Category Archives: Books

Book round-up: pregnancy, birth, baby-care, and parenting

A friend who is expecting her first baby recently asked me for recommendations on my favorite pregnancy, birth, and parenting books, and, to my surprise, I found myself brimming with suggestions. I used to tell people (proudly) that I didn’t read parenting books — but I see now that this is not actually true. What’s more accurate is that I read parenting books selectively. I’m sure it’ll shock everyone to learn that there is a lot of noise out there around pregnancy, birth, and parenting, and one must be in tune with ones own values and aspirations as a parent in order to tune out the large quantity of nonsense. And boy, there is a LOT of nonsense and gimmicks and fear-mongering out there. So, with my own parenting values guiding the way, here is my short list of favorite books on pregnancy, birth, baby care, and parenting.

PREGNANCY AND BIRTH

Great With Child: Letters to a Young Mother, by Beth Ann Fennelly: This slim, beautifully written book is a collection of letters that poet/writer Fennelly wrote to a young friend pregnant with her first child. Fennelly shares her observations about pregnancy and motherhood and the challenges (and joys) of balancing being a mother, wife, and writer. I found the passages about finding balance in one’s work and home life to be particularly resonant. I leant this book to our former babysitter when she got pregnant and she told me she found it reassuring and sweet.

Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, by Ina May Gaskin: This is a must-read for anyone considering having an unmedicated childbirth. Gaskin, considered one of the mothers of modern American midwifery, has written an essential guide on what happens during birth and how the process can be made easier and more comfortable for women without the aid of medical intervention. In a society in which medicalized birth is considered the default option, I think it’s important for women to understand the natural, physiological and mental processes involved in childbirth so that they can make informed decisions about how they want to give birth. The book is also full of empowering (if somewhat hippy-dippy, woo-woo) birth stories from the Farm Midwifery Center in Tennessee. I read this book before I had Lucia and then read it again recently to psych myself up for childbirth. I especially love the reassuring birth stories, as airy-fairy as some of them are, and the photos of real women and babies.

INFANT CARE (SLEEPING, EATING, ETC.)

The Sleepeasy Solution, by Jennifer Waldburger and Jill Spivack: We had to sleep-train our dear Lucia at six months of age because she was THE WORST SLEEPER EVER, no exaggeration. We eventually hired a sleep consultant (Annika Brindley in DC), and the method she used with us closely resembled The Sleepeasy Solution (although Lucia ended up being a tough case who required THREE FULL WEEKS of training, with many tweaks to the system, before she stopped screaming every night at bedtime, so the book alone would not have been enough for us). This book is a good starting place for those looking for answers to common infant sleep conundrums. It is a “cry it out” method, which I understand makes many new parents nervous, but when you’re desperate and the “gentle” sleep learning methods are not penetrating with your willful, spirited, STUBBORN-ASS baby, sometimes you gotta pull out the big guns. I have referred back to this book many times as Lucia has hit little bumps in the sleep road. It is a sensible and loving approach and not draconian, but yes, it does involve some crying.

The Happiest Baby on The Block, by Harvey Karp: I didn’t actually read Karp’s book, but a friend leant us the DVD, which sums up his “five S” approach for soothing infants, and we found it really helpful for calming Lucia when she was very little. These methods are especially helpful for getting an infant to calm down in the early months before sleep training is appropriate.

The Amazing Make-Ahead Baby Food Book, by Lisa Barrangou: I reviewed this book on this very blog and still stand by it as an excellent, straightforward method to introducing solids to baby. At 21.5 months, Lucia is a very good eater (although her palate for vegetables is pretty much limited to broccoli and spinach, but it could be worse, right?) and I suspect a lot of that comes from being exposed to many different healthy foods (in puree form) as an infant.

French Kids Eat Everything, by Karen Le Billion: Le Billion is an American married to a Frenchman who is raising her children in small-town France. When they first moved to France from the U.S., Le Billon’s kids were picky eaters, but by immersing them in French food culture, she was able to expand their palates, cut down on mindless snacking, and initiate a ritual of sit-down family meals. I enjoyed this book (which is a combination of memoir, instruction manual, and cookbook) and found the insights into the French perspective on food and mealtimes inspiring. However, I didn’t take all of Le Billon’s recommendations onboard, because not everything that works in France would be appropriate or even desirable for the U.S. For example, French children are only given one snack a day, period. No exceptions. Le Billion describes the nasty stares she got from other parents when she brought fruit to a school event, outside of the apportioned snack time. This rigidity is not realistic or, I think, necessary for raising kids who eat healthy, balanced meals. Lucia, for instance, gets two snacks a day. I don’t let her graze between meals because I want her to eat heartily at mealtimes. But sometimes she gets a snack at a random time and it’s not the end of the world. Also, the French have a very different perspective on breastfeeding (they’re not super into it past the first few months), they eat really long, late-running dinners, they eschew eating the same food twice in a week, and they have very good systems in place to support all of this. So, take Le Billon’s recommendations with a grain of sel and implement what works for you and your family.

CHILD DEVELOPMENT

The Wonder Weeks, by Hetty van de Rijt and Frans Plooij: Dutch researchers van de Rijt and Plooij have mapped out the ten biggest developmental leaps (or “wonder weeks”) that babies go through during the first twenty months of life. Each leap represents a different developmental milestone, which is great, but each one is also accompanied by crying, fussiness, moodiness, clinginess, bad sleep, and other less-than-awesome behavior as your baby’s brain rewires itself. The authors of the book have helpfully developed a free app that uses your baby’s gestational age (due date) to alert you when your child is about to go through one of the leaps, so you get a little warning before your sweet baby (temporarily) morphs into a hissing demon. The app is actually very good at predicting, down to a day or two, when your child will probably hit each leap. I found it reassuring to realize that my baby’s sudden bad mood and constant fussiness was serving a developmental purpose, and was normal and even predictable. More information here.

PARENTING

My parenting guru is Janet Lansbury and I highly recommend all of her books. Lansbury is a proponent of Respectful Parenting, based on the teachings of Magda Gerber, the basic tenets of which Lansbury describes here. Her perspective makes perfect sense to me and I try to implement it every single day with Lucia. In fact, I wish I had discovered Lansbury’s blog, books, and podcast earlier, when L was an infant, because I think her advice would have brought me a lot of comfort and reassurance. But I’m glad I discovered Respectful Parenting when Lucia was still a toddler, because Lansbury’s wisdom on discipline (particularly the idea that we need to be calm, firm leaders who hold boundaries for our children) has been indispensable for me over the last six months or so. I highly, HIGHLY recommend her book No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame.

JUST FOR FUN

Bringing Up Bébé, by Pamela Druckerman: Say what you will about Druckerman, who comes off as somewhat of a nut in this memoir, Bringing Up Bébé is a fascinating, highly entertaining read about an American raising children in France. Again, it’s important to take Druckerman’s advice and observations with a grain of salt and to appreciate the different cultural contexts in which French and American parents operate. But the book is thought-provoking, well written. and fun.

Be Prepared: A Practical Handbook for New Dads, by Jeannie Hayden and Gary Greenberg: Al and I had a lot of fun paging through this book before Lucia was born. Makes a great gift for any new dad (and does contain practical baby-care advice!).

Book round-up: what I’ve been reading lately

It’s been a long time since I’ve done a good ol’ fashioned book round-up on the blog. To be precise: it’s been eight months. Oops. As usual, I’ve read more books in eight months than can fairly be reviewed in one sitting, so I will sort them into my handy categories of Great Reads, Good Reads, Meh Reads, and Bad Reads. The Great Reads, I think, each deserve a word of explanation.

So, here goes.

row of books, free copy space on red background

 

Great Reads

Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell: Rowell’s sweet, moving novel about a college freshman (Cath) who loses herself in writing fan-fiction as she struggles with her real-life relationships was un-put-downable. As usual, Rowell continues to produce the only “romance novels” that I can stomach. Smart Bitches, Trashy Books review here.

Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell: A sort of companion novel to Fangirl, Rowell visits the universe that Fangirl‘s Cath was obsessed with — a Potter-esque school for aspiring magicians — and creates a love story between two of the main characters. Confused? This NPR review may help.

Fortune Smiles, by Adam Johnson: This collection of short stories is as beautiful and poignant as any of Johnson’s other work. I continue to marvel at his ability to bring to life such an array of rich, believable worlds (North Korea, post-Katrina New Orleans, Palo Alto) with such nuanced, complicated characters. Adam Johnson is such a treasure. Did I mention Fortune Smiles won the National Book Award?

The Royal We, by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan: I never wanted this book, which can fairly be described as the literary equivalent of a rom-com, to end. It follows a pair of Prince William-Kate Middleton analogs (in this case, the fictional Prince Nicholas and his American girlfriend Rebecca Porter) from their meet-cute to their wedding, with lots of juicy drama and intrigue thrown in for good measure. I really felt like I understood the now Duchess Kate’s plight after reading this book. Cocks and Morgan, the geniuses also known as The Fug Girls, make a delightful novel writing team. I recommend The Royal We even to readers, like me, who hate most romance novels and are trepidatious about rom-coms. Read it. Or, just wait for the movie to come out.

Ghettoside, by Jill Leovy: I was turned onto this book by a recommendation from (personal hero) David Sedaris, who encouraged all of his Facebook followers to check it out. Leovy, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, explores the epidemic of violence among African-Americans, the often toxic relationship between law enforcement and poor communities, and the systemic failure of the criminal justice system to prosecute black murders. Fair warning: Ghettoside is not an easy read, but it is fascinating, and gripping, and important. New York Times review here.

The Year of the Runaways, by Sunjeev Sohata: Months after finishing this book, which tells the story of several Indian immigrants struggling to carve out lives in the U.K., and a British-Indian woman whose life intersects with theirs, I cannot stop thinking about it. As soon as this book ended, I experienced that particular kind of mourning you feel when you must say goodbye to characters you really care about. What makes The Year of the Runaways even more remarkable to me is that it is Sohata’s debut novel and he never read a novel until he was eighteen. What?! Guardian review here.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt: This classic came out in 1994, but I never thought to read it until now. Berendt manages to make a true-crime novel read like fiction — and charming, winsome fiction, at that. Despite the fact that this book is about a murder, it made me want to visit Savannah and stroll through its storied gardens.

Good Reads

Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff

The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy

Troublemaker, by Leah Remini

Challenger Deep, by Neal Shusterman

The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy

Bringing Up Bébé, by Pamela Druckerman

Little Victories, by Jason Gay

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King

The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro

I Didn’t Come Here to Make Friends, by Courtney Robertson

The Expatriates, by Janice Y.K. Lee

The Run of His Life: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, by Jeffrey Toobin

After Birth, by Elisa Albert

The Dark Net, by Jamie Bartlett

Meh Reads

A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler

Loving Day, by Mat Johnson

The Executioner’s Song, by Norman Mailer

We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart

The Red Parts, by Maggie Nelson

Bad Reads

Black Eyed Susans, by Julia Heaberlin

The Tastemakers, by David Sax

 

 

Great reads, good reads, meh reads, and bad reads: a book round-up

Since May, which was the last time I posted a book review round-up, I’ve read (or started to read and gave up on — more on that below) almost thirty books. THIRTY. The experience of reading approximately six books a month for the past five months has had some sharp peaks and deep valleys, as you might imagine. Some of the books I read were fantastic, wonderful, absorbing, un-put-downable! Others, however, were real stinkers. Weirdly, it’s the stinkers, rather than the masterpieces, that are sticking with me as I sit down to write this, perhaps because it seems like there were just so many of them, and they were all so disappointing/maddening.

Given the quantity of books I’ve consumed over the past five months, I’ll not be writing reviews of each one. Instead, I’ve divided the books into four rough (and necessarily reductive) categories: Great Reads, Good Reads, Meh Reads, and Bad Reads. Instead of individual book reviews, I will let the categories do the talking. If you’d like any more color on any of these books, drop me a note or a comment here and I’ll tell you what I think.

Now, a brief explanation of my categories:

A Great Read, in my estimation, must possess excellent writing as well as a gripping plot (if fiction) and/or unique perspective/angle on its subject (if non-fiction). The experience of reading a Great Read is one of absorption. You look forward to reading the book, and while you’re reading it, you’re lost in its world. You want to tell people about it. You want others to read it so that you can share the experience of it with someone else. I will vouch for all of the books in my Great Reads category. They are, like I say, great.

Standards are slightly lower for Good Reads. A Good Read must be thoroughly enjoyable, with solid writing and/or a lively enough plot/story to make up for just pretty good writing. A Good Read is a book that you look forward to picking up, but won’t necessarily tell anyone about at a dinner party.

A Meh Read is just okay, either because the plot is sluggish, or the writing is not up to snuff, or both. A Meh Read, however, is not bad enough for you to actually stop reading. Whatever failures of writing or plotting or research they may contain, Meh Reads are not terrible or a waste of time, necessarily. They’re just okay. They’re the reading equivalent of a shrug. They’re meh.

Bad Reads, of course, are actively awful. Most of the books on the Bad Reads list landed there because the writing was so piss poor that I wanted to toss the book into a bonfire and dance around it while muttering dark incantations. As a writer who would gladly saw off an appendage — any appendage! You name it, I’ll saw it! — to have a novel published, it irks me, to put it lightly, that so many books with stupid, crappily constructed plots and lazy, hackneyed writing are getting published and purchased. And from a reader’s perspective, it’s endlessly frustrating that these horrid books are marketed to the unsuspecting public with bait like, “If you liked Gone Girl, you’ll love [Shitty Novel That Sucks]!” Here’s the thing: we all liked Gone Girl because it was fast-paced and twisty, with smart observations about male-female relationships, and Gillian Flynn can actually write. Yet somehow, any piece of dross that fancies itself a “psychological thriller” gets compared to Gone Girl, and we, the reading public, keep falling for it. Or, at least, I do, and I consider myself a somewhat discerning reader (although perhaps I shouldn’t give myself so much credit). Three out of the four books on my Bad Reads list are “psychological thrillers” that I was dumb enough to pay good money for. I only managed to get all the way through one of them (The Good Neighbor, which contained shockingly bad writing and enough loose plot threads to knit a winter sweater); the other three I gave up on in order to preserve my own sanity.

Great Reads

Among The Ten Thousand Things, by Julia Pierpont

Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, by Sarah Hepola

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

My Documents, by Alejandro Zambra

Modern Romance, by Aziz Ansari

This Is Not a Love Story, by Judy Brown

Good Reads

Lost at Sea, by Jon Ronson

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., by Adelle Waldman

Sisterland, by Curtis Sittenfeld

The Splendid Things We Planned, by Blake Bailey

Hyacinth Girls, by Lauren Frankel

Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh

Pretty Is, by Maggie Mitchell

Drink, by Ann Dowsett Johnston

The Lifeboat, by Charlotte Rogan

Meh Reads

The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker

Luckiest Girl Alive, by Jessica Knoll

The Ice Twins, by S.K. Tremayne

Visiting Hours: A Memoir of Friendship and Murder, by Amy Butcher

In the Unlikely Event, by Judy Blume

How Should a Person Be?, by Sheila Heti

Days of Awe, by Lauren Fox

A Good Killing, by Allison Leotta

In a Dark, Dark Wood, by Ruth Ware

Bad Reads

The Good Girl, by Mary Kubica

Remember Mia, by Alexandra Burt

The Good Neighbor, by A.J. Banner

The Martian, by Andy Weir

Book review: Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy, by Dinty W. Moore

The back cover copy for Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals promises that this book is a “unique writing guide” to creating personal essays. As someone who likes to write the odd personal essay, I was interested. I was also intrigued by the format: a series of questions asked by “top contemporary essayists” (including Cheryl Strayed and Roxane Gay) and answered by Dinty W. Moore, an actual person and essayist and not, as I had imagined, an animated can of beef stew.

51roGv2U+vL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

I first opened Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy expecting, if not inspiration, then at least some solid ideas for kickstarting my next personal essay. But I got bogged down in the book’s preciousness and soon closed it again. What do I mean by “preciousness?” Well, the introduction is written in the second person (eesh) and includes this sentence: “You are a good-looking person whose minor flaws seem to only accentuate your considerable charm.” This winking tone continues throughout the book, much to my chagrin. For example, there is a question answered entirely in a series of cocktail napkin drawings. Some might find this adorable, but for me, the humor wasn’t strong enough to overcome the cutesiness. I’m afraid I’m just not the target audience for this kind of thing.

I reopened the book and tried to read it straight through. The first question, from essayist Phillip Lopate, is about how to write about ex-girlfriends without coming off as a “chauvinist pig.” Putting aside my own question about whether Lopate’s letter was sent via time portal from the mid-1990s, I found Moore’s response pat (“don’t be a chauvinist pig”) and the accompanying essay boring. Perhaps the problem here is that I am not familiar with Dinty W. Moore’s essay writing, and that to fully appreciate this book, one must be a fan of his work. I’m not sure. But I found myself skimming, and skimming some more, through the rest of the questions and answers.

Some of the questions struck me as so esoteric as to be useless (e.g., what is “the connection between Buddhism and writing?”), at least to my own writing, but others were somewhat more helpful. I enjoyed Moore’s response to Cheryl Strayed’s question about the distinction among the hyphen, the en dash, and the em dash. I also liked Moore’s “Four Essential Tips for Telling the Truth in Memoir and Securing That Blockbuster Book Deal,” in response to a question from Michael Martone about whether to use one or two spaces after a period. Incidentally, Moore never answers Martone’s question about spacing, but he does discuss the concept of telling the truth and fictionalizing in memoir.

I’m sure that fans of Moore’s work will find this volume entertaining and perhaps even inspiring. But for me, earnest seeker of writing advice, it fell flat.

(Cook) book review: Everyday Detox, by Megan Gilmore

As someone who’s naturally suspicious of the word “detox” outside of the context of recovery from alcohol and drug addiction, I was a bit trepidatious when I first received Megan Gilmore’s cookbook, Everyday Detox. I think “detox” — as in, clearing one’s body of “toxins” — is one of those woo-woo concepts that doesn’t actually have any basis in science, and my hackles go up when people talk about “detox diets,” because what does that even mean? But, in paging through Gilmore’s book, I saw that there was a whole chapter devoted to “liquid nourishment,” and, being a smoothie fanatic, I couldn’t resist trying some of her recipes right away, pseudoscience or no! (Also, to be fair, Gilmore explains her “detox” philosophy in the beginning of her book by saying that she’s in favor of consuming fresh, whole foods, rather than packaged foods that are “loaded with preservatives and chemicals,” which is reasonable, and not what I typically associate with the word “detox”).

61u834eRfhL._SX408_BO1,204,203,200_

A creature of habit, I make almost the exact same smoothie for lunch every day, which I like, but I needed to shake things up (pun very much intended!). I cracked open Everyday Detox and started with the Chocolate Chia Shake, which is gluten free, dairy free, soy free, egg free, and vegan (none of which are dietary requirements for me, but nice to know). This recipe did require a trip to the local fancy grocery store to purchase chia seeds and raw cacao nibs, but, as it turns out, the investment was totally worth it because this sucker was DELICIOUS. Even my mother, a professed hater of dates, liked this shake, and one of its main ingredients is dates. That’s how good it was! Emboldened, I moved on to the Banana Nut Protein Shake, which knocked my socks off. Despite involving several handfuls of spinach and two tablespoons of hemp hearts (?), it was rich and tasty and satisfying. I loved every sip.

I haven’t yet had a chance to try any of the non-liquid recipes in the book. I will admit that the names of some of the dishes have me a little gun-shy (whenever I see a recipe for “rice,” in quotation marks, I get nervous), but given how phenomenal the two recipes I’ve tried so far have been, I think I need to put my skepticism aside and try more of the ideas in Everyday Detox. I’m looking forward to giving the Peppermint Fudge Bars a whirl, and the Salt And Vinegar Brussels Sprouts also sound delicious. Overall, I’d recommend this book for those looking for healthy, fresh meal ideas who aren’t put off by a few hemp hearts here and there.

 

(Baby) book review: The Amazing Make-Ahead Baby Food Book, by Lisa Barrangou

Being a parent of an infant so often involves navigating through one murky, doubt-filled morass after another, trying to reconcile all of the conflicting advice you’ve received. Everyone — the internet, your pediatrician, your neighbor, your friend, your mom — has a different bit of wisdom to share and it’s often hard to know which way is up when fumbling your way through growth spurts, developmental leaps, teething, and, of course, the introduction of solid foods. Luckily for me, I received Lisa Barrangou’s The Amazing Make-Ahead Baby Food Book, which takes all of the guesswork out of introducing solid foods to baby.

51Xi8+j0KnL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_

Like every new mother, I’d received a mountain of conflicting advice on how and when to introduce solids, what types of solids to introduce first, whether to do baby-led weaning or purees, how to space solids so as to avoid allergic reactions, and so on. I found myself confused, which has pretty much become my default posture in life since Lucia was born. Enter The Amazing Make-Ahead Baby Food Book, which promises to guide you through making three months’ worth of homemade purees in three hours. Hallelujah!

Barrangou is a “former corporate food scientist” with an MS and PhD in food science. Her approach emphasizes whole, unprocessed foods, and starts with introducing fruits and veggies, rather than rice cereal or other grains. I was quickly sold on Barrangou’s bona fides and her approach, since I was reticent to give Lucia processed cereal as a first food and liked the idea of starting her off with vegetables, instead.

The book lays out a wonderfully simple and straightforward strategy for introducing solids that includes selecting a menu of whole foods, preparing a shopping list, creating space to store the foods, shopping, creating a mise en place plan, and preparing the food. Barrangou helpfully includes a list of supplies you need, including silicone ice cube trays, a steamer, a food processor or blender, and freezer bags. The plan she suggests is clear, concise, and sensible, and boy, do I love a good mise en place.

The book leaves nothing to chance, explaining clearly how to prepare each food with helpful charts and recipes. It also goes over which foods to limit or avoid (e.g., honey, cow’s milk, high acid fruits, etc.), which to buy organic (the so-called “dirty dozen”), when to introduce solids, in which order to introduce foods, how to ensure diversity of flavors and textures, how to avoid choking, what to look out for in terms of allergies and sensitivities, safe food prep practices, and flavor combos. I love how idiot-proof this book is.

The best part of the book, in my opinion, is the sample three-month menu of meals for baby, which sets out a simple yet diversified menu to follow, starting with pureed sweet potatoes and progressing to such exotic combos as avocado, mango, and black beans. Barrangou says you can follow her sample menu exactly or you can create your own based on the vast array of whole foods set out in the book. I decided to follow her sample menu and started, as suggested, with sweet potatoes.

Big fan of sweet potatoes

Big fan of sweet potatoes

I introduced sweet potatoes to Lucia at five months old, and she LOVED the experience. She gobbled up the sweet potatoes and then, a few days later, sweet peas with relish! Unfortunately, her guts were not as enthused and she had some pretty gnarly stomach distress for about a week after starting solids, so I decided to hold off until her six month birthday to try again. Luckily, I already have a whole bag of frozen sweet potato cubes in the freezer, ready to go, and armed with Barrangou’s book, it’ll be easy to prepare several months’ worth of food some afternoon over this coming week.

Yum.

Yum.

If it’s not clear, I think this book is absolutely fantastic and I’d recommend it heartily to any parent who’s looking for a healthy, easy, no-nonsense way to introduce whole foods to a baby. As a bonus, the book is gorgeous and the photographs make me want to puree myself up some bananas and go to town.

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.

Book review Tuesday: Better Than Before, by Gretchen Rubin

The more I read by Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, the more I begin to suspect that she and I would really get along. As far as I can tell, we have extremely similar personalities and preferences. Also, we’re both former lawyers who became writers. In fact, when I was first considering jumping ship from my law firm and starting a writing career, I sent Rubin an email asking for her advice, and she very kindly responded with a warm, encouraging note. So, I like Gretchen Rubin, even though I don’t know her personally — and I always enjoy her writing, including her newest book, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives.

Rubin’s latest book focuses on habits, asking how we form successful habits, what makes us stick with them, which habits are worth pursuing, and so on. I find the question of habits quite interesting because I am someone who’s fairly consistent with certain habits (for example: getting daily exercise) but struggle to form other, lasting habits (e.g., keeping a budget). So I read this book with interest and really enjoyed it.

Rubin has a real gift for coming up with useful personality taxonomies, and this book introduces what Rubin refers to as “The Four Tendencies.” In order to make and stick with a habit, she says, one must identify which of four personality tendencies one has. The four tendencies, described on Rubin’s website, are Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels. As Rubin puts it:

  • Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations 
  • Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense 
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves

This was an easy one for me: I’m an Upholder, through and through (just like Rubin). Also, like Rubin, I was surprised to learn that Upholders are in the minority. Apparently, responding pretty much equally to both inner and outer expectations (that is, getting up for a run because you told yourself you’d do it AND/OR getting up for a run because you told a friend you’d meet them in the park) is not a common personality attribute. Alastair is most definitely a Questioner. He only does something if there’s a sound justification for it; he hates arbitrary rules. He and I have had the same argument about why our bed needs to be made countless times. Al thinks making the bed is pointless, since you’re just going to get into it and mess up the sheets again at bedtime. I think making the bed makes the room feel neater and consequently makes my life feel less chaotic. Also, I’d hasten to add, adults just make their damn beds. Anyway. Knowing one’s Tendency is the first step, Rubin says, to understanding how to form effective habits. You need to know yourself and what kind of expectations to which you respond best in order to set a plan for yourself that will work.

Once you’ve identified your Tendency, you can tackle what Rubin refers to as the four “pillars of habits:” monitoring, foundation, scheduling, and accountability. As an Upholder, I think I can actually take some of these pillars of habits too far. For example, I can go a bit overboard with monitoring. Just this week I stopped using my phone to obsessively track Lucia’s sleeping, eating, and diaper output, because, I finally realized, it was making me crazy. I’m the type of person who loves data. Staring at numbers gives me the illusion of control. I figure if I can study the record of Lucia’s sleep patterns for the last three months of her life, I can crack the code to baby sleep and win at parenting forever. It took me this long to realize that babies don’t work like that, and I was driving myself nuts tracking every second of napping, every poopy diaper, every drop of milk consumed. But I do understand that monitoring, when exercised responsibly, is useful for habit formation; for example, I try to keep track of what I eat and the amount of exercise I get on another app on my phone, and it helps keep me accountable to my commitment to eat healthfully (most of the time).

Having established the pillars of habit formation, Rubin then dives into the nitty gritty of establishing and maintaining habits. One comes away from this book feeling that one can now take on the world, new habits firmly in place (or, at least, the manageable beginnings of new habits in place). As always, Rubin’s take is practical, relatable, and full of interesting anecdotes. I came away from this book feeling motivated to tackle some of the habits I want to introduce into my own life. Recommended!

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.

Book review Friday: several quick takes

I’ve been doing a lot of reading ever since my lovely mother got me a Kindle Paperwhite in April. Its lit-up screen allows me to read in the dark while I’m feeding Lucia at night (or early in the morning) and want to keep her room dark so as not to wake her fully. With my old Kindle, I’d have to turn on the light to read, so I ended up playing on my iPhone and reading New Yorker articles on its tiny screen instead. Not awesome. Anyway, since my reading life has been restored to me, I’ve torn through a bunch of books, and thought I’d do some short reviews here while the baby is napping. One never knows how long one has when a baby is napping, so these will be short and sweet and probably not finely edited. Here we go!

The Circle, by Dave Eggers

the circle

I had high hopes for The Circle, mostly because Dave Eggers and his wife wrote the screenplay for Away We Go, one of my favorite movies, and because I’ve volunteered at 826DC, a great non-profit also spearheaded by Eggers. Unfortunately, The Circle was a big disappointment. Well, let me qualify that: I did enjoy the first 40% or so of the book, which consisted of some great world-building and suspense-building, but hated the last 60%, when the entire thing came crashing down in a pile of heavy-handed metaphor, unrealistic outcomes, and an increasingly irritating protagonist. There are so many problems with this book, and I think this reviewer on Goodreads ably summarizes most of them, but what irritated me most was the squandered potential the book had to be great. The set-up, in which Eggers introduces us to The Circle, a utopic, monolithic version of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and every other major tech/social media company in the Silicon Valley, was interesting in itself, and the idea that the heads of The Circle had secretive, nefarious plans had great potential for intrigue and suspense. But the plot ended up flopping majorly when it became a dull-edged warning about the dangers of intrusive social technology in our lives. Eggers doesn’t have anything new to say about the overuse of social media, unfortunately, and in trying to impart the oft-repeated message that it can be dangerous and dehumanizing, he relies on such ham-fisted, hackneyed metaphor that the book’s message comes across as obvious and trite. When I was done reading the book, I realized that I wanted to rewatch Charlie Brooker’s excellent, super creepy, and incisive TV series Black Mirror, which provides much smarter and more unique commentary about the creeping dangers of technology in society. In fact, that’s my recommendation: skip The Circle and check out Black Mirror (and don’t watch alone and/or at night — you’ll have nightmares).

Missoula, by Jon Krakauer

2586069200000578-2946537-Jon_Krakauer_will_release_Missoula_Rape_and_the_Justice_System_I-a-24_1423526679359

I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Krakauer (Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, Under the Banner of Heaven), and his latest effort, Missoula, did not disappoint. The book provides a thoughtful look at the serious problem of non-stranger rape, particularly on college campuses, and particularly at the University of Montana in Missoula. Krakauer examines several cases of non-stranger rape in the college town and the way they were handled, variously, by the university, the police, the prosecutors, the media, and the public. I read in an interview with Krakauer in which he said that he and his publishers decided to release the book early given the disastrous, poorly researched Rolling Stone article on the alleged rape culture at UVA, because Krakauer felt that his book would provide a much-needed counterpoint to the idea floating around post-Rolling Stone debacle that many women lie about being raped. In fact, Krakauer points out, most women do not lie about sexual assault, and most victims of non-stranger rape do not ever report the crimes. This book provides an eye-opening and moving account of a disturbing problem that does not get talked about often enough.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson

61v+gsNPcLL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

It feels wrong to refer to a book about the devastating effects of internet shaming as a “confection,” but when I say that this book, like most of Ronson’s smart, wry work, is like a delicious piece of non-fiction fudge, I mean it in the best way. Ronson’s dry wit makes even the most serious and depressing of subjects, including the power of anonymous internet commenters to destroy strangers’ lives without so much as a backward glance, digestible and light. I tore through this book and loved every page of it. Granted, I am a giant Jon Ronson fan and will read anything he writes, but I think this is some of his best work. Highly entertaining but also chilling, this book will make you rethink that nasty Twitter post or forum comment you were about to dash off.

Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum

haus

I have mixed feelings about this novel, a dark tale about a bored, repressed American woman living with her Swiss husband and children in quaint, suburban Switzerland, and the ultimate consequences of her terrible decisions. I very much enjoyed the book’s strong sense of place and its sharp musings about Swiss culture. I enjoyed the deep character development. I enjoyed the sense of something dire lurking just around the corner. But when the Something(s) Dire finally happened, I ended up feeling deflated and depressed. The book became so heavy, so dark, so quickly, and offered no hope of a redemptive arc, that in the end I felt a bit cheated, or at least misled, by it. The writing is good, the story engaging, but the ending is a big bummer, and I’m not sure it served the story — or the characters — as well as the author seemed to think it did.

Yes Please, by Amy Poehler

YMeQsgk

Amy Poehler’s memoir is a quick, light read with quite a few laugh-out-loud passages. Poehler is a good writer and a smart person, and her book, while not particularly hefty or revealing, is a fun read. One feels that one knows Poehler much better after reading about her childhood, her early career in improv and then at Saturday Night Live, and a few dustups with famous people. She talks about her achievements as a female comedian and actress without ever veering into arrogance or Gwyneth-like cluelessness, and she comes across as a genuine person who has managed to keep a good head on her shoulders despite her enormous success.

As an added bonus, here are a few even shorter reviews of books I read so long ago I can’t remember plot details, necessarily, but can recall how I felt about them overall.

Descent, by Tim Johnston: I read a glowing review of this novel on NPR and was expecting great things. The book was good, if plodding at times, but not great. There were genuine moments of suspense that paid off very well toward the last quarter of the book, but there were also wide swaths of boring prose and side-story that I could have done without.

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins: This book has gotten a lot of buzz lately, and rightly so. An excellent, tightly constructed psychological thriller. Very, very good.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel: I waited far too long to read this gorgeous book about the world after a devastating pandemic has drastically reduced the human population. The book is weird, and sad, with surprising, uplifting moments of beauty and lightness. It’s also one of the few books with descriptions of art that didn’t bore me to tears. Highly recommended.

Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi: I wanted to like this book, a unique spin on Snow White, more than I actually did. Interesting premise, good writing, but often boring.

The Damned, by Andrew Pyper: A friend whose taste I generally trust recommended this horror novel that takes place in the suburbs and city of Detroit. Unfortunately, despite the setting, I didn’t connect with Pyper’s writing. I found the style affected and distracting, particularly the author’s fondness for peppering his paragraphs with incomplete sentences, which I suppose were intended to provide dramatic heft, but came across as unpolished and trying too hard. I’m such a stickler for good writing in the novels I read that I couldn’t get past the author’s style and ended up not enjoying this book much at all, even though its premise — a man being haunted by the ghost of his malevolent sister — had potential.

Deep Down Dark, by Héctor Tobar: A fascinating look at the ordeal of the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped underground for months and the highly technical rescue operation that finally extricated them. Some of the technical aspects of the rescue were lost on me, but the human stories of the men trapped below the earth were touching and engaging.

Whew, okay! That’s all for now. If you’ve read any of these, let me know what you think! I welcome a lively book chat any time! Especially when the baby’s asleep.

(Cook)book review: A Good Food Day, by Marco Canora

I haven’t done much cooking over the last six weeks, since, you know, baby, etc. But our last round of parental visitors left yesterday and I figured it was a good time to restart my normal cooking routine. I’d been wanting to crack open Marco Canora’s cookbook, A Good Food Day: Reboot Your Health with Food That Tastes Great since I’d gotten it. I liked the fact that the recipes seemed healthy but not diet-y, with lots of fresh, whole ingredients and flavors. Canora’s philosophy, as laid out in his “10 principles for a good food day,” involves making eating enjoyable through consciously, mindfully eating a wide variety of real, high quality foods. This jibes with my philosophy, too, so I was excited to give the book a shot.

61QnwmzN00L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_

 

I chose the recipe for braised chicken thighs with garlic, lemon, and Greek olives, since I’m a sucker for a good bone-in, skin-on chicken thigh. I started cooking just as Al was dropping his dad and brother off at the airport, and Lucia was awake (sort of), so I threw her in the sling, covered her with a receiving blanket so that no hot oil would come anywhere near her, and got cooking.

Cooking with Lucia

Cooking with Lucia

I realized as I was cooking that I didn’t have the Greek olives that the recipe called for, so I substituted some capers, figuring they’d provide the salty, briny kick that the recipe needed. I also didn’t bother peeling the garlic cloves as the recipe instructed — who has the time, right? The recipe was easy to make and came together quickly — definitely do-able for a weeknight. And, I’m happy to report, it tasted great.

IMG_0048

I am not always a fan of cooked lemons — I think sometimes the tartness can verge on the sour and overpowering — but in this, the lemon-y taste was counterbalanced by the sautéed onions and garlic (yum). The chicken came out perfectly tender and juicy. I served the dish with baked sweet potatoes and roasted asparagus.

Dinner, complete

Dinner, complete

Overall, a very satisfying meal! I’m looking forward to cooking more out of Canora’s book soon. Al has requested the cacio e pepe popcorn, so that’ll be my next project. Recommended for those who want to cook with healthy, whole ingredients without skimping on satisfying flavor.

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.

(Cook)book review: A Kitchen in France: A Year of Cooking in My Farmhouse, by Mimi Thorisson

In the Glorious Age of Pinterest in which we live, I’ve found that I do less and less cooking from cookbooks. There are a couple of tried and true favorites on my shelf that I refer to again and again, but mostly, if I need a recipe, I dig it up on the internet. It’s just easier, most of the time. But does that mean that I’ve thrown my old cookbooks out? No! Cookbooks have taken on another function in my home: objects of beauty and inspiration. Oh, how I love paging through a well presented, gorgeously shot, visually pleasing cookbook! Even if I never cook a thing from a beautiful cookbook, it’s still nice to have on the shelf, to take down and look through if I’m feeling like I want to create something in the kitchen.

Mimi Thorisson’s cookbook, A Kitchen in France, is one of those lovely books that looks good on the shelf and is pleasing to page through. It’s full of photos of the author and her family in the picturesque French countryside and the sumptuous French dishes she creates in her farmhouse kitchen. It’s a very pretty book.

51oAUsVKuhL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_

 

It would be enough for me to just look at the photos in this book and drool, but I decided to attempt a recipe and see if I could manage it. A couple of caveats, before we begin: I am eight-and-a-half months pregnant (oof) and so preparing meals that require lots of time and effort has become less of a priority as my energy levels have steadily fallen. I used to love to hole up in the kitchen and cook elaborate meals if I had extra time on my hands, but these days, I struggle against the temptation to order in take-out every night, and so must keep my home cooking simple in order to continue to eat healthfully. When I first looked through A Kitchen in France, I was drawn to the more ambitious dishes, like coq au vin and blanquette de veau. But just reading the recipe for coq au vin made me feel like I needed to take a nap, so I decided to scale down my aspirations and cook a dessert. Second, the book is organized by season, so I decided to pick something from the winter menu, just to play by the rules.

I chose to make salted-butter crème caramel. Just the name made my mouth water, plus, I’d never made a custard before so I was excited to try it. I started cooking, reading the recipe as I went along. And immediately, I encountered an issue. The first instruction in the custard-making process is to add water to powdered gelatin and set aside. I did that, and then read on. To my dismay, the rest of the recipe never mentioned the gelatin again. It was set aside, but never picked up. I turned to Google to try to figure out when one should add the gelatin to one’s custard (the query felt very modern-day Julia Child) but I couldn’t find a clear answer, so I just dumped the gelatin in when I added the sugar to my boiling cream and vanilla. I still don’t know if that was right. The world may never know.

Custards in process, with cookbook

Custards in process, with cookbook

In the end, the custards (and the caramel) turned out well. I can’t tell if the custard was the right consistency as I’ve never made custard before and don’t typically eat it, but it sure did taste good. Al and I each scarfed a bowl after dinner and it felt very indulgent.

Caramel in process

Caramel in process

Overall, this book is beautiful to look at and, based on the one recipe I’ve made from it, full of good-tasting food. However, I suspect it needs a good going-over by a copy editor to make sure that instructions aren’t missing from the recipes (like the gelatin confusion in the recipe I tried). The book could also do with a clear master index in the front. It’s organized into four seasons, each with their own menus, but an overall table of contents listing each recipe in the front of the book would have been helpful (although there is an index in the back). These are small complaints, however, and I am looking forward to cooking more from this book soon.

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.