Year in Review–Books

I set a goal to read 30 books this year…I ended up with 33.

I’ll give you my top five for both fiction and nonfiction–and give a few nods to some audiobooks–and give you the full list in case you’re interested.So. Here goes nothin’.Top Five Fiction:

The Help. I mean really. Who DIDN’T love this book? I loved it for so many reasons. Stockett’s story and her incredible use of voice for starters. It also reminded me of my own experiences of growing up in the South with black women involved in my care as a young child. And it made me think of Mom. This book quickly skyrocketed to the top of my all-time favorites.

Faking It. This one was a surprise and a little bit of a guilty pleasure. But I also found myself on the pages of this book. What started as a semi-guilty pleasure chicklit type book quickly became a bit of self-discovery. Whether that happens to be true for you as you read this book, I highly recommend it.

The Faithful Spy. Alex Berenson was a new author to me. He has a protagonist who is aspy set in the present day, dealing with current events. In this one, the question is whether the leading man–who started as a US spy going deep cover with the Taliban–is still on our side or whether he has joined theirs. I’m looking forward to the next few books.

Georgia Bottoms. Another book set in the South. One that also deals with race and more recent attitudes about the differences between what it means to be black and white in this part of the country. It was charming with some really great wit and a couple of twists by the end.

The Marching Season. I am a big fan of Daniel Silva’s books–and especially his Michael Osbourne story line. This may have been the last of the Osbourne story, though it’s left open for more. I’m certainly hoping for more. In the mean time, I’ll be catching up on Silva’s other main protagonist, Gabriel Allon.

Clearly my fictional themes for the year were Southern Lit and Spies. I did read some big time books and award winners…and I listened to some really great fiction. Those are coming up…but first….

Top Five Nonfiction:

Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born. Wow. This was a surprising read–both because of the information included and for the way it read so easily. If you are interested in reproduction and what that process means for women…in all its glory, this is a good read. If you’re pregnant, trying to be, or considering it, it’s a good one for you, too.

The Purity Myth. I ended up reading this as part of a series of books on varying views on sex–partly for my own professional reading but also because I was prepping for a “purity” event for some adolescent girls at church. If you know me, “purity” isn’t my thing. (And, for the record, I did read a variety of viewpoints.) I appreciated this book for the way it addressed how our culture (including religion) views sex and what that means for men and women and our collective sexuality. Yes, Valenti is a feminist, so you should be prepped for that. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it a look.

Health at Every Size. I stumbled on this one thanks to a friend who posted a link about it on Facebook. And it was cheap on Kindle, so I thought I’d give it a shot. In some ways I’m glad I did. This book reminds us all that health is–or at least should be–our ultimate priority. So we should be taking care of our bodies so they will take care of us. This book also reminds us to consider the sources of our recommendations regarding food, weight, and activity. It also reminded me that we may not all look as healthy as we actually are.

My Korean Deli. This one was another pleasant surprise. It’s in the memoir category and it’s about a couple (he’s white American, she’s Korean-American) who buy a deli in New York City and give it a Korean twist–because ultimately, it’s the author’s mother-in-law who owns the joint. It’s about trying to make a go of it when you know nothing about owning a business…and the hilarious and not so funny mishaps along the way.

I Totally Meant to do That. Jane Borden is a local-ish NC native who takes off to see what life holds in NYC. Some have compared her to David Sedaris. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but her story is highly entertaining and worth a read if you like the memoir.

Audio Books:

The Girl Who Played with Fire.
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.
I finally finished this series this year, and listening to it was the way to go. Simon Vance was a master narrator for this whole series. The writing itself was amazing, as I’m sure most of you know. As the first movie has recently come out in America, I’m actually looking more forward to the movies for these books. Salander’s story is quite a good one. Whether you listen to these books or read them, you simply must take the time to read this series.

Nigh Fall. This was a John Corey book by Nelson DeMille, and it was a different way of telling a story. DeMille puts Corey into an investigation of a real life event (the 1996 crash of TWA flight 800) and provides background from all the sources. The official report was that the crash was due to mechanical failure. But there were conflicting reports…and Corey works to get to the bottom of it. It’s John Corey with his usual snark, narrated by Scott Brick who does so in a good New York brogue. Another one to get into whether you read it or listen to it.

The Full List for 2011:
Memoirs of a Geisha–Arthur Golden (I actually loved this books as well–which came as a surprise. But it was a fantastic story with lots of vivid detail.)
Sex God–Rob Bell
The Purity Myth–Jessica Valenti
Night Fall–Nelson DeMille
Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters–Meg Meeker
Real Sex–Lauren Winner
The Source–James Michener (otherwise known as the Damn Israel Book–I thought it would never end)
Fall to Grace–Jay Bakker
The Camel Club–David Baldacci
The Faithful Spy–Alex Berenson
Faking It–Elisa Lorello
Unsqueezed–Margot Starbuck
Annexed–Sharon Dogar
The Help–Kathryn Stockett
Room–Emma Donoghue
(surprisingly good in a twisted sort of way)
Georgia Bottoms–Mark Childress
A Visit From the Goon Squad–Jennifer Egan
(Pulitzer Prize winner; tough to read because of the style. I wish I could have appreciated it more.)
The Tiger’s Wife–Tea Obrecht
(another big time award winner; another I wish I could have appreciated more.)
The Lincoln Lawyer–Michael Connelly
(go read this if you like law fiction)
The Sweet Relief of Missing Children–Sarah Braunstein
(good and slightly disturbing)
Women, Food, and God–Geneen Roth
(if you need help with body image and/or eating habits, read this)
The Lions of Lucerne–Brad Thor
(because I need another spy novelist)
Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born–Tina Cassidy
My Korean Deli–Ben Ryder Howe
The Girl Who Played with Fire–Steig Larsson
I Totally Meant to Do That–Jane Borden
The Confessor–Daniel Silva
(Book 1 for Gabriel Allon)
Health at Every Size–Linda Bacon
(the irony of the author’s last name is not lost on me)
The Gate House–Nelson DeMille
(the sequel to The Gold Coast)
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest–Stieg Larsson
Zero Day–David Baldacci
The Marching Season–Daniel Silva
Sacrilege–Hugh Halter
(another must read…awesome and disturbing…book review to follow)

2011 in review–Blog

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog. I’d like to thank those of you who stuck with me and kept reading this year…in spite of my radio silence at times. I’m hoping there will be more blogging in 2012.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,500 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 25 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Blue Christmas

I was catching up on some blog reading just now and became acutely aware of just how…hard…Christmas is for so many. We are surrounded by…or affected ourselves by…loss and, at times, unspeakable grief. Christmas is a reminder that someone we love is no longer with us. And I’m constantly amazed at the number of people marking time at this time of year as the days leading up to and including December 25 are dates engraved on tombstones as death dates. Talk about a double whammy.

There’s a family in the midwest who are grieving the loss of a husband/father on this day, the second year after he died unexpectedly in a car accident. Black ice. Leaving behind a wife and a slew of children–many of whom were adopted. Three of whom were adopted about the same time Ryan was. From the same country.

There’s a woman in San Diego who will bake brownies tomorrow night and spend time outside writing a letter in a journal to her brother who died at the age of 22 from a heart attack. She’ll share a brownie with him and write about the year that is coming to a close. It’s how she marks the time that passes as she moves forward in her grief.

There’s been consistent news coverage in our area since Sunday night about the just-turned-21-year-old woman who was driving drunk and hit and killed a man who was a husband and father of four children. Hell. What do you say to that?

There’s the husband and daughter of a beautiful woman who died of cancer in August who will experience their first Christmas without her. I can’t say for certain, but I would imagine that Vicki did Christmas big. I can’t say for certain how her family will do this Christmas, but I firmly believe they will be surrounded by those who love them and who will share in the memory of Vicki.

And then there are those of us who may not be marking an anniversary, but we certainly have linked Christmas, in a very powerful way, with the one(s) we’ve lost. Most of us still participate in this holiday. We certainly give it our best shot. Some of us still aren’t there. But we all try to move forward, even if it means clutching the scars that remain.

Babies: Let ’em cry?

Psychology Today recently published an article on the “Dangers of ‘Crying it out.’” I saw some chatter about it on Facebook, but didn’t have time to read the article or engage the topic initially.

And then a parent asked me what I thought.

So I read the article. And I have plenty to say about it. In some places I agree. In others, not so much. If you’re interested in my thoughts, I’m going to provide a couple of caveats and then dive in. Hang on for the ride.

If psychology and research sound like blah blah blah mumbo jumbo did you suddenly lapse into Chinese, this may or may not be the post for you. You have been warned.

Caveat 1: Parenting is an INCREDIBLY hard job. It’s the hardest–and hopefully most rewarding–work people do.

Caveat 2: Every child is different. Every parent is different. You have to find the parenting practices that work for you and your child. ***Please note that ANY form of abuse or neglect is NOT a viable parenting practice.

That said, here we go.

The article was written by Darcia Narvaez, PhD. She’s an evolutionary psychologist. Although there are parts of evolutionary psych I can get behind, most of it gets dumped by most psychologists who aren’t of the evolutionary persuasion.

The article appeared in Psychology Today. Although this magazine has some good stuff at times, a practicing psychologist referring to Psychology Today as his or her first line for empirical information about…well…anything is akin to a sex therapist relying on Cosmo for advice for his or her clients. Psychology Today is not a research publication. It is neither peer reviewed nor refereed. It is a publication in pop psychology.

But let’s not diminish entirely the knowledge of Dr. Narvaez. Here’s where I (and LOTS of good, quality research that has been published in peer reviewed, refereed journals) agree:

  • Babies grow from being held. This is one of the reasons kangaroo care has been incredibly successful for premature infants.
  • Babies are not able to communicate verbally, so they gesture and, if necessary cry to get the attention of their caregivers in order to get their needs met. Once they have gotten what they need, they are calm again.
  • There ARE longterm effects of undercare or need-neglect in babies…and in children of all ages. (More on that in a minute.)
  • Secure attachment IS related to responsive parenting.
  • When a baby–or child…or adult–is stressed, cortisol is released, which can have physiological ramifications.
  • Disordered stress reactivity can be established as a long-term pattern (not necessarily for life).
  • Self-regulation can be undermined when parents don’t respond. But parents have to do a LOT of not responding for this to occur.
  • Caregiver responsiveness is related to a lot of positive child outcomes and positive adjustment.

WE CAN NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE VALUE OF POSITIVE PARENTING BEHAVIOR. These behaviors include warmth, sensitivity to your child and his or her needs, positive interactions with your child.

Narvaez cites several articles/books along the evolutionary psych lines. I didn’t look those up. What I DID spend time looking through was some of the stuff from the journal Development and Psychopathology. One article that was cited in particular is worth noting. I’ll spare you the summary I originally wrote because of its length. But here are the major take home points:

Ultimately, critics agree that our understanding of neurobiology and the effects of early experience on developmental outcomes is still new. We don’t know enough to make definitive statements. Here’s what we DO know:

  • A SIGNIFICANT amount of growth and development occurs in multiple areas of a child’s functioning in prenatal and early postnatal years.
  • These early years are likely a critical/sensitive period for children regarding the effects of exposure to toxins, nutrition and–possibly–stress.
  • If a child has some type of neurological disorder such as PKU or autism, this period seems to be a sensitive period for long-term beneficial effects of early intervention on brain development and behavior.
  • Parental mental health during this period is a significant factor regarding early brain activity and behavior in children, as well as long-term adjustment and outcomes.

Another thing we know:

  • Not every child with a good beginning winds up in a good place. Conversely, not every child with a bad beginning winds up in a bad place. There are lots of terms for these things. About the latter, it’s called resilience, folks. And determining the risk factors that detract from and protective factors that contribute to resilience is the stuff of which careers are made.

A few other issues with the Psychology Today article.

Narvaez NEVER defines “crying it out.”

  • I am not a proponent for neglect or abuse. Letting a child “cry it out” all. the. time. and never responding to his or her needs IS neglect, friends. And prolonged neglect and abuse DOES change one’s neural wiring. It DOES have long-term negative effects. Letting a two year old “cry it out” in a tantrum–assuming the child is not doing anything to intentionally harm him/herself–likely will not have long term negative effects. Letting an infant “cry it out” at bed time–assuming all other needs have been met and the child has not moved in the crib into a position that compromises safety (Thanks be for video monitors)–likely will not have long term negative effects. NEVER responding to your child who wakes up crying in the middle of the night–that’s a problem. NEVER responding to your child when he or she indicates a need–that’s a problem. Because it DOES compromise self-regulation (which children learn from primary caregivers, folks). It DOES increase cortisol, which affects neurobiology. It DOES create a long-term pattern of negative stress reactivity.

Narvaez NEVER talks about balance.

  • Let’s assume for a minute that you have an established bedtime routine with your child–which should start when they are infants. (If you DON’T have a routine, try it out and see if it makes bedtime different in some way.) Let’s assume that this routine incorporates some down-regulating of energy. It may be kicked off by bath time, followed by a soothing rubdown with that Johnson & Johnson or Aveeno nighttime lotion with the lavender smell. How about a book? A few cuddles? Then the child is put in his or her bed with maybe a back rub and a song or two. Then the parent leaves. And the child cries. The child has not compromised his or her safety. All other needs have been met. And you let the child “cry it out.” Let’s also assume that, when the child IS awake, you are positive and engaging with your child, that you meet your child’s needs as quickly as possible. That you create a warm, secure, enriching environment for your child. Is there harm in letting your child “cry it out” at bed time then?

Here’s the other thing about soothing which was NEVER mentioned. Every child is different. Every parent is different. A child’s time to soothe (i.e., the time it takes for the child to calm down) will vary by child. If your child has a difficult temperament, the experience will be more challenging for the parent who feels exhausted, incompetent, and helpless because they can’t ever soothe their own baby for crying out loud. And the parent can become less inclined to engage with the child and less inclined to soothe distress. If this continues to occur over time, it CAN lead to psychopathology (e.g., anxiety, depression, attachment difficulties) (note I did not say psychopath…as in Silence of the Lambs. We have this generic label of psychopathology for ALL disorders lumped together).

One of the leading infant researchers, T. Berry Brazelton, suggests that if parents strike a balance between letting an infant cry for a brief period (i.e., 5-10 minutes) and providing comfort, babies gradually learn to soothe themselves better.

One of the parents who discussed the Psychology Today article on the Facey Face said that she and her husband basically do just that. If the baby cries, the wait a bit, then go in, rub her back and help relocate the pacifier. The baby calms down and they can leave. Sometimes return trips are necessary. The more regularly they do this, however, the less they are having to do it at all.

I know parents who let their baby “cry it out” at bedtime, and the parents found, in the long run, that bedtime became easier over time and that the baby grew into a competent, well-adjusted child/teen/adult (raises hand). I also know parents who respond to every cry or expressed “need” at bedtime and STILL have difficulty with putting their child to bed (i.e., the child is harder to put to bed) 3, 4, 5, or more years later.

Again, this is a practice that will vary by parent. And child. And you have to find what works (within reason, folks) because SLEEP IS IMPORTANT. I cannot stress that enough. But you also have to find balance and ways to engage in positive parenting behaviors with your child(ren). Because ultimately, that’s what seems to make all the difference in the world.

Tis the Season in Which I Participate

When the question came up during Community Time a coupla weeks ago about whether you are a Scrooge, True Believer, or mere Participant when it comes to Christmas, I sensed that I’m a participant. I just couldn’t really articulate why. And then I landed on a radio station the other morning and it started up a Christmas song. One of the ones I really like. And then it occurred to me that I don’t really listen to much Christmas music…or really even get into Christmas that much anymore.I do try.

I’m the one primarily responsible for decorating (though Al does the lights on the tree), shopping for presents, and gift wrapping. I do basically all of the meal planning, cooking, and baking. I’m also the one involved in coordinating gift giving and other plans with family.

I’m right smack in the middle of it all.

Which is why I can’t be less than a participant.

But that doesn’t mean I enjoy all of it. Or most of it.

Growing up, Mom was in a group of women who got together once a month to play Bridge. Or catch up on the latest news (gossip?) from work. Or both. And everyone agreed that every December, the group was going to meet at our house. It was a combination of things, really. If you knew my mom, you knew that woman could throw down in the kitchen. If you had the opportunity to be at my house between Thanksgiving and the week after New Year, you saw the decorations that were pretty much everywhere. And the Christmas music playing most of the time. And the baking. Good Lord, the baking.

And I still really miss that. As in, I still don’t do well without that.

Certainly, it has gotten better over time. Decorating our tree this year brought back memories of decorating the tree–and even the whole house–in years past. Mom’s Southern Living cookbooks still smell like home…and I’m using one to make a breakfast casserole for an event soon. Other recipes for my holiday baking are hers, too. Others are some I acquired from two Christmases in Ukraine. And all of my people LOVE the results. Even if it sucks the life out of me to make it happen. (Baking is still a mixed bag for me. I love it and I feel connected to Mom…remembering the times I helped in the kitchen or just sat perched on our step stool, talking with Mom while she cooked and baked but staying out of the way in our small kitchen. But it does take a lot out of me.)

Of course, I can’t tell what takes my energy. The extra work I have to do to pull off Christmas in my house…the fact that it’s yet another holiday without the person who made it so special…the fact that it’s the end of another semester of school which always amps up the workload…or a combination of all of it.

Whatever it is, I still participate. Mostly because I’m participating for others. And hoping for the best when all is said and done.

Ho Ho Helicopter

On more than one occasion today, I saw an Apache helicopter flying overhead. Not an unusual occurrence for this girl who grew up near army and air force bases. But I don’t live there anymore and this town was neither home to a major military instillation nor a major threat to democracy. Most of the people who live there do think it’s the center of the universe. The rest of us just think it’s the 18th circle of hell.But I digress.

So this Apache. Kinda got me thinkin’.


I mean, can you imagine?

If that commercial is right, I get to grab Santa’s job by the balls and make Christmas happen for all of my people.

So I need an Apache to get my shopping done.

Because really. Why does Santa need that of all things? He has his own vehicle, which I’m pretty sure is a F-350. To say nothing of all the shorties who do his bidding so he NEVER has to venture out to a mall or major shopping center between November 10 and January 3.

And he doesn’t live in the center of the universe. He lives at the top of the world.

Doesn’t. need. it.

Although I have really great mental images of Santa using a batterang (because you KNOW some grown man asked his mother for one for Christmas) to drop down into stores or chimneys to do his Santa thang while the Apache hovers overhead.

I also have really great images of Bad Santa using said chopper to blow through crowds and stores and get that mess done.

And then I remembered I do 96.2% of all my Christmas shopping online.

I could, however, use that Apache for Sunday afternoon grocery shopping…