Blog-o! Notes from

Sat, 03 Jan 2009

Here is the last pile of books I read in 2008. Since it's now 2009 I can be reasonably sure I won't add anything to this list.


Restoration Home by Mark Bailey, Sally Bailey, and Debi Treloar is an interesting decor porn book with a salvage bent. These people take shabby chic way beyond rumpled slipcovers and distressed coffee tables. They like chipped paint and missing patches of plaster. I liked the ideas about using industrial light fixtures and other fittings, and about reusing found objects. I also like the aesthetic of not having everything perfect and flawless. Some of the examples in this book go a little too far for my taste, though, into that crack-house look. To each their own.

(parts of) Character is Destiny by John McCain and Mark Selter This is a collection, written for a young adult audience, of short biographies of various historical figures chosen by the authors to exemplify various character traits and support their theory that "character is everything". I picked it up partly because I had (previously) quite liked and respected John McCain, and because there's a chapter on Roméo Dallaire, who I love. I also ended up reading the chapters on Elizabeth I, Winston Churchill, Sojourner Truth, and a couple others I forget now. I learned a lot about the people, which was the main point.

This book made me wonder what happened to John McCain that made him stray so far, during the 2008 campaign, from the decent person he used to be. I'm sure he's still decent, but something made him act all crazy. This probably ties into the fact that character is indeed not everything and that how people behave is actually very strongly affected by the situation they are in (see The Lucifer Effect.)

Non-fiction books that are pretty good but that I don't have a lot to say about

  • Why Women Should Rule the World by DeeDee Myers
  • David Suzuki's Green Guide
  • Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt
  • Mindfulness by Ellen Langer


The Road by Cormac McCarthy was one of the best fiction books I read this year, but in the same gruelling "I just want this to end" way as A Thousand Splendid Suns. I don't know what the connection is between gruelling and really good, but if I ever come up with a happy and uplifting book which is really good I will be sure to post about it. This book hit a few of my hot buttons: post-apocalyptic, small child, Viggo Mortenson (okay, he's not in the book but I knew they cast him for the movie version so that's what the protagonist looked like in my head).

Children of Men by P.D. James was really good. I didn't know P.D. James did speculative fiction. This is another book I read instead of seeing the movie.

What I Was by Meg Rosoff was a pretty decent young adult book about a boy who is sent to a miserable boarding school in Norwich (can there be any other kind?) and meets a wild boy who lives on the beach. They fall for each other and hang out, there is some tragedy and a surprise ending. Nice book.

The Landing by John Ibbitson is yet another young adult book, about a boy living in Muskoka in the twenties. He plays violin but when you're poor in rural Canada you're not going to get very far with that kind of artsy nonsense. Then he meets a woman who introduces him to classical music and encourages him to pursue his playing. Tragedy, rebirth, blah blah blah. Actually a really good book.

Only You Can Save Mankind by Terry Pratchett; I mentioned this earlier — I read it as a companion to Ender's Game and like I said earlier, while I don't have as much meaty substance as the other book it is funnier and equally well-written.

Home for Christmas and other stories by Scott Young is a collection of short stories, the old-fashioned kind with a beginning, middle and end which don't involve lots of weird allusions or great revelations or moments of truth. The kind of short stories that I and Michael Chabon like. They're all about Christmas, too.

The Other Boleyn Girl by Phillipa Gregory is our next book club book, and while it's not great literature it was a good read, quite educational (assuming the historical detail is accurate; I always wonder about that with historical fiction) and will provide lots of things for us to talk about.


Schuyler's Monster by Rob Rummel-Hudson. Well, the cover of the book says "Robert Rummel-Hudson" but I've been reading Rob's journal since Schuyler was just a baby, and he's always been Rob. It was cool to read Schuyler's story in book form, and I liked that Rob kept his smart-assy voice in the book. I've always enjoyed Rob's writing and I find it very hard to be impartial about the book because I already liked it before I even read it. I'm looking forward to reading something of Rob's that I haven't read before.

The Alchemy of Loss by Abigail Carter is a memoir by a woman who lost her husband in the 9/11 attacks. It's about her grieving process and how she dealt with taking care of her two little kids, her family and husband's family, and with her loss being part of a much bigger loss. I picked this book up because I have a fear of losing Blake, sparked in fact by 9/11, and I wanted to read about how someone else had grieved and then gone on with her life. This book is beautifully written, very honest, and hopeful.

Parenting and Child Development

The Unschooled Mind by Howard Gardner is about how kids learn about the world, and how educators really need to take into account children's existing models of the world when teaching them new things. Apparently often what happens is that kids learn two models of the world, the "real" one and the "school" one. The "real" model is the model they kluged together through their observations back when they were little kids, and the "school" model is techncially correct but because they were never shown (not told) the errors of their real-world model they only learn the school model by rote and never understand it well enough to take it out into the real world. So teachers have to know how to delicately dismantle children's models — or rather help the children do it — in order to make room for the new, subtler models. Very interesting, although Gardner is pretty dry. More anecdotes please!

The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn. I love Alfie Kohn. He's just so convincing. In this book he convinced me that most homework is a useless waste of time, which I'm sure will go over really well with my kids' teachers. Whatever, I'm not going to squander my kids' precious free time doing busywork. If the teachers can come up with valuable interesting homework we'll do it.

Of course Delphine will do her homework anyway because she will be too scared of getting in trouble not to do it. Maybe Cordelia will come onboard with my homework rebellion, though.

How to Talk so Kids Will Listen And Listen so Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlich. Everyone has said everything there is to be said about this book. If you deal with kids and you haven't read it yet you'd better get on it.

What to Look For In A Classroom and other essays by Alfie Kohn. More Kohn cleverness. He's an interesting and intelligent man. This book covers diverse topics in education, from standardized testing to the subtle racism of middle-class mothers. (Don't get me started on that one.) Great book.

Oh my, I think I'm done book blogging for 2008. Better start book blogging for 2009!

[Posted at 21:42 by Amy Brown] link
Sun, 28 Dec 2008

I read The Greek for Love: A Memoir of Sorrow and Joy by James Chatto because it was favourably reviewed in the Globe, and because it's set (is it called "set" when it's non-fiction?) in Corfu, a part of Greece I have some memoirish familiarity with due to my obsessive childhood love of Gerald Durrell. I thought it would be interesting to read a different, more modern perspective on the island. Also this book is about someone losing a child. Like most parents I am consumed with fear that I will lose (nice euphemism, as if I'm going to put them down in a restaurant and forget to take them with me, like a pair of gloves or an umbrella) one of my children and my life will be destroyed. I know I can't reasonably be assured that both my children will survive me, but the matter of whether or not I can go on with my life in the event of a tragedy is much more in my control. So I rather like to read about people surviving and carrying on after the death of a child.

This book provided admirably on both counts; it's an evocative sketch of Corfu in the seventies (? I think it was the seventies): the weather, the landscape, the crazy locals and the lovely ones. It was also a beautifully written story of loss and how the author and his wife dealt with it and moved through it.

So funny story. It was coming up to Blake's birthday and as usual I had no idea what to get him. Mostly Blake wants arcane pieces of electronic equipment that usually cost a few hundred dollars. So I buy him socks and underwear, and chocolate-covered marzipan. Well, he's a reader too so this year I went to the local second-hand bookstore and stood gormlessly in front of the SF/Fantasy section, apparently mistaking him for my first boyfriend who would read pretty much any SF or fantasy. After a few moments I came to my senses and remembered that if 80% of everything is crap, 99% of genre fiction is crap and likely Blake had already read the 1% of SF that isn't. So I shuffled disconsolately around the store until I got to the non-fiction section, which as you might guess is my favourite place.

Now the problem with buying books for another reader, especially when your interests overlap somewhat, is that it's hard to tell whether you have picked up a particular book because you think the other person would enjoy it, or because you want to get your own hands on it. (We actually have a convention in our family that it's fine to read a book, carefully, before you give it to someone as a gift.) So there I was standing in front of the non-fiction books trying to figure out what I could give to Blake that wouldn't be too transparently something I wanted to read myself, when a peculiar thought came to me:

"I wish Dave were here, he would know what to get."

Now why my brother, who lives on the other side of the planet and who hasn't seen Blake for years, would know better than I who spend every day with the man what Blake would like to read I don't know, but just then my eyes lit upon the Bill Bryson books and I remembered that Dave had said something favourable about Bryson recently in his blog. I also remembered that Blake had enjoyed another of his books, and so for Blake's birthday I got him The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America by Bill Bryson. And then read it. Well, I let Blake read it first. And it was very good, and I enjoyed it. Bill Bryson rocks, I should read more of his stuff.

Incidentally Blake really liked it too — I had forgotten that Bryson also wrote The Mother Tongue, a book Blake really enjoys. So apparently Dave actually is the go-to guy when I need a gift idea for my own husband. This is what happens when you marry your brother.

Dreams from my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama came to me in a package from my mother, who had received it in turn from my brother. I believe Dave either got it from a friend or lent it to a friend before sending it to Mum, so our copy has been read by four people on two continents. Right now it's stuck on our bookshelf because Blake wants to read it but hasn't gotten to it. If anyone reading this would like it let me know and I will send it on, because it's a fantastic book. (Blake can get it from the library if he really wants to read it.)

A while ago I posted about why I was happy that Obama won the election, and a large part of that post was informed by what I know about the man from this book. It's wonderfully well-written and Obama is clearly a very intelligent person who isn't satisfied with just seeing the surfaces of things or with simple explanations. This book is about identity and personal history and I found it particularly interesting because I related to issues of constructing identity from family, of being an immigrant, and of having a mobile, unsettled childhood. It was a wonderful read and I am looking forward to reading The Audacity of Hope, and anything else Obama has the time to write.

Long Way Down: An Epic Journey by Motorcycle from Scotland to South Africa by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman is the companion book to the reality series of the same name, about McGregor and Boorman's motorcycle ride from John O'Groats to Cape Town. Good book, pretty much like Long Way Round which I read in 2006. I liked reading a new perspective on Africa.

Morgan secured her nomination for Sister-in-law Of The Year when she gave me Slash by Slash and Anthony Bozza for my birthday. (And now that I think of it, she borrowed it as soon as I finished it. I guess my new family is more like my old family than I sometimes realize.) I loved this book. This is going to sound odd, but it gave me new insight into the roots of the Guns N' Roses sound. When I started listening to them in 1988 or 89 I was basically coming to rock music cold, with a listening history of almost exclusively pop music. I've gained a clue or two since then but never re-examined GN'R, just maintained my uncomplicated love for their music. So it was very interesting to put that music into the context of the glam and punk scenes it was born from, scenes I didn't have Clue One about back when I was a pimply Good Girl teenager in northern Saskatchewan.

This book also gave me a more subtle appreciation for the contributions of the non Slash/Axl members of the band, who I had previously largely disregarded. Especially Steve Adler; I used to think he was pretty much an interchangable Lego-piece drummer, but Slash convinced me that his casually hyper rock style contributed significantly to the sound of Appetite for Destruction.

This book also made me appreciate just how much crap you can throw at a human body and have it survive. Well, more or less survive, if you have a pacemaker anyway. Slash had a weird, undisciplined childhood and a crazy life but he is grounded and disciplined and seems like a decent (in the "honest" sense if not the "proper" sense) guy. Fun book.

I took out The Vanished Landscape by Paul Johnson because I was looking for books about Staffordshire, where my mother is from. The subtitle of the book is "A 1930s Childhood in the Potteries", which is exactly what my mother had. Funnily enough, my mother's childhood and Johnson's couldn't have been more different. Johnson is the child of middle-class parents, his father an art teacher and his mother one of those women who does nice things for poor people. They moved from Manchester to Stoke when Johnson spent his early childhood.

My mother, on the other hand, is the child of working class parents and she grew up in a small town near Stoke, one of those pastoral Shire-like English towns, with hedgerows and sheep and little walls made of stones. The little towns that no longer exist because they've turned into exurbs of nearby cities. Anyway, Johnson is a beautiful writer and describes Stoke wonderfully, especially the "vanished landscape" of the title, the old potbanks and wastelands born of the pottery industry. His father taught him to see the Burtynsky-esque beauty in that kind of landscape. I also loved Johnson's descriptions of his family and other people, and his stories of a much more unfettered childhood than today's children are allowed.

My mother read this book, too, and it got her blood boiling because Johnson is an old-school English snob, going on about how the poor people (that's my Mum) are all dirty and ignorant and need charity. As it turns out Johnson (who I had never heard of before) came to America and was an advisor for the Republican party. No surprise there.

I will probably read more Johnson because I love how he writes, but I wish there were more memoirs of Staffordshire out there. Like Barack Obama, I am continually searching for my identity through my family history.

[Posted at 14:07 by Amy Brown] link

Kids' Fiction

The Treasure at Greene Knowe, and The Stones at Greene Knowe by Lucy Boston are books in a series I started reading last year, about an old house with lots of secrets and ghosts and things. I have always loved books about houses with lots of secrets and ghosts, hidden passageways and so on, and this series is no exception. It's very well written and I'm looking forward to sharing it with Delphine.

I had to pick up A Coyote's In The House by Elmore Leonard because I wanted to know how he would handle young adult fiction. Well, first of all he managed to contrive a situation in which he could legitimately use the word "bitch" a lot. Kudos! This is a book written from the point of view of a coyote contemplating the life of a domesticated dog. The characters are well-drawn and the story is good. I liked this book.

Adult Fiction

I read Life on the Refrigerator Door by Alice Kuipers because it was recommended in the Globe and Mail Books section, and because I was intrigued by the premise: the book is written almost entirely in notes between a woman and her teenage daughter, left, as you might guess, on the refrigerator door. Surprisingly enough, the conceit works and the story is well-told. It's a tear-jerker but ends on a hopeful note.

Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff is a book which Blake got me to read because he really enjoyed it. It's a SF mystery thriller about a vigilante assassin, full of plot twists and lies within lies which keep you guessing and manage to hang together right to the final page. It's one of those books which, upon finishing it, you immediately want to start it again so you can see if it all fits together properly. A great book if you like that sort of thing.

I put I Am Legend (and other stories) by Richard Matheson on hold at the library back when the movie came out — I do that a lot, read books which have been made into movies without bothering to see the movie. I am often intrigued by the premise of a movie but know that the book will be better (not to mention cheaper). Anyway, everyone else in Toronto did the same thing before me so it took ages for my turn to come, and the memory of the unseen movie had long faded by the time I got the book. I like horror, though, so I gave it a read and quite enjoyed the title story. It's the story of a guy who remains uninfected when a disease very much like vampirism spreads over the world. Kind of a cool post-apocalyptic story with a grim but satisfying ending.

I started reading the other stories in the book, but they were all kind of samish and didn't do much for me.

The Bone Garden by Tess Gerritsen is a book my mother sent me, a mystery about a lady who finds some bones in her garden and goes off to Maine to investigate them. It was pretty good. I've seen some people say that Tess Gerritsen is really great and she's won a couple of awards and been nominated for an Edgar, but this book didn't blow me away. Maybe I should read Vanish, the book which got all the awards. (Except apparently the Toronto Public Library doesn't have a copy. Go TPL!)

I picked up Alice in Jeopardy by Ed McBain and Watchman by Ian Rankin in summer as my fluffy, mindless reading. I chose them because I like the authors and that's what the library had on the shelves, and I managed to get a McBain book that isn't an 87th Precinct book and a Rankin that isn't a Rebus book. However, they were both pretty good reads, definitely fulfilling what I required of them.

[Posted at 12:34 by Amy Brown] link
Fri, 26 Dec 2008

I joined a book club in 2008, in part to force me to read more fiction, and to think about what I read more. In spite of how much I read — well, maybe because I read so much — I don't think about what I read as much as I would like to. Knowing I'm going to have to talk intelligently about the books forces me to read more mindfully, which improves all my reading.

My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult is a book about a girl, Anna, who is born to provide her sister Kate with bone marrow. Kate gets better but then gets sick again, over and over, and Anna keeps getting tapped for more and more biological matter. I quite enjoyed the book, I think (it was a while ago, but I know I didn't hate it, except the ending which was egregiously heart-rending), and there was plenty to talk about: the ethics of designer babies, issues of identity and responsibility to family, and a bizarre subplot about a lawyer with an anachronistically shameful disorder of his own. Pretty good but don't run out and read it or anything.

The Girls by Lori Larsen is a book about conjoined twins living in a small town near London, Ontario. This is a beautifully crafted book, not just about the sisters but about life in small-town Canada. I found the characters so compelling and real that I kept feeling I could Google them to find out their ultimate fate. The one weird thing is that although the girls in the book are almost my exact contemporaries I kept feeling the book was set in the fifties or sixties. I don't know if that was intentional on the part of the author, to evoke the nostalgia of small-town life or of the cloistered nature of the girls' lives, or not, but it quite jarring when one of the sisters started looking things up on the Internet herself. Other than that I really enjoyed this book.

The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs is about a New York woman who owns a knitting store and has a teenage daughter and meets up with an old friend and, I dunno, hilarity ensues. As you might guess I wasn't overwhelmed with love for this book. It was fluffy like a ball of mohair and seemed contrived.

Last Days of Dogtown by Anita Diamant is a book about the various inhabitants of a dying town on the Massachusetts coast. It's gloomy reading but compelling. The characters are well-drawn and the stories are interesting and credible. A worthwhile read.

The Memory-Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards is about a woman who, upon being asked to take a doctor's baby daughter, born with Down syndrome, to an institution, instead kidnaps the daughter and takes her to live in Pittsburgh. Meanwhile the doctor tells his wife that the baby died and they go on to have a messed-up marriage and never quite find happiness. A bunch of things happen and everyone lives happily ever after, more or less.

This was another good book which didn't blow me away. It seemed quite contrived and book clubbish, with lots of Talking Points and Dramatic Turns.

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. Yes, we read Ender's Game in book club. Weird! About half of the book club members don't read science fiction, so it was an interesting meeting. Anyway, so this is another book about a kid who is born for a special purpose, this time to be the child genius who saves mankind by having the a unique combination of video gaming skillz and innocence required to defeat an alien species which threatens mankind. You have to suspend your disbelief pretty high over a couple of things in this book, but if you give yourself over to Card you're rewarded with a good yarn and some interesting things to think over, like the ethics of using children to fight wars, and the similarity between modern warfare and video games. Also the techniques of military training, the value of adding in bits to a book which don't really make sense in that book but pave the way for a sequal, preemptive war, genocide, whether we could recognize the "humanity" in alien species, and what form those species might take, collective intelligence versus individual minds and the inability to truly know another person. Lots to talk about.

I actually read Only You Can Save Mankind by Terry Pratchett as a companion piece to this (according to Blake there is a whole subgenre of "video games that turn out to be real" SF out there). They're quite different books but they're neck and neck in terms of quality of characterization and depth of insight, with Pratchett coming out ahead with Humour over Earnestness.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini is my big winner this year, in terms of fiction. This book ripped me up. The writing is gorgeous and the characters are instantly compelling, but the plot is gruelling and horrifying. I wept for the women in this book, and at the same time I learned so much about Kabul and the recent history of Afghanistan. I sent my mother a copy of this book and she read it in two days. Fantastic book.

[Posted at 10:47 by Amy Brown] link
Tue, 23 Dec 2008

Here are the parenting books I read in 2008, sorted into two categories:

Books that Made me Say "Enh"

These are books which were pretty useful but didn't change my world view or particularly affect my parenting style.

  • Curious Minds ed. by John Brockman
  • Toilet Training the Brazelton Way by T. Berry Brazelton and Joshua Sparrow
  • Children: The Challenge by Rudolph Dreikurs
  • Parent Talk by Stanley Shapiro and Karen Skinulis
  • Your Five-Year-Old: Sunny and Serene by Ames and Ilg
  • The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron
  • Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
  • The Money-Tree Myth by Gail Vaz-Oxlade

Awesome Books

These are the books which either blew me away with their insight or actually changed how I view my role as a parent.

  • Breaking The Good Mom Myth: Every Mom's Modern Guide to Getting Past Perfection, Regaining Sanity, and Raising Great Kids by Alyson Schafer is about democratic parenting, the notion that kids are actually much more competent than they are given credit for, and that we must give them more responsibility to allow them to grow into competent and independent adults. (This philosophy also says that we should allow our children to experience the consequences of their decisions, which has unfortunately led to people using "consequence" as a euphemism for "punishment". If there's a point, some folk are bound to miss it.)

    This book changed how I parent; I used to fret so much about how to get them to tidy their rooms, how to get them to dress appropriately outside, how to get them to play nicely together. Schafer points out that you can't really "get" kids to do things, but you can treat them like human beings, explain the situation, help them make their own decisions and then live with them. The problem, of course, is that you have to live with their decisions too, but as long as you remember that your kids are not in fact tiny extensions of yourself, that's usually not really a problem. The nice thing is that once something is your kid's responsibility it's no longer yours! Hooray! - Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes by Alfie Kohn. I was led to this book by the Schafer book, which is a bit ironic because Kohn tears a strip off the democratic parenting crowd for their euphemistic "consequences" and their apparent lack of sympathetic support for little kids. Anyway, this book is about how rewards (praise, stickers, grades, incentives, commissions, bonuses) are actually counterproductive in parenting and in business.

    Kohn is brilliant and very compelling and has led me to fundamentally change my parenting style. I now almost never praise the girls and never reward them, and I am very conscious of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation in myself as well as them. Absolutely everyone should read this book, whether parents, teachers, employers, managers, or anyone else. - Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion by Dale McGowan is a collection of essays about raising children in a household without religion or other superstition. I was casting about for support in this area when I discovered this book, apparently the only one on this topic. It's a great book, interesting and funny and insightful. - The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist's Notebook: What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love and Healing by Bruce Perry is a book about how the development of children who have undergone extreme trauma can teach us about normal mental development. It is fascinating, inspiring and at times grueling. Another must-read for anyone who has or works with children.

[Posted at 17:28 by Amy Brown] link

Back on November 17 when I started this blog entry I had read about fifty books since the beginning of the year. I wrote up eight of them and then got distracted (probably by reading, I think I have read another ten at least since then) and haven't worked on it since. It's now December 23rd, and I would really like to post my book logs for this year. The problem is I obviously don't have time to write up each book properly, so this is going to end up being a giant list of books I have read. I hate to do that because then it takes all the value-add out of a book blog and seems a lot like bragging. Neener neener, look at all the books I read, I'm such a smarty pants. But I've come to depend on my book blog to see what I have read and how I liked it, so I'm going to go ahead anyway, and I'll try and categorize things cleverly and hopefully write a little bit about books which really had an impact, so this isn't a completely worthless process.

But first, here are the eight books I wrote up back in November.

I ended up grouping all the books I've read into six rough categories: books on parenting and childhood development, memoirs, non-fiction books on other topics, books I read for my bookclub, and other fiction. (Okay, that's five. Degree in math, what?) The only thing which really surprised me was the number of books I read which could be termed memoirs. I certainly don't consider myself a person who reads memoirs. As it turns out there is no particular pattern or commonality among the memoirs I read; each one was chosen for some specific reason.

Anyway, here are the Non-Fiction (Other) books I read, broken into "Books About How To Do Stuff" and "Other Non-Fiction". Perhaps that should be "Otherer Non-Fiction".

Books About How To Do Stuff

Houseworks by Cynthia Townley Evers is a book about how to organize your house, or at least that's how it's billed. The author is the lady, and this is to some extent a bookization of the website. It works very well as a book, since getting organized is inherently a somewhat linear procedure. But it's not just an organization book, it's really much more than that. It functions as a full household maintenance reference, along the lines of Home Comforts, by Cheryl Mendelson, although much less hardcore. I got some helpful tips from this book and I'm already pretty organized, so I recommend it to anyone who feels they need a little help in the housekeeping department.

Knife Skills Illustrated by Peter Hertzmann. Go ahead and guess what this book is about. It covers what to look for when you are buying knives, how to care for your knives and keep them sharp, and knife safety. The second half of the book demonstrates, through photographs, how to cut up various fruits, veggies, meats, and the other stuff you might want to dismember in the comfort of your own kitchen.
Insasmuch as something as inherently physical and three-dimensional can be taught in a book, this is a handy book. I still feel like I would learn more in a half-hour face-to-face with an expert.

The Naturalized Garden by Stephen Westcott-Gratton is about how to grow a garden which takes care of itself, by choosing indigenous and hardy plants suitable for the characteristics of your garden. This book discusses woodland (or shady) gardens, meadow (or sunny) gardens, and damp gardens. (I can't remember the picturesque name for damp gardens.) The author recommends hundreds of species and gives advice on planting and maintenance. I love this book and it has inspired me to (gradually) convert my back and front gardens to naturalized gardens. Thanks to Auntie J'Anne I already have a nice patch of hostas and ferns in the back, to which I added some astilbe and plenty of bulbs (I got one of those 75 bulbs for $30 deals, we'll see how they do). To my surprise I determined that the front of the backyard (if you will) is actually reasonably sunny so I will have to revisit the book sometime to get some meadow suggestions.

Getting Things Done by David Allen is a book which is very much discussed and followed on the Interweb. I decided to check it out after screwing up something which seemed disastrous at the time but which I have now forgotten. I hate that feeling of being out of control I get when I miss something important or let someone down.

The author is an organization expert who has distilled all his experience with executives into this amazing foolproof n-step plan to get things done. I had to know. It actually does seem to be a really good system, although somehow the infrastructure doesn't entirely fit into my life, probably because I don't spend a whole lot of time with pen and paper, or computer. You do need to spend a little time on the infrastrucure of the system, but that's better than spending the time looking for lost files or apologizing to people for dropping the ball on things. I did implement some aspects of this book, most notably keeping little notebooks all over the place and writing everything down, and also creating a file system for absolutely everything. It has helped. I will probably get it out again soon and see what other incremental changes I can make.

The Global Warming Survival Handbook by David De Rothschild is a really rather handy little book of ideas on how you can act to reduce global climate change. There are plenty of good ideas in here, including big changes that will really make a difference, like living in a smaller house, close to work, and biking to work. And the most important — changing a lightbulb is good but changing a representative is better: vote for the people who will make a difference. (That's why I voted Liberal. Didn't seem to make a difference... sigh.)

I read this book in tandem with a little piece of crap that calls itself something like The Green Book. It's a bunch of tips from celebrities on how you can prevent climate change. The other book was written with scientists, and if I might advise you, when given the choice between taking tips from celebrities or taking tips from scientists on matters of science, go with the scientists. Celebrities have lots of great tips on, I dunno, mascara, but they don't know crap about climate change. This book perpetuates the nice myth that we'll be able to save the world without too much inconvenience. They suggest such profound changes as using paper matches instead of wooden matches. Not taking a receipt at the ATM. I think my favourite celebrity advice was from Jennifer Aniston. Apparently she saves water by brushing her teeth in the shower. Now unless I'm out of touch and Jennifer Aniston is actually the earthly manifestation of the multi-armed Hindu goddess of destruction Kali and can actually brush her teeth and soap up her hoo-hah &at the same time, brushing your teeth in the shower is exactly the same thing as brushing your teeth in front of the sink with the tap running! Stupid, so so stupid.

The book is notable only for it's amazing analogies: if everyone in America switched to single-ply tissues, say, a wad of snotrag the size of a cruise ship would be saved every year!
They must have had a team of interns devoted to the creation of a giant database of various dimensions and their pithy equivalents.

When You Catch An Adjective, Kill It by Ben Yagoda. I love a good grammar book but this one didn't grab me. It's a long time since I read it so I can't remember why. Let's see what I wrote in my notebook... Okay, I said I didn't really learn anything about parts of speech (the topic of the book) because that stuff is inherently boring, but I enjoyed the discussions of historical and popular usage.

One thing that stayed with me is that "they" as the gender-neutral pronoun was in use before "he or she", so I will happily keep saying "they" when gender is not specified.

The Perfect Wrong Note by William Westney is a book about musical practice and performance. The author is a concert pianist and teacher, and he has come up with some new theories of musical training, practice and performance. Mainly he doesn't like the traditional way of dealing with mistakes: you make a mistake, you go back over the passage and beat it into the ground until you can play it a time or two without the mistake, and then you charge on. His contention is that the mistake is teaching you something about what you know (or rather, don't know) about the piece. You need to go back and figure out what the mistake is telling you so you can correct it properly and deepen your understanding of the piece.

He also has some interesting ideas about how to practice: that you should treat it more like a physical workout than a mental exercise, so start by relaxing your body and mind, stretching, finding a comfortable and relaxed position. Then play some notes, make some noises. Not music, just noises. It's all a little hippy-trippy but if I were an earnest student of music I would definitely try it. I totally agree that the making of music is as much an athletic pursuit as a cerebral one; I never gained as good a physical appreciation for my body and it's strengths and liabilities as I did when I was studying voice.

There's one rather intimidating point in the book: Westney encourages a profound knowledge of each piece you play — he would like you to be able to verbally describe what is happening at any point in the piece. For example, "In this bar, the piece retains the key signature of the tonic minor but modulates to its relative major of G flat"... It's representative of my limited musical knowledge that I had to use Google to find that technical-sounding phrase, and while I know more or less what it means I'm not entirely sure it makes sense in this context. And it is very safe to say I have never known or understood any piece I have learned or performed that intimately. It's amazing how clueless a choral singer can be and get away with it. And humbling to realize how little I know. What did I learn in those eight or so years of piano lessons? Apparently not much.

Feel the Fear... And Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers. I have this sneaking feeling — maybe everyone has it — that I am not living up to my potential. I am smart, and organized, I can talk to people, I can solve problems and understand complex situations, and yet I am of no more value to the world than any stay-at-home mother. I feel like I should be contributing more than I am. I feel like, well, I'm wasting my potential. This is a matter for an entire blog post, of course, and there's more to it than I can go into in this paragraph. Lucky you.

Anyway, at various points in my life I have been given opportunities to do interesting or ambitious things and I have passed them up, sometimes explicitly and sometimes just by dropping the ball. I realized this summer that I run away from these exciting possibilities because I am scared. Scared of screwing up, of letting someone down, of getting in over my head, of becoming overwhelmed. It seems like a pretty straightforward thing, but it took my thirty-two years to figure it out. So, as I do when I have any kind of problem, I headed to the library to check out a book about it, and this is the one I chose because Gail Vaz-Oxlade recommended it, and she seems pretty sensible.

I found the book mostly helpful. It had a few great insights which seem, in retrospect, to be really obvious but which I needed to have pointed out to me: no matter what happens, you can handle it; other people are scared too, they just go ahead anyway (that is, fear isn't a legitimate reason not to do something); even if something horrible does happen, you can get through it and find some good in it. Jeffers talks about moving away from being a victim, how to deal with that negative chatterbox (that's my personal hobgoblin), and how to live a balanced and meaningful life so that failure in one area doesn't destroy your whole sense of self.

A couple of things didn't work for me: Jeffers loves affirmations, but I find them contrived and dorky. I do make a point to avoid negative self-talk and strive for the opposite (or at least, realistic self-talk) but I can't stand in front of the mirror and chant canned new-agey phrases. That's not me. Also at the end of the book she gets into this woo-woo stuff about the Universe having a Plan for you and reaching your Higher Consciousness. I am don't believe in the supernatural and I know the universe is just a whirling mass of elements with no intention at all for me or anyone else. I ignored those chapters, without any detriment to the value of the rest of the book.

Other Non-Fiction

Madame Bovary's Ovaries: A Darwinian Look at Literature by David P. Barash and Nanelle Barash is an examination of literature through the lens of evolutionary theory. Or is it an examination of evolutionary theory through the lens of literature? I'm still not sure. I came into it with a little understanding of literature and slightly more understanding of evolution, and I left it with a much better understanding of both. To the extent that literature is really the encoding of human nature, this book greatly increased my understanding of how evolution as we know it informs the way we behave. Fantastic book, I recommend it to all inquisitive readers.

The Geography of Hope: A Guided Tour of the World We Need by Chris Turner. The author, upon having a baby, realized that the world is in very real danger of going to hell in a handbasket. Being a go-get-em journalist type, he decided to travel around the world (I don't know how you get away with that when you've just had a baby; he must have a very forgiving wife) and figure out who is doing what to prevent that, and how's it working out anyway. He concludes that in fact the technology already exists to save our collective asses, and that what is required is the political will to implement it on a significant scale. (See above re: changing representatives as well as lightbulbs.) This was a fun and heartening read: Turner sees hope and possibility in a green economy and culture. Turner continues to track developments in sustainable policy and technology in his Globe and Mail column.

Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss — And the Myths and Realities of Dieting by Gina Kolata is an overview of the history of dieting and the current scientific thinking on obesity and dieting.

Kolata describes what happens to your body when you reduce caloric intake: you become panicky and obsessed with food. Once healthy intake resumes, you rapidly regain weight. Similarly, if you increase caloric intake and gain weight outside of your natural weight range, you rapidly lose it again once you stop overeating. That's why it's so easy for actors to lose weight if they have gained it for a role (assuming they were within their own healthy weight beforehand). Bottom line: it's very difficult for people to change their own weight. There are numerous biological checks and balances in your body to keep your weight consistent, whether you like it or not.

This book challenges popular wisdom with its crazy old nemesis, data. Apparently, for example, changes in cafeteria menus and physical education programs in an attempt to reduce obesity levels in students don't make any significant difference. Bummer. Kolata also dicusses the fact that the danger of being overweight (which is of course just a medical/social construct) are overstated. Being overweight — as opposed to obese, or "normal" weight — is possibly optimal for good health. It's certainly not the medical disaster it is often made out to be.

The frustrating thing about this book is that it doesn't explain why everyone is getting fatter, but of course that's because we don't exactly know. My opinion is that it's probably a perfect storm of factors: ready availability of food, reduced need to exercise, and possibly the effect of some novel chemical or combination of chemicals. Only time will tell.

This book is a must-read for anyone who is overweight or worried about their weight, and for anyone who feels they need to have an opinion on fatness.

The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Philip Zimbardo Phil Zimbardo is the guy who did the Stanford Prison Experiment. You know, the one where they took a bunch of undergrad men, assigned half of them to be guards and half to be prisoners, and let them at it in a fake prison constructed in a basement. Obviously, the experiment went terribly and it was finally stopped only a few days in after an observer insisted it was cruel and immoral. The experiment ended but Zimbardo has never stopped thinking about what makes normal people do evil things.
He studied this experiement, as well as wars and genocides. After thinking about it for years he wrote this book, which I found profoundly interesting and useful.

Zimbardo describes the circumstances you need to create an environment where people behave evilly: group conformity, obedience to authority, deindividuation (so lack of individual responsibility), dehumanization and moral disengagement (so the others are pigs, rats, cockroaches; anything but human), Inaction and passive bystanders.

It's not just a description of evil and how it comes about, but a how-to of not being evil! Everyone needs one of those. I honestly can't say, if I were in some awful situation like a genocide, that I wouldn't be one of the bystanders. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't take a machete to my neighbours but I know I have a weak, fearful, conformist, deferential-to-authority streak that could see me looking the other way while my neighbours machete each other. "Well, if everyone else thinks it okay," I would say to myself. Or, "Well if I say something I could be next. I don't want to piss off the guy with the machete." Zimbardo addresses these excuses and more. If you want to learn how to not be evil it's all there at the Lucifer Effect website. They are good rules for living, not just for avoiding evilness: admit mistakes; be mindful, be responsible, assert your individuality, rebel against unjust authority, value your independence from groupthink... and so on. Worth a look at the website even if you don't have time to read the book.

The Dirt on Clean by Katherine Ashenburg is all about personal hygiene through history.

(This is where I stopped writing back in November, and here end the long write-ups. This book was neat but didn't blow me away. If you are interested in personal hygiene through history, check it out.)

Here are the other non-fiction books I read before November 17th:

  • Bonk by Mary Roach is a book about scientific research into sex, written for a general audience. Funny and interesting.
  • Only In Canada, You Say? by Katherine Barber is a book about uniquely Canadian words and phrases. Awesome book, notable for the number of times I said "What the hell does everyone else call it?" Double-double? Open concept? Reno? You people need words for these things.
  • The World Without Us by Alan Weisman is that book about what the earth would do if people suddenly disappeared. It's awesome and thrilling and very informative. And humbling.
  • Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar (Yes, I do get lots of book recommendations from The Daily Show.) A book about how to be happier. I think this must have covered a lot of the same material as the other happiness books I've read because nothing stands out in my memory. Still probably a worthwhile read if you would like to be happier.
  • The End of Food by Paul Roberts is about the incredible fragility of the global food industry. It could be laid low at any time by disease, climate change, peak oil. When you walk into the grocery store it seems as if there is such endless abundance, but it's really a house of cards. Scary but well worth reading.
[Posted at 16:56 by Amy Brown] link