Review of Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity

Flattr this!

Whew! This is one long book! (Although it’s not as bad as it seems–out of 960 pages, the last 259 are acknowledgements, notes, bibliography and the index.) The hardest thing about reading a book this size was trying to get it in a comfortable position. I considered buying the Nook Book but it was $19.99, so I borrowed the print edition from the library. (The hardbound book’s price is $37.50.)

The author, Andrew Solomon, worked on this book for ten years–and it shows. It’s incredibly detailed, almost too much so. I can’t even imagine the amount of thought and effort that went into it.

The best–and worst–part of the book is all the anecdotes from the interviews he conducted. They helped to put a human face on what he was writing about and kept the book from being too scholarly. But at times it was hard to keep track of all the family members and their unique experiences; they sort of blurred together after awhile.

I loved the first chapter, which was basically an introduction. It contained so many thought-provoking comments I just had to copy many of them into my journal. The author states his thesis clearly and gives the reader a perspective that makes sense of the rest of the book. This was helpful because when I saw the chapter headings, I couldn’t help but wonder what made him think that all these disparate topics would have a common thread.

Those chapter headings are: Deaf, Dwarfs, Down Syndrome, Autism, Schizophrenia, Disability, Prodigies, Rape, Crime and Transgender. The first six make sense, since they are all usually seen as disabilities of one kind or another. But the last four seem to be anomalies and it’s to the author’s credit that he’s able to present his premise convincingly in all of them (with varying degrees of success).

I won’t dissect each topic here, but I will make a couple of comments. Some of the chapters were real eye-openers; I hadn’t realized the obstacles that some families face when trying to raise autistic or severely handicapped, for instance. The chapter on prodigies was my least favorite chapter because the author chose to write only about musical prodigies and the examples got to be pretty repetitive.

I was also surprised that he didn’t choose homosexuality as a topic (transgender is not the same thing!). That could be because he writes about his own homosexuality in the first and last chapters, but he doesn’t go into much detail about how various families deal with a child’s homosexuality. I would have liked to have read about that.

For the most part, Solomon presents a good mix of the experiences of fathers and mothers, but even so he seems to imply that the mother has more influence on how well a child transitions into successful adulthood. Although I don’t deny the importance of mother-child relationships, I thought the view that mothers are largely responsible for raising well-adjusted children had been largely discredited. Apparently not.

I also objected to his use of dialect when writing about families that were less educated and poor. He especially did this in the chapter on crime, making it seem like it is only the disadvantaged who have a problem with crime. Plenty of middle-to-upper-class people commit crimes; they just rarely pay the same penalties for their actions as lower class people do.

Far From the Tree is important because of what it says about families. It illustrates how different parents deal with their children’s differences and how those children respond to their treatment. The main thing I took away from this book was a greater sensitivity for what some parents go through in their attempts to love and raise their children. It certainly made me count my blessings.

Don’t let the length of this book deter you. It’s well worth the time and effort.

A New Book Series for Girls (8-12)

Flattr this!

There is a new series for girls coming out which sounds like just the thing for budding feminists (or feminists’ daughters).

None of the books have been published yet (more about that later), but I thought they were interesting enough to report on. Watch this video, then read the description below it.

Wollstonecraft

London 1826: The Advent of the Steam Age

11-year-old Ada has a problem: her governess, Miss Coverlet, has quit her job to go get married (a dumb idea if ever there was one, if you ask Ada) and her new tutor Percy (“Peebs”) is a total drip.  She’d rather be left to her own devices – literally – inventing things and solving math problems and ignoring people altogether.

She’s also forced to study alongside the imaginative girlie-girl Mary, who’s always going on about romance and exotic travels.  Fortunately, Mary’s appetite for adventure leads her to propose the two girls open a detective agency, and when an heiress shows up with a case about a missing diamond, it’s the perfect puzzle to coax Ada out of her shell.

Illustration: Claire Robertson (Loobylu.com)

This is the made up story about two very real girls – Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, and Mary Shelley, the world’s first science fiction author – caught up in a world of hot-air balloons and steam engines, jewel thieves and mechanical contraptions.  For readers 8-12.

This is a pro-math, pro-science, pro-history and pro-literature adventure novel for and about girls, who use their education to solve problems and catch a jewel thief.  Ada and Mary encounter real historical characters, such as Percy Shelley, Charles Babbage, Michael Faraday, and Charles Dickens – people whom the girls actually knew.  If Jane Austen wrote about zeppelins and brass goggles, this would be the book.

Why “Wollstonecraft”?  Mary names the detective agency after her mother, the famous feminist writer. If this is the kind of book you’d like to see, please support this project.

______________

The author, Jordan Stratford, is using a unique platform to finance the books’ publication. Go to his page on Kickstarter.com to find out how you can help these books become a reality.

What Do You Think of “Maggie Goes On a Diet”?

Flattr this!

Maggie Goes On a Diet hasn’t even come out yet and it’s already sparked world-wide controversy. There’s even a “Say No to Maggie Goes On a Diet by Paul M. Kramer” page on Facebook, for instance. Experts, educators and parents are weighing in (no pun intended) on the issue of whether this is an appropriate book for 8 to 12 year-olds. (Amazon cites it as being for 4-8 year-olds, which makes it even more controversial.) Critics worry that it will lead to eating disorders at worst and hurt feelings at best.

This video shows parts of the book and includes an interview with the author (who, ironically, is very overweight himself, a fact no one mentions in the interview).

My worry is about how this book gets in the hands of a grade-school girl. If the book is given to her personally the message she’s going to get is, “They think I’m fat.” Even if it’s true that a child needs to lose weight, there are more sensitive ways of approaching the issue. A fat person knows he or she is fat, especially in this society with all the images of skinny people on TV and in movies and commercials. Not only that, but he or she has been sent the message that fat people are marginal in our society. Maggie herself achieves “fame and popularity” as a soccer player, but not until she becomes thin. Admittedly, part of the book’s message is that Maggie is not only fat, but she’s also not physically fit and supposedly the author’s intent was to show kids a model of how to become more healthy. But the truth is, you don’t have to be skinny to be physically fit, yet you wouldn’t know that from this book.

There are other things I take issue with, like the part where the author writes that Maggie got fat from eating bread and cheese. No one food makes someone fat and in fact bread and cheese are sensible parts of any diet. I also wonder why the author doesn’t criticize the kids who tease and bully Maggie for being fat. He acts as if this is a given—fat people are going to be treated badly—and seems to view it as a motivator for a fat person to lose weight. When in reality we should be teaching our children that it’s not right to be mean to people who are different, even if that difference is that that they’re fat.

I also question the title. Wouldn’t it have been better, and more sensitive, to have called it, “Maggie Makes Her Dreams Come True” or even “Maggie Gets Fit”? The author says that the word “diet” has many meanings and not all of them are negative. This just shows his insensitivity. Telling someone that they need to go on a diet does carry a negative connotation. It’s code for, “You’re fat.”

If a little girl finds this book in the library or book store and expresses interest in it, it might be a sign that she is ready to do something about her weight problem. But if she doesn’t have a weight problem, that should be a red flag that you need to have a conversation about body image and eating disorders.

But perhaps the biggest problem I have with the book is that it targets girls. If the author had come out with editions for boys and girls, I would have felt better about it. Girls are already bombarded with the message that they must be thin. Boys, not so much. What made the author think that his best audience would be female? Perhaps because he knows that they’re more likely to be concerned about their weight? The facts are that boys are more likely to be obese than girls. [Source.]

What do you think about this book or others like them? Do you think they’re helpful or hurtful? Are you comfortable with the target of grade school girls?

 

 

 

The Amazing Adventures of Dietgirl

Flattr this!

At the age of twenty-three, Shauna Reid weighed 351 pounds. That shocked her so much, she made a fateful decision. She would do everything possible to lose weight and she would blog about her experience as a way to keep herself in line. Her blog, “The Amazing Adventures of Dietgirl,” is still online. And the book of the same name covers the first 250 weeks of her journey.

What I love about the book (and the blog) is Shauna’s honesty and humor. I also really enjoyed going through her experience with her as it unfolded. The reader is there with her when she didn’t know whether she would be successful or not and follows all her ups and downs through the next five years of her life. (Don’t worry; the book is a quick read.)  She doesn’t try to gloss over the hard parts (there really were no easy parts) and makes it clear that losing that much weight requires a complete overhaul of one’s lifestyle and attitudes.

One thing that was interesting was that Shauna kept her blogging identity secret until for most of those five years. And she was very private about her accomplishment even with her friends. When she emigrated to Scotland after having lost a lot of her weight, she never told anyone how big she used to be. Now, however, the cat’s out of the bag, and she’s proud to acknowledge what she went through and to share the details of how she did it.

Now thirty-three, Shauna is characteristically honest about the fact that she has gained back 50 pounds. But she obviously hasn’t given up the fight. She isn’t the same person she was ten years ago, and the best part of the book is reading about her evolution from timid and insecure to a young woman who isn’t afraid to live life to its fullest.

Shauna writes this in the epilogue:

And that’s when I knew I’d found my Perfect Ending. I actually found it a long time ago, but it’s taken me a while to see it. I always thought I needed that number on the scale to prove that I’d earned this happiness, but from the moment I looked in the mirror and began to appreciate the view, I was already winning the prize.

I don’t know where the scale will end up, but after 333 weeks and a lifetime of angst, I’m not going to waste another minute worrying about it. My journey was never about what I weighed or the size of my jeans. The true reward is finding peace and acceptance and embracing my own skin, with all its quirks and charms.

“Fat” Books: Two Reviews

Flattr this!

I’ve been on a fat spree lately. I don’t mean that I’ve been eating fat or making fat (at least no more than usual), but that I’ve been reading about it. Specifically, I’ve been reading books by women at different stages of “fathood.”

The first book, Teenage Waistland: A Former Fat Kid Weighs in on Living Large, Losing Weight, and How Parents Can (and Can’t) Help by Abby Ellin may sound like it’s only about kids, but in reality it’s about what we do to our kids to make them obsessed about their weight. Some of the kids whose stories are in the book are genuinely obese, but many of them are not even fat, or are only a little overweight. And yet they still have the same anxieties as the children who are struggling with being grossly overweight.

The author herself was probably never more than “chubby,” but that was enough for her grandmother to refuse to allow her to visit her when Ellin failed to lose the weight her grandmother thought she should lose. Ellin went to “fat” camps several summers in a row, in latter years as a counselor. She takes those experiences and adds to them from interviews she’s had with other “fatties” to flesh out a complete picture of what it’s like to be fat and fail to lose weight in this society. It’s not a pretty picture.

Ellin doesn’t end up making recommendations for how to combat childhood obesity other than that each fat person has to do it for herself. But there’s a lot of food for thought in this book and I recommend it even if you aren’t a parent with an obese child. We all need to look in the mirror when we start looking for someone to blame for the obesity crisis we have in this country.

The second book I read was by a woman who has come to terms with the fact that she’s fat. In fact, she celebrates it. In Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting, and Live Large, Kim Brittingham shares her philosophies about how people get fat, why they stay fat and why it shouldn’t matter. I loved her description of what it’s like to have a full belly:

When my belly is that full, it feels like I’m being hugged—from the inside … like someone or something else is “with” me … And being that full makes me feel anchored and substantial … Every occasion of overstuffing myself has been a subconscious tug-of-war between wanting to feel that full and dreading it.

What I like about Brittingham’s book is that it is not a book with the happy ending we’re expecting. The author doesn’t lose weight in the end. And yet it is still a success story. I don’t know if I could ever feel as comfortable about being fat as Brittingham does, but she makes a good case for accepting yourself at any weight and body-type.

I have several more “fat memoirs” on hold at the library, plus books about Overeater’s Anonymous, how French people don’t get fat and the Mayo Clinic Weight Loss Diet. Obviously I’m a little obsessed right now (can you be a “little” obsessed?). So I’m going to start a series of posts on the “fat” problem, including my own (look for the next post). Please comment from your own experiences, either as a person who also has a “fat” problem, or as someone who cares about those who do.