March Books

Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn. If you have been paying attention here, you know how much I love Alfie Kohn. But I've been reluctant to read this, his parenting book, because I knew it would force me to raise the bar on my parenting, to really think about what's behind how I treat my kids. And I was right, this was a good read but a tough one. This isn't a book with a bunch of techniques or tricks for managing your kids (Alyson Schafer is your girl for that), but rather a discussion of how traditional parenting techniques put your kids in the position of having to earn your love in the form of rewards, praise and attention (or avoid your approbation in the form of punishment, time outs or "consequences").

Kohn's radical thesis is that children are human beings and deserving of love and respect no matter how much they fuck up, and equal love and respect (not more) when they get it right. He writes about "working with" children rather than "doing to" them.

Unconditional parenting is hard; it goes so contrary to popular wisdom which is all about praise and consequences. It's also, to be honest, sometimes hard to treat your kids like human beings when they act like maniacs, or idiots, or animals. You have to really try hard to see the human being inside that crispy exterior and try and respond to her. Which can be hard when you're tired or in a hurry or otherwise resource-challenged. (One of Kohn's list of recommendations is "Don't be in a hurry", which is great advice if you can take it.)

Kohn's arguments are, as always, compelling, well-researched and well-supported; the notes and references seemed to start about two-thirds of the way through the book. (That's one thing I missed from Alyson Schafer's latest book: it just ended. No index, no references, no further reading, nothing. Girl needs a new publisher.)

This is a must-read for me. I would buy this book if I weren't such a cheap bastard.

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson. Bill Bryson lived in England for a long time (Wikipedia says over twenty years), and he wrote this book after he decided to move back to America. For his last hurrah he did a whirlwind train tour around Britain and wrote all about it. I love Bill Bryson and I love England, and I love train travel, so I thought I would love this book, but I found it kind of sameish after a while. I can't put my finger on why, exactly. Although I can tell you that despite the fact I went to lots of different places when I was in England, my trip and Bill's hardly overlapped at all, so I missed that thrill of reading about a place I'm familiar with.

My favourite thing about this book is how Bryson gets all sappy and sentimental about England, because I love it too (although in a nice-place-to-visit way; I couldn't live there). I was a bit perplexed, though, by his insistence that Brits are so thoughtful and polite. In my experience Brits tend to be a bit mean and rude, if anything (sorry to generalize; usual disclaimers apply, some of my best friends, etc). They're hot on "manners" and behaving "properly", but not so much on actually considering others. Maybe I'm wrong - I was there in middle school which isn't exactly a hotbed of consideration on any continent.

Design Ideas for Home Storage by Elaine Martin Petrowski. Take a guess what this one's about. Yes! A useful book with lots of good ideas, and plenty of photos (some apparently ripped straight from the Ikea catalogue). What makes this one a keeper, though, is that it includes the dimensions you'll need to make storage design decisions: how high is a kitchen counter, how much room do you need to hang a pair of pants, etc. And last but not least there are instructions for a few simple storage projects you can build yourself, like a window seat built from store-bought over-refrigerator cabinets. Brilliant!

Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. Okay, my "friend" Ellen picked this book as our book club read this month. Our relationship might never be the same. When I found out the premise of this novel (a philosophy of sustainability explained through a telepathic Socratic conversation between a person and a gorilla) I knew I would hate it. I know, you're not supposed to prejudge things, but when you reach a certain age and you've read a few things, you know what you're going to like. And what you're going to hate.

I hated this. Generally I hate books that are discourses on philosophy disguised as a novel. I hated Jonathan Livingston Seagull, I hated Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Okay, that's not true, I guess I liked and found value in both those books when I read them (when I was much younger), but both of them left a bad taste in my mouth, like I'd been spoken down to. And maybe because I'm older and have a stronger sense of my own morality and philosophy, Ishmael was a thousand times worse. I felt like I was being spoon-fed something really quite simple: the whole message of the book could be delivered in a few pages. And on top of that the thesis of the book is ridiculously flawed: the author manages to lump all the subtlety and complexity of every non-Western culture into one group, the "leavers", and says that they're lovely and good people because they don't take more than they need, not like us selfish bastards. It's just all so stupid and patronising (to the other cultures this time, not to me).

Should make for a good book club discussion, anyway. (I'm pretty sure Ellen hates it too - I wonder how everyone else feels.)

Wow, every paragraph in this post has a parenthetical insertion. (Except this one. (Whoops!)) I think I have a problem.


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