Bird by Bird

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott

I read this a while ago while visiting my parents, but I talked to both of them about it so I didn't feel as compelled to blog it right away. Basically, it was a well-written book about writing by an accomplished author, but now I don't want to read her other works.

The author has really practical advice about getting past all those voices in your head telling potential authors not to write. She tells us how to get past all that baggage, and just write. You can be perfect later, or write about the history of epic subjects, or become world famous published author, but for now, just write. Not bad advice for life in general, whether you want to be an author or not.

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time,
was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three
months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at
our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the
kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder
paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized
by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside
him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by
bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.

Lamott has wisdom to pass on, but now I don't want to read her noted memoir, "Travelling Mercies." It's about her religious conversion but it's not the God that I know. The most annoying example is how she refers to God is "she," which is not only specifically NOT how God identifies Himself, but it's a cliched affectation as well.

I enjoy writing, but I don't want to be a "writer," at least not this stage in my life. Right now I'd just be happy keeping up with the laundry. But if or when I do decide to take it seriously, I'll reread this book. If you can get past the author, this book has great information on learning the craft of writing. Just take it "bird by bird..."

The Best Baby Books

Monday, November 10, 2008

I have been surrounded by babies lately, not to mention my own incubating right now. (I'm at 20 weeks right now--halfway through!) With that in mind, I thought I'd share my thoughts about baby books. I have some strong opinions, as you'll see below....

I spent most of my pregnancy reading and researching all things baby. At one point, I had to cut myself off because I was reading too much and stressing out. I don't want my anxiety to be wasted, so here are some highlights of what I found. When you have a baby, you don't want your precious free time spent reading mediocre books.

First: avoid What to Expect When You're Expecting. I think it's over-rated. I had to stop reading it because I was starting to freak out about all the risks, complications, and possible nutritional deficiencies. I much preferred Your Pregnancy Week by Week. It's written by doctors and is much more reasonable. Plus, the readings are divided into weekly sections, instead of monthly, so the information is more digestible.

Second: avoid Babywise. What a terrible book, especially for someone claiming to be a Christian author: bad science, outrageous claims, faulty reasoning, no footnotes or references, and at one point, I had no idea who the author of one chapter was. Despite being so frustrating, I still read it twice, once before Violet was born and again when I was pulling my hair out because she wasn't sleeping. There is good information in there, but you have to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Okay, I'm done being mean. Here are the books I recommend:

The Baby Book, by the Sears family. This is the authority on attachment parenting, which is a child-focused parenting style. It was a total contrast with Babywise, which was very much focused on the parents. While I disagree philosophically with the Sears' worldview, they give practical ways to love your child and give him security. I thought the sections on nutrition, babywearing, feeding babies and toddlers, and developmental stages were especially helpful.

A good compromise between the above two books is Secrets of the Baby Whisperer, which despite its goofy title, is very good. It's a compassionate view of babies (who need their parents to be their advocate), while emphasizing their need for structure, routine, and familiarity. I wish I had read it before I had Violet, as I think it would have reduced some of my earlier mis-steps.

So who should be the focus of your parenting? The cheesy answer is to say "Jesus! We should focus our parenting on Jesus!" But it's true. To that end, I highly recommend Shepherding a Child's Heart, by Paul Tripp. The point of discipline isn't to merely change behavior, and the point of Christian parenting isn't to get your child to pray the sinner's prayer. Our goal is to produce adults who love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and their neighbor as themselves. The book is soaked with Scripture, and Tripp has really practical applications of what shepherding might look like during different stages of childhood. I am planning on re-reading it soon, because I feel like I need all the direction I can get during these toddler years.

And here's a super practical book: Signing Smart with Babies and Toddlers. I can't recommend it enough. A hearing-impaired coworker gave it to me, and I love it. Unlike other books, which tend to just focus on simplistic vocabulary, it teaches you how to initiate conversations with your child and invite him to interact with his world. I think Violet uses about 30 signs and it is so helpful, for both of us.

I hope this helps, if you were looking for some baby books. Babies are so amazing--enjoy your little one!

Tender at the Bone

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Tender at the Bone, by Ruth Reichl

I read Reichl's Garlic and Saphires a few years ago and really enjoyed it, and I finally got around to trying her earlier writing. I woke up hungry around midnight this week, so I got some food and started reading this book. I finished my snack, and then finished the book! It's 282 pages, and I read it all in one night. That's how much I enjoyed it.

Reichl is not only a foodie with serious street cred, but also an excellent writer. As one Amazon review said, "Ruth writes with all her senses." This book isn't so much about the food itself, but used food to explain the times, the places, and the people. She included recipes at the end of each chapter which added dimension to the story.

Essentially this is a coming-of-age story from the sixties and seventies, but don't let that scare you off: this one is actually good. Reichl's mother was manic-depressive who totally ignored food safety rules. Growing up, Reichl felt compelled to protect the family's guests from her mother's moldy dishes, which evolved into a love of good food. Her WASP-y upbringing was completely skewed because of her mother, who would do things like drop her off without warning at a French-Canadian Catholic boarding school, "so you can learn a second language!" She had went to college as far away from her family as she could, and did things like visit Tunisia, as a newlywed she shared a NY flat with others to make rent, attended Studio 54, and lived in a California commune. At its heart, this book is about growing up in a crazy time, loving your crazy friends, trying to escape crazy family members, having crazy adventures, and yet making the decision to stay sane.

A Bell for Adano

A Bell for Adano, by John Hersey

I'm not sure. Meh. Did I miss something? Am I not very insightful? Would I have enjoyed it more if there were illustrations?

This book is set towards the end of WWII European theater. The American occupation has come to Italy, and an American major becomes the de facto mayor for the city of Adano. The people are starving, but what they want the most is their bell back. The town bell rang in the city square for 700 years, but the fascists took it and melted it down for war materiel during their retreat. An Italian-American major, who we are told is a good man but has clear flaws, restores the justice corrupted under the fascists, does what he can to get food to the people, but becomes driven to replace the bell for the people of Adano.

It was interesting reading this from a 21st century perspective. It was written in 1944, so I wasn't able to predict how the book would end. I could easily picture this in my head as a black and white movie with the stock characters. If this book were written today it would have been totally different-- the characters were a bit two-dimensional, but there was no doubt of the America's success in the war and that their good intentions would ultimately benefit the people. One can't help but make comparisons to the Iraq war, which has much more moral ambiguity surrounding it, even among people who believe it was the right thing to do. Maybe I'm left feeling conflicted over this book because I wish America today had the certainty and vision that we had 64 years ago. A lot has changed since then.

Semicolon's review here.