Rebecca Steinitz

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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 […]

The tale of the Donner party is one of the mythic tragedies of American history. In The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride, Daniel James Brown brings the myth to life, transforming faint history class memories into gripping reality. Through painstaking research and powerful narrative, Brown tracks the disparate groups of pioneers who ended up snowbound in the High Sierras in the winter of 1846-1847, infamously turning to cannibalism when their food ran out. While the book ostensibly focuses on Sarah Graves, a young bride traveling with her family and new husband, its scope is panoramic, taking in everything from the Mexican-American War, to mid-19th-century hygiene practices, to conflicts over money, leadership and routes.

Drawing on contemporary accounts, historical research, scholarly studies of topics like survival psychology and the physiology of starvation, and his own retracing of the Donner party’s steps, Brown vividly depicts the sights, sounds and smells of the Emigrant Trail. Most strikingly, he plausibly reconstructs how Graves and other members of the Donner party would have felt, physically and emotionally, as they pushed their wagons up the Wasatch mountains, staggered across Utah’s salt desert, tried to protect themselves from powerful winter storms, and finally faced the choice—or so they thought—of eating the flesh of family and friends or starving to death. It’s not a pretty tale, but Brown makes it utterly compelling, creating a horror story that we keep hoping will have a happy ending, even as we know it won’t.

Except that for some, it did. For much of the book, Graves is an inadequate heroine. Brown himself points out that there is “little record” of her, and she often seems less a focal point than a minor character. But unlike her husband and parents, she survived the horrors, ultimately making a successful life in California for herself and her surviving sisters. In the end, Graves becomes a symbol, not just of the ability to withstand inconceivable hardship, but of hope itself. This book is a fitting tribute to her story.

Rebecca Steinitz is a writer, editor and consultant in Arlington, Massachusetts.

The tale of the Donner party is one of the mythic tragedies of American history. In The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride, Daniel James Brown brings the myth to life, transforming faint history class memories into gripping reality. Through painstaking research and powerful narrative, Brown tracks the disparate groups […]

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 […]

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 […]

Oprah calls him “America’s Doctor.” He has his own talk show. With Dr. Michael Roizen, he’s the author of the best-selling YOU series of health books, CDs and DVDs. Now, in YOU: Having a Baby, Dr. Mehmet Oz tackles pregnancy.

Unlike the pregnancy books that “tell you what to do,” YOU: Having a Baby seeks to “explain why.” This “ ‘just say know’ mantra” is the book’s strength. As in the other YOU books, Drs. Roizen and Oz make the science of the body clear, accessible and fascinating. The first five chapters alone contain more useful information about genetics, placentas, Rh factor, miscarriages and brain development than the entire pregnancy section at your neighborhood bookstore.

Alongside the science, YOU: Having a Baby provides the usual pregnancy advice. Pregnant women should sleep on their sides, exercise, gain a moderate amount of weight and talk to their babies in utero. There is a diet plan with recipes, a workout routine (with cutesy exercise names like “Car Seat Reaches” and “Soccer Mom”), descriptions of anesthesia options for labor and lists of what to purchase for your new baby and pack in your hospital bag.

What distinguishes these fairly straightforward pieces of advice is the book’s emphasis on the “cutting-edge field” of epigenetics, or how environment shapes the expression of genes. According to Drs. Roizen and Oz, a pregnant woman’s actions program the genes of her unborn child, determining everything from future weight to intelligence. This means that “your responsibility for creating a healthy environment for your offspring is bigger than you may have even thought.”

For some women, this exhortation will be reassuring; for others, it may feel burdensome and oppressive. But all women can certainly benefit from learning about how and why their bodies and babies experience the dramatic physical and mental developments of pregnancy and birth.

Rebecca Steinitz is a writer in Arlington, Massachusetts.

Oprah calls him “America’s Doctor.” He has his own talk show. With Dr. Michael Roizen, he’s the author of the best-selling YOU series of health books, CDs and DVDs. Now, in YOU: Having a Baby, Dr. Mehmet Oz tackles pregnancy. Unlike the pregnancy books that “tell you what to do,” YOU: Having a Baby seeks […]

What could possibly be wrong with being positive? A lot of things, says Barbara Ehrenreich, in her articulate and deftly argued new book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.

Ehrenreich employs her usual mix of research, personal anecdote and incisive commentary to demolish the claims of positive thinking. Known popularly as the Law of Attraction, and promoted by books like The Secret and motivational speakers like Tony Robbins, positive thinking holds that our thoughts shape our reality, and optimism, confidence and affirmation are the route to health, wealth and happiness.

Tracing the roots of what she terms this “mass delusion” to Emerson, Christian Science and the 19th-century New Thought movement, Ehrenreich reveals how contemporary America’s focus on positive thinking has set us up for failure by obscuring our material realities, blinding us to risk and fomenting a self-blame which ignores the deleterious actions of others (like corporate raiders who sanction layoffs in search of increased profits).

According to Ehrenreich, positive thinking has permeated our society, taking over medicine, corporate America, religion and even academia, where the new—and unproven—field of positive psychology is putting a scholarly spin on self-help. Whether she is eviscerating the purported evidence that good attitude helps breast cancer patients survive (it doesn’t), or lampooning the empty claims of motivational speakers, Ehrenreich is clear-eyed and impervious to cant as she pursues her prey.

Like any polemic, Bright-Sided occasionally overreaches, especially when Ehrenreich blames the Iraq war and the current economic collapse on positive thinking run amok—such large-scale events never have a single cause. Overall, though, Ehrenreich offers a convincing critique and an alternative route to happiness that resonates in these difficult times.

Rebecca Steinitz is a writer in Arlington, Massachusetts.

What could possibly be wrong with being positive? A lot of things, says Barbara Ehrenreich, in her articulate and deftly argued new book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. Ehrenreich employs her usual mix of research, personal anecdote and incisive commentary to demolish the claims of positive thinking. Known popularly […]

Though Bonnie Tsui grew up in suburban Long Island, Chinatown was the epicenter of her Chinese-American life. Chinatown was where her grandparents worked and shopped for groceries, where her extended family celebrated weddings and christenings, and where, as an adult, she ate lunch and studied Chinese. Now Tsui has written American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods, an engaging exploration of Chinatown’s history and culture.

Although the book includes hand-drawn maps, this is not your standard tourist guide. Tsui looks beyond the gift shops and dim sum restaurants to see Chinatown through the eyes of its residents. She talks to scholars and shop owners, activists and immigrants, even teens. The result is a sharply drawn portrait of five Chinatowns—and of Chinatown as it has been writ large in the American imagination.

In San Francisco, Tsui learns that Chinatown’s “authentic” architecture was designed after the 1906 earthquake by white architects hired by Chinese merchants to make Chinatown more appealing to prejudiced white Americans. New York’s Chinatown was an economic powerhouse, employing recent immigrants and longtime residents in New York’s garment and restaurant industries. The Los Angeles Chinatown grew up hand-in-hand with Hollywood: its residents were hired for all kinds of Asian movie roles, and the image of Chinatown as mysterious, exotic and dangerous emerged from the silver screen as much as anywhere else. In Honolulu, where cultural mixing is the norm, Chinatown is pan-Asian, or, in the local vernacular, “kapakahi, Hawaiian for all mixed up.” A developer built Las Vegas’ Chinatown in the 1990s as a commercial enterprise—but it has since evolved into a real community.

These diverse Chinatowns also have many commonalities. Chinatown has always been a meeting point for tourism and ordinary life. Indeed, American Chinatown helps us understand how Chinatown—complex, conflicted and buffeted by the same forces of globalization, commercialization and gentrification that are transforming the rest of the country—is itself profoundly American.

Rebecca Steinitz is a writer in Arlington, Massachusetts.

Though Bonnie Tsui grew up in suburban Long Island, Chinatown was the epicenter of her Chinese-American life. Chinatown was where her grandparents worked and shopped for groceries, where her extended family celebrated weddings and christenings, and where, as an adult, she ate lunch and studied Chinese. Now Tsui has written American Chinatown: A People’s History […]

In this era of hands-on parenting, the mothering memoir has become a bookshelf staple; as our population grows older, the adjacent shelf of aging parent memoirs is also getting crowded. What makes Sybil Lockhart's contribution to both shelves stand out is the fact that she is not just a loving mother and daughter, she's also a neurobiologist who writes with exquisite clarity about the brain.

Lockhart's memoir, Mother in the Middle: A Biologist's Story of Caring for Parent and Child, is an account of the half dozen years during which her two daughters were conceived, gestated, emerged and grew—and her mother descended into Alzheimer's. Lockhart describes the frustrations of being torn between the caretaking demands of the two generations, but she also pays close attention to the parallel processes of development and deterioration happening right in front of her.

Mother in the Middle breaks no new ground on topics like maternal love, marital stress and becoming a writer. But when Lockhart turns to the brain and the nervous system, which, happily for the reader, she does frequently, the book enters a world that will be new for many and enlightening for all. Her discussions of subjects like neurons, embryonic development, what Alzheimer's does to the brain, and the biological nature of memory are riveting (to the surprise of this non-scientific reader). In precise, accessible language and illuminating images, she elucidates words, phrases and concepts we encounter everywhere from high school biology class, to the doctor's office, to the daily news.

At the end of Mother in the Middle, Lockhart is no longer in the middle. Her mother is gone and her children are no longer as needy, she and her husband have reached a new and happier stage in their relationship, and she has come into her own as a writer. In the last pages of the book, she sells her childhood home and moves forward into the future, accompanied by a comforting sense of her mother's presence. We can only hope that future includes more dazzling science writing.

Rebecca Steinitz is a writer in Arlington, Massachusetts.

In this era of hands-on parenting, the mothering memoir has become a bookshelf staple; as our population grows older, the adjacent shelf of aging parent memoirs is also getting crowded. What makes Sybil Lockhart's contribution to both shelves stand out is the fact that she is not just a loving mother and daughter, she's also […]

Sharing a diamond necklace? Are you kidding? If that's your first reaction to the idea of 13 women joining together to buy a $37,000 diamond necklace, you're not alone. When Jonell McLain came up with the idea in 2004, after falling in love with the exorbitant 118 – diamond necklace in a Ventura, California, jewelry store, many of the women she asked had exactly the same response. But enough were intrigued to make McLain's idea a reality, especially once she talked the store owner down to $15,000, recruiting his wife in the process.The Necklace: Thirteen Women and the Experiment That Transformed Their Lives tells the story of what happened next. In chapter – long profiles of each woman in the group, author Cheryl Jarvis reveals how wearing the diamonds gave each woman the opportunity to feel special and how being part of such a unique group also gave them the opportunity to rethink their lives.

Finding their way together on completely new ground, Republicans and Democrats, businesswomen and teachers, organic farmers and shopaholics figured out what to name the necklace (Jewelia), how to share (each woman gets the necklace for four weeks a year), and why it wasn't just about the bling (fundraisers featuring the necklace have raised thousands of dollars for local charities). Learning to appreciate the value of community in ways they had never imagined, the women flourished: one reclaimed her marriage, another found solace after the death of her sister and decided to pursue her love of singing, a third realized there was more to life than work. Because some of the women are more interesting than others, and the group's triumphs and tribulations do not necessarily feature each woman in turn, the chapter structure of The Necklace doesn't always work. Some women barely feature in their own chapters, and it can be difficult to tell others apart. Overall, though, this is a feel – good and thought – provoking book that will challenge your assumptions about the value of luxury goods.

Rebecca Steinitz is a writer in Arlington, Massachusetts, who does not own any diamonds.

Sharing a diamond necklace? Are you kidding? If that's your first reaction to the idea of 13 women joining together to buy a $37,000 diamond necklace, you're not alone. When Jonell McLain came up with the idea in 2004, after falling in love with the exorbitant 118 – diamond necklace in a Ventura, California, jewelry […]

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