Category Archives: nonfiction

merely a detail-oriented cat for posts tagged as “books” (likely to be used most often on review posts).

The Wisdom of French Parenting -OR- Americans Are Doing It Wrong. Again.

I just finished a fascinating book on parenting called Bringing up Bébé, written by journalist Pamela Druckerman. I was drawn to this book for more than one reason, none of them having to do with parenting. First, I appreciated the title’s reference to one of my favorite movies (thanks to my dad’s influence) from when I was a kid. Second, the use of the French word for baby and the book’s subtitle, One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, both appealed to the Francophile in me. Third, anything that suggests that Americans might be wrong is attractive to me.

This book has not been received favorably by all American audiences, a result that is not surprising in the least. After all, no one likes to be told they’re wrong. And Druckerman is subtly and politely but quite firmly doing just that. I appreciate this book because it doesn’t let American parents get away with the pat excuses of, “He’s a child; what do you expect?” or, “They call them terrible twos for a reason.” (I don’t think they do call them that in France, likely because they aren’t terrible.) Unfortunately, I think this book will do what many of the best sermons, speeches, and exhortations throughout history have done: enrage those who need to hear its message the most, therefore disabling their ability to receive it; and be endorsed by those who need to hear it least – people who already practice (and see the positive results of) the suggestions contained within.

Without going into too much detail about why this book should be read by everyone, parents or not, or why the French truly are superior, at least in some ways, I’ll just summarize Druckerman’s main conclusion, which is – to oversimplify it – that American parents are overindulgent and allow their children to rule over them, while French parents have found a way to balance authoritarianism with allowing their children the freedom to express themselves and be who they are. She uses a lot of research and various observed examples to back up her findings, mainly focusing on sleep rhythms, eating habits, and behavioral/discipline patterns.

The part I resonated with most was an underlying thread running through the entire book; an idea that one of the main differences between the French and Americans is that French people view their children as legitimate human beings, capable of knowing and learning and conforming to rhythms from the time they leave the womb, whereas a large portion of American parents tend to coddle and suffocate their children because they view them as too young, immature, inexperienced, etc., to learn or decide anything for themselves; which, of course, becomes a vicious cycle of a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that, because American children are coddled and suffocated, they often are too immature and inexperienced to think, learn, or decide for themselves.

The main time I witness this is when American adults (parents or otherwise) speak to children. Regardless of the child’s age – whether teenager, adolescent, grade schooler, toddler, or baby – many adults have gotten the idea that children must be talked down to, patronized, and condescended. Many parents wonder why their teens rebel and disrespect them and act out; my supposition is that a lot of times it has to do with the teens not feeling respected themselves. Unfortunately, most parents don’t wonder anymore why their toddlers and young children throw regular temper tantrums for no apparent reason. Rather than delve into why, they’ve simply come to accept and expect that this is part of raising small children. They assume that young children have no rationalization skills, so why even bother trying to ask why they’re having a meltdown in the middle of the grocery store? It’s better to bribe him or shove some food in his mouth so he’ll shut up and stop embarrassing them, right?

The thing that has probably become my biggest pet peeve when watching adults interact with children is the way they talk to them. Adults assume a certain (low) level of understanding, and when communicating with children, one can witness adults intentionally bringing themselves down to this perceived level. Not all adults do this, mind you. The best and most respected teachers out there – the ones who get the most results from their most “troubled” students – understand the danger of doing this. And some really awesome parents understand it too. But not the majority of the ones I’ve witnessed and observed in my almost 28 years on this earth.

The most intelligent, well-behaved, and articulate children I have met in my life have been children whose parents have never spoken to them like they were halflings. Even from before the time they could understand language and words, these children were spoken to like normal human beings, just the way you and I might speak to each other right now. I have said before that I completely abhor the fact that people speak to children the same way they speak to animals. They change their tone of voice (it immediately becomes high pitched); they start using words they would never use in adult conversations (like boo-boo, teetee, and bwankie); and they talk down to the child (instead of validating what the child has to say, they ask the condescending question, “Oh, really?” which immediately communicates disbelief; or, they over-validate what the child has to say, acting as if this imaginary tale of fantastic proportions involving superheroes and mythical creatures is absolutely, 100% true, when the child very well knows that it is not true and is just trying to have a bit of fun).

Yes, children develop at different paces, and yes, their logical reasoning skills and general grasps of syntax and vocabulary are much lower than (most) adults’, but this does not make them stupid. It means they are at a different place on the developmental journey, and that should not be occasion for condescension from adults. We should not expect children to deliver well-constructed debates or impressively articulated demands from the time they are first able to speak, but we should always encourage them toward attempting to articulate themselves and rationalize their own thoughts. Patronizing them by deigning to lower ourselves to their level sends two messages: 1) I am not worth as much; 2) I have no reason to improve myself.

I have actually babysat upper-grade-school children who knew how to speak and pronounce words properly but still talked like babies. Why? Because they were allowed to and saw no reason to quit. After all, if they continue to act like babies, their parents are going to keep treating them like babies, no matter how old they get. And what child wants the royal infant treatment to stop? Infants have it made! All they have to do is make a single peep, and adults are at their beck and call, ready to carry out their every whim. My theory on why parents let this continue is that they don’t want their children to grow up too quickly because, as we all know, it does happen too fast. When I encounter this type of child in a babysitting experience, I typically refuse to acknowledge the request (whether it be for more pwetzels or a huggy-poo before bed) until they speak to me as properly as I know they can. I admit, some of my disgust for this behavior is rooted in my love of language and grammar. But I also believe that children should be challenged and empowered to mature and grow up, not stay whining little bwats.

Something Druckerman touches on in her book is the high level of importance the French place on children learning to say not only please and thank you (which are the universal magic words of American culture) but also hello and goodbye. American children are not generally asked to greet anyone upon arrival and departure, and this sends them the message that their greetings are not important to us as adults. It reinforces the implication that they are just accessories, mandatory accoutrements parents are forced to lug around, less important beings than anyone who is more than two feet taller than them. French children, on the other hand, learn quickly and early on that everyone is worth being acknowledged, including themselves.

In my own life, I have conducted a semi-sociological experiment on a favorite child of mine whom I babysit often. We’ll call him Cason because…well, that’s his name. I have known Cason since he was just over a year old. Considering he’s just a few months shy of four now, that obviously isn’t very long (though it is most of his life). But when I talk to and interact with Cason, I do my best not to talk down to him even though his speech capabilities have only in the last year begun to really develop. It can be difficult, at times, to overcome what feels like an instinctive way to talk to children, but it’s not instinct. This is one instance where we can definitively say nurture is winning the debate over nature. I was talked down to as a child (and sometimes am still talked down to as an adult in my late twenties). I grew up in an environment that taught by example that I should communicate with children in a louder voice, using a high-pitched tone, and with an exaggerated and insincere enthusiasm about everything. (By the way, kids can tell when you’re being insincere.)

At some point in my life, I started having encounters with children who seemed unusually intelligent for their ages, and by the time I met Cason, I realized – as a result of observing how his parents talk to him – that these smart, articulate, seemingly precocious children weren’t necessarily advanced for their age; they just seemed that way because they were so far ahead of other kids their age. Why? Because their parents talked to them like they were normal human beings.

So the first time I babysat Cason, I decided to try to emulate his parents’ way of communicating with him. At this point, he couldn’t yet talk. As young as he was, he of course cried when they left, especially since this was his first time to meet me, let alone be left alone with me. After they got out the door, I knelt on the floor next to him and explained what was going on, something to the effect of, “Your parents are going out for a little while, and I’m going to hang out with you while they’re gone. Then you’ll go to bed, and they’ll come back while you’re sleeping, and then you’ll see them first thing when you wake up in the morning.” I had no idea if he understood what I was saying, but he listened tearfully and silently to every word, as if he could understand and was trying to decide whether he could trust me. Then, after a couple of trial sniffles and big breaths, he smiled, held out his arms for me to pick him up, and didn’t cry the rest of the night.

Later that same night, he was running around and playing with his toys. I watched him from a couch with my laptop out. He came over and wanted to look at the computer, so I let him. His hands were sticky, though, so when he reached out to touch it, I told him, “No, please don’t touch that; your hands aren’t clean.” He withdrew his hand and toddled away to resume playing.

Now, it could be that luck was on my side that night and that I just had good timing. But I don’t think so. I think he understood me just fine, even if he couldn’t respond verbally. And ever since that night, I’ve done my best to keep copying his parents’ example and continue to talk to him like he’s a normal person. And, as I’ve watched him grow up, I’ve also watched him make extraordinary progress in his grasp of language, his articulation skills, and his communicative abilities. He speaks full sentences now and (with prompting and encouragement, at times) is able to explain coherently why he is upset about something or other, which is so much easier to deal with than screaming, kicking, punching, or biting. (He occasionally does still shout, but he’s come a long way, and he’s miles ahead of other kids his age, and even other kids who are older [whose parents I hope never ask me to babysit].)

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m a huge proponent of the nurture side of the debate. I think environment plays a much bigger role in development than genes do. The reason so many American children are brats is not that Americans are genetically bratty. It’s the mob mentality. It’s their environment. They are taught how to be brats, and they spend their time with a bunch of other brats, and they learn to be that way. If you don’t agree with me about nurture, look at adopted children. Look at military children. Or missionary kids, or other third-culture kids, such as Pamela Druckerman’s pack of Paris-born children who, genetically, are half American, half British. They’ve molded to their sage French environment and have themselves become sage.

I don’t know how J.R. and Jenny are managing to do such a non-American job with Cason (and Jack, Cason’s younger brother, who is no less awesome) in the extremely American culture they live in, but I am gonna stick around them when I have kids, or, if I’ve lost them back to the Great Northwest by that time, I’ll just have to move to France. By the way, I’m not saying that I’m a parenting expert or anything, or that I know any better than anyone else how to raise children. I don’t know the first thing about raising children. But I have spent the last couple of years learning how to talk to children, and that’s a step in the right direction, I think.

Not that you have to listen to me; I know every parent’s favorite advice expert is the childless single woman next door, but hey. I was called a baby whisperer recently, so stick that in your pipe and smoke it. But seriously. Check out Bringing up Bébé if you have some time. Even if you’re not a parent, it’s really good. I promise. And I haven’t even begun to do its synopsis justice here. She’s got all sorts of statistical proof to back up her claim that France is kicking America’s butt in the raising-children department. Grab a copy from your library. Even if all you do is flip through it to find the italicized words and work on pronouncing them out loud in your best French accent. (Wait, what? Of course I didn’t do that.)



Filed under bloggy, books, irreverent, nonfiction, reviews, sentimental

UNBROKEN, by Laura Hillenbrand

A couple of times when I was growing up, I got asked by various friends who visited my house if my family was Jewish. A few other times, people who knew for sure that we weren’t Jewish (as in, friends from our Protestant church, most likely) made jokes in my presence that my family might as well be Jewish. Because this happened more than once, I quickly tired of the joke, and my standard response was usually, “Ah yes, because of my dad’s Holocaust bookcase.”

There are several bookcases in my parents’ house. Several is actually an understatement. The bookcases are strategically placed throughout the house, and there is some sort of system to (at least some of) them. I wasn’t really allowed to borrow books from my dad when I was growing up because he’s rather particular about the condition of his reading materials. Plus, I’m known to take a year or more to finish a book or to even get around to starting it. But one bookcase of his that I couldn’t keep my hands off of was the one that houses his Holocaust collection. My dad has an impressive accumulation of Holocaust literature and memorabilia, and it is this bookcase that stood out to my friends more than any other. Not only does it hold books; this bookcase is home to menorahs, stars of David, and at least one copy of the Tanakh.

This collection of my dad’s was the catalyst that kicked off my fascination with and appetite for Holocaust literature. I have now read multiple WWII fiction and nonfiction accounts that detail Germany’s strategic efforts, Hitler’s invasions, the horrors of concentration camps, the sadistic medical experiments, etc. I have seen many Holocaust movies, both mainstream and independent. I took a class in college called Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, and I traveled to Washington DC the summer after taking that class, with a friend, my sole objective being to visit the Holocaust museum there. So it can be said with some truth that I am well versed in Holocaust and WWII literature.

So several weeks ago, as I was perusing the library’s nonfiction newsletter, I came across a book the subtitle of which included a WWII reference, and I was unsurprisingly intrigued. I added the book to my hold queue and waited for it come in. When I picked it up, I noted the accolade on the cover: “#1 New York Times bestselling author of Seabiscuit.”

The reference to Seabiscuit meant nothing to me, except my knowledge that the book did well enough to be made into a movie – a movie, however, that bored me so much in the first few minutes that I turned it off and didn’t finish. So that was all I had going into the read of Laura Hillenbrand’s second book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.

So this past Sunday night, when I realized it was 1:00 a.m. and I’d flown through the first 100 pages of the book and beyond, I knew I was in for a really good read. For the next two days, I was glued to the book and was unable to put it down until I finished it early Tuesday evening, and my first thought was, I have to tell people about this book. (Lo and behold, I found out the next day that a large part of the world already knows about this book, since it’s NPR’s February book club recommendation and they’ve been having chats with the author all month. Lucky me, that I happened to crack it open and zip through it, just as the rest of the world is doing the same thing.)

The blurb on the inside jacket cover mentions the hero of the book’s name, Louie Zamperini. It also mentions his Olympic athletic accomplishments and the fact that he was an Army Air Forces lieutenant – a  bombardier, to be specific. Mention is made of the fact that his plane crashed into the Pacific in 1943 and that he would then be in for the survival struggle of a lifetime as he floated along on a life raft with two fellow servicemen – one injured, one catatonic – hoping to be rescued.

This, of course, was an interesting enough narrative thread and teaser to get me to read the book. But imagine my (pleasant) surprise when I got through the first third of the book and everything alluded to in the front-jacket blurb had already come to pass – and I still had 200 pages left to read! What followed was a horrific, page-turning account of the war on the Japanese front.

There are scores of books and memoirs and biographies and autobiographies out there that focus on the horrors that the Nazis inflicted on Jews in their concentration camps. Unbroken is the first WWII book I have ever read in which Germany plays a minor role. Japan and the atrocities perpetuated by its soldiers are the spotlight of much of this book. This up-close, graphic, raw glimpse into life as a Japanese prisoner of war affected me deeply, and I will not soon forget it.

Hillenbrand lauds many heroes throughout the book – for bravery, persistence, patriotism, loyalty, and any number of gallant acts our American boys performed in that war. But she focuses on one hero in particular – Louie Zamperini – and the way his life was especially changed by his wartime experiences. Throughout the book, it was easy to pinpoint the parts that comprised two thirds of the subtitle: survival and resilience. But I kept wondering where redemption would come in and what part it would play.

And then, the war ended and the book was still not over. Again, this was a pleasant surprise. Last summer I read a fantastic WWII memoir, a book I was so pleased with that I ended up giving it to my dad for his birthday the following month. But I was disappointed when I reached the end of the book and got no information about what happened when this heroic soldier returned home. Nothing about how he coped with life after the war. Nothing about the family he ended up forming with the woman he ended up marrying. Nothing. Just a blasé, the-war-is-over, happily ever after.

But Unbroken does not make that mistake, and all my questions about where redemption fit in were answered at last, in the final 70-ish pages of the narrative.

I’m not going to give away much more because the read is truly thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end. But I will say that Louie is a character to root for, and after reading Unbroken, I feel like I know him, even though I don’t. I’m sure most readers feel this way, but I feel it especially so because he reminds me so much of an author I worked with at my last job, Rudy Leeman. Rudy was 80- or 90-something years old, and he had so much fire and spunk left in him. And his book, For Everything a Season, was a beautiful (albeit very long) history of his family’s journey to the States. Rudy was one of the authors who made it difficult to leave my last job. I wish I’d had the opportunity to meet him in person. But the account of Louie Zamperini in Unbroken brought Rudy back to my memory, and my reminiscence made me feel closer to both of them.

One final word on Laura Hillenbrand. In her (very long) acknowledgments, located at the back of the book (this is a newer trend that I really like), she mentions more than once being “too sick” to go or do something specifically related to the research of the book. She never goes into detail about why she was sick or what with, so I found this odd. But then, I did some poking around on the Internet and found out that (apparently) she has CFS, which some more poking led me to discover stands for chronic fatigue syndrome. From what I can tell from cursory research, this is a disease that appears to be very much like my understanding of fibromyalgia, at least with regard to how debilitating and life limiting it is.

I only mention this because this book project would’ve been enormous, for anyone. An undertaking of this magnitude must have taken her a couple of years at least, if not longer, to finish. She obviously sifted through volumes upon volumes of research, materials, and resources, and it is nothing short of impressive that she has woven together the seamless-feeling account that she has. It is every writer’s dream to be able to connect details, transition scenes, and rivet readers as flawlessly as Hillenbrand does – all the while telling someone else’s story – and the amount of effort she put in, if not made obvious in the first 400 pages, will manifest itself in the form of her 50-page notes section and her 12-page index.

So the fact that she battled CFS while working on this project and still came out with a product that is better than most healthy writers is just proof that this woman truly has a gift. And thirsty readers like myself reap all the benefits.

So if you have about 48 spare hours lying around (probably less, for the average reader; I tend to read at a slower pace than most), do yourself a favor and pick up Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand. I got it from the library, but I would not have regretted purchasing it and fully expect to read it again in the future.


Filed under books, nonfiction, reviews