Jan 252014

If you’ve ever browsed through, or read, one of those self-help books that prom­ises life will be per­fect if only you think good thoughts, or that suc­cess in a busi­ness comes from set­ting goals and striv­ing to meet them, you may have had the nig­gling thought that there might be some­thing miss­ing in the rosy pic­tures these books paint. If so, The Anti­dote: Hap­pi­ness for People Who Can’t Stand Pos­it­ive Think­ing might be the right book for you. I haven’t reviewed many of the books I’ve read recently, but this struck me as import­ant enough to do so.

The book talks about how always try­ing to be happy, think­ing only pos­it­ive thoughts, and try­ing to pre­tend bad things nev­er hap­pen to people doesn’t work to make us happy; there is real value in con­front­ing our fears and wor­ries and work­ing through the worst-case scen­ari­os as well as the best-case dreams. The author points out that fear of fail­ure makes busi­nesses blind to the real­ity that set­ting goals and doing things in the same way as a suc­cess­ful com­pany doesn’t bring suc­cess in and of itself.

The chapter called ‘Goal Crazy’ got me adding book­marks: it’s about how goals often don’t work, and it’s not just because com­pan­ies and people set the wrong ones, but because set­ting goals at all often means neg­lect­ing oth­er import­ant aspects. Examples include people determ­ined to suc­ceed in busi­ness who end up divorced and with health prob­lems, or com­pan­ies who focus on sales and starve the research depart­ment of neces­sary funds. Inter­est­ing stuff indeed, and lots to think about.

The author dis­cusses vari­ous philo­sophies and meth­ods to accept life without the ‘think pos­it­ive at all times’ man­tra, includ­ing stoicism, med­it­a­tion, Eck­hart Tolle’s teach­ings, and the Mex­ic­an tra­di­tion of memento mori, and teases out the sim­il­ar­it­ies between these. In the final chapter, entitled ‘Neg­at­ive Cap­ab­il­ity’, he comes to the con­clu­sion that hap­pi­ness includes neg­at­ive thoughts and emo­tions as well as pos­it­ive ones. This is a groun­ded hap­pi­ness, rather than some­thing fleet­ing that depends on one’s mood. This, to me, sounds like some­thing worth­while (and achiev­able).

May 202013

Jan Wong is a well-known journ­al­ist and author in Canada. I’d read some of her oth­er books, and then a friend sug­ges­ted I read her mem­oir about depres­sion, “Out of the Blue” (amazon.com link, amazon.ca link). For a sum­mary, read Globe’s Reac­tion to Jan Wong Depres­sion Put Journ­al­ism in a Sad Place .

Jan Wong’s book details not only how a per­son in a high-stress job can hit a wall when some­thing goes wrong, but also how the com­pany that per­son is work­ing for can help, or make it all worse. In her case, it was all much worse than it needed to be. I admit, over here in Van­couver, the entire ker­fuffle that star­ted her spir­al into depres­sion evaded my atten­tion (and, I sus­pect, the atten­tion of most people who aren’t avid Quebec/Ontario watch­ers).

This book is more than a mem­oir of one woman deal­ing with depres­sion; it also makes it clear how many people suf­fer or have suffered from depres­sion, wheth­er they’ve been form­ally dia­gnosed or not. There’s a stig­ma attached to depres­sion that makes it hard for people to admit they might have it and so they battle on and through. I sus­pect, for example, that my mother suffered from depres­sion after my par­ents divorced, but it isn’t some­thing she would have ever admit­ted to her­self, let alone any­one else. Some pas­sages in the mem­oir are hard to read (espe­cially, for me, the effects on her fam­ily), but in the end it’s a pos­it­ive book. I’m glad I read it, I learned a lot about the med­ic­al aspects (e.g., that depres­sion can be triggered by extern­al factors, or can be due to an intern­al pre­dis­pos­i­tion, or a com­bin­a­tion of the two). Neither the trig­gers (often stress and/or insom­nia) nor the reac­tions (fight or flight, anhe­do­nia) are widely under­stood. I didn’t know, for example, that depres­sion is often a short-term con­di­tion, that med­ic­a­tions take so long to take effect, that so many fam­ous people suf­fer from chron­ic depres­sion.

Recom­men­ded for any­one who works in the cor­por­ate world, or has more than a few friends and rela­tions. You may be lucky enough to nev­er work with or be close to someone who has or has had depres­sion, but even so, it’s worth get­ting an appre­ci­ation for what it’s like. Chances are, someone you know has it, had it, or will have it in the future.

Nov 262009

One of the unfore­seen advant­ages of hav­ing an Amazon affil­i­ate account is the pos­it­ive loop it intro­duces. In this par­tic­u­lar case, I reviewed books about rais­ing chil­dren, people clicked on the links, they bought oth­er books from Amazon that showed up in my reports, I looked at those books, etc. I call it a multi-level recom­mend­a­tion ser­vice; I’m sure there are more “offi­cial” names for it.

Any­way, in this par­tic­u­lar case someone bought Par­ent­ing the Strong-Willed Child: The Clin­ic­ally Proven Five-Week Pro­gram for Par­ents of Two- to Six-Year-Olds, and since my daugh­ter is strong-willed (much more so than her brother at that age), I thought I’d take a look. I also ordered When Your Child Has a Strong-Willed Per­son­al­ity from the lib­rary and read both the books at more or less the same time. 

Par­en­thet­ic­al note: are there ever a lot of books out there on how to cope with strong-willed chil­dren!

Both the books have anecdotal/illustrative examples, which mostly served to make me grate­ful for my child. After that, the books have the same basic ideas at the core, but go about the mes­sage in dif­fer­ent ways.

The “clin­ic­al pro­gram” book has an actu­al pro­gram in it that you’re meant to fol­low, which con­sists of spend­ing 10 minutes each day doing the pro­gram for that week, before start­ing the next week on the next phase. This would prob­ably be use­ful if there is a ser­i­ous prob­lem; con­dens­ing the pro­gram and com­bin­ing steps worked out fine for us. The first step is simply pay­ing atten­tion to what the child is doing for those 10 minutes: no ques­tions, no orders, just say­ing “now you’re stack­ing the red blocks” “now you’re col­our­ing with blue cray­on”. The “do you want to try…” etc comes later, after you and the child have got used to the idea of your pay­ing atten­tion to what the child is actu­ally doing rather than what you think they should be doing, for that small amount of time. Per­son­ally I think this is the most import­ant step — it’s so easy as a par­ent to get into the “now we have to do this”, even if it’s under the guise of encour­aging the child to do things “prop­erly”, and fail to take the time to pay atten­tion to what’s really hap­pen­ing. The oth­er steps in the pro­gram are also reas­on­able, noth­ing stu­pendously dif­fer­ent to what oth­er books say.

The “strong-willed per­son­al­ity” book is more gen­er­al and does not come with a 5-week pro­gram, so is likely less reas­sur­ing if you have a ser­i­ous prob­lem. It points out strongly that the wor­st prob­lems come with a strong-willed child and a strong-willed par­ent bat­tling and advoc­ates the par­ent to not quibble over small issues, but to seek ways to defuse poten­tial situ­ations, and let every­one save face. 

Both books coun­sel kind­ness and respect for the child’s point of view as ways to defuse con­flict, and give meth­ods or tips to help. Vari­ations on some of the tech­niques would prob­ably also help with deal­ing with co-workers.

Dec 162008

Freako­nom­ics: A Rogue Eco­nom­ist Explores the Hid­den Side of Everything was pub­lished a long time ago, way back in 2005, but it took my book­club until this year to decide to read it. Hey, no point in being too fast, if a book is worth­while it will still be worth­while a couple of years later, right? In this case, it is. There is an updated ver­sion, but even the older ver­sion has a way of look­ing at the world that’s worth pon­der­ing. Wiki­pe­dia and the offi­cial book site have sum­mar­ies, and there’s now a related blog.

The most fam­ous part of the book is the one that asks how far the decrease in crime in the 1990s was due to the poten­tial crim­in­als nev­er hav­ing been born; there has rightly been a lot of dis­cus­sion about that (Wiki­pe­dia has a decent sum­mary of some of the points). That dis­cus­sion has ten­ded to over­shad­ow the oth­er parts of the book, some of which bear more think­ing about. One good example is the way that gangs were organ­ised So how did the gang work? An awful lot like most Amer­ic­an busi­nesses, actu­ally, which, if taken ser­i­ously by people try­ing to get rid of gangs, might lead to dif­fer­ent ways of tack­ling them. The dis­cus­sion about how the Ku Klux Klan was made ridicu­lous by incor­por­at­ing it into the Super­man radio show was good, even if who did exactly what when is unclear. 

Above all, the book appeals if you’re someone who asks wheth­er there are oth­er explan­a­tions for things, past the seem­ingly obvi­ous. Like the book says, con­ven­tion­al wis­dom is often wrong, and it’s refresh­ing to read about some of the ways in which it is. Nor­mally we don’t dis­cuss non-fiction books for very long at book­club, but this book was an excep­tion. Most of our dis­cus­sion was along the lines of “does it make sense that” or com­ing up with altern­at­ive hypo­theses to explain some of their data. It would have helped if we’d seen some more of the actu­al math­em­at­ics so we could have been a little more sure of how they did the regres­sion test­ing, but that’s a minor quibble and I’m sure most of the book’s audi­ence didn’t miss it.

Dec 122008

Bangkok 8: A Nov­el, by John Bur­dett (his site, Wiki­pe­dia) was the latest book­club read (yes, I know I’ve skipped a few in the middle, I got this one out of the lib­rary and it’s due back next week, which does con­cen­trate the mind won­der­fully). It’s prob­ably not a book many of us would have picked, but all of us enjoyed it, which is rare, and for many of the same reas­ons.

It’s a detect­ive story set in the pros­ti­tu­tion area of Bangkok, with a hero (Son­chai Jit­plee­cheep) who is the child of a pros­ti­tute, a half-caste who doesn’t fit into Bangkok soci­ety for a num­ber of reas­ons. The story itself was a little weird, with some weak spots, but Son­chai is inter­est­ing. I’ve only ever spent a few days in Bangkok, and that some time ago, but the author obvi­ously noticed some of the same things I did and incor­por­ated them very nat­ur­ally into the story. This includes such things as the Thai belief in anim­ism, as well as some cul­tur­al expect­a­tions that dif­fer between for­eign­ers (farang) and Thai. 

There are lots of amus­ing pas­sages, par­tic­u­larly when Son­chai is talk­ing to and about an Amer­ic­an woman who works for the FBI (so he calls her “the FBI”), and when he senses who or what vari­ous for­eign­ers were in pre­vi­ous lives, which he gen­er­ally does not bother to tell them, fig­ur­ing that they wouldn’t believe him any­way (this is an example of how nat­ur­ally those aspects are brought in, as in gen­er­al West­ern­ers don’t believe that you can look at a per­son and tell what they were in a pre­vi­ous life). 

Over­all it’s a good read and, if you have some famili­ar­ity with Thai anim­ism and have heard of yaa baa, it isn’t too hard to under­stand what’s going on. Hav­ing vis­ited Bangkok helps, but isn’t a pre­requis­ite (for­tu­nately).

Jun 122008

My daugh­ter is now two, and likes some dif­fer­ent books to the set I reviewed six months ago, although she still likes the Boyn­ton books and Mother, May I? by Grace Mac­car­one (I sus­pect because it has a pic­ture of a truck in it, and fea­tures a hug at the end). 

In no par­tic­u­lar order, we have Hand, Hand, Fin­gers, Thumb by Al Per­kins and Eric Gurney, There’s a Night­mare in My Closet by Mer­cer May­er, Dog In, Cat Out by Gil­lian Rubin­stein and Ann James (lots of scope for mak­ing up stor­ies about what’s hap­pen­ing in the pic­tures), Waves in the Bathtub by Eugenie Fernandes (make up your own music for the song, it will sound much bet­ter than the tune in the book), and Where’s My Teddy? by Jez Albor­ough (ours is bundled with It’s the Bear!, which gets nearly equal billing in the tod­dler appre­ci­ation list). These are all books my son liked as well, so chances are good that oth­er tod­dlers will enjoy them just as much. My son didn’t have Mon­key and Me by Emily Gravett, but my daugh­ter likes it.

And, of course, she also likes any­thing with a pic­ture of a truck in it.