February Books, Some Of 'em, Anyway

How To Read Novels Like A Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World's Favourite Literary Form by Thomas Foster. Blake gave me this for Christmas because I loved Thomas Foster's last book so much. This is a field guide to novels, starting from the first sentence, and touching on all the main elements of the novel: the narrator, the structure, the sources, the ideas and theme, heroes and anti-heroes, what kinds of sentences, vocabulary, and so on.

I took this book with me to book club, and one of the other club members turned her nose up at it. "Why would you want to?" Well, maybe you wouldn't, but wouldn't it be interesting to read the book and find out? I found this book really helpful; it gave me lots of ideas of things to focus on and think about when I read novels. (Incidentally, yes, a lot of the things were covered in high school English class, but somehow I wasn't ready for them then. Sometimes I wonder if grade school is wasted on kids just because they're so green. Or maybe it was just me.)

I applied some of the things I learned to the last novel I read and it did indeed deepen the experience. I actually found that my heightened attention left me with more questions about the book than I would otherwise have had, so I guess that's something.

I reread Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell for the local library's non-fiction book club. Interesting to read it again; I found myself thinking, "Oh, that's where I read that" quite often. I do tend to remember what I've read but not remember where. Such a lazy mind, I have.

Anyway, if you are the one person left on the planet who hasn't read this book before, it's about how we make snap judgements, which can be very valuable if our minds are trained properly, but of course are also the root of prejudice. So the most important part of the book is really the part which covers how to manage and control rapid cognition. One of the things he talks about is how you can improve your score on an Implicit Association Test, specifically the black/white one, by exposing yourself to images and stories of successful black people. So the obvious question is, has the average score changed in favour of blacks since the advent of the ultimate shiny black guy, Barack Obama? I'm sure the people at Harvard are looking into it.

Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion by Carol Tavris This book was referred to in the Alfie Kohn book about common misconceptions. The misconception in question was that expressing anger, "getting it out of your system", reduces anger. Kohn referred to this book when he debunked that notion. I have a personal interest in anger so I decided to check it out.

Anger is not a self-help book, it's an overview and discussion of the current (well, current at the time - it's around ten years old) research on anger. Tavris covers the history of thinking on anger, cultural differences, and of course lots of information about research into what anger is, where it comes from, what it's for and what we can do with it. She mythbusts a few ideas, like that supressing anger will lead to disease; she discusses factors which can make anger worse; she talks about anger within marriages, and she has an entire chapter about anger as a force for social change in the context of the women's rights movement. The last chapter is the only chapter which formally presents advice for dealing with anger. All in all a very helpful book, more so than the other books I have read on the subject.

Grow Wild!: Low Maintenance, Sure-Success, Distinctive Gardening with Native Plants by Lorraine Johnson and Andrew Leyerle I love these books about native-plant gardening. I would love to have a garden full of low-maintenance, indigenous plants which will nourish birds and insects. In fact, I plan to have such a garden. I just have no idea where or how to start. I guess the answer is, slowly. In the meantime I'll keep on reading books like this (which was a good one, but I liked The Naturalized Garden by Stephen Westcott-Gratton more) for inspiration.

Honey, I Wrecked The Kids: When Yelling, Screaming, Threats, Bribes, Time-outs, Sticker Charts and Removing Privileges All Don't Work by Alyson Schafer. I was going to read this book because I liked Alyson Schafer's last book, and because I like Alyson Schafer: she is tremendously generous with free advice by email even though she's busy and could be charging hundreds of dollars for that advice. And then I thought, maybe I wouldn't read it because things are going pretty well with the girls and I don't want to borrow trouble. Then Blake said, "Read it anyway, the last one was funny and helpful." So I did, and indeed it was funny and helpful. It covered a lot of the same ground as Breaking The Good Mom Myth (I think: see above re: not remembering where I read stuff) but it was a useful refresher on democratic parenting.

I copied out three things from the book to stick up in my kitchen. The first was the DROP-the-rope system for getting out of power struggles. I seem to get into power struggles a lot with my little ones, over stupid things like which boots to wear or what to have for snack. DROP is a clever mnemonic but obviously not clever enough because I don't remember what it stands for. Anyway, it basically means disengage, back off, figure out what the situation demands (not what you as a control freak or parent who is afraid of losing power demand), make sure everyone's rights are being honoured, and then extend a peace offering. Basically figure out what is actually necessary, and stop being so damn scary.

The second thing I wrote down was a list of ways to deal with sibling conflicts, which happen a lot around here. First on the list is "Ignore them". Yeah!

The third thing I wrote down was a suggested agenda for a family meeting, which Schafer pretty much insists you have to have in order to have a proper democratic household. The agenda does look terrifically useful, as it includes things like "review next week's schedule", and "distribute allowance", two things we should do every weekend but often flake out on. I added "make dinner menu plan". If we do manage to implement family meetings on Friday nights they would be very useful.

The only problem with this book is that it's awfully edited. There were spelling errors and grammatical errors all over the place. I don't blame Schafer for this: being a good therapist and writer doesn't mean you can spell. The publisher should have thrown a few more resources at it, though. Very weird omission, and of course it detracted from the message of the book.

Father Knows Less Or: "Can I Cook My Sister?": One Dad's Quest to Answer His Son's Most Baffling Questions by Wendell Jamieson. Jamieson has a kid who, like every other kid, asks lots of weird questions, the kind of questions you don't ask as an adult because you have more context for things, or because you don't want to look stupid, or because you are too busy to think about things that don't directly affect you. Jamieson decided he was going to find out the answers to those questions, but not by looking them up in the encyclopedia (like my Mum did) or Googling (like I do), but by using his chops as an editor at The New York Times to get actual experts to answer them.

I read this because I thought it would be a cute novelty book, and maybe I would learn the answers to some of those surreal questions children ask. It was cute and I did learn lots of interesting things. But it was also a touching story of parenthood, and of what it is to grow up and live in New York. Jamieson is honest and generous with details from his life, which adds depth and warmth to this collection of sometimes wacky, sometimes profound questions and answers.


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