Sunday, April 04, 2010

NurtureShock (Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman)

NutureShock: New Thinking About Children is a book I've been wanting to read for some time, ever since I first read Bronson & Merryman's article in New York magazine about the effects of praise on children. I was already a big fan of Bronson's writing (see here, here, and here) and knew that he gives his subjects thoughtful attention, and here with Ashley Merryman, that same care is given to the discussion of recent scientific data on child development. (And I think that separates this book from most of the so-called parenting books out there. Well that, and all the scientific data to back up the claims!) Every single chapter in this book made me rethink what I knew (or thought I knew) about children. For example,

  • Praising a child for their intelligence makes a child less likely to try new things (it feeds a fear of failure), whereas praising a child for their effort creates the opposite effect. 
  • Children who watch a lot of educational programming (e.g., PBS & Nickelodeon) show more relational violence than their peers. 
  • There is a preschool/kindergarten program that can teach children self-control and self-focus, and this program is so sucessful in raising test scores that the at-risk kids it is servicing are no longer at risk before the program is over (which is costing the program grant money).
There's even more. I can't recommend this book enough. It's an intelligent synthesis of the recent data for the general public. One that treats the readers as smart and well-informed. Please go read this. Or I will be that annoying friend who always starts conversations with, "Did you know . . . ?"

Drive (Daniel Pink)

I heard about Daniel Pink's latest book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, through the mental_floss blog (which is always an excellent source of all sorts of unnecessary but intriguing information). It's behavior economics applied to business and management, with the underlying theme of intrinsic motivation. And trust me, it's way more interesting that that last sentence makes it sound.

The behavior economics' studies and data interested me the most because I spend about one-third of every year entrenched in all things economics at work. Plus those kinds of studies are interesting in general: The data show that tasks done in the category "playing" are more fun and interesting long term than the same tasks done in the category "work." (This is one reason given for a child's allowance not being tied to helping around the home. Once the reward is tied to the task, it now becomes "work" that the child becomes unmotivated to do.) Simply put, rewards are not a motivating factor. In fact, they can cause the opposite effect: Children who were told they would win a prize for drawing were motivated to draw at first, but then they lost interest in drawing in subsequent classes. (Children in the control group did not lose interest in drawing and drew significantly more on their own.)

Pink shows how they new generation of business management can best apply these findings. He cites Best Buys' corporate headquarters adoption of a results-based operation (e.g.,  letting employees set their own hours) and virtual call centers staffed with remote workers working out of their homes (increasing customer service satisfaction and decreasing high turnover), among others. It gets a little what-color-is-your-parachute at the end, with questions/strategies for business managers, but I still think it's worth a read.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Committed (Elizabeth Gilbert)

Anyone remember a little book called Eat, Pray, Love? Elizabeth Gilbert sure does. Eat, Pray, Love wasn't her first book, but it is, by far, her most successful book to date. So successful in fact that the task of following it with a new book was daunting. When your last book becomes a best-seller, with an audience of millions, how do you write the next and have it appeal to all those same readers? Gilbert explains what became her intended audience for Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage: twenty-seven women, ranging from her grandmother to her stepdaughter, and friends in between. But even more so, Gilbert wrote this book for herself, to work through her understanding of marriage. Because, upon returning from a trip abroad, Gilbert's partner in life, Felipe, a non-U.S. citizen, got stopped by Homeland Security, questioned for hours, and then sent to jail before being deported. (Felipe was not in the United States illegally, but his previous visas and time in the country showed a clear pattern of his relationship with Gilbert, and this was at an especially tedious time with foreigners in the United States.) Before being sent to jail, Gilbert was able to briefly talk to Felipe and make plans. The officer who had been questioning Felipe told them clearly what they needed to do: get married.

Most people would not have reacted the way Gilbert and her partner did. They were heartbroken with the news. Both previously divorced, both had no intentions of ever getting married again, but this is what they would have to do to be together. And so during a long exile from the United States, a forced one for Felipe while the paperwork/proceedings took place to allow his re-entry into the country, Gilbert thought a lot about marriage, throughout all of history, and her own familial history.

I started to worry near the beginning of the book, when Gilbert steps out of the narrative of her own life and into a long exposition on the history of marriage, quite similar to a book for which I found the subject compelling but never made it through. I was so worried that the rest of the book was going to be like this (I have a hard time staying interested in that kind of writing), that Committed stayed on a table, closed, for almost a week before I decided to power through that section and see what lay ahead. (Adding further incentive were two new library books, one with a two-week due date. Two weeks! That's like a one-day movie rental for someone with a toddler!)

I'm glad I stayed with it because the book turned out to be a thoughtful exploration of marriage woven into Gilbert's life: narratives of wedding ceremonies among the Hmong in Laos, the secret yearnings of teenage Buddhist monks, the benefits of marriage for men that far outweigh those for women, how divorce plays into marriage and exists in virtually every culture (and even among seagulls!). I'm not sure how this book will do in comparison with Eat, Pray, Love, but it feels like an honest and personal follow-up to it.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Certain Girls (Jennifer Weiner)

This was not one of my favorites. It's a sequel to Good in Bed, which is great, snd it becomes very meta right from the beginning. Cannie, the main character in Good in Bed, reflects on her success writing a very autobiographical, best-selling book, which seems to be a similar situation to Jennifer Weiner's. Her thirteen-year-old daugher, Joy, reads said book, and then starts wondering if much of what her mother has told her about her past is true. Very teenage things start happening in the course of this, like shoplifting, lying, running away, etc.

I finished Certain Girls mad, swearing I was never going to read another one. This time the Very Dramatic Thing that must happen in all her books just seemed mean to the readers, unexpected in a bad way, and I was angry. About five minutes later I was pretty sure that, just like the Real Housewives series on Bravo, I'd be back for more. Sigh.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Homemade Life (Molly Wizenberg)

Molly Wizenberg has a blog. But Molly Wizenberg would probably not like my opening sentence because she doesn't like the word "blog." She also says

I guess you could say that having a blog is a little like the windows of a house I used to live in during my sophomore year of college. I loved opening them wide during the day, so that the smell of the eucalyptus trees outside could drift in and sweep out the rooms. But occasionally I would come home and find a squirrel on my desk. A live squirrel. He would have climbed up the tree outside and jumped in through the window, and now here he was, rifling with his tiny, scratchy claws through whatever he found, tearing up every paper and scrap. Blogging is a little like that. . . . [O]ccasionally you come home and find a squirrel on your desk, so to speak: a nasty comment, maybe, or even worse, something you wrote yourself, probably late at night, when you should have been sleeping, something that makes your cheeks hot.

In A Homemade Life, Wizenberg writes of her family, of her life, and of food. I started reading it in small pieces, right before bed, and near the beginning found myself thinking, you know, I really like the writing, but I'm not sure why this needed to be a book. It was all very nice, but didn't feel that meaningful. But that quickly changed, almost immediately between the end of one chapter, and the beginning of the next, when Wizenberg talks of her father's death from cancer. Then the small parts began to make a larger whole, and it became a great book.

Each small chapter ends with a recipe, and this is the first book I've found that combines narrative and recipes for which I really want to make (and could feasibly make) the recipes. Recipes include dishes such as slow-roasted tomatoes, a chocolate cake she calls "The Winning Hearts and Minds Cake" because it's just that good, and salmon with an apple-cider glaze.

Also, I don't think it would be fitting to write this review without giving some other important information. Molly Wizenberg is half of the duo behind Delancy, a new pizza restaurant in Seattle that has gotten some outstanding press and reviews. The other half of that duo is her husband, Brandon. She met her husband through her blog, while she was in Seattle and he was in New York. They then had a long-distance relationship until Brandon was able to move out to Seattle. Of course I do have incredible bias (given my own story of love), but I also found the story behind that relationship compelling. So, good writing, food, a love interest: what's not to like?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

In Her Shoes (Jennifer Weiner)

I'm apparently on a quest to read every book Jennifer Weiner has written, with In Her Shoes being the latest one. (Also, apparently this book was made into a movie starring Cameron Diaz, although I have not seen it.) My review of this book will be short and direct. Page 1 through 215: too dramatic! Page 216 through the end: really, really good. I'm glad I stuck with it, but if this were the first Jennifer Weiner book I had picked up, I'm not sure I would have made it through to page 216. The second half almost read like a different book (although I did find myself wondering if the second half would have been as effective if not for the first half). Here's my ranked order of Weiner's books I've read thus far:

1. Good in Bed
2. Little Earthquakes
3. In Her Shoes

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Veganomicon (Isa Chandra Moskowitz & Terry Hope Romero)

Why would I put a picture of a roast chicken with my review of a vegan cookbook? The short answer is that this vegan cookbook is so good that I think you can drop the word "vegan" and just call it an awesome cookbook. Everything we've made from it has been outstanding.

The longer answer is that when I was 19, I became a vegetarian and ate a strictly vegetarian diet for 12 years. About a year ago, I started eating some fish for the health benefits, and now I'm at the point where I do eat some other meat, usually locally produced. That said, we're not doing a lot of cow-based dairy these days because the littlest Duncan still cannot tolerate it. Lucky for us, our local co-op sells many goat-based dairy products that are fine for us all, so we can still have items like butter and mozzarella cheese. But it took me a long time to realize that, and in the interim, I found Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook, and am super glad that I did.

This book introduced us to Maple Mustard Dressing (now our standard salad dressing), Snobby Joes (the best take on Sloppy Joes I've ever had, using lentils instead of soy), Green Pumpkin-Seed Mole (which we spread on everything we could get our hands on, especially fried egg sandwiches), and a super awesome BBQ sauce (which we used as a sauce for a BBQ chicken pizza, made with the leftover roast chicken pictured above).

The tone of the book is informal, but sometimes so are the directions. I would not recommend this cookbook to the novice cook for that reason, but it also gives you more flexibility in the interpretation. My other caveat is that the time per recipe listed can misguide you. It really should be broken down into active and inactive time. Also, there are some recipes that do take a long time, but those can be broken down into steps and made over the course of a couple days. (The one recipe I'm thinking of is Pumpkin Baked Ziti with Caramelized Onions and Sage Crumb Topping, and oh man was it good.)

A family story we often retell is that many years ago I tasted some soy ice cream, which I was certain tasted just like real ice cream. (It had been a really long time since I had eaten real ice cream.) Yeah, well, I was fully wrong on that. And I'm sure there are vegans out there who are convinced that vegan cheese tastes like real cheese. But none of that matters with this cookbook because the recipes are based on real food, not fake-meat substitutes, and I think that's why it succeeds. So that roast chicken pictured above? Jim made that for our Christmas dinner. Alongside it we served the spiced mashed sweet potatoes featured in Veganomicon, along with my version of the green bean casserole from Moskowitz's website. And the littlest Duncan could not get enough of those green beans. So yeah, really good real food worth checking out.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Good in Bed (Jennifer Weiner)

So the other weekend we were out for a walk on a beautiful fall day, and I wanted to swing by the library to pick up a book I had on hold. But I didn't have my library card. Which meant that instead of using the self-checkout machine, I'd have to hand my book to an actual librarian to check out. And so I handed her the copy of Jennifer Weiner's Good in Bed. It shows considerable self-growth that I was only a little bit embarrassed by this. One, there's the title, and two, it's definitely chick-lit, not high brow in any sense. But I've come to realize that my definition of a good book is simple: one that you don't want to put down. And that's exactly what this book was.

Cannie, the main character, finds out that her ex has started writing a column in a women's magazine about her (titled Good in Bed). Horrified, this sets off a chain of events that include taking part in a weight loss study, befriending a famous celebrity, becoming pregnant, and reconciling with her mother's lesbian partner. I'm not going to say anything more about the plot because in trying to explain the whole thing to Jim, he was practically rolling on the floor laughing in disbelief. But the book is well-written, with fully developed characters. The very-dramatic-thing-that-must-happen in these kinds of books is a little too dramatic for me, and I did notice that the main character in this book and the main character in her third book, Little Earthquakes, have a lot of similarities (and similarities to the author), but that didn't make either book less entertaining to read. (I read Little Earthquakes this past summer, and also very much enjoyed it.)