Blog-o! Notes from

Sun, 30 Mar 2008

Wow, I didn't realize I hadn't updated my book log since August. That's insane! Book log updates take a long time, so I guess I put off doing them, but eight months? Here are the books I read from August to the end of last year, and I'll post this year's books in another post. One day. Maybe in August.

Three Junes by Julia Glass was a vacation read I borrowed from Baba, and it was a great book. I am looking at all the notes I made on it after I read it, and sadly despite having written the notes and now reading them, I don't remember much of the story, which doesn't reflect well on my attempts to read more attentively and remember what I read. Anyway, it's one of those novels with dozens of different characters whose lives intersect in interesting ways. The characters are beautifully drawn and the intersections of their lives are plausible and enjoyable to read about.

I sound like an idiot when I try and write about fiction! Maybe non-fiction too. Oh, I wish I were smarter. You would think all this reading would help.

Get Smart: Nine Sure Ways to Help Your Child Succeed in School by Ronald Dietel. I think I picked this up because it was on display at the library. That is to say, I didn't order it especially, and I'm not worried about Delphine's academic development or anything. I'm not even particularly worried about whether she "succeeds" in school; the question of whether getting good grades can be considered succeeding is very much up in the air for me at the moment. Anyway, that's now, but back in September when I read this book I thought it would be cool to know how to help my kid succeed in school.

Dietel starts by commenting on the fact that apparently there is no time to be a kid any more, and there's big pressure on even the smallest of children to succeed in school. "The words 'let them be kids' are becoming a faint echo of the past." And that's all he says. He doesn't say that sucks, he doesn't say you should be a counterpoint to the pressure in your kid's life, he doesn't say maybe achieving in school isn't the be all and end all. And I guess he wouldn't! If he felt that way I bet he would have written a different book.

He goes on the talk about the different factors which affect your kid's success at school (specifically: ability, effort, attitute, school quality, teacher quality, school learning habits, home learning habits, evaluations, communication). And then for each factor he talks about how you can affect and improve it, varying from study techniques to working with your kid's teacher to homework routines. It was a pretty useful book, for what it was. I am older and wiser* now than I was when I read the book, and have some different perspectives on school and learning and how much involvement I should have in my kid's life, so even though I only read this book a few months ago I think I would approach it a lot differently if I read it today.

* I am older and wiser now mainly because of a book I just read called Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn which has blown my mind and made me rethink everything about interacting with my children, but in the best possible way. I will post about it sometime.

The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen by Mitali Perkins; another just-picked-it-up choice. This is a young adult novel about an Indian-American teenager who is torn between her traditional grandparents and her desire to be an ordinary American girl. I generally liked the story and the message of the book, but I am spoiled by all the Canadian books I usually read and was really put off by all the American references. I don't see why an American book shouldn't have American references, but there's something nice about books set in Canada. They're easier to read. I expect the same is true about books set in Sweden if you're Swedish. I also though that Sunita's boyfriend's exoticization of Indian culture was kind of creepy, but it was presented positively in the book.

Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande is a book about how to succeed in medicine, or any endeavour which involves risk and responsibility. Gawande's three core requirements for success are Diligence, Doing Right and Ingenuity. He illustrates them with fascinating examples from the field, from the difficulty in getting people (doctors!) to wash their hands to the subtleties of conduct in the examining room, to the near-magical improvements in neonatal survival after the introduction of the Apgar score. This is a wonderfully written, interesting and thought-provoking book, whether you are a doctor or just want to be smarter and better at what you do every day.

Incidentally, here are Gawande's five "Suggestions for Becoming A Positive Deviant":

  1. Ask an unscripted question; be interested in someone else, surprise them, learn something about the people you see every day, find their humanity.
  2. Don't complain; it drags you and everyone else down, it is unhelpful and boring.
  3. Count something, track something; be a scientist in the world. If you count something you find interesting, you will learn something interesting.
  4. Write something; add some small observations about your world; step back and think about a problem; make yourself a part of the larger conversation.
  5. Change; respond to new ideas; recognize the inadequacies in what you do and seek out solutions.

Find something new to try, count how often you succeed, write about it, ask people what they think. See if you can keep the conversation going. These are words I try to live by, even in my relatively small world. I strive for constant improvement. That sounds really dorky, but it's true.

How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman. Another fantastic book! It's great when I get two good books in a row. This is a fascinating book about, as it says, how doctors think, and mainly how they diagnose. Groopman talks about the inadequacies in medical training, how doctors feel about you as a patient, how they come to their conclusions and how they can get stuck in stereotyped views of you and your condition. Most importantly he writes about how you can ask questions to understand your doctor's thinking and perhaps gently steer them in a different direction if you feel like they are not giving enough thought to your condition, or if you just want to understand their diagnosis better.

Everyone who is a patient should read this book, and doctors should too.

The Simple Home: The Luxury of Enough by Sarah Nettleton. This is mainly house porn; lots of pretty pictures of "simple" houses; houses that are exactly as big and complex as they need to be, and no more. Pretty and inspirational.

Supernanny: How To Get The Best From Your Children by Jo Frost and Nanny Wisdom: Our Secrets for Raising Healthy, Happy Children — From Newborns to Preschoolers by Justine Walsh and Kim Nicholson. I read these books because I was looking for inspiration on how to discipline Cordelia, who was just getting into a bit of a hellish phase. Both books favoured timeouts, which I tried and which failed miserably because Cordelia would either be completely happy on the "naughty step", or Delphine would go over and comfort her.

Anyway, otherwise these are pretty good books which emphasise what I consider to be the cornerstone of good parenting, a structured routine. They also both give a shoutout to an early bedtime, another parenting tool which I think is sadly underused these days.

However, I wish the Nanny Wisdom nannies would stick to general parenting advice and stay away from advice on nursing, which is... well, it's none of their business and they don't know what they're talking about. They say you should stop nursing at a year and they say that at some point your milk dries up and your kid is just nursing for pleasure. Which is not true at all! They clearly overstepped the bounds of their own expertise there. If you want good nursing advice, the book for you is Breastfeeding Made Simple by Nancy Mohrbacher and Kathleen Kendall-Tackett. Not some nanny book.

Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is what you experience when you are completely involved in what you are doing, when you feel simultaneously focused and transcendent. It doesn't happen very often, and Csikszentmihalyi has studied when it happens and how. This is a book about how to fully engage in life, how to live without waste of time or potential. If you don't believe in an afterlife then you know we've only got maybe eighty years of consciousness, and you'd better believe I don't want to waste any of mine. This is a wonderful book about finding happiness and fulfillment, sometimes where you least expect it (like at work!).

Factory Girl by Barbara Greenwood. Barbara Greenwood is a lady in my choir who writes really neat history books for children, which combine historical facts with a narrative. She tells the story for a few pages and then breaks off and talks about the facts behind the story. This was an interesting read for me because it made me realize how much I bluff when I'm reading historical fiction. For example, the character in the book works in a sweatshop that makes shirtwaists. Sure, shirtwaists, I thought! Cool! It was only three pages later when Greenwood breaks out and says, in effect, "Here is what a shirtwaist is" along with a few illustrations out of the Eaton's catalogue, that I realize I had no idea what it was, really. Similarly she tells what, specifically, you could buy with the girl's meagre pay. I found this to be a very effective teaching technique; I think you're more likely to ask questions about what you're reading if you know that the answers are coming up, and I think these books encourage curiosity. I look forward to reading more of Greenwood's books with the girls.

Bones to Ashes by Kathy Reichs. This was better than the last Kathy Reichs. I think I need another go-to mystery writer, though, because Reichs continues to annoy with her sentence fragments and her "it's on the tip of my tongue" intuitive mystery-solving.

Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe. This was useful but I can't remember exactly what I learned that I didn't already know. Oh, I guess I learned that it is considered okay to put the entire message in your subject header (if your message is short). That always annoys me, but I guess if no-one else minds I'll have to put up with it. Also apparently you are only supposed to have one topic per email; if you want to talk to someone about two things you should send two emails. That sounds really maddening to me, but I have learned from experience that some people just don't read (or comprehend) more than one item or paragraph in an email message. Also I suppose having one topic per message might make it easier to file, if you're a dinosaur and you still use folders instead of tags.

And that's the end of my 2007 reading! I can't believe Cordelia is still asleep! I might even be able to post about what I've read in the last three months sometime before the end of April.

[Posted at 19:32 by Amy Brown] link
Sat, 11 Aug 2007

Compared to the first half of this year, in the last couple of months I've been reading like a demon!

Dangerous Planet: Natural Disasters That Changed History by Bryn Barnard. This is another book by the Outbreak dude, and I didn't like it as much but probably just because I have more of an affinity for disgusting pustulent diseases than I do for scary natural (and other) disasters. This book has the same basic format; each chapter is dedicated to a different disaster, describing how the disaster happened and how it changed the course of history. Among other things, Barnard discusses the Great Fire of London and its effect on how buildings and cities are constructed; the two (not one but two!) typhoons which devastated the army of Kublai Khan and protected Japan from invasion in the 1200s, leading to a certain sense of invincibility in the Japanese; and of course the classic asteroid which wiped out the dinosaurs.

This book is beautifully designed and well-illustrated, clearly written and informative.

Your Four-Year-Old: Wild and Wonderful by Louise Bates Ames. I had to read this to see what it had to say about four-year-olds, which my mom friends and I have already observed are bossy and braggy as hell. Ames agrees, although she gives it a more positive spin; she says if you can view your four-year-old's noisy, pushy arrogance with as much amused detachment as you can muster the year will go much more smoothly.

As usual the observations in this book are spot on, and very helpful in distinguishing your child's personality from the phases she's going through. It gets a little dated sometimes but that's part of the fun of it.

Thankfully, the next book in the series is subtitled "Sunny and Serene". Hooray!

The Mac is Not A Typewriter by Robin Williams. I only read this because Blake had it out, and a lot of it was stuff my brother taught me back in Grade 11 ("The Amiga is not a typewriter!"); don't use underlines, don't use spaces when you should use tab stops. Williams also gets into fancy stuff like Kerning, and she is very keen — perhaps obsessively so — on curly quotes and em-dashes. She uses some very strong words to describe straight quotes, words which make me think I am dealing with an ill person and should perhaps disregard her advice. Really, they're quotation marks.

I am also leery— born perhaps of having been introduced to computers through Unix in the early nineties — of using non-ASCII characters, really ever, but especially in email and on the web. Williams even suggests using curly quotes in filenames! I'm sorry, I don't even use spaces in filenames. That's craziness. Excuse me, I am going to go and grow a long beard now, and perhaps refrain from bathing for a few weeks. I must dust my green-screen ASCII terminal.

At the cottage last week I read Home Leave by Libby Purves which was fantastic and I loved it; it's about four siblings, the children of a diplomat, who were hauled all around the world when they were young. It's about what home means, and of course I related to the situation of having your sibling as your only constant for your whole childhood. There is a lot of talk of children and babies in the book and Purves writes so realistically and richly about children; they don't disappear or only feature as plot or characterization devices, or worse just as noisy perplexing ciphers, as they so often do in novels. Purves knows how to write about how children change you and affect you for better and for worse. I loved the characters and the stories and the ideas. And the ending; the ending was immensely satisfying.

I also read Pug Hill by Alison Pace which was pretty disappointing after the Purves. This is a book about a thirty-one year old in Manhatten looking for love and sorting herself out. The protagonist annoyed the crap out of me with her whining and self-absorption and judgementalness and immaturity, and she didn't get all that much better through the book, although I think she was supposed to. It was like Bridget Jones in Manhattan, except blessedly free of talk about dieting.

[Posted at 20:03 by Amy Brown] link
Tue, 24 Jul 2007

Extraordinary Evil: A Brief History of Genocide by Barbara Coloroso. Like so many of us, Coloroso has been doing a sort of independent study of genocide and she came up with the rather surprising, at first glance, theory that genocide is bullying writ large. I was pretty skeptical at first but she sold me on her idea; she has done a lot of thinking about bullying and she has her trademark bulleted lists on the topic all figured out, and she manages to map them to genocide quite convincingly. I'll probably check out her book on bullying, and also a few of the books she refers to on genocide. A few of them were on my list before but I chickened out; maybe this time I will have the guts to actually read them.

Outbreak: Plagues that Changed History by Bryn Barnard is actually a picture book which I grabbed from the kids' section because I'm all about plagues and gruesome diseases. However, it's written at what seems to me to be a very advanced level. It is a fantastic book; each chapter discusses one plague and its effect on society, and the illustrations (also by the author) are lush.

I didn't actually read The Assault on Reason by Al Gore because I had it out of the library and I had to take it back before I got more than a couple of chapters in. However, I was pleasantly surprised; in the chapters I read he got into why people are so compelled by television, so it seems like he's really getting into the very roots of why American politics is so screwed up. I have put myself on the hold list again (I am number 249 of 267) and I look forward to having another crack at this book. Sometime in 2008.

[Posted at 20:40 by Amy Brown] link

Okay, Cordelia is napping and Delphine is busy with Charlie and Lola and I am for once not too tired to move, so allow me to type a list of all the books I have read but not yet posted about, and perhaps even discuss one or two.

Books About Technical Stuff

Making the Most of Kitchens by Gilly Love. I read this before the reno when we were still trying to figure out what we were going to do. It wasn't really all that useful because I had pretty much made all the big decisions, and we didn't have that much flexibility in terms of layout anyway. However, if I hadn't thought about what kind of countertop I wanted or whether wood floors were a good idea, this book might have come in useful. It had lots of pictures of different kitchens for decorating inspiration.

The fact that it was an English book was a little weird at times; she tries to talk you into refrigerating things. Now there's an idea!

The Non-Designer's Design Book by Robin Williams is a very useful overview for non-designers who none-the-less find themselves having to design or judge the design of letters, newsletters, logos, business cards, posters, banners, and so on. If, like me, you know what you like but you don't know why, or (worse) you know what you don't like but don't know how to fix it, this book is a must-read.

Williams breaks design down into four simple principles (contrast, repetition, proximity, and alignment) and then explains how to apply them to make your documents more attractive and powerful while never overlooking the most important thing, communication.

If I'm ever in a position where I have to create documents I will definitely have a copy of this book on my shelf.

Vegetable Gardening From Planting to Picking: The Complete Guide to Creating a Bountiful Garden by Fern Marshall Bradley and Jane Courtier and some other, slightly thinner but equally useful vegetable gardning book which I read rather belatedly this June and July. My garden is doing, frankly, rather dismally. I just brought a foot long zucchini home from my friend Tanya's garden, while my zucchini plant has one little three-inch fruit on it. Honestly, who can't grow a zucchini? But according to these books I should have spent a lot more time and effort preparing the earth before planting, and I definitely need to water, fertilize and weed more. Maybe at all. Yes, there isn't really anything I did right this year, but the lovely thing about gardening is you can always try again next year.

The books cover everything from planning your garden (another thing I didn't really do) to harvesting and preserving your crops, as well as giving specific growing and harvesting instructions for a variety of fruit and vegetables. The only problem I had was that the books were written for all of North America, so I had to selectively ignore advice about things like okra and peanuts which will never grow in good old Zone 5. I wonder if there's a good Ontario vegetable gardening book. (I bet the library would know!)

Books for Fun

The Rabbi's Girls by Johanna Hurwitz. I picked this up off the young adult rack at the library because I am interested in juvenile literature with Jewish content, if only to know what to steer the girls towards when they get older and want some context about their own personal history. This is a novel about a family that moves around the US midwest (? I think, I can't exactly remember) as their rabbi father is shunted from community to community (parish? I'm sure that's not the word!) It was a nice light read, I can't complain.

Does Anything Eat Wasps? And 101 Other Questions by New Scientist. This is a collection of questions and answers from New Scientist's Last Word page (okay, I'm making that up, I can't remember the name of their last page) where people send in their perplexing sciency questions and other people take a stab at answering them. This was the first book I read after we came up for air after the reno, and it was a nice easy way to get back into using my brain again. There's plenty of interesting stuff in here, but of course my favourite thing was the question about why some people sound better than others when they sing.

Okay, I only have three books to go, but Delphine would like me to play with her so off I go! Maybe Blake will hurt himself again and post about it.

[Posted at 15:10 by Amy Brown] link
Thu, 12 Jul 2007

I am sure I have read a book in the last six months. Maybe even two or three. Now that the reno is over I have run out of excuses for not reading, so here goes.

According to my notebooks I read Born To Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture by Juliet Schor and there wasn't much in there that I didn't know; companies spend billions marketing all kinds of products to children. I was creeped out by the use of viral and peer-to-peer marketing — using kids to sell stuff to their friends. The other annoying thing is the way marketing and consumer culture loves to position parents as dorky ineffectual losers who should be ignored as much as possible.

Also worth noting is the connection between immersion in consumer culture and depression in children. One of the great things my parents did for me (although not entirely intentionally) was shelter me from consumer culture to a large entent, partially by not having TV (or not having cable) and partially just because we couldn't afford lots of toys so we mostly found our fun in books from the library and plenty of public radio. Good geeky fun.

Kids Are Worth It: Raising Children to be Responsible, Resourceful, Caring Individuals by Barbara Coloroso is a book I read because it's often quoted in the parenting magazines, and it seemed like one of those books I ought to read. And I'm really glad I did; it crystallized a lot of the vague parenting philosophies I'd had and gave me lots of ideas and structure for how to implement them: how to treat my kids with respect, how to provide consequences, how to discipline. Coloroso is a great resource for a frazzled mum because she gives you lots of bulleted lists and mnemonics so you can recall her advice in moments of stress. Which are most of them, really.

Alright, I've read more than two books in the last six months but now the stupid (I mean lovely) baby is awake so you'll have to wait another six months for my next post. Adios!

[Posted at 14:15 by Amy Brown] link
Wed, 10 Jan 2007

We have finally beaten the house into enough submission that I can sit down and read a few pages in good conscience, thank god.

Another Day in the Frontal Lobe: A Brain Surgeon Exposes Life On The Inside by Katrina Firlik is the autobiography of a neurosurgeon. It's well-written and interesting if you're like me and are fascinated by the workings of the human body and the freaky things that happen to it. Sometimes I wish I had done something more brainy in university, and that I was something more impressive now, like a Doctor or a Lawyer (not really), but this book made me glad I'm not a neurosurgeon, or really any of the emergency-oriented medical specialities. I love my easy, predictable, homey life and I would hate to work long hours and be on call all the time. Although the saving people and being really important part would be cool.

I went to Katrina Firlik's website and found these funny little drawings of neurosurgery-related objects juxtaposed with objects in nature. Also the UK title for this book, Brain Matters: Adventures of a Brain Surgeon, is a hundred times better than the North American title.

Cockeyed: A Memoir by Ryan Knighton is another autobiography, this one by a guy who started going blind in his teens and is now completely or almost completely blind. It chronicles the hijinks that ensue when you mix normal teenage stupidity with unreliable eyesight, when you get a bunch of blind people together at Blind People Camp (blind Tai Chi, anyone? Blind canoeing?), and the deep, deep badness of going to South Korea to teach English with your girlfriend and pretend you're not blind.

This book made me laugh until I wept; I could hardly tell Blake what I was laughing at. Knighton is a brilliant writer and has a real knack for describing the inherent slapstick of blindness, without making you feel like an asshole for laughing at it. He is also unflinchingly honest about his own behavour and emotions, and the effect he has on others. I think I will try and find other stuff he has written and see how he deals with other material. I hope he has children and writes about them, actually, because I bet that would be hilarious.

[Posted at 16:03 by Amy Brown] link