Book Reviews All Over the Place!

I’ve been reading a whole variety of books lately, both to myself and to my kindergartner Lydia.

We Need to Talk by Celeste Headlee

A radio host and expert interviewer tells us “how to have conversations that matter” in this book that has a lot of good advice but might have worked better as a shorter article.  It’s somewhat repetitive and feels “padded,” and I kept wishing there was an outline for easy reference to the most important points.

So, here are the basic ideas I thought were most helpful, and if you want to know more about them, you’ll read the book or watch the TED Talk on which it was based!

  • Using facts to respond to emotion makes the emotional person feel ignored because his feelings haven’t been heard.
  • When someone tells you about her loss or struggle, and you respond with a story of your own loss or struggle, that’s not empathy.  It can feel like a competition for “who had it worse.”
  • Repeating criticism makes it seem harsher, even if it’s fairly mild and you’re also saying positive things.

Sins of the Fathers by Ruth Rendell

Reverend Archery’s son wants to marry a brilliant, beautiful young woman he met at university–but her biological father was hanged for murdering his employer sixteen years ago.  Reverend Archery visits the village where it happened and insists that Chief Inspector Wexford reconsider the case.

Wexford remembers all about this, the very first homicide on which he directed the investigation.  He’s certain that the right man was convicted.  This annoying vicar is just grasping at straws instead of facing his un-Christian prejudice against a girl who shouldn’t be judged by her father’s actions!  But when that girl’s childhood playmate causes a fatal car accident and Reverend Archery develops an extramarital crush, pieces begin to fall into place telling a very different story!

This 1967 mystery includes some very dated ideas, but it’s still an exciting story of what you might see when you turn a new light on the facts.  I read it right after The Forgotten Garden [reviewed here] to remind myself that a twisty story of complex characters across multiple time periods can be told more effectively in half as many pages!  Speaking of which . . .

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

This also is a story of complex characters across multiple time periods that is not too long for what it does relatively effectively.  It’s a good novel, but because it’s also a mystery I ended up being annoyed that the plot twists were too ordinary.  The one I really didn’t see coming was so logical that I felt stupid for not seeing the clues.

First we are presented with case histories of three unrelated girls: Olivia was three years old when she disappeared from a backyard tent where she was sleeping with her sister.  Laura was eighteen when she was stabbed to death by an intruder in the office on her first day of work.  Tanya was a baby when her mother ax-murdered her father.  Now, 10 to 34 years after each of these events, we’ll see how things worked out for the people left behind and see if Jackson, the private investigator who also lost a girl from his family, can find Olivia or Tanya.

This is a much better book than Behind the Scenes at the Museum [reviewed here] but nowhere near as amazing as Life After Life [here] by the same author.  Stephen King apparently said Case Histories was the best mystery of the 2000s, which makes me think he doesn’t read a lot of mysteries, or at least he missed Tana French.

Reading People by Anne Bogel

Anne Bogel is Modern Mrs. Darcy, whose blog I’ve been reading for many years.  One of her many interests is personality classification schemes, and in this book she explains how the general concept that there’s more than one kind of personality helps us to understand those situations in which another person behaves in a way that seems not to make any sense.

Instead of endorsing one particular personality test as the key to everything, she explores 8 different schemes and what we can learn from each of them.  Some are better for the workplace, some for romantic relationships, some for parents and children.  Looking at your own personality in different ways can really enhance your understanding of why certain things are so difficult for you while other things that come naturally to you are perplexing to other people you know.

She also gives some great examples of situations in which people of different personality types can figure out how to work together.  She also gives lots of detail on her own experiences of studying her own personality and figuring out how to work with it to get things done and enjoy life more.

Henry and the Clubhouse by Beverly Cleary

I read this book at least once as a child and at least once to my first child, but it wasn’t until I read it to Lydia that I fully appreciated the important narrative of responsibility that it presents so clearly (yet subtly) and how it dovetails with Cleary’s books written from the viewpoint of Ramona Quimby.

Henry Huggins is a fifth-grader who has just started delivering newspapers.  As the youngest paper-carrier in his neighborhood, he’s anxious to prove to everyone that he is up to the responsibility.  Through a series of adventures–riding in a bathtub in the back of a truck, building a clubhouse, acquiring a stuffed owl, learning what happens if you open the washing machine during the spin cycle–Henry is constantly pulled back to the daily grind of folding papers, delivering them, collecting money, and dealing with that customer who calls him by the wrong name.  He’s repeatedly bothered by Ramona, a little neighbor kid who is always doing something weird and eventually takes to following him on his paper route.  Although Ramona’s creativity shines through, in Henry’s eyes she’s much more annoying than she appears in books where she’s the main character–and Henry can’t see how impressive he appears to Ramona, as we do in Ramona the Pest.

It all comes together when a letter to the editor earns Henry acclaim for not only his paper-delivery skills but also his good citizenship, and he realizes that Ramona played an important role.  I love the description of Henry’s feelings as the letter is read aloud to all the paper-carriers.

NOTE: This book is one in which, when reading aloud, I edit some of the words to reduce sexism.  In 1962, “paperboys” delivered newspapers; in the story, they’re all boys.  But I said “paper-carrier” a lot of the time, when that’s what was meant and their sex didn’t matter.  I don’t know how much of a difference it makes to my little girl now or my little boy in the past, but it feels better to me.

Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein

The author of several books about girls in American culture interviewed about 70 female college students and college-bound high school students about their experiences of sex and sexual attitudes.  What she learned is interesting but mostly depressing, with some hope for the future but also some weird gaps in the topics she addressed.

Issues of consent, clothing choices, sexting, and sexual orientation are thoroughly explored, with interesting perspective on how the Internet and societal awareness of sexual harassment have changed things, and how they haven’t.  It soon becomes clear that many of the issues girls-becoming-women struggle with today are almost the same as they were when I was that age three decades ago.  (Orenstein is 12 years older than I am, and it sounds like things were different when she was that age.)

The most depressing part is the attitude the majority of the girls take toward their own private parts and sexual pleasure.  Only a few girls talk about “liking my vagina,” masturbating, or expecting that they will get as much pleasure out of a sexual encounter as their partner does.  The rest of them feel a vague shame about “down there” and have experienced sex mostly as a sort of obligation.

One thing conspicuously missing from this book is any discussion of the individual girls’ experiences with contraception or pregnancy.  Every mention of contraception other than condoms, and every mention of abortion, is in the book’s discussion of politics and sex-ed programs and societal attitudes.  Orenstein appears not to have asked the girls about their own experience getting access to contraception, deciding which method to use, learning to use it properly, dealing with side effects, or deciding what to do if it fails.  Given that most adults’ biggest concern about girls having sex is that they could get pregnant, and that in my experience contraception was a major issue inextricably connected to teen sexual activity, this is a startling omission.

She wraps up with observations of an excellent sex-ed program teaching teens (both sexes) about consent and the importance of female pleasure.  I completely agree with her conclusion that girls need and deserve more information from their parents about their bodies, their right to expect pleasure, and how healthy relationships work.

I’d add that kids need to be taught that it’s possible to enjoy college without any involvement in the Greek system.  I was shocked by how heavily this book focused on sorority girls who “have to” spend big chunks of every week getting drunk as they put on their sluttiest clothes to go out and get drunker at fraternity parties and “hook up” with someone.  That’s hardly the only option for college social life!!!  Any university worth attending has other social organizations that don’t force you to drink to have friends.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

The comedian who now hosts “The Daily Show” was born in South Africa to a black mother and a white father who intentionally conceived him even though apartheid made it illegal for them ever to live together or be seen together in public.  He had a unique experience as the outlier in every group, and that combines with his explanations of life in South Africa during and after apartheid–and before, during, and after his mother’s relationship with his abusive stepfather–to create a fascinating collection of essays with some very funny moments in between the shocks and tragedies.

I always thought of apartheid as a system of two castes: whites and blacks.  Noah explains that in fact, South Africa also had a caste of “colored” people created by early unions of European immigrants with native Africans before that became illegal, and apartheid separated the coloreds from both the whites and the blacks.  Also, people of Indian ancestry formed another separate group.  Also, the blacks were divided into many subgroups, each with its own tribal language, and were discouraged from learning languages to communicate outside their tribe.  What a mess!

Noah’s stories of race, daily life, and youthful exploits in DJ-ing, crime, and romance are extremely entertaining.  He gives plenty of credit to his mother for raising him to push the boundaries and get out there to experience all life has to offer.  This book really pulls you along while teaching you and making you think.  I’ll read it again and again!

The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis

Daniel and I had mixed feelings about reading this book of the Narnia series to Lydia–because of the lurking racism in its depiction of the “bad” country as a place of dark skin and Middle Eastern-like customs, and the higher-level moral arguments of the plot–but she loved it so much that she insisted on hearing a complete reading by each parent.

Shasta has always suspected that the man who acts as his father is not, because they don’t look anything like each other.  Life in Calormen is unpleasant, but he’s never known anything else.  When he overhears his father planning to sell him as a slave to a traveler spending the night in their home, Shasta decides to run away, and the traveler’s horse Breehy-hinny-brinny-hoohy-hah (who grudgingly accepts being called Bree for short–one of Lydia’s favorite scenes) turns out to be both able to talk and happy to run away with him.  They meet a girl and her talking horse, on the run for different reasons, and travel together toward Narnia, having many adventures with politicians, lions, and a spoiled rich girl. I love the part where they learn the truth about all the lions.

Read other writers’ book reviews at Show Us Your Books and Quick Lit!

2 thoughts on “Book Reviews All Over the Place!

  1. Pingback: The Forgotten Garden and books I’m going to read in 2020 | The Earthling's Handbook

  2. I like the sound of both The Sins of the Fathers and Case Histories. Thanks for sharing – I hadn’t heard of them before. Enjoy your month 🙂

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