February 10: Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides. A novel with a very strange plot: the protagonist Cal has a rare genetic condition (thanks to multiple generations of inbreeding, including grandparents who were brother and sister), resulting in Cal being raised as a girl until the discovery that he is actually male at age 15. In part the novel is also the story of Cal's family and of their hometown Detroit, which lets Eugenides dive into topics like the Armenian Genocide, the Nation of Islam, silk-spinning and booze smuggling during Prohibition. I really enjoyed this book: despite its length it moves along at a brisk clip, with no boring parts or unnecessary padding: and despite its bizarre plot twists it never feels sensational or unbelievable. If you are interested in transsexuals or intersex individuals, this is not the book to read (it gives a rather misleading picture and has been protested against by various transsexual-aligned organizations: but as a novel what a story. Grade: A.
February 25: How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm: And Other Adventures in Parenting, Mei-Ling Hopgood. A book about how parenting practices vary across cultures, inspired by the Michigan-raised (genetically Taiwanese) author's experiences bringing up a toddler in Argentina. Obviously this is something I have a lot of interest in (since I am also bringing up a toddler in a foreign country), and not surprisingly I liked the book. It is a light, easy read with many cool factoids about how much parenting varies globally (kind of the book version of Babies). It's pretty short on any in-depth analysis or more nuanced consideration of childraising practices (like why cultures make the choices that they do, or what the results of these choices might be). I still found it thought-provoking, if only as evidence of how much parenting varies by culture. Grade: B+.
February 26: Between Parent and Child: The Bestselling Classic That Revolutionized Parent-Child Communication, Haim G. Ginott. When R was younger, I felt that all my parenting dilemmas were pretty well addressed by Burton White: but his books are designed for the parents of very young children (realistically, under age 2 or so). Now that R is older and has at least the beginnings of reason and logic, I need some new advice. So far I've been most interested in learning how to communicate effectively with her, particularly in regards to increasing her emotional intelligence and awareness of her own mental states (I hadn't realized this before, but knowing what your own feelings are is in fact a learned skill).
This book, by a famous psychologist, is about two things: how to communicate with your child effectively (for example, being able to tell your child you are displeased with their behavior without hurting their feelings or starting a chain of negative behaviors), and how to discipline children properly (in the sense of "teach" rather than "punish"). The concepts described are very interesting and thought-provoking, and many of the suggestions are highly practical. Defects: it is written rather awkwardly, it's rather repetitive, and there is no actual evidence that any of it is true (everything being purely anecdotal from the author's experience as a child psychiatrist). I would have liked a bit more rigor. Grade: B.
February 27: An Artist of the Floating World, Kazuo Ishiguro. I love this author and his writing style, and this book was no exception. Beautiful, melancholy exploration of regret: the protagonist is a well-known artist of the 1930s who decided to devote his talents to the Japanese war machine out of idealism (via the creation of propaganda). The book itself is set in the early 1950s after its total collapse, when the human cost, tragic waste, and human rights abuses of that regime have become apparent. The protagonist reviews his life and reflects on the choices he's made (and how they have injured others, both personal friends and society in general). Really great. Grade: A.