Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
The good news: we are wired to be decent, empathetic people. The bad news: it takes a little work and envirornmental factors to foster that empathy.
The authors think we are failing in many ways. 80% of Americans are only really close to a family member, 25% say they trust no one with their secrets. Only 32% of Americans agree that “most people can be trusted” compared to 58% back in 1960. “The amount of time spent playing freely fell by nearly one-third between 1981 and 2003…the number of hours that children spend playing outside…was cut in half…only 57 percent of elementary school districts currently require recess” (295). “Two-thrds of children under six live in a household where the TV is on more than half of the day—even if no one is watching” (in 1/3 the TV is always on) (296). “On nearly all measures of social life…Americans tend to have fewer and lower-quality interactions with one another than our parents and grandparents did” (229).
The book stressed the enormous important on a primary caregiver, a individual that is always there for them. Babies die without them. A study compared babies raised in orphanages compared to babies raised in prison with their mothers. 37% in the orphanage died by 2 years old (none in prison died). A rich family hired several nannies to take care of their baby. When the child would get "too attached," the mother would fire the nanny and hire a new one. The child learned to never become attached to people. That boy ended up raping a disabled girl in high school, possibly a sociopath.
It's always important to remember that our genes do not seal or fate. The majority of children of addicts do not become addicts (they are simply at a higher risk than non-addict parents). Our upbringing and the environment decide what genes are "expressed" in us. Nature and nurture. And the book has amazing stories of people who, against the odds of nature and nurture, led good lives.
Well, I could go on and on about the interesting stories and studies that this book goes over. From why Scandanavians are so happy and healthy, to why women get a rush of heroin-like oxytocin when they look at their baby, to why TV is bad for children (yes, even baby Einstien!). If you want to read about empathy development in children, parenting, psychology and brain science, this is the book for you.
Born for Love
I was excited to discover that Fay Weldon has a new novel out, Habits of the house, the first of a planned trilogy. Set in England at the end of the 19th century, it follows the attempts of the Earl of Dilberne to solidify his family’s financial situation. From a brief summary I’ve read, it sounds like a rich American heiress might save this titled British family teetering on the brink of financial ruin, but in Weldon’s hands, it is sure to be a compelling and surprising read (and surely all the Dilbernes’ problems will not be solved by the end of the first book).
When I learned of the existence of this book, I immediately placed a hold on it, and I’m going to read it while I await the arrival of Mary Roach’s newest book, Gulp.
Habits of the house
People who know me are aware that I enjoy discovering unusual names. In fact, readers of this column will know that too, since I've reviewed books that contain listings of them. But this book is different. It is a listing of American place names. Of course, I immediately turned to the Michigan chapter and found Bad Axe, Christmas, and Germfask. Take a look to see why Mr. Gallant also included Schoolcraft. Or, how about Okay, Oklahoma. Igloo, South Dakota. Correctionville, Iowa. Mermaid, Delaware. Toast, North Carolina. Well, you get the idea. And there are probably even stranger ones that I just haven't gotten to yet.
A place called Peculiar : stories about unusual American place-names
I just finished reading Secrets of an organized mom by Barbara Reich, and after just a couple days my house is at least 100 pounds lighter, and the Three Rivers Goodwill store has got some fresh inventory, thanks to me. This book takes you through all the problem areas in your house and how to purge, design, organize, and maintain them. I have focused mainly on the purge and organize phases--So far I have rid our home of many bags of no-longer-worn clothes (or clothes that I wore even though I hated…which was most of them!) and 1 pair of skis that hasn’t been used in 10 years (I can always just rent them if I ever ski again, right?)…and I haven’t even gotten to the basement storage area yet—yikes! The main things that are beneficial about this book is that it is motivating, takes each room one at a time so you are not overwhelmed, and is practical. It throws in a little bit of psychology with common sense (are you really attached to the item, or is it the person that gave you the item?). I am excited for the weekend so I can hit up that hideous storage area!
Secrets of an organized mom
Most of these God-debate books either bash fundamental Evangelicals or New Atheism. This one bashes both, while saying some good things too. Author Frank Schaeffer comes from a unique perspective. He was raised by a fundamentalist evangelical preacher family and became a prominent one himself. Although he has a lot of good to say about his mother and father as people, he eventually rejects their religion on many grounds. He learned that it was almost impossible to love God if God is making you millions of dollars. He also thought that they worshiped the Bible more than God, as if God was the Bible. Also, they are never interested in what people have to say. Instead, every conversation is a chance to convert people. He reminisces the old days, when his mother and father would accept gay people into their community without thinking twice. Now days they target these people as a political tactic to strengthen the faith. An important point of the book not to overlook is this: you can bash a religion or atheism all you want, but this doesn't necessarily make the people bad. His mother and father were good decent people, he says, and that's because they didn't follow the nastier parts of their dogma.
He comes from the perspective of Soren Kierkegaard, the Christian mystic Existentialist philosopher (who I'm reading now): We have no clue what God is, so let's just be humble about it. We can try to figure out what God isn't (negative theology), but experience and openness is the best we got. In fact, this encapsulates his critique of the New Atheists: like fundamentalist Evangelicals, they think they know everything. They have no humility. It's a different form of the same thing. It's a frame of mind. This reminded me of a Jewish philosopher I read and blogged about recently, who blamed the Greeks for turning faith into a knowledge pursuit. This was a wrong step. Faith is not knowledge, and knowledge does not destroy faith.
The author talks about his new faith in the Greek Orthodox liturgical tradition. But mostly he talks about his family, and how much he loves them; and how much he thanks God for them and for all the good and bad in his life. He does not give an answer for why his God would allow children to suffer; he doesn't think there is an answer. His passion for life really comes through at the end.
Patience with God
Ever wonder why you can’t just eat one Dorito? Or why that can of Coca-Cola seems to call out to you from behind the refrigerator door? Read, Pullitzer Prize winning author, Michael Moss’s latest book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us and you will wonder no more. The short answer, science. Plus millions of dollars in advertising and loads and loads of salt, sugar, and fat tossed in just to make sure we can't get enough. Moss takes readers inside the story of the rise of the processed food industry into the multi-billion dollar industry it is today and how big food’s insatiable craving for profit has left an obesity epidemic and generations with poor eating habits in its wake. Salt Sugar Fat is certainly a cautionary tale, and will have every reader questioning their own consumer behavior and eating habits. But Moss’s tone isn't overly preachy and takes a pragmatic view of the food industries focus on providing the much in demand convenience of processed food with the need for individuals to be aware of and responsible for what they put into their bodies. Highly recommended.
Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us
I’ve always wanted to add elements of Japanese gardens into my backyard and while there may still be snow on the ground, those interested in sprucing up their yards with a new look should get a head-start with mapping out ways to add some creative composition to nature’s innate beauty. My goal for this year is to continue to battle my root-loving Maples in an area that is ripe for a Japanese-inspired shade garden but suffers from poor and shallow soil. Locate solutions to problems like root competition by browsing our fine array of gardening books. Apparently, creating a successful shade garden is as easy as laying down a coating of newspapers over the desired area and then covering them with high-quality soil. Spring will be here soon so start your planning now.
This is the most honest book on faith I've read in a while. Whether you are a person of faith or not, you will appreciate this book. The author openly, candidly and honestly tells the story of how he began reporting on inspiring stories, on people of faith who gave up everything to help the poor. As the author was becoming a Catholic, the priest sex scandal hit, which he reported on. This became a "body blow" to his faith, leading to a steady decline until he realized he wasn't going to church, wasn't praying, wasn't reading the Bible anymore--in short, he woke up one day and realized he could never go back.
The way he explains his loss of faith is what I found interesting and original. He argues that it wasn't a choice, but an organic, slow, and steady series of natural events that led to where he is now:
"Spiritual suicide infers that people make a conscious decision to abandon their faith. Yet it isn't simply a matter of will. Many people want desperately to believe, but just can't. They may feel tortured that their faith has evaporated, but they can't will it back into existence. If an autopsy could be done...it would be natural causes--the organic death of a belief system that collapsed under the weight of experience and reason" (141).
I especially like the beginning and end of the book, but almost the entire middle is filled with the detials of the Catholic molestation sex scandal that he exposed and reported on--which I thought was too long and didn't fit well with the memoir aspect of the book.
Losing My Religion
You Know When the Men are Gone, a collection of eight loosely connected stories, is centered on Fort Hood, Texas. The title of the first story and the collection refers to what is not heard through the thin walls of military housing: no boots stomping, no football games, no early morning doors slamming as they leave for drills. You know the men have deployed.
The women and the children wait, they cope in different ways. The men on deployment cope in their ways also; the homecoming can be bittersweet, challenging.
These are personal stories, not political. The tone is straightforward, the stories are compelling. They put a human face on the news stories.
You Know When the Men are Gone
During my youth I frequently went to Grand Rapids with my family so we could see my very fine uncle, aunt, and cousins. Since I have many happy memories of those visits, I was attracted to this book that includes approximately 50 two- and three-page stories about the city. Originally appearing in Grand Rapids Magazine, these are called in the subtitle 'pieces of Furniture City history.' One would expect to find some things about former President Gerald Ford and Sen. Arthur H. Vandenberg, and they are there, but there are also many accounts of business, recreation, transportation, and social life. I was pleased to see a reference to the now-defunct Kelvinator plant on Clyde Park Ave. because my eighth grade class from here in Kalamazoo went there on a field trip to see refrigerators being made. The many black-and-white photographs add to the appeal of this book.
Grand times in Grand Rapids : pieces of Furniture City history