Wednesday, April 25, 2012

thoughts on: Bringing Up Be'be'

Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French ParentingBringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman

The popularity of books like this give the impression that today's American parents are willing to take advice from anyone other than their own relatives.  The most helpful advice the French have about child rearing is very traditional, the sorts of things people everywhere have said for generations:  don't pick the baby up the moment it fusses, No means no, you have to try a bite of everything, children and parents are happier when the parents are in charge.  Excellent advice, and worth reading if these are unfamiliar concepts to you.  A grandparent could give this book as a gift, and thus sneakily impart their own child rearing wisdom to the next generation.

What truly interested me about this book was its insights into a monolithic culture.  Druckerman tells us that her French counterparts are more relaxed about parenting, and it is easy to see why.  Unlike the USA, France does issue handbooks when babies are born.  There is, like so many other things in their nation, one approved way of parenting, and everyone agrees to it.  Child care workers, grandparents, teachers, everyone you meet on the street shares the same child rearing philosophy, so French parents have a support system which does not exist in America.  Imagine if everyone who came into contact with your children was going to reinforce the very same standards you were trying to teach them.  That alone would make parenting easier.

However, this does not mean they are not under pressure.  They may accept the pressures of their society, which are very different from ours, but that is not the same as not feeling them.  For example, weight control is a national obsession among the French.  Not having regained your figure three months after giving birth is considered shameful.  Literally.  French husbands, doctors, relatives, friends, all feel that a woman who has not lost her pregnancy weight by three months is failing her duty as a wife and woman and will tell her so.

Gender roles are more rigid in France, with women accepting that they will be paid less, and do more child rearing, more housework.  Druckerman is impressed that despite this, they complain less.    However, her Parisian friends admit that one of the reasons they return to work so soon, keep trim, etc is because "men leave."  (France has divorce rates similar to the US, around 50%, and is much more accepting of infidelity.)  Druckerman doesn't investigate these comments, but I wish she had.  There were just enough of them sprinkled throughout for me to wonder if the French women were not so much happy as resigned.  (France is the only nation among 18 recently studied with depression rates higher than the US.)

The other main point that struck me as I read is that, no matter what a parent chooses, it will always be "for the good of the child."  In France, it is considered to be good for the children to enter childcare before a year old (France has highly trained childcare workers.).  It is good for them to be autonomous, which translates to spending a lot of time away from their parents.  It is good for them to have parents who have their own lives. 

I have never met a parent who said, "Well, I don't think this is the best thing for my son, but it is what I want, so he'll have to deal with it."  No.  Nobody says that.  Whether we are talking about sending a child to summer camp, taking a higher paying job with more hours, having a family game night, a parent's alone time, or getting - or not getting - a divorce, we say it is for our child's benefit.  That the French also believe this is no surprise, but neither is it proof that their practices are superior. 

Because Druckerman is only looking at the parenting of very young children (and, again, I think a lot of the parenting specific advice she received in France is excellent) we really cannot fairly judge whether the French are wiser parents, because, in the end, it is not about whose baby slept through the night earlier.  It is about the adults they become, how they handle themselves in adversity and success, their integrity and humility and compassion for others.  At least, it always has been to me.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

thoughts on: Still Alice

Still AliceStill Alice by Lisa Genova

Lisa Genova gives us excellent insight into the deteriorating mind of someone with Alzheimer's Disease.  She combines the latest research findings with the story of one woman, and her family, dealing with early onset of the disease.  Strongest when she slips into the first person voice of Alice, a 50 year old psychology professor at Harvard, Genova captures the fear and confusion, as well as the rapid pace of the disease.  At what point, she asks, does Alice cease to be herself? 

I wish the novel had been written entirely in the first person.  However, Genova writes also to inform her reader about the latest (at the time it was written) research and treatment options.  So Alice's husband, a biologist, has pointed conversations with her neurologist about what causes the disease, as well as both conventional and experimental treatments.  I feel this will date the book in a few years.  At least, I hope it will, as our understanding of Alzheimer's grows.  Although informative, these read as interruptions to the narrative, and could have been included as an appendix rather than inserted into the novel.  I would have preferred to hear more of Alice's own voice.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

thoughts on: The Unseen Guest

The Unseen Guest (The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, #3)The Unseen Guest by Maryrose Wood

Why did I think The Incorrigible Children would only be a trilogy? Wishful thinking? The pacing is so tedious that I want it to end, but the story is so charming that I keep reading it anyway. I want to see Penelope finally solve the mystery, but it is frustrating me that she is so obtuse.

I do think these would be fun to read aloud to young children, but since my thoughts on this book are essentially the same as the other books in the series, I will just refer you to those reviews.

The Hidden Gallery
The Mysterious Howling

thoughts on: Hedy's Folly

Hedy's Folly: The Life And Breakthrough Inventions Of Hedy Lamarr, The Most Beautiful Woman In The WorldHedy's Folly: The Life And Breakthrough Inventions Of Hedy Lamarr, The Most Beautiful Woman In The World by Richard Rhodes

What we now call spread-spectrum radio, the technology behind cell phones, gps, and a host of other technologies was originally patented by Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheim.  Then called frequency hopping, Hedy developed the concept hoping the US military would use it in torpedo guidance systems during WWII.  Hedy, an Austrian, despised Nazi Germany and wanted to do whatever she could to help the Allied cause.

Hedy's Folly is poorly subtitled.  Richard Rhodes does share some of Hedy's life, but this is not a biography of the most beautiful girl in the world.  He gives background information on both Hedy and her partner in inventing spread spectrum radio, Antheim, but primarily to show where they acquired the desire, knowledge, and skills to successfully invent and receive a patent for Hedy's idea as well as how they came to work together. Rhodes also explains the science of their invention and the patent process.  A more apt subtitle might have been "How the Most Beautiful Woman of the World Invented the Most Ubiquitous Technology of the 21st Century."

Hedy famously said, "Any girl can be glamorous.  All she has to do is stand still and look stupid."  Hedy's Folly reveals the keen intellect that was ignored for far too long.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

thoughts on Let's Kill Uncle

Let's Kill Uncle: A NovelLet's Kill Uncle: A Novel by Rohan O'Grady

Two high spirited children thrown together on an idyllic island populated by benign adults would be typical children's fare, but Rohan O'Grady's children spend their summer vacation plotting the murder of a homicidal maniac. The juxtaposition of descriptions of the island and its eccentric inhabitants with the practical matter of how to get away with murder are delicious: sweet and salty.

Barnaby, heir to millions who has been terrorized by his murderous uncle all his life, and Christie, who is more strong willed adult than innocent little girl, begin their summer squabbling with each other and disrupting island life with their antics, but soon fall into a routine of mealtimes, chores, and attempts to tame a one eared cougar. That is, until Uncle arrives on the island. Then it is kill or be killed. Far from macabre, Let's Kill Uncle retains its sly wit throughout.

In a sense, Let's Kill Uncle is a coming of age story, but not for the children, despite charming lines like this one: "It was the end of innocence, for they knew now that One-Ear would never, never like cinnamon buns."

Monday, April 9, 2012

thoughts on: All But My Life

All But My Life: A MemoirAll But My Life: A Memoir by Gerda Weissmann Klein

Gerda Weissmann Klein's writing sets her memoir, All But My Life, apart from many of the holocaust survivor stories I have read.  Often, although the stories are compelling, the writing is not.  I do not say this as a criticism; I am grateful that anyone who lived through such terror is willing to put their memories on paper.  Every individual's story is valuable.  Klein, though, writes in such a winsome manner that her experiences transcend even the nightmare through which she lived.  She speaks not only of enduring and surviving, but of dreaming and hoping as only a lively young woman can dream.

Klein, who spent the war as a slave laborer in her native Poland, and survived the death march to Czechoslovakia, is surrounded not only by profound evil, but by the profound love in her friends.  She encounters depravity, but also remarkable acts of sympathy.  Yes, the former outnumber the latter, but she clings to the good wherever she finds it.

Throughout her book, she shares the stories of the young women whom she knew during the holocaust, the ones who did not survive.  At one point, she says, "I cannot help but want to tell her story, for I might be the only one left in the world who knows it."

For me, that is the reason why I continue to read holocaust memoirs.  There are so few people left who remember it.  So few who survived.  They deserve to be remembered - not just what they went through, but who they were:  individuals with hopes and dreams, faults and foibles, just like us. 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

thoughts on: Willpower, Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human StrengthWillpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister

Baumeister and Tierney make an excellent case for good old fashioned self control. They share numerous research studies on willpower, showing how it can be depleted and strengthened, as well as several case studies - how real people (celebrities, but, to be honest, I had not heard of most of them) exercise their willpower to succeed.

I enjoy reading about psychology research, even more so when it confirms what I already believed. (Who doesn't like be proven right?) Baumeister and his fellow psychologists have learned, through trial after trial, that their 20th century theories on self esteem and performance were all wrong, and it is working hard and applying oneself that leads to higher performance and esteem. Good old common sense and traditional values prevail in the findings on willpower. Apparently, making our beds, sitting up straight, not procrastinating, and being habitually orderly free up our brains to do the right thing when presented with the opportunity to choose otherwise. Sloppy habits and unfinished projects drain us, and we are more apt to make bad decisions from the fatigue. 

Personally, I felt affirmed in some areas, and convicted in others.  I am going to implement some of the strategies towards forming more good habits.  Researchers have learned that habits and routines, once ingrained, do not require willpower.  If you always floss every night, you don't struggle with yourself every night over whether you need better hygiene or more sleep or have non-flossing fear of losing your teeth taking up brainspace.

So, yes, a lot of common sense in Willpower, and the authors apply it to several areas - the workplace, parenting, addictions, dieting, and jungle exploration. (The chapter on Stanley in Africa was fascinating; now I want to read a book about him.) However, as they say, common sense is not so common, and this book is well worth reading if you need a boost towards reducing your stress and getting more done. I can't think of anyone who doesn't want that.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

thoughts on: The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard BookThe Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

(We listened to this on tape.  Neil Gaiman not only has a way with the written word, but he is a wonderful reader/narrator.  )

Neil Gaiman captures the feel and pacing and delight of Kipling's The Jungle Book, while allowing it to become a story entirely his own.  The Graveyard Book does not merely update the familiar story, changing the setting or substituting one character for another.  It honors the basic elements - the toddling lone survivor of a murderous attack, the community that takes him in, the solitary guardian who should be menacing but isn't, the episodic narrative - but is not bound to Mowgli's tale or Kipling's themes.

From the opening sentences, Gaiman turns the story around, placing the danger in the human world.  The murderer, the man Jack, continues to search for the child, and his only protection is the graveyard and his undead guardian.  Within the graveyard, Nobody Owens lives an idyllic if slightly lonely life.  Outside, danger lurks everywhere.  Bod, of course, ventures outside more and more often as he grows.


I don't like to give spoilers, but, in this case, I want to share something that both surprised and pleased me.  In many books of fantasy, very many children's books, there is a hero who does not know who he is.  He's been stolen, or lost, or orphaned, and in order to defeat some evil, he must find out who he is.  There is some strength the hero will only be able to access when he knows his true name, or some inheritance he needs from his true, ie birth, family.

Neil Gaiman presents us with this young man.  When the time comes, he discovers his name, and it is Nobody Owens.  The name given to him by his adoptive parents and his guardian.  We never do learn, nor does he, what name he'd been given at birth, and it does not matter.  He is who he is. 

As an adoptee, and an adoptive mom, I love that!