Books

100 Books in a Year

I read 100 books in 2015. I didn’t plan it. I was originally aiming for 60 books, a few more than I read in 2014. Imagine my surprise when I had reached 50+ by June. I in no way claim that every book I read was quality; many, the majority, were far from it. I think that reading is its own reward, though this is a sentiment I did not have in college (oh callow youth!). Reading is important and no matter what it is, READ!

Here are a few of my favorites from what I read in 2015:

  • Fates and Furies
  • Neurotribes
  • The Girl on the Train
  • This is Where I Leave You
  • Cooked
  • The Creation of Anne Boleyn
  • The Life and Death of Sophie Stark
  • The Wars of the Roses (really anything by Dan Jones – student of Starkey, SRB!)
  • On Immunity
  • Still Alice

Seriously, too many books to list them all. You can check out my Goodreads list. I read anything: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/778179-keanne?page=1&shelf=read-2015

I did want to share a bit of the great writing I read in 2015. Even books I didn’t love had great writing.

From Cooked:

If we address frankly what is evoked by cheese, I think it becomes clear why so little is said. So what does cheese evoke? Damp, dark cellars, molds, mildews and mushrooms galore, dirty laundry and high school locker rooms, digestive processes and visceral fermentations, he-goats, which do not remind of Chanel…in sum, cheese reminds of dubious, even unsavory places both in our nature and in our own organisms. And yet we love it.

 

From The Department of Speculation:

He won’t just think about how unbearable it is that things keep breaking, that you can never fucking outrun entropy.

And

For fifteen, maybe twenty minutes, she’d suspend her fierce judgment of the world and fall silent there

From Fates and Furies:

By the time she came back, the boy had calmed. Sweat curled the hair at his temples. She put on the overhead porch fan and set the tray down on the little table, taking a lemon bar for herself. She’d survived on wine and sugar for months because, fuck it, she never really got a childhood, and what was grief but an extended tantrum to be salved by sex and candy?

I know there was more, but I cannot find it! Gah!

Will I read 100 books in 2016? Doubtful. I read what interests me, be it historical fiction or pulp fiction. We shall see!

What are your reading goals for 2016?

 

 

 

Eula Biss’ ‘On Immunity’

I first read excerpts of Biss’ On Immunity in Salon months ago. I was finally able to get it from my local library 2 weeks ago.  It is a slim book, so I read it quickly in about 2 days, but it is a beautiful, profound book.  It is a mother’s and a literature professor’s exploration of vaccination and an analysis of the terms used, arguments made and history. Biss appears to be pro-vaccination, but the book is full of vivid personal moments, and she manages to straddle the difficult area of highlighting parental concerns (her own and others) and using evidence and anecdote to respond. She doesn’t preach; she explores and explains and comes at it from a mother’s point of view which is disarming.

Honestly, I don’t even know how to review this book.  I kept it past the two-week checkout window so I could re-read it and post on it.  It is a beautiful, intelligent book, and I highly recommend it, especially in light of the measles outbreak and latest reports of mumps as well.

I am pro-vaccine.  Daniel is fully vaccinated, and I believe that vaccines are a public health miracle.  We are fortunate that we have never had to experience a polio outbreak or smallpox epidemic with little hope for a cure.  Maybe it is because I’ve read way too many biographies of historical figures, but I cannot think of vaccines as anything but good.

But. I felt nervous when Daniel needed to receive the dreaded “MMR” vaccine. He received it on time, but I closely monitored him.  I agree that these decisions are difficult, especially when it is your tiny, fresh new baby who is being poked.  I get it. I get how easy and comforting it is to think if only you can feed you child the best, safest food; provide the safest, most enriching environment, you can somehow stave off disease of all types, ranging from the flu to cancer. What we forget or don’t want to think about is that we are all irrevocably tied to our environment and all the good and bad things in it. We have far less control than we think, including over our own bodies.  As The Emperor of All Maladies (a book I had read already and one that Biss references) points out, cancer is us.

I don’t think I can do justice to this book in a review, so I’m going to post some quotes that stood out to me.

When I search now for a synonym for ‘protect,’ my thesaurus suggests, after ‘shield’ and ‘shelter’ and ‘secure,’ one final option: ‘inoculate.’ This was the question, when my son was born – would I inoculate him? As I understood it then, this was not a question of whether I would protect him so much as it was a question of whether inoculation was a risk worth taking. (p. 7)

The very expression ‘herd immunity’ suggests that we are cattle, waiting, perhaps to be sent to slaughter. And it invites an unfortunate association with the term ‘herd mentality,’ a stamped toward stupidity. The herd, we assume, is foolish.  Those of us who eschew the herd mentality tend to prefer a frontier mentality in which we imagine our bodies as isolated homesteads that we tend ether well or badly. The health of the homestead next to ours does not affect us, this thinking suggests, so long as ours is well tended. (p. 20-21)

When I ask the pediatrician what the purpose of the hep B vaccine was, he answered, ‘that’s a very good question,’ in a tone that I understood to mean this was a question he relished answering.  Hep B was a vaccine for the inner city, he told me, designed to protect the babies of drug addicts and prostitutes.  It was not something, he assured me, that people like me needed to worry about. (p. 23-24)

The brief that public health measures are not intended for people like us is widely held by many people like me.  Public health, we assume, is for people with less – less education, less healthy habits, less access to quality health care, less time and money. (p. 24)

One of the mysteries of hep B immunization is that vaccinating only ‘high risk’ groups, which was the original public health strategy, did not bring down rates of infection…But rates of hep B infection remained unchanged until the vaccine was recommended for all newborns a decade later.  Only mass vaccination brought down the rates of infection and it has now virtually eliminated the disease in children. (p. 25)

When the last nationwide smallpox epidemic began in 1898, some people believed that whites were not susceptible to the disease…And when smallpox arrived in Middlesboro, Kentucky, everyone in the black section of town who resisted vaccination was vaccinated at gunpoint. These campaigns did not limit the spread of the disease, but all the risk of vaccination…was absorbed by the most vulnerable groups. The poor were enlisted in the protection of the privileged. (p. 25-26)

If it was meaningful then for the poor to assert that they were not purely dangerous, I suspect it might be just as meaningful now for the rest of us to accept that we are not purely vulnerable. The middle class may be ‘threatened,’ but we are still, just by virtue of having bodies, dangerous. (p. 27)

In a study that invited people to compare various causes of death, Slovic found that people tended to believe that accidents cause more deaths than disease and that homicide causes more deaths than suicide, when the opposite is true in both cases. (p. 37)

‘Intuitive toxicology’ is the term that Slovic uses for the way most people assess the risk of chemicals…For toxicologists, ‘the does makes the poison.’ Any substance can be toxic in excess. Water, for instance, is lethal to humans in very high doses…But most people prefer to think of substances as either safe or dangerous, regardless of the does. And we extend this thinking to exposure, in that we regard any exposure to chemicals, no matter how brief or limited, as harmful. (p. 38)

Allowing children to develop immunity to contagious diseases ‘naturally,’ without vaccination, is appealing to some of us. Much of that appeal depends on the belief that vaccines are inherently unnatural…Vaccination is a kind of domestication of a wild thing, in that it involves our ability to harness a virus and break it like a horse, but its action depends on the natural response of the body to the effects of that once-wild thing. (p. 41)

The idea that toxins, rather than filth or germs, are the root cause of most maladies is a popular theory of disease among people like me. (p. 73)

As for mercury, a child will almost certainly get more mercury exposure from her immediate environment than from vaccination. This is true, too, of the aluminum that is often used as an adjuvant in vaccines to intensify the immune response.  Aluminum is in a lot of things, including fruits and cereals as well as, again, breast milk. Our breast milk, it turns out, is as polluted as our environment at large. Laboratory analysis of breast milk has detected paint thinners, dry-cleaning fluids, flame retardants, pesticides and rocket fuel. (p. 74)

Though toxin is now often used to refer to man-made chemicals, the most precise meaning of the term is still reserved for biologically produced poisons.(p. 74)

Immunity is a public space. And it can be occupied by those who choose not to carry immunity. For some of the mothers I know, a refusal to vaccinate falls under a broader resistance to capitalism. But refusing immunity as a form of civil disobedience bears an unsettling resemblance to the very structure the Occupy movement seeks to disrupt – a privileged 1 percent are sheltered from risk while they draw resources from the other 99 percent. (p. 95)

Paternalism has fallen out of favor in medicine, just as the approach to fathering that depends on absolute authority no longer dominates parenting. But how we should care for other people remains a questions. (p. 98).

Autonomy is usually imagined as the alternative to paternalism. But in what is sometimes called the “restaurant model” of medicine, the paternalism of doctors has been replaced by the consumerism of patients…And the doctor, who was a father in the paternalistic model, is now a waiter. (p. 99)

Once you are infected with chicken pox, the varicella virus never leaves your body. It lives in your nerve roots and must be kept at bay by your immune system for the rest of your life. (p. 115).

We used to live among wild things, mountain lions on the ridge and fires raging on the prairie. There were dangers….It is difficult to imagine any type of chicken pox, with its distinctive rash described as a ‘dew drop on a rose petal,’ as sinister. And it is hard not to suspect, when the two types of chicken pox virus are termed the wild type and the vaccine virus, that the wild type might be superior. (p.115-116)

The natural body meets the body politic in the act of vaccination, where a single needle penetrates both. The capacity of some vaccines to generate a collective immunity superior to the individual immunity produced by those same vaccines suggests that the politic has not only a body, but also an immune system capable of protecting it as a whole. (p. 126)

The anxieties generated by the AIDS epidemic have bled into our attitudes toward vaccination. Needles, as we learned from AIDS, can spread disease. The needle itself has become ‘dirty.’ AIDS reveals that our immune systems are vulnerable to sabotage and can be permanently disabled. (p. 136)

AIDS education taught us the importance of protecting our bodies from contact with other bodies, and this seems to have bred another kind of insularity, a preoccupation with the integrity of the individual immune system. Building, boosting and supplementing one’s personal immune system is a kind of cultural obsession of the moment. I know mothers who believe this is a viable substitute for vaccination, and who understand themselves as raising children with superior immune systems. (p. 137)

Biss’ On Immunity is truly an amazing book. I think I’ve read it three times now, and its study of the language used in vaccine discussions has taught me so much. I urge everyone to read it.

 

#MicroblogMondays: 52

52. That’s how many books I read in 2014! I like the symmetry of that number with the number of weeks in a year although it doesn’t match with how I actually read. I wanted to reach 50, so it is nice to meet and surpass a goal.

Now as the end of the year races towards us, I hope that wasn’t the only goal I met this year. Could be worse, right?

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Am Reading

This year, I’ve made a conscious effort to get back to reading books. Conscious as in “I’m going to read instead of doing dishes while Daniel plays with Legos on the weekend.” I made a separate shelf for 2014 on Goodreads so that I could remember all the books I read this year.

I’ve read 25 books so far. It isn’t the most impressive number and it is definitely a far cry from the year in which I read 100 while also in grad school and working full time (pre-Daniel obviously!), but it’s not too shabby; it’s a start.

The truth is that I’ve probably read more like 30-35 books this year, but they aren’t books I list on Goodreads. They are too revealing, too personal. So they primarily live on my phone. Others are books I return to over and over again like Far From the Tree, books that belong to prior years but in which I find new truths each time.

Goodreads and my list of books read becomes yet another way in which I curate myself and the image I hope to project. My 2014 books hopefully reveal me to have broad interests. A fan of high-brow AND low-brow. Quirky. Or maybe it reveals me to be overly random or worse, pretentious – far too much non-fiction – when the truth is that fiction sucks me in and makes me unable to stop reading until I’ve finished the book. Fiction is much less cost-effective than a denser nonfiction.

Everything has become a data point into who we are.

I’m close to finishing two books I’m reading simultaneously – one a historical fiction and actual physical book; the other a book of essays on empathy I downloaded on a whim (and don’t especially love). I am reading, and I love it.

What’s the best book you’ve read this year?

Reading Roundup and a Confession

Life hasn’t been only space TV shows, work, parenting and Listen to Your Mother over the last few months. I managed to read a few books, but I never had a chance to write a thorough review for them. At this point, a thorough review seems like a lost cause, so I thought I would combine my thoughts about them into this post. Maybe one will make it onto your “to read” list.

I Read Books!

Defending Jacob

A 14-year-old boy is found stabbed to death in the woods near his school, and Assistant District Attorney Barber is shocked to discover his son is the prime suspect in the case.  Jacob insists that he is innocent, and ADA Barber shifts into defense mode to save his son as the world he thought he knew falls apart around him and he is forced to confront unpleasant truths about his past as well as whether he really knows his son.  Most of the book is a courtroom drama, but there is a shocking plot twist at the end.

This book was a very fast read and very engrossing. That said, I didn’t think it was a very good book, but it earned raves from many prominent reviewers.   The father’s a jerk. The mother is a cipher, and Jacob is never fully present in the book. He is portrayed through recollections and stories.  One of Landay’s goals is to make you question whether Jacob is an sullen, emo teenager or a psychopath as well as whether there is such a thing as a genetic disposition towards violence. The problem is that you never get to see the world through Jacob’s eyes but through only his mother’s and father’s, and they are not what I would consider to be reliable narrators.

Landay employs a very surprising plot twist at the end that I didn’t see coming – it truly shocked me – but I felt like he spent so much time setting up the twist that it impacted his characterization. Maybe that’s why Jacob never seemed like a main player in a book that is ostensibly about him and his supposed crime.

Coincidentally, I read the book a few days after the Newtown shooting and maybe it was too soon. Maybe the frustration I felt over the lack of character development mirrored the frustration we felt at being unable to ask Lanza WHY.  We’re left to extrapolate meaning from memory and conversation relayed by others when what we really wish we could do is talk one-on-one.

Far From the Tree

Maybe it’s a good thing I haven’t had a chance to write a review for this book because I’m not sure how I could do it justice. Andrew Solomon spent a decade meticulously researching and investigating ways in which children can be profoundly different from their parents and what that does to our notion of family, identity and the world.  He begins with his own experience as the homosexual child of heterosexual parents and goes onto explore deafness, autism, disability, dwarfism, genius, schizophrenia, Down Syndrome, children of rape, criminals and transgender.

I cannot say enough positive things about this book. Solomon does a masterful job of helping you enter the worlds he describes and handles each identity thoughtfully and with great respect. I learned so much, and I also had so many ideas challenged. Each identity is its own chapter and that made it easy to jump around or take a long time to read the book (as I did).  I highly recommend this book if you are looking for a big book to chew on.

Lean In

So Sheryl Sandberg wrote a book. Maybe you’ve heard of it?  I eagerly read this book, curious to see what had generated so much debate and whether I, as a working mother, would agree or disagree with Sandberg’s advice. Overall, “underwhelmed” describes my reaction to the book.  A lot of what she advises is common sense: marry a man who will be a real partner; even if you plan to take time out of the workforce when you have children, don’t use that as an excuse t0 check out too early; take a seat at the table; don’t let fear hold you back.

I don’t mean to imply that it is a bad book; it isn’t.  Sandberg offers a lot of useful advice about finding a mentor (if you have to ask someone, then they aren’t a mentor) and how to assert yourself (focus on what problem can you solve for someone).  I liked that Sandberg talked about the conflict, guilt and a judgment she feels from time to time.  Sandberg has achieved a lot and knows what she is talking about, but I expected more.   Sandberg’s advice is for the individual woman in the workforce and what she can do to succeed, but there is no talk about how corporate America and our work infrastructure must change in order to make it easier for women to succeed and have families.   She comes closest when she notes:

“For decades, we have focused on giving women the choice to work inside or outside the home. . . . But we have to ask ourselves if we have become so focused on supporting personal choices that we’re failing to encourage women to aspire to leadership.”

There is a lot of truth in that statement, but what is left unsaid is that encouraging women to aspire to leadership is not enough. Aspiration won’t be sufficient to break through the real barriers that exist; what can business do to support women better?

Summer Reading List

We’re going to the beach in about 6 weeks (yay!), and I have been adding books to my list in the (likely) deluded hope I get to read any of them.  Here are a few that have caught my eye:

Don’t worry. I’ll also go through my book sale treasures for the conspiracy theory books that are my guilty pleasure 🙂

Confession

I’ve stated that I will read almost anything, and I mean that! If a book sounds fun or interesting, I’ll give it a shot, no matter how pulpy.  To prove this to you, I’ll share what I consider to be my most embarrassing read:

The Left Behind Series.

Yes, I read every book in the series. All 16.  I checked out those suckers 3 and 4 at a time from the library.  I was hooked.  I was intrigued at how the authors would tackle the Rapture and the events in Revelations.

And they truly weren’t the worst books I’ve ever read. Sensational? Yes. Over the top? Yes. Dogmatic? Yes. But this all-but-professed atheist found them riveting. Maybe they play into my conspiracy theory-loving soul. Maybe I was bored.  I don’t know, but I read the entire series, and I don’t regret it.

What is the best book you read recently?

What is on your summer reading list?

What’s your most embarrassing read?

Blathering about Books

It’s Saturday.  We’re planning an excursion to the library for story time shortly.  Daniel returned to day care on Thursday and happily, no more vomiting has occurred.  Maybe we’re finally out of the woods (knocks on wood, crosses fingers and toes).  Our week was still crazy and we found ourselves begging the universe to let us make it to Friday.  I think that extreme busyness will be the norm for the next few weeks unfortunately, but I’m resigned to it.  I think I need to find a place to do yoga or something that will help me relax.

There has been a lot of news about my favorite books from childhood recently, so indulge me:

Pride and Prejudice

Last week was the 200th anniversary of the publication of Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. When asked about my favorite book, P&P is my answer. I first read it when I was 13, plucking the book from my grandfather’s shelf of classics.  As a dutiful English major, I think I own 3 versions of it not including Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (how genius was that?).  I haven’t read it in several years and I’m almost afraid to do so, wondering if my perception of the book will have changed.  What if I find Lizzie insufferable now?  What if I find Mrs. Bennet to be sympathetic (doubtful)?  Do you find yourself avoiding revisiting certain old favorites in order to preserve the feeling, the impression?  A few links:

Little House on the Prairie

This series has been on my mind recently, possibly because JJiraffe has posted about reading it to her twins. The series was another childhood favorite of mine, and I have all the books, including the ones after the series as well as a biography.  I remember the kick in the stomach I felt when I read articles positing that the books’ quality was due more to Laura’s daughter’s involvement than Laura’s ability as a writer.  That in a way, they had been ghostwritten by Rose.  Thankfully, that perception seems to be shifting as further research has revealed that Laura was more than capable of writing the series and that while Rose was definitely involved, it was as an editor whose recommendations were not always taken by her stubborn mother.

Anne of Green Gables

I am a huge Anne of Green Gables fan.  Anne seemed like a kindred spirit from the moment I picked up the book.  Like Anne, I have red hair and I have always been incredibly flattered when people told me I reminded them of Anne in terms of personality.  For my friends’ little girls’ 1st birthdays, I’ve given copies of Anne of Green Gables to add to their libraries.  I reread the first book a few years ago and the storyline of her adoption was especially poignant to me reading it as an adult for whom family building was difficult.  As a child, I understood the adoption plot line and thought it was silly that the Avonlea residents had such bizarre stereotypes about orphans.  As an infertile adult, it hit me on a visceral level. The book is much sadder for me as an adult.

The big news this week was that some asshole decided to reprint the books with the cover picture of Anne as a blonde.  Um…what?  Anne’s red hair isn’t a feature that can be ignored.  It’s kind of a major plot point of the series.  It turns out that the edition was self-published on Amazon and after the outcry, it has been shelved.   I can only assume the publishers were idiots who had never read the books.  Another case of ginger discrimination thwarted.

And finally, ending on a funny note: Literary Types Find Love in the New York Times Review of Books.

 

 

Parenting: (Nurture)Shocking the System

I read NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman for PAIL’s Fall 2012 Book Club.  Subtitled “new thinking about children,” the book addresses why many strategies we’re told to use to raise our children backfire.  Using case studies, research and new findings in child development, the book addresses provocative topics such as praise, declining sleep’s impact on intelligence, when to talk about race, how speech develops, sibling rivalry, giftedness evaluation, aggression, and lying, overturning conventional wisdom along the way.

I was excited to read this book.  It came out in 2009 while I was on maternity leave with Daniel, and I remember adding it to my Amazon wishlist which doubles as my “to read” list.  There is so much to talk about from this book that I’ve had a difficult time writing this post, so I’ve decided to focus on my overall impressions of the book and what stuck out for me the most.

The experts in best-selling parenting books provide a lot of theories and strategies on how we should parent our children in order to raise the most intelligent, empathatic, well-adjusted, non-aggressive, successful, open-minded children, and we eat up their wisdom.  It helps that a lot of what they tell us to do seems like common sense:  if you want your child to acquire better speech, you need to talk to him all the time.  Narrate everything.  If you want your child to be color-blind and see race as a non-issue, you should avoid talking about race until they are old enough to understand.  Aggressive, bullying children are deviants who come from families with less-than-stellar parenting.    All of those ideas seem plausible and make sense.  This book challenges all of those conclusions.

Language

The chapter on how language develops was probably the most anxiety-generating one for me because it dealt with language development in babies and toddlers, and my son is 3, well beyond that stage. I had been worried about his speech because he was a bit of a late talker, finally starting to use more than just a few words and phrases a few months after he turned 2.  I knew he could understand everything we said to him, but he couldn’t or wouldn’t use language.  So I read this chapter with some trepidation.

Parents have been instructed that constant chatter and talk is necessary in order to develop babies’ language skills to the highest extent.  As a result, parents feel pressure to narrate every interaction with their child, often feeling exhausted by the task.  Many buy videos of disembodied voices promising to enhance children’s language. What Bronson and Merryman gleaned from research is that what is more important than talking to your child is rewarding their attempts to communicate.  When a baby babbles at you, the parent that responded immediately with attention, a caress or verbal acknowledgement had greater impact, rewarding the baby’s vocalization and encouraging more or it.

A touch. A kiss. A smile.  That and the response time (immediate instead of delayed) was all it took to impact the child and encourage further efforts.  So very simple and within the means of any parent.  I was haunted by the fact that the authors reported that lower income families bought videos purporting to enhance language development because it was all they could afford and they wanted to give their child what they could.  Following the recommendations from parenting gurus ultimately had little impact on their child’s language development.  Instead, these parents had the means to help their children all along: paying attention and rewarding the child’s effort. While the authors and researchers caution that this finding doesn’t mean that parents should be on guard to acknowledge every grunt or coo every minute of the day, it is counter-intuitive to what we have been taught encourages language to develop in a child.

Back to me (of course, right?).  I tried to talk to Daniel non-stop during diaper changes, in the bath, making dinner, putting on clothes.  It was hard for me and felt weird to narrate everything: “now we’re putting on your clean diaper and doesn’t your bottom feel good?  Now we’re going to put on your pants and then your shirt.  And your socks!”  It didn’t come naturally to me, and I think I felt a little bit of a failure because of it.  Maybe because for a lot of people, especially introverts, labeling everything and providing a running commentary isn’t natural.

While I feel a little better that my failure to provide running commentary on everything wasn’t too harmful, I hope that I responded to his verbal cues enough to encourage him.  I think we did.  I hope we did.

Aggression/Playing Well with Others

While I agree that bullying is a major problem that needs to be addressed, I’ve become alarmed at how any behavior or language that disagrees with or differs from some norm is now labelled “bullying.”  This chapter was interesting because it addressed why we haven’t been able to reduce or eradicate aggression in children despite a lot of attention to it and zero-tolerance policies.

Do you feel superior that  your child watches educational programs on PBS or Nick JR?  It turns out that those so-called educational programs may actually be inspiring aggression in children because they spend a lot of time setting the stage with verbal insults and conflict while spending only a few minutes on the resolution, losing the preschooler’s concentration and comprehension in the meantime.

So you’re saying my child would be better off watching Law & Order instead of Thomas DVDs after all?  Ok, selfishly I hope that were true because it would be a lot more interesting for me!  Bronson and Merryman found that children’s so-called educational programming was full of unresolved conflict, over-the-top insults and aggression that wasn’t resolved in a meaningful way. I’m…surprised yet not surprised by their findings.  While my son’s adored Thomas DVDs have good lessons, I’ve noticed that there is a lot of not-so-nice behavior and name-calling while the conflict is being revealed.  I’ve noticed that my son likes to “bish” and “bash” into walls, furniture and people because he has observed his trains doing that and while it’s not poor behavior for trains, it is poor behavior for humans.  At the same time, my son adores two of the biggest jerks on the Island of Sodor, and I wonder what that means that he can’t differentiate their behavior as negative.  Before reading this book, I would have considered that to be an indication of his empathy, but now I wonder. Maybe there is something rotten on the Island of Sodor.

I think the primary finding from the chapter on aggression is that aggression isn’t a trait that characterizes deviants.  The authors found that many popular, well-liked students considered socially well-adjusted used aggression to get their way and cement their authority.  Interestingly, the more in-tune and empathetic a student was, the better they could target their aggression.  What this means is that aggression isn’t a purely negative trait.  Aggressive tendencies can go hand in hand with high emotional intelligence.   American society wants to stamp out aggression or pretend it is the province of those who are deviant, but it isn’t that easy.  It’s not black or white.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this chapter because as the mother of a boy, I worry about the restrictions society wants to place on him: don’t run; don’t act out; sit and be quiet.  Unfettered aggression for aggression’s sake is obviously a bad thing, but I don’t want my son caged because he is a boy who might be a little aggressive.  This chapter was a great reminder that it’s not black and white: aggression does not necessarily mean “bad;” human behavior is much more complex than that.

Conclusion

There was a lot going on in this book.  I don’t even want to think about the chapters on teenagers yet.  Part of me welcomes the upheaval this book has brought to conventional parenting wisdom, but another part of me wonders if it is truly any better than the parenting tome du jour.  I did like that it used actual research and theory to bolster the claims it made, but I wonder if the book was futile because a parent is more likely to pick up a copy of What to Expect and accept the information inside at face value instead of looking for valid scientific research and genuine theory.

I felt like some of the chapters were more uneven than others in terms of the claims made and research cited, but overall I thought the book was well-written and engaging.  I did find it interesting that when I Googled the Tools of the Mind program mentioned in chapter 8, the first results dealt with debunking its results.

I’m left wondering how much of this book’s knowledge I can trust. Yes, this book makes its case with research and case studies, but in the end, is parenting as much of an art as a science?  Should I put my faith in any book?

Book Review: The Conflict (about which I am conflicted)

This month’s PAIL book club pick was Elisabeth Badinter’s The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women. I was excited when I found out that The Conflict was the next book because I was halfway through it (and had been since April), and it gave me the nudge I needed to finish the book AND have a built-in group of bloggers with whom to discuss it.

In The Conflict, Elisabeth Badinter analyzes the rise of the child-centric culture and how it threatens the progress made by feminism. Modern motherhood demands sacrifice – total sacrifice – from the mother as she places the needs of her child first. A goodmother births naturally, breast feeds for as long as possible, wears her baby, co-sleeps, cloth diapers and makes her own baby food. The dirty secret, Badinter points out, is that this emphasis on all-things natural takes a lot of time and devotion, hurting women’s freedom, ability to work, sense of self and relationships. According to Badinter, the rise of the La Leche League and its influence on breast feeding, the ecological movement and the assumption that natural must be better and safer crashed into a generation of women who believed that their mothers pursued their own independence to the detriment of child-rearing, leading them to grow up swearing they would not parent that way.

All Things Natural

Badinter heavily criticized the trend towards natural parenting and the pressure under which it places women: natural is best and anything else is inferior. Badinter paints the emphasis on natural parenting as almost a conspiracy and while I concede that it does undermine a woman’s independence in that she is attached to her child constantly and at the child’s beck and call, I hardly think that petulant men were conspiring with the La Leche League in some smoky back room to figure out how to chain women back to the home and convince them that it was their idea.

I am not an attachment parent. I would have had an epidural if I gave birth. I did not induce lactation so I could breast feed and when F needed to start a medication that would require her to stop pumping, we switched to formula without a second thought. Ok, I admit that I did have a few qualms and last-minute regret as I got ready to mix that first batch of formula after 5 months of breast milk. I didn’t baby wear a lot; honestly, the contraptions looked so complex that I was worried I would get it wrong and drop the baby. We did not use cloth diapers, and it was for selfish reasons: I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. They seem gross to me and didn’t seem feasible to me as a working mom. A few days after Daniel was born, my mother and mother-in-law were talking about diapers and how when Jimmy and I were babies, cloth diapers were the only option and how much work and how nasty they were. To them, disposable diapers are a miraculous time saver. I know that cloth diapers have changed a lot since the 70s, but it is interesting how one generation’s scourge becomes another generation’s preference.

We did co-sleep for a while. It wasn’t a philosophical decision; it came strictly out of a desire to get more sleep when Daniel woke up in the middle of the night. What surprised Jimmy and me was how much we liked having him in bed with us. We loved having the opportunity to snuggle him and feel his warmth and hear his even breathing as he slept between us. We also made our own baby food. Again, that was something I never planned to do (so very crunchy in my opinion and while I am liberal, I am not crunchy) but after seeing how jarred food looked and smelled, I thought that surely it couldn’t be too much more work to make our own apples and sweet potatoes. We’d make huge batches of pureed fruits and veggies and freeze them. I have to admit that there was also something about looking at Daniel and thinking that he deserved only the best; surely we could take a few extra minutes and make homemade food for him, and it gave me joy and satisfaction to do so. And if I’m completely honest, probably a little smugness as well.

I often wonder how infertility influences our parenting styles. Because I didn’t carry Daniel, I felt detached from a lot of the hot-button parenting issues surrounding birthing, eating and sleeping. My focus was on getting a live baby. I can see, though, how infertility could possibly influence a mother down the path of natural parenting. These hard-won babies deserve only the best, right?

Motivations for Having a Child

Badinter writes that most couples cite “happiness” as the primary reason to have a child, a motivation that causes them to be shocked when the reality of parenting sets in. I do think that a lot of couples don’t think deeply enough about what parenting a child entails and likely do make the decision wearing rose-colored glasses. Yes, there are sacrifices required even if you aren’t an attachment parent. The reality of parenting is that a child takes up a lot of your time, energy and focus. Forever. I think it is hard to understand what parenting is like – really like – until you are one and maybe that’s nature’s way of ensuring the biological imperative wins out and the species continues now that we can choose whether to have children. It would be helpful for there to be more frank accounts of what parenting is like, though; maybe such accounts would reduce the pressure to live up to the ideal of the good mother. Hopefully our blogs can provide that.

Infertility forced us to think long and hard about why we wanted to have children. If your route to parenthood includes invasive procedures and a lot of money, you better be damn sure you want to have children. At the same time, for us at least, finally attaining a child did come to equal happiness: everything will be better once we have a child. I think that belief insulated us from some of the first shocks and frustrations of parenting. Not much phased us because we were so damned happy and relieved Daniel was here. I’m not implying that infertility makes us better parents and Daniel has been a fairly easy child. What I’m trying to say is that for us anyway, we had been in such a dark place for so long that any negatives were buffered and experiences filtered through the lens of not having him here.

This book is the latest in a series of books that has made me think about how I parent Daniel, how I feel I should be parenting him and what mix I should strive for. I do feel pressure to make my child the center of my universe – not from any person per se but from society in general and when I don’t spend every moment playing with him or nurturing his intellect, I feel like a bad mother as I wrote last week. What Bringing Up Bebe and The Conflict helped me realize is that not all cultures are as child-centric as America is and that it’s ok, maybe even preferable, not to be.

Overall, I thought the book was an easy read if a bit disappointing. Some of her arguments and conclusions came across to me as flimsy and that impression wasn’t helped by her usage of end notes because I couldn’t find the source as I was reading and judge its merits accordingly. Badinter examined leave policies and parental support initiatives in several countries and didn’t find one that offered a completely workable model for any country, making me wonder what the big takeaway from the book is supposed to be. Are we supposed to question why we have children instead of just mindlessly reproducing? Are we, especially women, supposed to make a detailed pros and cons list? Am I supposed to buy stock in Enfamil?

Book Review: To Marry An English Lord

To Marry an English Lord

I am in serious Downton Abbey withdrawal. The good news is that the third series is around 6 months away. The bad news is that third series is around six, long, agonizing, teeth-gnashing months away. In a rare effort to make lemons into lemonade, I started putting together a list of books to help stave off the inevitable shakes and dry heaves from Downton withdrawal. If you’re a fan, you know exactly how I feel!

I was getting ready to download The American Heiress or The Uninvited Guests when I found a quote from Julian Fellowes in which he revealed that one of his primary inspirations for Downton Abbey was To Marry An English Lord or, How Anglomania Really Got Started.

Sold.

To Marry An English Lord chronicles the real-life “Lady Coras” who journeyed overseas and conquered British society and the aristocracy, making glittering marriages. While many surnames my not be recognizable to modern readers, some like Vanderbilt and Whitney will be. Many of the heiresses who left New York City for the Old Country did so because their money and pedigree were too new and not good enough for the old money families (usually of Dutch heritage). Their exodus coincides with the creation of Mrs. Astor’s 400, a list of the social elite in the city that excluded fortunes made from the Industrial Revolution and sought to maintain traditions and protect the elite from the pernicious influence of newcomers. If you were not on that list, you were a nobody.

The nouveau riche heiresses were valuable to the British. While the British aristocracy considered the first wave of American heiresses to be wild and primitive, they had money. Money that could prop up bankrupt aristocrats and keep ancestral homes in the family, and so began the exchange of wealth for a title and position in society. While there were several waves of American heiresses marrying British aristocrats from the 1870s-1900s, the basic formula remained money for title. Winston Churchill was the product of one of the first of these marriages when his mother Jennie Jerome married Lord Randolph Churchill of the Marlborough family.

How romantic, right? These American heiresses infiltrating the ancient aristocracy is thrilling and just like a fairy tale. And who among us has not wanted to have a title? “Lady KeAnne” has a nice ring to it, n’est-ce pas? I would love to have been the duchess of whatever (styled “Your Grace”) because besides sounding so fluid, it’s the highest-ranking title a non-royal person could hold. I also loved the titles ending in
“-ess,” especially princess and the old Russian and German titles “Grand Duchess.” Grand indeed!

After a build up like that, surely these couples lived happily ever after. They were the embodiment of bedtime fairy tales. Alas, just as fairy tales often hid a harrowing origin and fate for their couples, our Anglo-American couples did not go on to live happily ever after in most cases.

The worst outcomes included depravity, adultery, insanity and abuse. For the brides that fared better, their married lives were a rude shock. They often went from being popular and sought after at society balls to living in a decrepit, chilly country house that their money was expected to fix in the middle of nowhere with their husband and his extended family. Those exquisite Worth gowns had no place there. In addition, the American brides had been raised with a good deal of freedom and affection from their parents; in England, the household revolved around the husband and his needs, quite a culture shock. As well, the American bride had to get used to and even accept her husband’s casual, overt infidelity, a situation for which her upbringing had not prepared her.

The wave of Anglo-American marriages ended after King Edward VII died. His son, King George V, did not favor these marriages as his father had and in America, a burgeoning nationalism was beginning to wonder what was wrong with her native sons. The outbreak of World War 1 a few years later forever changed the dynamic and society of Europe.

Bottom Line

To Marry An English Lord was a quick, engrossing read and one I recommend for anyone who is a fan of Downton Abbey. I sometimes forgot I was reading about real women and their fates due to how well the authors told each bride’s story. Sadly, “Lady Cora” seems to have had a much better outcome in her marriage to Lord Grantham than most of the women profiled in the book.

If you are interested in more Downton recommendations, I’ve created a Pinterest board on Downton Abbey.

Did you ever wish to be a princess or member of the aristocracy?

What I Read on Summer Vacation

Vacation is over, and we’re back to reality and work this week.  It was a pretty good vacation overall and as relaxing as a vacation with a three-year-old can be I suppose!  No one returned sunburned, but I do have a few more freckles (unfortunately all on my arms and face and not on my legs where I could really use some color).  We ate some good food, collected some pretty shells and played in the sand and surf.  Daniel liked for us to build sand castles for him to smash; he’s not much of an empire builder at this age!

I have a confession to make.  This book accompanied me on vacation:

I know, I know.  I’ve been really conflicted about reading the book for several reasons:

  1. I refuse to ever read the Twilight series
  2. I have other books I want to read
  3. Everyone is reading it which makes me want to run the other way (petty, petty)
  4. I’m a little uncomfortable with how James is making a profit off of fan fiction.
  5. I’m not really into BDSM…not that I’ve researched it or anything
  6. My mother and her sisters read the trilogy.  Ewww.

I try hard not to be a book snob.  I enjoy a good, throbbing, pulsating historical romance novel as much as the next person.   I read chick lit.  I like supernatural fiction (once upon a time I had a book blog.  It was pre-Daniel AKA when I still had free time). I’ll read anything as long as it’s interesting. Right now I’m into parenting non-fiction like Badinter’s The Conflict.  I over-share my reading tastes with you to convince you that my hesitation to read 50 Shades is not due to any moral or intellectual arrogance.   I respect your right to read smut, even if it’s not the best-written smut (though I do wish there were more well-written smut).

All of the commentary on Twitter and blogs piqued my interest and finally wore me down.  If there were a 50 Shades cultural zeitgeist going on, I was curious to see what it was about and whether it was as sexy, as ridiculous and as poorly written as I had heard.   My mother offered to lend me her copy but just…no…so Jimmy bought it for me when he shopped for beach stuff before our trip.

Because I’m a bit ashamed of myself for letting my curiosity get the better of me, I’m trying to remain a little detached from the book.  So far, I think Christian Grey is kind of hot in the way only extremely flawed, brilliant billionaires can be. He’s got a few screws loose, but I can see the attraction.  Ana, on the other hand, I cannot stand.  She’s weak and vapid and unbelievable as a modern-day college student. As an English major, I am offended by her blandness though I’m guessing James is going for the stereotype of the repressed lit major (or librarian) who lives in books and who needs a kinky sex fiend to initiate her into adulthood and the real world.   Or an old-fashioned bildungsroman using sex as the catalyst.. I’m also seeing just a hint of the theme of the reformed rake: the love of a good woman will turn Christan Grey around and fill all the holes inside him that his BDSM Room of Horror cannot. I want to say that Ana doesn’t deserve Christian Grey and all that hotness but when I remember his need to dominate and control, I conclude that they deserve each other.  I’m only halfway through the book, so we’ll see if my opinion changes.

I have another confession: I’ve started reading fan fiction.

It turns out that there is a flourishing fan fiction community for one of my favorite childhood series: Trixie Belden (yes, Katie, you may roll your eyes now).  I had stumbled across some Trixie Belden fan fiction many years ago, but it was poorly organized and there wasn’t a lot of it.  When I went to FanFiction.net, I was thrilled to discover over 100 Trixie Belden stories with more being added every day.  Other Trixie Belden fan fiction sites from the past had become better organized too.  I started reading and was hooked.  Sure, some of the stories sucked and the writing was laughable, but I found a few really good stories that maintained the characters’ personalities with great new plots.  I realized quickly, though, that the stories I gravitated to the most eagerly were the ones that dealt with the romance between Trixie and Jim, a romance briefly alluded to and then downplayed in the series (because they were young teenagers).  Clearly, we Trixie lovers wanted to see adult (or older teens) Trixie and Jim get together.

After I devoured story after story, I realized that many of the, ah, most satisfying stories about their romance turned Trixie into a stereotypical romance novel heroine: naive, sweet, gorgeous, insecure and unsullied. She was something to be obtained and owned.  Story after story made reference to her belonging to Jim, claimed by him from an early age. I was really bothered by this realization because that’s not the Trixie I knew and loved from the series.  Unlike Nancy Drew, Trixie is imperfect.  She is impulsive and impatient.  She jumps to the wrong conclusions.  She isn’t a great student (I sucked at math too).  Her family isn’t wealthy.  She is spunky and longs to open her own detective agency when she grows up.  She’s a tomboy.  I never liked the chilly, perfect Nancy Drew, but I adored Trixie and identified with her.  She was so real and believable, she jumped off the page.

These stories turned her into Ana. And I liked them (a lot) even though the back of my mind was screaming that the Trixie in those stories shares only superficial details with the Trixie I knew from the series.  Over the weekend, I read Mel’s post 50 Shades of Grey Depression and Your Sex Life and everything sort of clicked.  Sometimes a carrot is just a carrot, and sometimes it’s fun to read a romance novel or erotic fiction for the, er, pleasure of it, but when you start to think about the characters that populate them and their relationships, it is shocking.  I in no way, shape or form would want to be Ana before or after Christian.  Or the sweet, naive Trixie who has managed to turn into a gorgeous Barbie but is nothing more than a vessel for overprotective Jim’s love and no-longer-honorable lust.  But some women might.

I know…it’s just a book.  It’s just fan fiction.  No need to take it so seriously, right?  But. Other than the obvious titillating (heh) nature of these stories, why do they always involve unequal relationships between over-protective men and objectified women? And I’ve read enough of them to know it’s the case. What does this say about us as women? Do we really want to be submissive?  Is it a way of dealing with the stresses of being a modern woman? Is there an allure in being powerless?  Dear God, does Katie Roiphe have a point with which I agree?

For what it’s worth, the Trixie fan fiction trilogy (yes, trilogy.  I’ve got it bad) I enjoyed the most was the one that had a confident, sexy Trixie tell over-protective Jim to shove it and in which they both had to work through their various issues in order to accept each other and find love. Kind of like real life.

Have any romance novels to recommend that feature strong women and are still hot?