November 15: Positive Discipline, Jane Nelsen. Very thought provoking parenting book. Despite the title, it's actually about NOT disciplining your children. Nelsen believes all misbehavior is simply an attempt by children to meet their needs, so the way to react to a misbehaving child is to find out what they are trying to accomplish, and then coach them into gaining their objective in a more productive/socially acceptable fashion. Punishment is therefore counter-productive and even cruel. I really enjoyed it, and overall agree with Nelsen's concepts. They do require a very high (unrealistically, IMO) level of emotional intelligence, control and self-knowledge on the part of parents, so it is probably not a method for everyone (especially because adopting the method without the associated psychological skills will just mean producing horribly spoiled children). Grade: A-.
November 20: Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential and Endangered, Maia Szalavitz and Bruce Perry. By a renowned child psychologist, this book is a fascinating exploration of empathy: how it develops, why it's important, and how things can go wrong (examples drawn from the author's patients, including psychopaths, juvenile murderers, compulsive liars and the like). It's also rather disturbing, both for the descriptions of abysmal parenting practices, and because after you read it you will see milder versions of the same everywhere you go. An excellent argument in favor of mandatory parenting classes. Grade: A.
November 30: Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, Barry Estabrook. I have always disliked the taste of raw tomatoes: this book explains why. Almost all American supermarket tomatoes are produced in the same environmentally wasteful, exploitative (both of the land and the farm workers) fashion, where taste is an unimportant consideration (durability, appearance and productivity being chosen instead). The book is best when it focuses directly on tomatoes; unfortunately Estabrook gets sidetracked onto a discussion of tomato labor practices. He has no expertise or real understanding of the issues involved there, and it shows, rending this section more propaganda than interesting journalism. Grade: B-.
December 5: The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts, Gary Chapman. I reviewed it here. Grade: B.
December 24: Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors, Nicholas Wade. Explains how the findings of genetics can shed light on human history, in particular on the distant past: for instance, how humans became a distinct species, when we began to speak, when we left Africa, and how that dispersal took place. It is strictly science-based, so not for those with an agenda (religious or otherwise): evolution is a fact, as is the existence of races, humans have a long history of genocide and cannibalism, and evolution continues today, as crucial to our species' development as ever. Well written and fascinating reading. Grade: A+.
December 29: Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find and Keep Love, Amir Levine and Rachel Heller. An application of the theories of attachment in children (a topic which fascinates me) to adult relationships. I was really intrigued by the concept; unfortunately, the book is dreadful. It reads like a cheesy self help book, is very repetitive (really only enough information for a magazine article), and is surprisingly judgmental (the authors are borderline insulting to an entire category of people). Grade: D.
January 5: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot. Cells taken from a poor black woman dying of cancer in the 1950s, without her knowledge or consent, turned out to be "immortal", the first human cells capable of being grown in a laboratory. Their existence made possible countless scientific breakthroughs, including the development of the polio vaccine. It's a fascinating and highly readable exploration of medical ethics, cell biology, and medical history. Skloot also describes the history of the family of Henrietta Lacks after the cells were taken (which includes pages of her personal experiences with them), which is not nearly as interesting, and suffers considerably from author bias. Still a great read. Grade: B+.
January 6: How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Paul Tough. I heard about this book from an episode of This American Life (which is great: go listen!). The book is not as good as the episode but still worth a read. Note that it is NOT a parenting book, and does not provide any practical tips, despite the rather "how-to" title. Grade: B.