Jul 032017

My now 11-year-old daughter loves books and reading so I asked her to write a book review for a couple of her favourites. This one is for The Wild Robot, by Peter Brown. She gave this book ★★★★★ out of 5.

“The Wild Robot” is a book about a single robot surviving in the wild with lots of animals. She adopted her own baby animal, learned to speak the animals’ languages, and so much more! I like this book because the author describes everything in a new way. It’s one of those happy but sad books, and I had tears in my eyes at the end. Highly recommended!

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).

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