Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids

by Kim John Payne with Lisa M. Ross

A how-to book on relieving stress from families, kids and parents alike. The key to Payne’s approach is simplifying, or filtering: less stuff, fewer toys, limited electronics, limited or no television, less news and adult drama in children’s lives, a greatly reduced schedule (one competitive sport, or one musical instrument, not everything at once). Payne argues that open, unstructured time is best for kids – time for them to be in charge of creative projects, time for them to discover themselves, or time for calm family connections. He posits that when kids have fewer options, they are freed from the stress of always wanting the next big thing, and come to appreciate the connections with the things they do have. He advocates ritual and routine to remove stress: a family dinner plan, for example, so kids know what to expect about food and parents don’t have to prepare at the last minute. Finally, regarding discipline, he advocates less speech – don’t drown your kids in endless narrative, choices, or questions, but offer simple instructions, and be there as a listener in return.

This is a pretty good book for its type. It’s written in a conversational, approachable style that occasionally borders on the meandering. He’s a zealot, but he doesn’t have a hectoring tone. His advice, of course, is good, though it doubtlessly comes as a shock to many parents in our consumerist, competitive culture. I’m reminded of a Buddhist precept: accept what can’t be changed; don’t chase happiness, because once you’ve attained it you’ll just want something else to make you happy. At times, Payne’s zealotry makes him claim some rather implausible things (kids today have PTSD because of their hectic schedules? Just start going to the park, and neighborhood kids will drop their PS3s and follow you as “word gets through the neighborhood grapevine”? Really?), but it is well-intentioned. Sure, as with most of these parenting books, the advice really just boils down to “Stop trying to please your kid, and be a parent!” Stop pleading with your child, and direct him. Why anyone would want to spend an hour every evening arguing with a four year old about eating or going to sleep is beyond me, but a lot of people seem to need to be told not to. So good for Payne for that. 

three stars

Friday, May 25, 2012

Service With a Smile

by P.G. Wodehouse

Not all is well at Blandings Castle, where Clarence, ninth Earl of Emsworth, is plagued by an officious secretary, Lavender Biggs, who plots for bigger things; his quarrelsome sister, Constance; and the windbag Duke of Dunstable, a self-invited guest who wants to steal Emsworth’s prize pig to sell to a rival (or back to Emsworth himself, if he must).  Add to this that a curate is staying at the castle under false pretenses to be with his beloved, a millionaire’s daughter whom Constance has no intention of letting marry a curate; and the Duke’s nephew, a nice fellow who just needs a thousand pounds to settle down with his girl, and not Myra, whom he has inadvertently gotten engaged to as well.  It takes a bit of dissimulation and plotting from the always affable, unflappable Frederick, Earl of Ickenham, to get everyone, or nearly everyone, a happy ending (“there is always apt to be trouble when you start spreading sweetness and light,” he muses.  “You find there isn’t enough to go around and someone has to be left out of the distribution”).

This is a fine Emerson and Uncle Fred story, a little light entertainment with the typical madcap scenarios and whirlwind semi-solutions.  I never think that these stories approach the polished genius of Bertie and Jeeves (and this one doesn’t even have the Efficient Baxter, whose presence as a foil to Emsworth helps greatly).  Still, it’s a fun romp in typical Wodehouse style.

four stars

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Cut

by George Pelecanos

Iraq vet Spero Lucas, living in DC, makes money doing jobs for a defense attorney.  He also runs a side business recovering stolen property.  When a weed dealer asks him to recover some stolen packages worth a hundred grand each, Lucas gets on the case.  Two dead hustlers later, Lucas realizes that this case involves dirty cops and some bad guys willing to murder to keep the money flowing, and they know who he is.  Relying on his training, some vet buddies, and a deep-seated, barely-formulated rage at injustice, Lucas makes sure someone pays, and he gets his cut.

This was a terrific, suspenseful page-turner.  Pelecanos is a writer on the ultra-realistic street series “The Wire” and “Treme,” and there’s a lot of street cred in these pages.  Pelecanos doesn’t shy away from race issues, and he knows the gritty details of seemingly everything: every street in DC and all the little details of street life, from ammunition to the clothes kids covet, and music, from the Stones to the Hold Steady down to some very obscure bands.  I made a rather smarmy remark about Christianity precluding gritty realism when I reviewed the appallingly bad Midnight Rambler, but Pelecanos makes his anti-hero Lucas a man of quiet faith, if loose morals, raised in the Greek Orthodox church, so… that showed me, I guess.  I did find one scene in the book, in which Lucas is attacked with a knife (instead of a gun) by a professional killer who has absolutely no reason to give Lucas this chance to win, to be a jarring misstep compared to the rest, in which Pelecanos plays the danger straight.  And the endings, that is, the separate resolutions of three or four loose ends, are supremely satisfying.

four stars

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50

by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot

The author, a professor of sociology at Harvard, uses forty detailed oral case studies of people – all educated, successful, and financially secure – between the ages 50 and 75 to delineate the new ways of learning such people develop.  She argues that people in this age range (which she calls the “Third Chapter”) is undergoing a slow cultural reorientation, from being thought of as a time of quiet retirement and seclusion to an active, giving, creative reengagement.  It is also characterized by a painful process of reexamining priorities and experiencing the tension of contradictory impulses: the need to confront old ghosts vs. the need to “give forward” to the next generation; the lettering go of formal school skills vs. the embrace of a new, collaborative, public way of learning; the desire to accomplish something with the few years left vs. the realistic acceptance that success come slowly, through failure; etc.

It’s an interesting assessment; though I’m not a Third Chapter denizen yet, I found some degree of inspiration and optimism from the case studies (retirees going to work in war zones, public gardens, throwing themselves into new fields like piano and acting).  I have some minor cavils, such as repeated misspellings (“peak” for “peek” – not a huge deal, but in an academic work like this, these errors erode the author’s credibility).  And although Lawrence-Lightfoot’s authorial voice is warm and sincere, the prose is rather turgid and prolix the way such academic essays tend to be: the introduction which repeats main points given in the chapter, the conclusion which re-repeats those points; the tendency to paraphrase and quote someone (“he feels fortunate (‘truly blessed’)”… - why both?).  My major objections to the argument, however, are that (a) it uses a small sample of privileged people to make generalizations about reengagement at this stage of life – which the author acknowledges; (b) it ends by advocating a massive overhaul of our cultural mores and assumptions about the elderly, our education system, and inter-generational collaboration – which is not helpful for those wishing a practical guide to reengagement; and (c) I wonder if this “new way of learning” isn’t particular to the Third Chapter, or any age group, but anyone going through any transition, really.

three stars

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury

by Sigrid Nunez

The fictionalized biography of Mitz, a marmoset owned by Leonard Woolf, from about the end of the Bloomsbury era to the outbreak of WWII.  Mitz is a mischievous, chattering observer to the Woolfs’ devoted, if a bit Victorian, relationship; their sometimes haughty relationship with their servants and printing press staff; Virginia’s odd adoration of her sister and Vita Sackville-West (who was certainly her literary inferior); their 1935 tour of Europe, including a rather misguided drive through Nazi Germany; Virginia’s breakdown over writing The Years; conversations with T.S. Eliot and others on every topic under the sun; Virginia’s ruminations on war in the face of her nephew volunteering, and dying, in Spain.

It’s a well-crafted novella, certainly informative about certain aspects of the Woolfs’ lives and attitudes.  There are a few awkward narrative choices, as when Nunez flashes to the present day to no particular purpose (“In our own day the eminent critic Harold Blood would find a place for her…”), which are  misplaced and confusing.  And Nunez assumes a great deal of Woolfian knowledge in the reader, mentioning “Vita” and “Tom Eliot” without much in the way of explanation; I know she’s writing as if from within the circle, but it’s doesn’t fully capture the atmosphere if we aren’t clued in to who this “Tom” fellow might be (some sort of Catholic playwright, one might assume).  I also found the penultimate flashback chapter, in which nothing particularly surprising is added to Mitz’s fictional past, quite unnecessary.  But as noted, it is a well-crafted book on the whole, and a light, fun read.  Most importantly, in showing them as pet lovers, friends, spouses, talking and laughing and worrying about war and work, it helps bring human faces to the often crudely-sketched (lesbian, haughty, bipolar) Leonard and Virginia Woolf.

four stars

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Midnight Rambler

by James Swain

Jack Carpenter, ex-cop infamous for brutally beating a serial torture-killer (Simon Skell, the Midnight Rambler of the title), has become a private investigator who helps find missing children.  When the body of one of Skell’s victim’s is uncovered, evidence points to another killer and Skell goes free.  Immediately, Carpenter and Melinda Peters, whose evidence put him away, are in deadly peril.

Uh… I really could not believe how hilariously bad this book is.  It’s just really, amazingly poorly written.  I was amazed to find that Swain is not a young upcoming author, nor this his first book; he’s an award-winning, middle-aged fellow with seven previous books under his belt!

But where to begin about how ridiculously out of touch and cartoonishly silly this supposedly gritty, hard-boiled book is?  That there is a wide circle of killers aiding Skell, one of whom is a successful businessman who picks his victims (young prostitutes) from fast food drive through cameras?  Young and beautiful prostitutes, mind you, with cell phones and cars; no one would miss such people!  That Carpenter is such a moron he, the experienced child abduction recovery expert, is flummoxed as to why the kidnapers would have spray paint on them (to color the kid’s shoes, obviously)?  That every single case Carpenter is called to in this book relates somehow to Skell (what luck!)?  That Skell, supposedly a smart, crafty killer, would immediately come for the witness and cop who put him in jail, after being released very publicly?  That the villains race through public streets, shooting and fleeing the FBI, even as they are (hilariously at this point) still trying to frame Carpenter for Skell’s crimes?  That Carpenter learns that a radio host who daily excoriates him is (of course) part of this prostitute kidnapping cartel, and learns this from a couple of random illegal workers who are putting up a billboard (the host’s past is clearly known by cops and newsmen, but Carpenter doesn’t know it about his most public enemy, although these blue collar aliens do, for some reason)?  There's a thousand preposterous bits and major plot points like these.  Swain is a Christian, and the book has an explicitly Christian undertone, so maybe he is incapable of writing a realistically gritty tale, I don't know.  He’s certainly capable of writing an utterly moronic sentence like “she had the sympathy of one who had raised kids,” though (as if parents cannot be unsympathetic, or even evil!).  Or this hilariously unaware howler of a passage: “‘What if you are killed?’  ‘Best not to think that way.’  ‘But what if you are?’  I hadn’t weighed that option,” the narrator (ex-cop, gritty private eye) muses.  This is easily the worst book I’ve read in many years.  I actually finished it just because it was so unintentionally hilarious.