Books in July and August

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.

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