February 2009



“Your Three Year Old – Friend or Enemy” Louise Bates Ames, Ph.D and Frances L Ilg M.D. (1976); 151 pages- Started February 21, finished February 28.

One of my favorite child-rearing books is called “Blessing of the Skinned Knee” (which I have already read twice, so I am not going to review here– but it is terrific) and the author makes a few positive references to the  “Your __ Year Old” series.  Months ago I looked up the book on three-year-olds, and was told by the fine reviewers at Amazon that it was basically an overview of kids’ standard behavior, it is not a how-to book, and that oh, by the way, it was a bit dated.  Lately I have been thinking that it would be cool to know if all of the hilarious things that Ben does are typical for kids of his age group, and maybe get a bit of insight into what is going on in that head of his (a lot, I have learned.) And the title was just too funny, so I asked Josh to order one for me– as cheap as you can find it, I said. And lo and behold, a used copy arrived a few days later. I laughed when I saw the cover because it the kid in the picture has got to be OLDER THAN ME! Only just now, when looking to upload the image for your amusement, did I find out that there is actually a “new” edition from 1993. So when I say that yeah, this book is dated, I mean the one I read is really dated. (I know, I know–that’s what I get for having someone else doing my shopping…) But if you are interested in a series on child development, this one is fairly sensible. But I would definitely go for the editions printed more recently than 1976.

Two curious things about this book– apparently 30 years ago the only part of child-rearing involving the father was… scolding their kids at the dinner table for having poor table manners. Really, that is one of the only times men are mentioned in this book at all. (Yes, the lack-of-dad thing is incredibly annoying, but I was able to get past it… I was also relieved that at least the authors did not endorse fathers acting like jerks.)

And then, after the chapters on typical three-year-old minds, abilities, and so on, came the best chapter of all– “Stories from Real Life”, where the authors give examples of some of the letters they’ve received from parents- um, I mean mothers.  The following letter was so incredible, I have to write out the entire thing for you. Worth the price of admission, I swear.

“Dear Doctors: I have a problem of fear in a usually fearless boy who is just three. When he was about a year old we gave him a clown that rolls bath and forth with a very realistic face and eyes that roll. At first he seemed a little afraid of it, but soon he seemed happy enough. In fact, for a time he liked it so much that he carried it around. A few evenings ago we saw a TV program about a circus. There was some violence in the picture. A knife thrower was trying to kill some other man, and although he wasn’t dressed as a clown, there were clowns in the play. I don’t know if that caused it, but the next evening our son said “That clown is going to hurt me.” His daddy told him no, that the clown was just like any other dolly. This morning the first thing he said was something about the clown. I thought about burning the clown before his eyes, but perhaps that would be too dramatic. We are going to leave soon for a vacation – would it be best to take the clown along or leave it at home?”

The authors’ response was basically what you’d think… 3-year-olds shouldn’t be watching violent TV, a scary eye-rolling clown is a dubious choice for a baby toy in the first place, don’t take the clown on the vacation, etc etc, and oh yes, by the way, are you INSANE? BURNING THE CLOWN IN FRONT OF YOUR KID WOULD INDEED BE TOO DRAMATIC!!

The moral of the story– never, ever, let your kids watch violent clown programs.
(And, if you meet some frazzled guy in his late thirties who is completely terrified of clowns, it is most likely the poor child of these crazy parents.)

yiddishwater-for-elephants“The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” Michael Chabon (2007) 411 pages, started January 22, abandoned February 14

“Water for Elephants” Sara Gruen (2007); 335 pages- Started February 14, finished February 20.

I suppose when working (or um, attempting to work) on a project like this, its an important thing to know when to cut your losses. And that is exactly what I had to do last week. I actually like Michael Chabon just fine, and started one of his recent works for a book group that was going to meet on Feb 8. But I should have known better. A few years ago I read “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” and it took me no less than 6 months. On again, off again, until finally I mustered the time and determination needed to complete the novel. Although I ultimately liked it, I just cannot read Chabon quickly. And after weeks of reading just a few pages at a time of “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” (and a week after the book discussion, after which I became newly determined…) I decided to call it quits. I thought that the writing was good– although I don’t always see what the fuss is about with Chabon– but his ability to create a scene, and in this case, an entire alternate universe– is incredible. No doubt he is talented, and most of the fellow-readers in my book group enjoyed it. Maybe I’ll pick it up again after the completion of this experiment…  but for now, I just had to stop before it completely derailed my goal.

Speaking of which, even without the Chabon problem, things aren’t going all that great on the 50-books project. The distraction of a new season of TV is not helping matters (American Idol, Lost and Big Love seem to be taking up a disproportionate amount of time these days) but I refuse to give up. The novel “Water for Elephants” had been on my list since before the summer, and I had a feeling it was going to be what I needed to get back on track. And it was terrific. A quick read, but well-told and compelling. An old man reflects on his time spent in the circus during the depression, and tells the tale of wild adventures while traveling with the Benzini Brothers Spectaular Show on Earth. This novel is a gripping love-story, and fascinating, well-researched look at life “on a show”. The life he describes– and this novel itself– is often exciting but also very sad. Anything told from the perspective of a ninety-three year old is guaranteed to make me cry, but I’m pleased to report that I remained strong; the waterworks didn’t kick in until the last few pages. (Compare this with my recent viewing of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, which had me in tears for at least the last third of the film; even weeks later just thinking about that movie and I start to well up…)

One last thought… I have purposely tried to select books that skip around from genre to genre, but as I catalog all the books I’ve read, it is quickly becoming obvious how connected they all are. Completely by accident, the two novels I’ve read most recently are depression-era coming-of-age tales. Strange coincidence, no? Actually not– most people probably wouldn’t categorize “Water for Elephants” anywhere near “To Kill a Mockingbord”, but when you read them back to back, certain similarities start to emerge. There was a great line in the MFK Fisher book that I read a few weeks ago about how when you become newly aware of something/someone, you start noticing references to that thing or person everywhere. And so it is with many of the books I’ve covered so far– little bits of one keep reminding me of the others.

mockingbird1“To Kill a Mockingbird” Harper Lee (1960); 284 pages.

Started January 5,  finished January 20.

It is almost embarassing that I hadn’t already read this. Especially because I live in Alabama, know relatives of Harper Lee, and have had a paperback copy of this novel accompany me on at least half a dozen trips in the past 8 years. But something else always jumped ahead in the queue. Finally, a few weeks ago, I decided it was finally time. So I started…. and got sidetracked by a bunch of projects, including planning a big inauguration day party. But when Josh went to DC I was able to read until 1 am without getting in reprimanded, and in two nights, I read three-quarters of the book. I’m betting you already know what this is about… a brave girl and her brother come of age in small-town, depression-era Alabama. They witness their brilliant and good-hearted lawyer father (the famous Atticus Finch) defend a black man accused of attempted rape. It is a grim picture indeed of race relations in the south. (And alas, I can attest that even almost 50 years after the book was published, things are still from perfect here.) I didn’t purposely complete the novel on Jan 20, but it did feet good to finish it, then go turn on the news, and know that Harper Lee was watching too.