Stand back, tiger moms. The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings exposes how most cultures eschew intensive parenting entirely in favor of what we could politely call benign neglect, but often sinks down to completely ignoring the needs of children, even being quite cruel with them. The author’s thesis is that current Western societies have created a neontocracy, where children are highly valued and often dictate the lives of their parents, whereas most of history and the rest of the world functioned and functions as a gerontocracy, where elders own the power. Drawing on hundreds of published anthropological studies, the author shows how children are often seen as not quite human in traditional societies. They are fed and protected, to some degree at least, but they also easily discarded if they are not quite wanted or not quite right. He describes societies where children are routinely left to their own devices, or in the care of barely older siblings. (A favorite anecdote for me was that of young girls playing tag by bumping the infants on their backs: they lose if the babies cry!) He tells of cruel puberty rites, strictly enforced by the elders.
One conclusion that is clear from the book is that there are many, many ways to raise children, from harsh to kind, and that the differences clearly owe more to cultural differences than differences between the children. And the author is not afraid to attack the lunacy f pure neontocracy. But I was puzzled, even shocked by his repeated concern that moving away from traditional methods of child rearing creates large negative impacts on children. I can appreciate that societal transitions will cause some amount of dislocation in the short run, but surely there are benefits to lightening children’s chores, to sending them to schools, or to disallowing polygamous marriages.
Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics is an entertaining (really!) history of how economics switched from thinking of us a purely rational “Econs” and started embracing that we “Humans” consider many other factors when making decisions, including economic decisions. Armed with dry wit and self-deprecating humor, the author relates his own adventures, his colleagues’, and the principles of behavioral economics, in which actors possess bounded rationality, willpower, and self-interest.
I enjoyed the many personal stories, including the highly comedic selection of offices by the Economics department, which proves if any proof was needed that no one, even Economics professors, are pure “Econs”.
Who knew that acoustics engineers could write so fluently and entreatingly about his scientific field? The Sound Book: The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World stars the author as an explorer of spaces and structures that generate unusual sounds, from sedate auditoriums and concert halls (where he makes his living) to ancient whispering arches to musical roads. His explanations are always straightforward and help follow the intrepid adventurer in all kinds of natural and man-made spaces that sound different.
One would wish that his many lessons could be followed by architects, city designers, and engineers everywhere to decrease unwanted noise.
There are many interesting themes in The Children’s Crusade, starting with the frustrated artist who is expected to be the perfect 50s wife and mother but really longs to find time for her art. And there are wonderful sub stories, the one I liked best being that of the youngest child, who is a handful and also an unexpected fourth sibling, born when his parents were least able to provide the extra care he would need to contain his exuberance.
Still, I felt that the story read like a disjointed attempt at a disguised family autobiography. The characters seem forced, having been assigned stereotypical roles. Studious historical motifs are thrown in here and there that don’t bring much to the story. Exquisite details are provided on items that seem fairly irrelevant, such as the way the father organizes his will. The story never engulfed me as it should.
Unlike some of the earlier books, My Struggle: Book Four starts like a proper story — of the author as an 18 year old taking a job in the sparsely populated north of Norway as a school teacher in a small school — but soon devolves into the usual highly refined stream of consciousness narrative, diving back into the past, especially his parents’ divorce and his father’s alcoholism. The author also drinks prodigious amounts during the book, that is, during his teenage years, so much so that one wonders about how he avoided alcohol poisoning, freezing to death during ill-timed walks in the snow wearing inappropriate clothes, or simply destroying his liver.
Much time is spent discussing his sexual frustration and mishaps, in detail, which may be appropriate given the time span covered, but yawn…
My favorite part of the book is the description of northern Norway, the insular life of the village where everyone knows everyone and the author cannot do anything without his (barely younger than him) pupils noticing and commenting, and the mere notion that a newly-minted high-school graduate can be an effective teacher. I also found very interesting the descriptions of how he started to write, self-taught and isolated, trying out different styles.
It’s too bad that Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America is written in such an aggressive tone, which is a real turnoff for readers, because its contents are edifying and well worth reflecting about.
The author talks about her life as a poor working (married!) mother in the US, working multiple jobs and still never managing to maintain a stable housing situation or even hang on to a working car. When pundits intone that poor people just need to behave better, it would be useful for them to think about the raw deal that workers at the bottom of the heap get: low pay, sure, but also irregular hours, with immediate loss of jobs if they cannot accommodate last-minute scheduling changes. And it is hard to get one of those minimum-wage jobs, as employers routinely run credit checks, even for run-of-the-mill jobs, which are often unflattering for poor applicants.
I recommend this book for its content, as well as the spirited voice of the woman who writes it, but the grating and accusatory tone, not to mention the salty language, makes it challenging to read.
Red Sparrow is a spy thriller, and spy thrillers are ridiculous (to me). Actually, spying is ridiculous. I had to laugh at the silly code names, the black-and-white morality (“we” are 100% good and will win in the end; they are bad and will lose), and the prisoner exchanges at night on a bridge (really!) Laughing is not conducive to getting caught into the story.
So let’s think about the story. The supposed heroine is a Russian agent, specially trained as a spy seductress through long and voyeuristic (and boring!) chapters, but she is manipulated by everyone, especially the American agents, even though the story pretends she is high-spirited and in control of her destiny. We get a respectable romp through various European capitals (and Washington DC as well), lots of illicit sex, and a supposed love affair that seems entirely controlled by the handlers. There is lots of action, lots of blood, and lots of unlikely escapes. But yawn.
I think I’ve had more than my fill of memoirs of rich Brits lately! The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother, and Me: An Aristocratic Family, a High-Society Scandal, and an Extraordinary Legacy is written by the daughter of the baby in the cover photograph, whose father was the gay lover of the man on the left, Lord Berners, owner of a fabulous estate called Faringdon, where the author now lives, as well as the husband of the wistful-looking woman on the right.
The best part of the book is not the salacious menage a trois pictured on the cover, although that is certainly a complicated story, but rather the outlandish lifestyle of said Lord, who filled the estate with rainbow-colored doves (apparently, it’s not too hard, although staff-intensive, to dip doves in dye), allowed horses inside, held fabulous parties, and even built a folly in the park for his lover. All that would be utterly entertaining if not for the knowledge that it all came from a prodigious inherited fortune, with little productive work exerted by the heirs…
The Charles Schwab Guide to Finances After Fifty: Answers to Your Most Important Money Questions covers all aspects of money management for not-so-young people, focusing, of course, on retirement savings and other retirement strategies such as annuities and social security. It’s pretty easy to read, although its structure in questions means that there are quite a few repeats if you attempt to read it straight through. The author is careful not to dictate one solution for everyone, which is nice but sometimes leads to a certain level of uncertainty.
And this is a good place to once again plug the best book ever on claiming social security: Get What’s Yours.