Wednesday, May 28, 2014

May Reading

We Shall Not Cease: The Autobiography of a Conscientious Objector by Archibald Baxter.

This is one of those 'must read one day' books that's been on my list for decades, ever since I first discover James K Baxter's poetry. Recently it was the book reading on National Radio and after missing listening on quite a few days, I got it out of the library. It's a very slim volume but it took me several weeks to read it - I needed lots of downtime from the horror, and lots of thinking time.

The horror is partly due to the calm way in which Baxter recounts the events of his incarceration, and enforced time on the front in WWI. Baxter and his co-objectors were not just imprisoned, but also starved and tortured for their beliefs. Baxter had particularly bad treatment from some who could understand the religious objector - "because my religion is against it' - but not someone who just believed that all war and killing is wrong. It is only near the end of the book that some of Baxter's feelings show through.

The book was published first in 1939 at the beginning of WW2, and re-published in 1968, during the Vietnam war. It's interesting as a documentary, but it's real value, in my opinion, is in the thinking it promotes. As Baxter said when he sent a copy to one of his fellow objectors, "In memory of days we can't yet afford to forget."

The Happiness Project: or Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin

I've been reading quite a few books about happiness and positive thinking over the last year or so, driven by my continuing efforts to keep depression away. Most reinforced my thinking about the 'born again Amway' mentality of most positive thinking promotions which say that if you visualise and believe the good messages (lies?) you tell yourself, you will get what you visualise, and if you think negatively you'll never get what you want. They don't usually seem to go into detail about how people bring disaster on themselves, like fire, famine, flood, earthquake, tsunami, although even expressions of that occur occasionally. As mentioned in my February review, Rhonda Byrne, author of The Secret,   stated that disasters like tsunamis can happen only to people who are "on the same frequency as the event." The messages of Positive Thinking, The Law of Attraction, and the like, feed the smugness of middle class First Worlders. They cannot be taken seriously by anyone able to open their eyes to the very real hardships faced by the less priveledged, for example, problems of the Third World.

The Happiness Project came to my notice via  our local Facebook page, The Raglan Noticeboard, as people asked to borrow a copy. I accessed it via the Hamilton Public Libraries. I have been pleasantly surprised to find that it describes the personal search of one woman, over one year, to try to make her present life better. This is not a book about a grand journey, an exotic adventure, a trip to sit at the feet of a guru in India, a dramatic career change: it's a story about making small changes to make the life she already had happier and better appreciated. Many of the ideas I had already come across, and implemented, but I really like the structure she put them into. My structure would be different, as would everyone's: it's not so much a self-help book, as an exploration of how one woman helped herself. As such, I have found it far more helpful than any 'self-help' book! There's no magical formula, and quite a bit of challenging hard work, but I find that inspiring. 

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: a memoir of going home by Rhoda Janzen

I loved this book!  And, according to the cover, so did Elizabeth Gilbert author of Eat, Pray, Love. At forty two Janzen was told she had to have a hysterectomy.  Because of medical misadventure, she was left incontinent for six months. They then moved to a rural community and two months later, her husband of 15 years left her for a man he'd met on '', and she was left living in an expensive house she could no longer afford. After a time, she decided to go home for a year to recover - home being with Mennonite parents. The book is an exploration of her failed marriage, of her childhood and of her family's religion. It all sounds very grim. But it isn't! It is interesting, informative, thought provoking and endlessly funny. She doesn't blame her broken marriage totally on her husband, she examines the good in her parents and their religion, as well as the bad. It is interesting, informative, thought provoking and endlessly funny. It is very easy to read, yet not at all shallow. Highly recommended.

Monday, May 5, 2014

April Reading

The Spark: A Mother's Story of Nurturing, Genius, and Autism  by Kristine Barnett (2013)

After watching an interview of Kristine Barnett and her 15 year old son Jacob, and having previously seen a TEDxTeen talk by Jake, I borrowed her book, The Spark, from Hamilton Public Library and couldn't put it down.

Jake started life bright and curious. He talked early, learned the alphabet early (Kristine did child care in her home) and was sounding out short words by the time he was one. He loved a cd that read Dr Seuss's The Cat In The Hat and read along with it - then they discovered that not only had he memorised the English version, but also, the Japanese and Spanish versions. He also had extremely good precision and dexterity.

At 14 months they started noticing little changes in him, at 2 he was diagnosed with autism, and by 3 they were told he would never talk or read and the goal for him was the hope that he would be able to tie his shoe laces by the time he was 16.

This is the story of a mother who never gave up on the person she knew her son was. She did what experts told her to but when that didn't help she began to follow her own path, observing and responding to her son as a person. She decided that, rather than focussing on what Jake couldn't do and didn't like doing, she would focus on what he did like doing, including behaviours that were seen negatively as autistic behaviours. She looked at the same behaviours as passions. The results were extraordinary, and although Jacob proved later to be extremely intelligent - genius level - Kristine also worked with other autistic children of every IQ level, with similar resulting improvement in their quality of life.

Dr. Chris Edwards on the Skeptic website reviews the book in a very negative way. He is very defensive of the school system and seems to take Kristine's lack of appreciation of the wonderful system in which he is a teacher, as a personal affront. He makes a couple of valid points, but misses the miracle that I see, and fails to acknowledge the possibility that some children might not thrive in school. His criticism is based on the Jake we see in the present day, without acknowledging that school had nothing to do with how Jake got here.

Kristine's ideas on how to teach children are not new - unschoolers everywhere will recognise them - but although Jake was not unschooled, not even homeschooled, Kristine followed similar principles when it came to Jake's learning. Watch the short interview at least, and if you find it as amazing as I did, read the book for so much more of the story. Personally, I'm with Temple Grandin who says, "Every parent and teacher should read this fabulous book!"