The Dodo by Wayne Grady This is a collection of essays about nature and science, quite interesting although some of Grady's pet theories are pretty useless; the man desperately needs to read Guns, Germs and Steel. When he's not theorizing he's smart and readable.

Devil May Care by Sheri McInnis is a fluffy beach read which I actually read on a beach; possibly a lifetime first for me. (I didn't care much for beaches before I had children. Don't care much for them now, really.) A pleasant read with an interesting meta-physical twist and a surprisingly ambiguous conclusion.

Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood was more enjoyable than I thought it would be. (I just read it because I'm Canadian and I should and it's good for me, kind of like I eat Red River Cereal. Chew, chew, chew, chew.) It was a bit hard to read as the mother of girls — is this what they're in for? But I really (really, painfully) related to the protagonist's attitude to men and women, and after I decided not to read it at the cottage but save it for the city, I really got into it. (It's not really a cottage book; too depressing, too much thought required.)

A Thousand Barrels A Second: The Coming Oil Break Point and the Challenges Facing An Energy Dependent World by James Tertzakian. There's one of those self-explanatory sub-titles for you. This is the more sane version of that The Long Emergency book by James Kunstler I read last year; Tertzakian thinks we are coming to a break point in the oil economy — there is a limited supply of oil, and soon it will become too expensive to fuel our economy in the manner to which we have all become accustomed. Kunstler figures there is going to be some kind of post-industrial revolution, millions will die and the rest of us will go back to living in the Shire; Tertzakian thinks the change will be slow enough to allow us to adapt, with some difficulty, and that technology will ultimately save the day.

I am leaning towards Tertzakian's view, if only because it is a little less scary. I think life is going to become drastically different in the next few decades, and I think the twentieth century will be looked on as one of unparalleled energy consumption, but I think we will be able to make the transition to a less energy-intensive society without too much pain, at least here in nice stable Canada. I also think cheap, consumer airplane travel will sooner or later be history, so do your international trips now before the government gets smart and starts taxing aviation fuel like they should.

Blake and I are sitting pretty in this whole situation because we have, almost accidentally, made a life for ourselves which is much less oil-intensive than the average North American's. We don't have a car, Blake bikes to work, I can do all my errands without even using public transit. I buy local produce as much as I can, and lean towards organics where practical. We live in a multi-family dwelling, so we don't spend as much on heating as we would in a house. All in all, when the revolution (or evolution) comes, it is going to be much less painful for us than it will for the Joe Suburb family who live miles away from the grocery store and need two cars just to carry on their business.

How Not To Be The Perfect Mother by Libby Purves. I had to buy this from Amazon because the Toronto Public Library doesn't have a copy, except in Cantonese. It arrived yesterday, just in the nick of time because I needed a morale boost. Libby Purves is a mother of two who tells is like it is. Like it really is. On breast feeding:

Let nobody kid you that breastfeeding is not going to be hell at first. That mammary lobbyists are so keen to promote 'breast is best' (well, it is) that many of them have tended to slide rather dishonestly over the discomfort and exhaustion of the first weeks. Consequently, I suspect, a lot of willing mothers give up, convinced that they are rare cases who 'can't do it'. And indeed, anyone with throbbing, bleeding nipples, dreadful heavy swollen red bosoms, sharp needling letdown pains and a baby who still demands feeding every hour and a half at six weeks old, is entitled to any tantrum she cares to throw. I remember waking my husband up at 3 a.m. one painful morning with the words, 'Shall I tell you something? I hate bloody breastfeeding, that's what!' There are many paintings of the Madonna and Child, but in none of these has the feeding Madonna got her teeth clenched and her toes curled, as the dreadful infant mouth takes its first agonizing drag.

She makes mothering a baby sound like the cross between the appalling annoyance and the jolly adventure that it really is (often in the same hour,) and it's such a relief to know that I am not the only one who finds it so.

Another great advantage of handing new babies around to everybody ('The milk bill? Ah, yes, I'll just find the money — take the baby, would you?') is that new babies need to be talked to. And you may not feel like doing it. Next to the section on 'bonding' in the baby books, there is generally a paean of praise for mothers who talk all the time to their babies, maintain 'eye contact', allow infants to study their faces endlessly, and stick out their tongues to test reflexes. This is fine, when you have the time and if you are fortunate enough to have developed an instant adoration of the baby. If you are busy, or tired, or depressed at your life with this unsmiling little creature which gives nothing back and wakes you up four crippling times a night, the task of chatting to it may loom as unwelcome as all the other hundred jobs you have to do in your twenty-four-hour day. Despite underlying love, I hated talking to my second child for nearly two months; she never smiled until then, and I was exhausted, ill, and in constant jealous demand from the older child.

Just to read someone admit that other mothers sometimes feel this way is immensely reassuring and makes the whole business a lot easier to deal with. Babies are hard, dude. Okay, just one more quote (I love this woman; I would just retype this whole book if it wouldn't be faster to lend it to you):

When my son was four weeks old, he had only been to three places in his life: hospital, home and the Olympia Horse Show. We had friends with a box, and permanent guest tickets, and the baby's godfather John Parker was driving his coach-and-four in the final tableau and taking a team of Hungarian greys through an avenue of fire. So every single night I set off across London with the basket, wearing a loose-fitting lurex top to combine the constant feeding with a gesture towards glamour; and every night, in the box, Nicholas lay in state while friendly drunken Scotsmen lurched up to press lucky pound notes into his fist. He smiled at everyone, fed contentedly, and dozed off while Dorian Williams bawled his commentary on the show-jumping across the vast arena below. 'Thank God,' the baby seemed to be saying, his beady eyes swivelling busily around the scene, 'someone has at last understood my requirements.' All he had ever wanted, to keep him passably amused, was ten thousand people, four military bands, two hundred horses and a boxful of tipsy admirers.

[Posted at 14:58 by Amy Brown] link
Wed, 21 Jun 2006

In Your Face: The Culture of Beauty and You by Shari Graydon is a beauty myth primer for teens, and as such didn't really tell me anything I didn't already know, although I think it did me good to be reminded of this stuff. I've been watching too much What Not To Wear and am starting to think that it's good and right to want to be pretty all the time.

Risk: A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You by David Ropeik and George Gray. This is really what it claims to be: a practical guide. It's a huge list of everything you think is scary -- radiation, electromagnetic waves, pesticide residue, tap water -- with discussions of how scared you should actually be, and why, and what you can do to protect yourself. This would be a handy reference book to keep around the house.

An Intelligent Person's Guide to Judaism by Shmuel Boteach. (Actually now I'm not sure whether I got the 1999 edition by "Shmuel" or the 2006 edition by "Shmuley". I wonder what else changed...) I got this because I am vaguely interested in Judaism and also because I love Shmuley's show on TLC. As it turns out, Judaism is pretty cool but I can't get past the believing in God requirement. I guess that's a pretty fundamental part of this whole Abrahamic religion thing but I just can't do it.

Some other thoughts: Shmuley doesn't like Ashkenazi culture. What's wrong with knishes? What's wrong with klezmer? Nothing, that's what!

The part refuting the Christian idea of suffering being a means to better oneself threw me for a loop because I realized I have bought that concept entirely. When someone claims that their suffering made them stronger I nod agreeably; it had never even occurred to me that it might not be so. I'm still not sure that it is always false; I think that some suffering is good for you. Where Shmuley and I may differ is in the scale of the suffering under consideration; he is talking about being, say, imprisoned and used for creepy medical experimentation where I am thinking more of, say, not having a TV in your bedroom.

The whole section about women was a little creepy. I'm just not sure where I stand on the whole gender thing these days. Having read Gender Wars (and having a working brain) I know that women are not identical to men; being a feminist I believe that women are legally, morally and in every other way equal to men; being a mathematician I know that the differences between men and women in most meaningful scales are less significant than the variation within either group; being a parent I believe that someone has to put the home and family first and their career second. Shmuley thinks that the woman is most biologically suited to that role, but I don't think that's so. Shmuley also says women are naturally more spiritual than men, gentler, more compassionate, smell better -- a lot of nice things which make me think maybe I am being patronized. Maybe not, though, perhaps I am over-sensitive and suspicious.

Anyway, I will read some more Shmuley books and see how they are.

Better House and Planet by Marjorie Harris is a book about how to keep your house in an environmentally sensitive manner. It's actually one of those "1000 Household Tips"-type books that were popular in the eighties. I took it out because I wanted some tips on cleaning without using nasty cleaning products, but this book is more like a big game of "Bullshit or not?!" A sliced avocado won't brown if you don't take the stone out: bullshit or not? Bullshit! I can't remember any more, but this book had a concentration of about one urban legend per two pages.

Very disappointing, and I still don't know how to clean without using nasty products. Maybe I will just use vinegar for everything.

The World's Best Street & Yard Games by Glen Vecchione is a collection of all the cool games you played (or didn't play, in my case) when you were a kid, and lots more besides. Games for when you are feeling rowdy or when you are all dressed up and can't get dirty; games for day and games for night; games for the sidewalk and games for the park. It's an excellent collection, and it made me wish the girls would hurry up and grow up so we could play.

Cross Bones by Kathy Reichs. Another good Kathy Reichs, although again her sentence fragments — and paragraphs consisting entirely of a single sentence fragment — got on my nerves. And this time her "my subconscious is trying to tell me something" shtick that she does at the end of every book she writes annoyed me as well. (Then Jeffrey Deaver did it in his book too — do all mystery writers do it and I just never noticed before? Surely not.)

But what annoyed me most of all was how much they screwed up this character and the stories when they made the TV series Bones. It's like they threw out everything that was good about the books, threw in David Boreanaz and half-baked the whole thing. Is that show even still on?

Naked by David Sedaris is very funny and good, although his constant moaning about what a sad loser he is is a bit of a demotivator when after all, he is the one who wrote the book and there you are sitting at home reading it. If he's a sad loser, what does that make you? I don't really know how he went from being a sad loser to having his book on my shelf, but there you go.

Incidentally, if you like this you might like the David Rakoff book I read a while ago; they are both gay New Yorkers named David who do weird things and write about them amusingly.

When You Lunch With The Emperor by Ludwig Bemelmans. Anyone who has read to Delphine knows that Ludwig Bemelmans is the Madeline guy, but apparently he also wrote books for grown-ups. This is a collection of his autobiographical essays; witty, cutting but not catty, poignant, favourable adjective, favourable adjective. I will read more of his stuff eventually; you should too.

Twelfth Card by Jeffrey Deaver. This is a Lincoln Rhyme book; if you remember the movie The Bone Collector, it was an adaptation of an earlier Lincoln Rhyme book starring Denzel Washington as Lincoln Rhyme in an unusual spot of race-blind casting. Unfortunately it caused me some mild confusion at the beginning of this book, because the Lincoln Rhyme in the book is not only white but is required by the plot to be somewhat ignorant of black culture. Once I sorted out the "he's actually white" thing I was fine.

The book was heavy on information, with lots of clunky sentences like "Mel Cooper lifted several samples off the tape and ran them through the gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer, the workhorse instrument in all forensic labs. It separates unknown trace into its component parts and then identifies them." Smooth, but then I suppose you have to get that information out somehow, and I would rather the author just blurt it out rather than giving it to a character as some crude expository dialogue: "Mrs. Jones, this is a gas chromatograph slash mass spectrometer. Perhaps you already know that it is the workhorse..."

I supposed the "romance" between Sachs and Rhyme (or as I think of them, Angelina and Denzel) is developed in one of the earlier books, but in this book I just couldn't see the attraction; Rhyme seemed like a patronizing ass, and Sachs seemed to be annoyed with him much of the time. As I would be.

Anyway, having said all that, still an enjoyable read with a damn good mystery, some surprising twists and a satisfying result.

Get Your Tongue Out Of My Mouth, I'm Kissing You Goodbye by Cynthia Heimel. Despite the tacky title and the even tackier cover, this was a collection of good, funny essays by an author I hadn't encountered before. I will see if she has written anything more recent though, because this book was really dated: she makes references to Miatas and Ghost, she claims New Yorkers don't eat sushi and that you shouldn't wear high heels with jeans. It boggles the mind, really, but I suppose that's what happens when you write a pop culture book.

[Posted at 14:14 by Amy Brown] link
Thu, 25 May 2006

How To Cut Your Own or Anybody Else's Hair by Bob Bent. This was indeed useful -- apparently the key to cutting your own hair is to cut a guide section in front and then match all the other hair up to that section, using lots of mirrors to see the back. I'm pretty sure you couldn't do a complicated style in this manner, but I expect it would work for a simple style if you could stand a few weeks of wearing the results of your own practice.

Sadly some jerk decided to cut out the section on how to cut straight kid's hair (the straight hair of a kid, not the hair of a straight kid -- we don't know about that yet), which is of course the one thing I really wanted the book for.

On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt. Of the three bullshit books I have recently read, this is by far the most successful, with a very intriguing conclusion.

The Curse of the Narrows: The Halifax Explosion 1917 by Laura MacDonald. I love a good disaster book, and this is a good disaster book. I think I would have enjoyed it more if I had not tried to read it on vacation, surrounded by a million distractions.

False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear by Marc Siegel approaches the current American state of constant panic from a more medical point of view. I don't know if it's just me, or if it's all of Canada, but I don't experience the kind of constant fear that he talks about, and I don't really know anyone who does.

The Undercover Economist: Exposing Why the Rich are Rich, the Poor are Poor--and Why You Can Never Buy a Decent Used Car! by Tim Harford. This is a pretty interesting book about how economists think about stuff (much like Freakonomics, but slightly less amusing). Harford leans a little further to the right than I am used to, which got my back up a bit, but his arguments are convincing, so in the end I'm sure it did me good.

[Posted at 14:14 by Amy Brown] link
Wed, 26 Apr 2006 with short reviews.

  • Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary or Why Can't Anybody Spell? by Vivian Cook. Fun, more list-y than I expected. Good for reading on the crapper.
  • Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores The Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. Thought-provoking, stats-based perspectives on just about everything.
  • One Summer's Grace: A Family Voyage Around Britain by Libby Purves. I love Libby Purves. I wish she lived next door to me and could come by for tea.
  • The Well-Ordered Home: Organizing Techniques for Inviting Serenity Into Your Life by Kathleen Kendall-Tacket. Apparently I already have a well-ordered home, because I didn't find anything particularly new in this book. That is as I expected, and not to say that wouldn't be useful to you, if you do not find your home to be well-ordered. (I only took it out because it's by one of the authors of the nursing book I just read, and I was curious.)
  • The Devil's Feather by Minette Walters. Minette Walters is always great, and this one was better than usual because she didn't spend so much time being bitter and miserable about the English. This book ate an entire day of my life, which is pretty clever considering I am supposed to spend my days looking after my children, not reading thrillers.
  • The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century by Thomas L. Friedman. I didn't finish this before it came due at the library; what I did get through wasn't anything new to me, since it was mostly about the Internet revolution, and I was there studying or working in software when Netscape came out and when the web got big and Y2K and so on. Towards the end of the book I think he gets into the social implications of the world being flat (ie, geography no longer being a limiting factor in the economy) but I didn't get to that part. I wasn't sorry -- this was one of those books I read because I felt I ought to, not because I was really interested.
  • Willow and Twig by Jean Little. Loved this.
  • You Don't Have To Be Thin To Win: The Official Chub Club Coach's Workout Program by Judy Molnar. Inspiring, if a little impractical -- I am not about to train for a triathlon, or even a marathon; who has hours every day to work out? (Having said that, I did put Cordelia in the big stroller and go for an hour-long brisk walk today. Like I said, inspiring.)
  • Goblin Market by Christina Rosetti. Why have I never come across this before? Creepy and good -- I would love to see Leontine illustrate this.
  • Goodnight Nobody by Jennifer Weiner. I wasn't sure about this at first because the protagonist doesn't really seem to like her children very much, but as it turns out she was just having one of those days, and also her husband was an asshole. I can't imagine dealing with kids without a good, helpful, present husband at my side. I think I would rather be not married at all than married to someone who was never home and not helpful when he was. But I digress. (You have to read that in a South African accent, because I always say it with one in my head. I'm not sure why.) Very fun book; I am happy Jennifer Weiner has written two more books I haven't read yet.
[Posted at 14:14 by Amy Brown] link
Fri, 31 Mar 2006

Jeez, I just typed out the names of the books I read since my last post, and it's clear I read too damn much. Honestly, I don't know where I find the time, so don't ask me.

(I remember when I was a kid I would say -- well, brag about, really -- how many books I read, and the mothers would look at each other and roll their eyes and say "Well, I guess you have a lot of time!" Hah! Take this, snarky mothers!)

Anyway, I have time to read them but not blog about them, so this is going to be short. Ish.

Akimbo and the Elephants by Alexander McCall Smith is also short, a little wee thing which I think took the author as long to write as it took me to read. It had a hurried feel, the characters were thin, it was all a little obvious. As if some elephant charity had called the author and said "Write a nice little book about elephants!" and he knocked it off in an afternoon.

I Gave My Mom A Castle by Jean Little is a wonderful collection of poems about families and gifts. Little has a knack for capturing children's thoughts and voices. I remember enjoying her stuff when I was younger; perhaps now is a good time to revisit it.

Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac is one of my New Year's Resolution books, because it has a character named Delphine in it. It might even be the character that my Aunt Delphine is named after, although naming your kid after this Delphine seems like asking for trouble. Anyway, Balzac is one pessimistic bastard and almost everyone in this book is scheming and dishonest, and those that aren't mostly get screwed in the end.

Breastfeeding Made Simple: Seven Natural Laws for Nursing Mothers by Nancy Mohnbacher and Kathleen Kendall-Tackett is an excellent book on nursing. I got it out so I could look it over and decide whether to recommend it to a friend, but I ended up learning a bunch of stuff myself. It approaches nursing from the perspective of what's going on and how you can make the natural process work for you, like growing a seed, rather than giving a series of steps on How To Nurse, like building an Ikea bookshelf.

I think this book should be recommended reading for every expectant or nursing mother.

It also has a fairly tacky website which might have some useful stuff in it. Check out that title! Now that's professional! (Ah yes: "<meta name="GENERATOR" content="Microsoft FrontPage 4.0">" Always a good way to make a crappy impression.)

The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid Of The Wrong Things by Barry Glassner is a nice, reassuring book, in the sense that you don't really have to be afraid of all the things the media would like you to be afraid of, but very unreassuring in that it give you the sense that people are very stupid and can't seem to think for themselves.

Sir Charles: Wit and Wisdom of Charles Barkley by Charles Barkley and Rick Reilly; Charles Barkley is a pretty funny guy, in that he says stuff that everyone else is scared to and he's usually right. What I would give for this kind of self-assurance.

Don't Get Too Comfortable by David Rakoff. Apparently if you are a good enough writer you can get someone to pay you to do crazy stuff like visit a cryogenics lab, or fly the Concorde, or interview some dude at the Log Cabin Republicans, just so you can write about it. That's what this book is, and it's pretty funny and well-written and occasionally thought-provoking. (I liked the part about the faux-poverty.)

Understand Your Child's Growing Mind by Christine Healy is another interesting, science-based book about a parenting topic. It's pretty dense, covering lots of ground with respect to mental development, but readable. I would recommend this to anyone concerned with their child's intellect.

The book has lots of neatly sidebarred tips on how to help prepare your child's mind for reading, mathematics, etc. Unfortunately if you added up all the sidebars you would end up with about eight hundred bulleted items, and if you tried to follow them you would never have time to brush your own teeth, you would be so busy massaging your kid's brain.

Dress Your Best by Clinton Kelly and Stacy London is basically What Not To Wear in book form. It's divided up by body type with tips for each type, but there are general tips for everyone scattered throughout the book, so you have to read the whole thing to get maximum utility out of it. I managed to glean a full page of tips from it, but sadly there was no five thousand dollar credit card in the book, nor anyone to babysit for a week while I shop. I guess looking fabulous is going to have to wait.

[Posted at 19:25 by Amy Brown] link
Fri, 10 Mar 2006

Your Three-Year-Old: Friend or Enemy by Louise Bates Ames and Frances Ilg is useful, like the two-year-old version. They're pretty old (this one is from the mid-eighties) so they're weirdly time-capsulish. This one gives a suggested plan for your kid's third birthday, and it's all "you should be able to manage this with the help of two or three other mothers". Presumably Father is in the drawing room smoking his pipe?

Your Call Is Important To Us: The Truth about Bullshit by Laura Penny. It must be very hard to write about bullshit, because Don Watson tried to do it, and failed, and now there's this. It started off pretty well, but eventually turned into an all-purpose lefty jeremiad, with the usual anti-corporate, anti-globalization, anti-consumer (Evian is naive spelled backwards!) stuff. Not so much with the bullshit. She also handily ignores the great steaming heaps of the stuff generated by leftish groups like anti-GM protesters; as if conservatives have a monopoly on bullshit!

Me and Mr. Stenner by Evan Hunter. I was glad to find out that Evan Hunter is the pseudonym of Ed McBain (actually, vice versa, but I'm not sure what the latin for "real name" is) and that he's written a million books. This one is a book for young adults, and I really enjoyed it. Hunter is a genius at capturing dialogue, and this is no different, except it is set (and written) in 1976 so the dialogue is kind of quaint. I wish he had written more young adult books -- this is as good as Judy Blume.

Perfect Parents: Baby-care Advice Past and Present by Christina Hardyment is a book which chronicles the changes in advice given to parents from the 1700s until now. This is a lovely book because it makes you realize that despite all the crazy-ass things people have done with their children, society still seems to chug along. It was a surprise to me how much variation there has been in childcare practices; I had a vague idea that in the Olden Days everyone was really strict, and now everyone is really permissive, and that's all there is to it, but really there has been a lot more subtlety in parenting practices over the centuries. Hardyment is a historian, so there is a lot of discussion about how historical events like wars inform parenting.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is annoyed or bewildered by the variety of advice out there. I only wish it were newer, so I could hear what Hardyment has to say about the judgemental insanity that is Dr. Sears and attachment parenting. (Which is, like the curate's egg, good in parts.)

The Blackboard Jungle by Evan Hunter. Evan Hunter -- Ed McBain -- wrote The Blackboard Jungle! Cool! So I had to take it out of the library and have a read. It's really good. Can I just stop saying that Hunter/McBain books are really good? That would save some typing. It's about a novice teacher dealing with the, well, crap of working at an inner-city vocational school. There is an especially good rant in the middle about vocational schools and teaching and what does it all mean?

Obviously, I think this would be a really interesting book for Kathryn to read since she is also a novice teacher dealing with lots of crap, but I am reluctant to because if she didn't like it I would be very sad. So Kathryn, I recommend this book but if you don't like it please don't say anything!

[Posted at 16:00 by Amy Brown] link
Wed, 22 Feb 2006

Who Runs This Country, Anyway? A Guide to Canadian Government by Joanne Stanbridge is a kids' book but since I knew nothing about the structure of our government I needed something with small words and lots of diagrams. This served the purpose and now I know more stuff.

Fiddlers by Ed McBain. Ed McBain is dead. This makes me sad. Ed McBain wrote lots and lots of books, and I have only begun to scratch the surface of them. This makes me feel a little better.

In Her Shoes by Jennifer Weiner is pretty good fluff. Yeah, they made that movie about it. I'm sure the book is better -- it's pretty thick and I'm sure they had to cut a lot of it out to make a movie. I won't be renting the movie to find out though. (It wasn't THAT good.) The characterization is a little suspect, though; people change but the author isn't really convincing as to why they change.

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail by Jared Diamond took me forever to read, not because it's badly written but because it's long and Diamond is teeth-achingly thorough. He examines at least eight societies in minute detail in order to make himself clear. It's more like taking a course than reading a book. By the end you're well and truly convinced, though.

It was an interesting read in light of the other book I read about how it's all going to hell, The Long Emergency; Diamond isn't as pessimistic but it's clear that he's thinking something big is going to happen within our lifetimes or those of our children (although probably not his since I think he's in his seventies. The man is awesome! So smart and sprightly and he has that dapper Abe Lincoln beard-but-no-moustache thing going on.)

Ingrid and the Wolf by André Alexis is a book for young adults which I would have loved when I was younger. I still quite like it now. It was too short, though -- I would have wished it had gone on for much longer. As an adult I see that it is a good length for the story, though.

Who's Afraid of a Large Black Man by Charles Barkley . Not much to say -- this didn't suck.

Your Two-Year-Old: Terrible or Tender by Louise Bates Ames . You know how everyone says "my kid didn't come with a user's manual!" Well, here it is. This is just a discussion of what kids are like, and it's one of a series covering different ages. There isn't much specific advice, but what there is is delightfully non-judgemental and pragmatic. I'm reading the one about three-year-olds, and their recommendation for dealing with three-and-a-half-year-olds? Put them in daycare, because they're at an age where they want to evoke an emotional reaction in their mother, so they act up. With a daycare provider, no emotional reaction, no acting up, everyone is much happier. Failing that, they say, get a babysitter. Awesome!

They also give some advice which set my mind at ease: they give you a bunch of "techniques" (ie, tricks) for dealing with your toddler and getting things done, like saying "Let's put away your toys" instead of telling the kid to do it and then getting into a huge battle of wills ending with the inevitable timeout. If you say "Let's..." then you can just go ahead and do it without your kid's help, and no-one has lost face. I had been thinking that I can't do stuff like that because I Have To Show Her Who Is Boss -- Ames says it's more important just to get through the day without a thousand battles than to make every interaction about who is boss. So, very useful books.

[Posted at 11:23 by Amy Brown] link
Sun, 29 Jan 2006

The sub-title says it all. This is a book of value both to those both looking for advice on child-rearing and looking for guidance on how to live according to Jewish teachings.

The thing that strikes me, as a secular Christian, about Judaism is that it provides so much guidance on how to live daily life. Judaism takes the sacred out of the temple or the church and puts it in the home, it takes the worshipping out of the hands of the priests and shamans and puts it in the hands of the mothers and fathers. (I guess that's what comes of centuries of persecution -- you spread your faith around so it always survives. Kind of the distributed computing of religions.)

Conveniently for the rest of us, Jewish teachings with respect to the home and the raising of children are eminently sensible and time-tested. This book has advice about how to appreciate your children, how to get them to appreciate (that is, respect) you, how to teach them gratitude, get them to do chores, discipline them. The author is a psychiatrist and a mother, too, so she puts the teachings in a modern perspective. She's also pretty funny.

This is a useful book and an easy read, and has lots of good recommendations for other books -- in fact, I might get this out of the library again just for the bibliography (some of the books she references aren't applicable to my children just yet). You will also learn lots of useful Hebrew words like yetzer hara. (Maybe that's Yiddish? She doesn't say.)

[Posted at 14:05 by Amy Brown] link
Fri, 27 Jan 2006

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is a science fiction book by a non-science fiction author. As such it's kind of implausible from an sf point of view because Ishiguro isn't trying to create a rigorous, believeable universe to satisfy nerds like me, he's creating an allegory to make a point. So I guess it's not really science fiction; I'm not sure what you would call it. Anyway, it's very good and quite sad. And I guess it's not all that unbelieveable. It depends how pessimistic you are feeling.

Race Against Time by Stephen Lewis

This is a collection of essays originally delivered as the 2005 Massey Lectures. Stephen Lewis is the United Nations' Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa and boy, is he pissed. Basically we are all screwing over Africa because we can't be bothered to spend the few bucks it would take to treat and prevent AIDS and thereby rescue an entire continent from tragic poverty and remove from the world yet another hatching ground for un-parented proto-terrorists. (He doesn't say that thing about terrorists, that's mine.)

Africa is full of child-led and grandmother-led families and it's heartbreaking and sickening how we continue to turn our backs on it. Africa is a magical land rich with resources and cultures and the rest of the world has metaphorically hit it over the head, stolen its lunch money, kicked it in the ribs and is now walking away. Call your representatives and tell them it is time to look after Africa.

Also Stephen Lewis is smart and strong and noble and brave, even if I did make fun of his daughter-in-law here a while back.

American Backlash: The Untold Story of Social Change in The United States by Michael Adams

Michael Adams is the head of a polling company which has done extensive polling of Americans and discovered that the true divide in American values isn't between Republicans and Democrats but between politically engaged citizens and those who couldn't give a rat's ass. And it's the values of the non-rat's-ass-givers which are leading the trajectory of social change in American from respect and independence to hedomism and individualism. So he says. He also talks about how the two parties can reach undecided voters, and why the Democrats are having their asses whupped so bad lately.

He makes some pretty compelling arguments, but now I am more interested to read Fire and Ice, which compares Canadian values to American values.

I think Jon Stewart should read this book, except he probably already has. Although maybe not, because I'm not sure this book has been published in the US.

How to Simply Cut Children's Hair: A Step-by-Step Guide to Cutting, Perming and Highlighting Children's Hair by Laurie Punches

This book seemed pretty useful and I might get it out again once Delphine is old enough to sit still while I try and cut her hair. And before she gets old enough that she is too cool to have a home haircut. So that will be a, what, two week window? The book blurb says "Exploration is part of the adventure" -- let me assure you that an eleven-year-old does not want you having any adventures with her hair.

Incidentally I should look up books on how to cut my own hair -- I am meeting more and more people who cut their own hair and I think I should try it. Fifty bucks every six weeks is just too much money.

Leading a Software Development Team: A Developer's Guide to Successfully Leading People & Projects by Richard Whitehead

Like it says in the title, this book is written for developers so it sometimes left me wondering whether I can make it as a software manager. Whitehead talks a lot about design and architecture, saying that it's important to take the time to come up with a good design before you begin coding. I understand that that is important but I am not sure that I would be able to tell if my team had come up with a good design. Actually, no, I think I would be able to tell if we had a lousy design, but I'm not sure I would be able to convince my team that I'm right. Perhaps the only problem is one of confidence.

Anyway, because the book is written for developers it leaves one with the impression that the only good team lead or project manager is someone who started off coding; I don't think that's true but I need to read "A Non-Developer's Guide to Successfully Leading Software People and Projects" or some such book to get an idea of my career trajectory. I need to decide how much time to dedicate to being in development before I can move into project management -- none? Five years? Ten? Or maybe I will go through testing instead.

Did I really just say that? Am I insane? How passionately did I swear that I would never ever do testing again? Can I really go back into a job I hated and love it and make a career out of it? Has my attitude improved that much? I just don't know.

Still, this is a very good and useful book that covers many areas of project management, from technical issues to decision making to managing team members to dealing with lousy bosses. Blake is going to read it too. The only worrying thing is that the author photograph very flatteringly makes the author look about 32 so I'm not sure I trust him.

[Posted at 16:14 by Amy Brown] link
Fri, 13 Jan 2006

Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash by Elizabeth Royte. This is like the garbage version of the corpse book -- what happens to garbage when we throw it out. I have only two things to say: Royte is not as funny as Mary Roach, and people who deal with garbage are much less keen to talk about it than people who deal with bodies.

Long Way Round: Chasing Shadows Across the World by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman. This was pretty good -- about the authors' motorcycle trip from London to New York, overland (apart from that awkward Bering Strait bit). Perhaps not surprisingly (being that they are both actors) they seem like emotional types; I certainly wouldn't sign up to bike around the world with either of them.

Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door by Lynne Truss. Truss is a grumpy woman, and I can't say I disagree with her that people could stand to be more courteous, but I think this book makes a lot more sense in England than it does here -- Canadians are in general polite and friendly to each other, just like the stereotype suggests. Whereas the English... not so much.

Also Truss's Internet bears no relation to my Internet. She seems to conflate her technical problems with computers and her problems with the culture of the Internet. Anyway, some of my best friends are from the Internet, so there. (I had a more reasoned response to this earlier, but it's been a while since I finished the book and now I've forgotten what I was going to say. Hmph.)

Incidentally, this book references a book which is also referenced by the book I am currently reading (American Backlash by Michael Adams) which I selected independently of the Truss book. The referenced book is called Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam. Does that mean I should read it? Probably. God, this reading will be the death of me. Maybe I should give up watching TV so I have a chance in hell of keeping up with my own "to be read" list.

With One Lousy Free Packet of Seed by Lynne Truss. Funny and a little silly. Kind of Douglas Adams-ish, although that might just be because it's an English comedic novel. Also kind of Jasper Ffordish, but without the annoyingly clever literary references.

I'll be the Parent, You Be the Child by Paul Kropp. I got this from the Gender book, and I wasn't sure what to expect, whether it would be a conservative, spare-the-rod kind of thing, but to my pleasure it turned out to be by a Toronto writer who wrote for my favourite parenting magazine. It's a common-sense overview of various parenting issues, reviewing the available evidence and giving the bottom line according to Kropp. Very sensible advice. It made me think that I probably don't want to work full-time until my children are grown -- that the best thing I can give my children is my time. But since I would like to buy some new clothing before I am fifty, I will be working part-time.

And now Cordelia would like some of that time, so I can write no more.

[Posted at 17:23 by Amy Brown] link