Rebecca Steinitz

At the start of the 21st century, parents are understandably worried about how to help children navigate a world characterized by economic uncertainty and academic pressure, cyber-distractions and omnipresent media. These books offer advice for every stage of the parenting journey.

In recent years, scientists and psychologists have gained dramatic new insights into the brains and behavior of babies and young children. Among other things, they have discovered that babies are aware of language, numbers and feelings at just a few months old, and that the executive functions of the brain, which help us organize our lives and behavior, are critical to achievement. Ellen Galinsky draws upon these insights in Mind in the Making, an overview of the seven “learning skills”—like “Focus and Self Control” and “Critical Thinking”—that, she argues, help children succeed in life.

Galinsky references her own experiences, brief parenting anecdotes and the research and opinions of experts as she first details the importance of each “essential life skill” and then provides suggestions for how parents can stimulate that skill. The suggestions are as specific as games to play and questions to ask, and as broad as reducing parental stress. While Mind in the Making offers much food for thought, its breadth can be overwhelming; just trying to follow the 19 suggestions for promoting focus could drive a parent to distraction.

HELPING CHILDREN LEARN
Like Galinsky, Jane Healy focuses on the brain; while Galinsky addresses the basic skills that underlie success in all aspects of life, Healy—an educational psychologist, teacher and brain expert—specifically tackles learning problems, and her approach is both more focused and more comprehensive. In Different Learners, she makes a persuasive case for attending carefully to both genetic and environmental causes of learning problems.

While learning problems often originate in the brain, Healy argues that they can be dramatically exacerbated by a child’s “home, school, community, and culture.” Carefully laying out the workings of the brain, along with the causes and consequences of different kinds of learning issues, she argues that paying close attention to a child’s specific needs and making changes in their environment and behavior can make medication unnecessary.

Healy is persuasive, thoughtful and, above all, sympathetic to the challenges and fears parents face, providing many useful tips and strategies for how they can help their children.

GETTING IT RIGHT FOR GIRLS
In Girls on the Edge, Dr. Leonard Sax, author of Boys Adrift, now turns his attention to the opposite sex. Sax believes that contemporary culture, with its focus on appearance and performing for others, is preventing girls from developing an “authentic sense of self.” In the first part of the book, he targets early sexualization, the Internet and environmental toxins as primary causes of this absence, and obsessions (from anorexia and alcohol abuse to perfectionism) as one of its signal manifestations.

Sax, a strong public advocate for single-sex education, believes that boys and girls are innately different and should be taught and coached in different ways. In the book’s second half, he outlines some of these differences and offers advice on how to help girls flourish.

Some of Sax’s suggestions are common sense: limiting and supervising computer time, making sure your daughter gets enough sleep, being a “Just Right” parent (“firm but not rigid, loving but not permissive”) instead of “Too Hard” or “Too Soft.” His focus on gender difference and single-sex environments may be more controversial, but will ring true for some parents.

ONE MOTHER’S TEENAGER
While Sax takes a big-picture look at today’s teenage girls, in My Teenage Werewolf, author and mom Lauren Kessler focuses on one girl: her preteen daughter, Lizzie, with whom she increasingly finds herself “completely immersed in mutual hostility.” Seeking to understand Lizzie, and to prevent the semi-estrangement that characterized her post-adolescent relationship with her own mother, Kessler sets out to explore the world of contemporary teenagers.

She begins with research, learning about strategies for communicating with teens, the hormonal and brain changes that make teenagers so erratic and impulsive, and the stresses they face today. She joins Lizzie at school, camp and wrestling practice, becoming a “cultural anthropologist” of “the world of the twenty-first-century teen girl.”

In the two years she spends immersed in Lizzie’s life, Kessler discovers that her daughter is not a raging, sulking beast determined to make her mother’s life miserable, but a strong, thoughtful individual. Acknowledging Lizzie’s autonomy, and letting go of her own need to control her daughter, Kessler finds her way to the mother-daughter relationship she seeks—a relationship that was really there all along.

At the start of the 21st century, parents are understandably worried about how to help children navigate a world characterized by economic uncertainty and academic pressure, cyber-distractions and omnipresent media. These books offer advice for every stage of the parenting journey. In recent years, scientists and psychologists have gained dramatic new insights into the brains […]

No Way Down: Life and Death on K2 begins ominously, as two members of the 2008 American team attempting to scale the legendary—and legendarily dangerous—Himalayan peak turn back from their summit attempt, convinced that a late start and trail conditions make it unsafe to continue. As they wait in camp, their worries come true on the mountain above. A day envisioned as the thrilling culmination of months of effort turns into 48 hours of disaster from which many climbers never return.

Journalist Graham Bowley takes readers right onto the mountain, narrating the harrowing events on K2 as they unfold, with each chapter told from the perspective of a different climber. These chapters alternate with accounts of previous attempts to scale the mountain, which is 780 feet shorter than Everest but significantly more challenging. As avalanches shear away ropes, darkness falls and rescue attempts succeed and fail, the book becomes impossible to put down.

Though No Way Down shows the mountain’s appeal, as well as the strength of the climbing community, it also reveals a level of selfishness, greed and loss that brings the whole endeavor into question. Some of Bowley’s authorial decisions are also questionable, like detailing the thoughts of climbers he didn’t interview and not mentioning disputes over some of the events he recounts until the epilogue. Nevertheless, the vivid story will captivate readers. No Way Down doesn’t just tell a harrowing adventure story—it will also make you think.

No Way Down: Life and Death on K2 begins ominously, as two members of the 2008 American team attempting to scale the legendary—and legendarily dangerous—Himalayan peak turn back from their summit attempt, convinced that a late start and trail conditions make it unsafe to continue. As they wait in camp, their worries come true on […]

Lyndall Gordon’s new biography of Emily Dickinson’s family, Lives Like Loaded Guns, is a tour de force. Meticulously researched and keenly argued, it transforms the conventional image of Dickinson—and reveals how that image came to be.

More than 100 years of biography, fiction and theater have depicted the famous poet as a reclusive woman in white who fled the world, perhaps after a tragic love affair, to spend the rest of her life gardening and writing brilliant poems nobody saw. Gordon upends this legend, revealing Dickinson as a passionate and powerful woman who was fervent in her friendships (too fervent, in fact, for many of her friends), had a midlife love affair with an elderly judge and carefully controlled the circulation of her poems. In one of the book’s biggest bombshells, Gordon uses family history, pharmacy records, 19th-century medical treatises and Dickinson’s poems to argue that epilepsy, rather than thwarted love, was the reason she rarely left her home.

While the first half of the book tells the story of Dickinson’s life, the second half morphs into a literary thriller. The lengthy affair between Dickinson’s brother Austin and Mabel Loomis Todd has been well-known since the publication of their letters in 1984, but Gordon meticulously traces its aftermath, as Dickinson’s and Todd’s heirs battled for control over the poet’s manuscripts, publication and reputation. Todd, whom Gordon calls the “Lady Macbeth of Amherst,” is the villain of this part of the story, creating the “shy . . . eccentric, asexual” Dickinson of myth, and erasing from the historical record Dickinson’s strong bond with Susan Gilbert Dickinson, Austin’s wife and Todd’s rival. But Gordon remains scrupulously even-handed, acknowledging Todd’s insights into Dickinson’s genius and her heroic editorial work on the first editions of Dickinson’s poems and letters.

Few books are perfect: Gordon’s use of Dickinson’s poetry as biographical evidence is sometimes dubious, and her own prose, though often delightfully personable, can be overwrought. Still, those are minor flaws in a brilliant and breathtaking book.

 

Lyndall Gordon’s new biography of Emily Dickinson’s family, Lives Like Loaded Guns, is a tour de force. Meticulously researched and keenly argued, it transforms the conventional image of Dickinson—and reveals how that image came to be. More than 100 years of biography, fiction and theater have depicted the famous poet as a reclusive woman in […]

Randi Davenport’s harrowing new memoir is the kind of book to which the only appropriate response is sympathy. The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes begins, ordinarily enough, with a picnic. But from the first pages, it’s clear that something isn’t right. Davenport’s teenage son, Chase, refuses to walk across a bridge, eat outside with the other picnickers, play Frisbee or sing songs, and his mother is not surprised: “Despite my high hopes, and I had many, there was never any possibility of staying with the others,” for Chase is not capable of it. Since toddlerhood, he has been diagnosed with a long list of conditions, including ADHD, Tourette’s syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, autism and epilepsy, among many others. Though it might seem as if Chase’s condition could get no worse, the next day he suffers a psychotic break which leaves him obsessed with terrifying enemies he calls “nailers” and executioners, convinced he is a rock star, unable to recognize his mother and eventually confined to a psychiatric ward.

The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes alternates between the story of Chase’s life up to this moment and his subsequent months in the hospital. Davenport describes how she missed signs of possible mental illness in her ex-husband, Chase’s father, and tried to believe that Chase would be OK, until it was clear that he wouldn’t. She recounts the toll Chase’s illness has taken on his younger sister, Haley, and her efforts to make it up to her, knowing that she can’t. At the same time, she describes Chase’s deteriorating condition, his doctors’ failures to diagnose and treat him effectively and her own desperate attempts to find an appropriate placement for him, after her insurance company refuses to pay for his hospitalization any longer.

Davenport writes in sometimes excruciating detail about the pain that disability and mental illness wreak on entire families. She is a strong advocate, both for her son and for the disabled and mentally ill, arguing that “Our profound unwillingness to care for those among us who cannot care for themselves: that’s the problem.” One hopes this book has helped to alleviate her own pain.

Rebecca Steinitz is a writer in Arlington, Massachusetts.

Randi Davenport’s harrowing new memoir is the kind of book to which the only appropriate response is sympathy. The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes begins, ordinarily enough, with a picnic. But from the first pages, it’s clear that something isn’t right. Davenport’s teenage son, Chase, refuses to walk across a bridge, eat outside with the other […]

We all have lonely moments, but for several years in her 30s, Emily White was persistently, deeply and inescapably lonely, despite a successful career and nearby family and friends. Unable to stem her loneliness, she decided to investigate it. The result is Lonely: A Memoir, in which White intersperses her own story with a thorough examination of the research on loneliness—which was not easy to compile. Loneliness is a fairly recent field of study, and White combed academic and Internet sources, called doctors and psychologists around the world and advertised on Craigslist for lonely people willing to be interviewed. Luckily, she was tenacious in her quest, and she is thorough and clear in her explanations and analysis.

Loneliness, it turns out, is distinguished more by a perceived absence of intimacy than the literal absence of other people. While some people seem to be genetically programmed for loneliness, childhood isolation and adult losses are frequently the catalysts for chronic loneliness (which is qualitatively different from the situational loneliness most of us experience at some point). Loneliness has fairly dramatic negative effects on physical as well as mental health, and its prevalence is increasing, to the point of becoming a public health problem. At the same time, cultural and commercial representations of social life and friendship have made it an increasingly shameful and stigmatized condition. The most effective treatments for loneliness involve active support and guidance for learning how to reach out and connect.

White is just as clear-eyed as she tells the story of her own retreat into alienation and her ultimate re-emergence into an intimate relationship, if not a full social life. Sometimes her story fits her research; her parents’ divorce when her two much older sisters were almost out of the house clearly helped spur her lifelong sense of loneliness. At other points, she is less convincing, as when she insists that the stress of coming out of the closet in her 30s and a history of depression had little to do with her loneliness. Still, despite the occasional stumble, Lonely is a useful overview of an important and under-discussed issue.

Rebecca Steinitz is a writer in Arlington, Massachusetts.

We all have lonely moments, but for several years in her 30s, Emily White was persistently, deeply and inescapably lonely, despite a successful career and nearby family and friends. Unable to stem her loneliness, she decided to investigate it. The result is Lonely: A Memoir, in which White intersperses her own story with a thorough examination […]

The back-to-the-land movement was nearing its peak in 1971, when Susan Hand Shetterly, her husband and their young son moved to a small cabin in coastal Maine with “no electricity, no plumbing, no phone.” Almost 40 years later, unlike most of her peers who soon beat a retreat back to urban comfort, Shetterly still calls Maine home, a word that resonates powerfully throughout Settled in the Wild, her clear-eyed and loving tribute to the land, wildlife and people of her adopted community.

Though the essays in Settled in the Wild touch on the stuff of memoir—a second child, a divorce and work as a teacher, writer and wild bird rehabilitator—Shetterly focuses most acutely on the natural world she inhabits: walking, swimming, caring for animals, chopping trees and, always, observing. Whether she is telling the story of an injured raven who gradually leaves her care for the wild, describing the dead tree outside her kitchen window which turns out to be an ecosystem of its own or observing her neighbors as they navigate the changes that come with the development some welcome and others resist, Shetterly’s nuanced and attentive prose brings her world to life.

Over the course of the book, several related themes emerge. Like Shetterly, who believed from childhood that she belonged in the country, the book’s eels, alewives, ravens and dogs have an innate, even ancestral sense of home. However, their homes are shared, and the sharing is not always pretty: Settled in the Wild is full of dead and injured animals, some harmed by people, some by other animals who hunt, kill and eat as nature intends them to do. Human intervention, on the other hand, takes nature in unforeseen directions. “Cormorants,” one of the book’s most powerful essays, details the ups and downs of local bird populations, undone and restored by the acts of people whose solutions to problems inevitably create new problems, leaving Shetterly, finally, “in hell.” For her readers, though, this wise and subtle book is a gem: beautiful, insightful and realistic, a lesson in embracing the world as it is while envisioning how it might be.

Rebecca Steinitz is a writer in Arlington, Massachusetts.

The back-to-the-land movement was nearing its peak in 1971, when Susan Hand Shetterly, her husband and their young son moved to a small cabin in coastal Maine with “no electricity, no plumbing, no phone.” Almost 40 years later, unlike most of her peers who soon beat a retreat back to urban comfort, Shetterly still calls […]

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