Friday, January 31, 2014

What I've Been Reading: The Wonder of Girls

The Wonder of Girls, by Michael Gurian, is a companion book to one I read a couple years ago, The Wonder of Boys.  The two books attempt to fill a gap in how our society understands the minds and behavior of girls and boys, which Gurian sees as overly informed by psychology and sociology.  Not that he discounts those fields, but he feels not enough attention is paid to the roles of biology, hormones, and the natural progression of children through the lifecycle.  One interesting feature is that he uses fairy tales and traditional stories to illustrate his points, based on the belief that these stories tell essential, age-old truths about raising children that modern methods overlook.

I could be remembering wrong, but I believe there were more stories in the WoB.  The WoG uses two stories--Cinderella, and a fairy tale from aboriginal Australia--but the focus here seems to be more on hormones, and how a lot of natural hormone-influenced behavior in girls is misunderstood.  In particular, Gurian thinks we pay too much attention to girls' self-esteem.  His point is that teen-agers, and girls especially, naturally have low self-esteem as they make mistakes that are an inevitable part of growing up, and as they are exposed for the first time to the monthly hormonal cycle of a grown woman.  Only by learning from their mistakes, and experiencing the the normal ebb and flow of monthly hormonal and emotional cycles over time, can girls gain true self-respect.  Efforts to raise self-esteem through empty praise or mindless recognition ceremonies do little to improve a girl's genuine opinion of herself.

He also describes his and his wife's disillusionment with the feminist views they had when they were younger now that they are dealing with their own daughters.  He finds that the view of feminists from the sixties to eighties that differences in girls and boys are nearly all socially-created, and that the solution is for women to empower themselves in the workplace and on campus, to be...not wrong, but incomplete.  Rather, in his own daughters and the girls in his practice, he sees a biological need to connect with others and nurture that boys don't have to the same extent, but that girls must have to feel emotionally complete.  For raising children, he proposes an alternative to feminism he calls womanism, that holds women should have the same opportunities as men in work and education, while acknowledging that many women will find more fulfillment in raising children, caring for those in the community, and maintaining family and friendship bonds than in careerism.

I was surprised at how much practical advice he offers for a book that in some ways takes a fairly high-level view of child-raising.  He offers firm guidance on such issues as exposure to television and the media, spanking, offering affection, helping children manage peer relationships, and other topics.  A lot of it is more teen-focused than on younger children like my daughter, but I found it helpful.

I also found him highly credible, both because he offers so many examples from his own family counseling practice, but also because he so often takes a well-reasoned, middle-of-the-road approach.  The ideas of his on feminism that I mentioned above are a good example--he finds much to recommend feminist approaches to child-rearing, but wants to make them part of a more inclusive method that incorporates knowledge from many fields.  The use of age-old stories illustrates and deepens his insights, and also make some fairly dry material more fun to read.  I can definitely recommend this book to those parents looking for a general, non-ideological parenting book, though those with children having specific special needs will need to look elsewhere.

Friday, January 24, 2014

What I've Been Eating: Sisters Thai

Alas, I have not been a good blogger this month!  And I have stuff to post, too--reading and writing goals for the New Year, book reviews, etc.  I'll get to them another day.  For tonight, I'd like to extol my favorite restaurant: Sisters Thai, on University Avenue in Fairfax, VA.

Sisters Thai is an easy three-block walk from our house.  It opened last spring, and we've eaten there probably half a dozen times since then.  I've had places before where I've liked eating, but this is the first time I've ever absolutely fallen in love with a restaurant.  The best word to describe it is cozy.  Delicious works too, unpretentious might not be out of line, but cozy is the most apropos.  I'm not sure if it's the way they knew us by our second visit; or because I've never had a bad meal there; or because the sauvignon blanc is just perfectly sweet and tangy to match with spicy food; or the way people draw little pictures and write quotes in the blank spaces on the menu; or the way each table gives you a different view of the full bookshelves, Thai artwork, toys, and photos decorating the place; or the way the staff is extremely friendly but just a little bit inattentive--not so much as to annoy, but enough to allow for conversation; or just the whole laid back vibe of the place.

So tonight when we arrived (just Lee and me, the kids are at a Tae Kwon Do parents-night-out party), it was Friday night and we hadn't made reservations so we sat at the bar for a while.  The owner of the place, a charming and disarmingly cheerful lady, came over and chatted us up for a few minutes (!), remembered that we have two kids (!!), and brought us our wine and frozen green tea slush herself (!!!).  We had also realized since our last visit that the Thai menus decorating the wall are actual menus, different than the normal menus they bring you, with a list of Thai street food options.  So as many times as we've been here, and there are still options we don't even know about!  I had roasted duck on rice, and Lee chicken soup with rice noodles.  Nothing fancy, but everything is so good!  A perfect balance of food, atmosphere, and service, and all done so joyously you don't realize until afterwards how much work must have gone into it.  Quite reasonably priced, too--not cheap, but the bill always seems to be a little under what I expected.  If you find yourself in Fairfax at some point, I highly recommend a visit to Sisters Thai.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

What I'm Reading: Roundup

Another round-up, this one covering my family's recent car trip from Virginia to Oklahoma, and back.  As you might imagine, we listened to a lot of audiobooks, and I got in some reading too.

Sandman, Vol. 6: Fables and Reflections: Now this is more like it.  In my review a couple weeks ago, I found Volume 5 of this graphic novel series to be my least favorite of Sandman.  Volume 6 collects several one-issue tales, reading like a collection of short stories, and I found this volume to be much more entertaining.  As always, the tales involve the Sandman, also known as Morpheus, or Dream. This is the guy who visits you at night and gives you all those stories in your head. He is the king of the Dreaming, a land made up of all the various nighttime places we go to and people and creatures we see there.

Most of the stories here have a mythological bent, placing Morpheus into familiar stories but giving them a twist.  We read the tale of Orpheus visiting the underworld, Baghdad during the time of the Arabian Nights, Revolutionary France, and Imperial Russia, among others.  I think my favorite story was August, about the Roman emperor Augustus in his final days.  He decides for one day to disguise himself as a beggar and sit in the streets of Rome with a companion, a dwarf and actor named Lycius.  Lycius wonders why Augustus would debase himself so, and the reader learns at the end what has driven Augustus to this.  Not surprisingly, Morpheus had something to do with it, although I won't give away what.

Ruins of Gorlan: This is the first novel in the Ranger's Apprentice YA fantasy series.  This is one of my eight-year old son's favorite books, so I was interested to hear the audio version on our trip.  Alas, I wasn't so impressed as my son.

The series follows Will, an orphaned teenager who has been taken on as an apprentice by the ranger Halt.  Halt teaches his young charge the ways of the Ranger order: tracking, knife-throwing, moving silently, etc.  I think my son enjoys the high adventure of the series, and the clear and detailed battle scenes.  I was more intrigued by the setting of the book, which seems to be a lightly fictionalized northern England during the Middle Ages, with references to a people like the Scottish to the north, and something very like Viking raids on the coastline.

However, I found the thing pretty dull, overall.  The plot was generic, the dialogue strictly what was necessary to advance the action, and the writing style, while clear, had no special tone or wit.  It lacked the drama of better-written fantasy, say The Hobbit or any of a hundred others.  This series is one I don't especially care to re-visit.

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place:  Another audiobook, and a complete and refreshing contrast to the Ranger's Apprentice.  It follows Miss Penelope Lumley, a graduate of the Swanburne Academy for Poor, Bright Females, whose first job after graduation is as a governess at Ashton Place, a huge manor house.  When she arrives, she discovers the three children mentioned in the job description were actually raised by wolves, and only recently caught by Lord Ashton, an avid hunter.  It is Miss Lumley's job to use her superior Swanburne education, especially the extensive collection of useful aphorisms coined by founder Amanda Swanburne herself, to teach her charges to behave as proper English children and to ready them, if possible, for a civilized appearance at the Christmas Ball, which the Ashtons host every year.

As you can probably tell from my summary, the tone of this book could best be described as arch.  The writing is an exquisite send-up of 19th century English novels, the various situations Miss Lumley finds herself in are hilarious, and the entire book is a delight.  Best of all are the wolf-raised children themselves--ten-year old boy Alexander, eight-year old boy Beowulf, and four-year old girl Cassiopeia--who despite their wolfish habits are really quite charming.  Their pure, good-hearted natures contrast with the polished but spoiled Lord Ashton and Lady Constance, and their rich friends.  I highly recommend this to anyone with a love of English literature.  I'm not even sure I can say it is written for children; although superficially at their level--and my children did enjoy it--the various jokes and asides can only be fully appreciated by adults.