Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne

519QdZq5fjL Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History
by S.C. Gwynne

Wow.

This book, which I’ve been reading over the past week or so and just finished about thirty minutes ago with tears in my eyes, kind of blew me away.

My husband bought this book for me on a whim a while back (sweet man – he knows that the way to my heart is through books), and it sat on my to-read shelf gathering dust with a lot of other books until I recently read One Thousand White Women for my book club.  I found that book to be a pretty romanticized and often cheesy depiction of life with Indians in the untamed American west, and it left me very curious about what life was really like in that time and place.  Empire of the Summer Moon delivers.

Told in meticulous and beautiful detail, this historical account of the rise and fall of the Comanches, the most fierce and powerful Indian tribe America ever saw, is absolutely riveting – and in some ways turned my ideas about “how the west was won” upside down.  Despite the sanitized version of history I grew up with in school, there has always been the knowledge that the Indians were here first, and the white people came along and spread disease, enslaved Indians, and stole their land.  The truth, apparently, is more complicated than that.  While it is true that the white people did those things, it’s also true that long before white people came to America, the Indians were fighting each other, as well as Spaniards and Mexicans over land, and murdering and enslaving each other.  America has a bloody, bloody history dating back to the very beginning.

Central to this historical account of the Comanches are the stories of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son, Quanah.  In the 1830s whites began settling in Texas – at the time, a desolate land isolated from civilization.  The land was virtually free for the taking, but whites venturing there were takingimages their lives into their own hands, as the Indian presence was a grave menace.  The Parker family was one such family that, despite terrible danger, decided to settle in the southern part of Texas.  They built a fort to protect themselves against enemy Indians – a collection of log cabins to house the extensive family, a main fort, all fenced in by razor-sharp cedar posts and a reinforced, bullet-proof gate.  On a fateful day in 1836, however, the gate was left open, and the fort was raided by Indians.  Many Parker family members were killed, and a handful taken prisoner by the Comanches – among them, nine-year old, blonde, blue-eyed Cynthia Ann.  While the other prisoners were eventually killed or ransomed back to their white kinsfolk, Cynthia Ann was adopted by the Comanches and fully assimilated into the tribe – so much so that future attempts by whites to buy her back from the Comanches failed – she flat out refused to leave her Indian family.  She married and had three children and spent twenty-five years as a full-fledged Comanche Indian squaw.  Eventually, she was captured by whites and returned, against her will, to her white relatives, where she spent several miserable, despondent years until her death.  Cynthia Ann’s story is heart-wrenching, and raises ethical and humanitarian questions that are impossible to answer.

smallOne of her children was Quanah, twelve years old at the time of his mother’s re-capture by white men.  Quanah went on to become a great Comanche warrior and war chief, and was one of the last hold-outs of the Comanche nation against the whites.  Eventually the Comanches numbers dwindled thanks to buffalo hunters that virtually wiped out the Indians’ food supply over a period of years, to white man’s diseases, and actual combat between whites and Indians, and the last of the Comanches, led by Quanah, surrendered and began the demoralization of reservation life.  Somehow Quanah assimilated well into the white man’s world, refusing to look back, and he became a highly respected and prosperous man.  Quanah never forgot his mother, Cynthia Ann, and his search for her grave and insistence on being buried next to her were extremely moving.

This frank history is not for the faint of heart; it is filled with graphic accounts of horrific, almost unimaginable atrocities Indians perpetrated on whites, on other Indians, and which whites committed against Indians.  There were parts that actually gave me bad dreams.  Nonetheless, it’s a necessary read, I think, for anyone who wants to understand the true history of America – or at least an integral portion of that history.

Despite the heinous, bloody crimes of the Comanches, I was left at the end feeling a great sense of loss for the majestic days when the Indians roamed free and wild.

A truly breathtaking book.

 

Growing Up Godless: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Kids Without Religion by Deborah Mitchell

Unknown Growing Up Godless: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Kids Without Religion
by Deborah Mitchell

My initial introduction to Deborah Mitchell came a little over a year ago by way of an article she wrote for CNN iReports entitled Why I Raise My Kids Without God.  The title of the article alone spoke to me; I was curious to see what another parent had to say on a subject that has been fact in our house for years.  As it turned out, Debbie’s article went viral and, I believe, remains the most viewed and shared iReports article on CNN of all time.  I was so impressed by her article, and appreciated and agreed so much with what she wrote that I did a little digging and found that she also has a blog, Raising Kids Without Religion, of which I’ve become a loyal reader over the last year.  I’ve also had the privilege of corresponding with Debbie privately and getting to know her on a personal level.  Imagine my surprise when she contacted me and asked if I would be interested in making a contribution to her forthcoming book that would be coming out in the spring of 2014!

Growing Up Godless is that book . . .

Read the rest of my review, and enter to win a free copy of Growing Up Godless here.

Three Generations, No Imbeciles by Paul A. Lombardo

Three-Generations-No-Imbeciles-Lombardo-Paul-A-9780801890109Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell

by Paul A. Lombardo

The United States has a long history of shameful behavior behind the legacy of patriotic heroism, bravery, innovation, and resilience.  Our forefathers stole land from the natives who were here before us, spread disease, enslaved hundreds of thousands of people, and well into modern times have continued to marginalize and mistreat minorities.  One of the chapters in U.S. History that is not taught in school is the eugenics movement which took hold in the early twentieth century.

Eugenics – or “better breeding” – was a social movement rooted in quasi-scientific theories about heredity.  It was believed – though never actually proven by any stringent scientific methods – that individuals with undesirable traits, including, most notably, epilepsy, alcoholism, “pauperism,” (those living in poverty), criminal tendencies, and “feeblemindedness” were born with those traits by way of genetics, and that they would pass those traits onto their offspring.  The only way to prevent the world being overrun by these “lesser breeds” was to prevent them from reproducing via forced sterilization.

“Anxiety about those who failed in the contest of life, relying on charity and inflating the taxes of everyone else, was widespread.”

(Things haven’t changed much, have they?  Just listen to anyone in today’s Republican party and you’ll hear much the same.)

“Degeneracy theory gave a human face to the biblical curse condemning children to inherit the sins of their fathers.”

Forced sterilizations – the vast majority of which were performed on women – began in the late nineteenth century on people institutionalized, either in prisons or in mental hospitals.  In order to give it legal clout in the face of public disapproval, a test case was chosen in 1923 to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  The case was Buck v. Bell, and the plaintiff was Carrie Buck, a young unwed mother who was deemed “feebleminded,” as was her own mother who resided in a state institution, and her infant daughter.

“Feeblemindedness” was a very vague term, encompassing a vast array of “conditions,” including, but not limited to illiteracy, low IQ (determined by very unsophisticated and untested tests), wanderlust, immoral behavior (like becoming pregnant out of wedlock – nevermind that Carrie Buck became pregnant as a result of being raped by her foster parents’ nephew), and “shiftlessness.”  Upon learning that Carrie was pregnant, her foster parents did what many did in those days to distance themselves from the shame of an unwed pregnancy in the household: they had her sent away and committed.  Torn away from her baby only a couple of months after giving birth, Carrie was committed to the same institution where her natural mother resided – for reasons unknown – and both they and the infant girl were deemed “feebleminded.”  Carrie’s surgical sterilization was planned to take place on the heels of her case which would go to the Supreme Court, which the doctors and lawyers orchestrating had every intention of winning – to the point of assigning an attorney to represent Carrie who did nothing to defend her rights and merely bolstered the State’s sham of a case.

In the famous Supreme Court decision, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote,

“It is better for all the world if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind . . . Three generations of imbeciles is enough.”

Carrie Buck was in fact forcibly surgically sterilized after the case was decided, as was her thirteen-year old younger sister, and thousands upon thousands of more people over the next several decades, with California leading in the number of sterilizations performed.  Carrie was eventually released from state custody and lived to be an old woman, dying in 1983, having been married twice and living most of her life in abject poverty.  People who knew her later in life scoffed at the notion that she was “feebleminded.”  She was, in fact, of average intelligence.  The daughter she gave birth to illegitimately was adopted by Carrie’s foster parents and died of an illness at the age of eight or nine, after doing well enough in school, both academically and in her “deportment,” despite having been deemed “feebleminded” as an infant.

The U.S. eugenics movement fueled Nazi Germany’s quest for racial cleansing,

“But neither scientists nor the public connected U.S. laws to German atrocities.  Fifty years after Buck, more than a dozen compulsory sterilization laws were still in force, and surgeries were documented in institutions as late as 1979.  Far from being a legal dead letter, Buck has never been overturned.”

German scientists actually worked closely with American scientists in the development of their own eugenics movement, which of course was the foundation for the Holocaust.  At the Nuremberg trials, Buck was referred to again and again in defense of the Nazi’s genocide.

It is hard to imagine in this day and age people being forcibly surgically sterilized for any of the reasons that were seen as completely justified and reasonable back in the day.  And yet, despite astronomical leaps in scientific knowledge and supposedly progressive social views, minorities, people living in poverty, and people with disabilities are still marginalized and even targeted for elimination now.  Knowing the history of eugenics in the U.S., it is impossible not to believe that modern-day prenatal screenings, designed specifically to target and weed out certain disabilities, is tied to eugenics.

“In the shadow of the Holocaust and in the light of Carrie Buck’s saga, eugenics is now almost universally considered a dirty word.  But many of our motives today are no different from those of the Buck era: we continue to hope that science can be used to improve the human condition.  We all want to eradicate disease; we all hope to have healthy children.  We all also want lower taxes.  Whether or not we use the word eugenics to describe those motives, we must recognize their power, both in historical context as well as today.”

“Today we can diagnose some forms of deafness, blindness, and cancer as well as numerous other diseases, where we know the genes that lead to disease and we can reliably predict its onset.  The search for the cause of mental retardation has not abated since the time of Buck, and many genetic markers for cognitive impairments remain under study.  How much does it matter if we use a technique – less troubling to some than coercive surgery – to “cleanse the germ plasm,” as the eugenicists would have said?  Does our embrace of techniques such as preimplantation selection of “normal” fetuses or prenatal genetic diagnosis and selective abortion make our motives in “eradicating defects” less suspect?  Our modern emphasis on autonomy as a principle important to both law and ethics does not free us from the hard questions posed by our newest technology.”

Three Generations, No Imbeciles is an unflinching look at a chapter in our history that still reverberates today.  Utterly fascinating and ultimately unsettling, this should be required reading in every U.S. History classroom.

The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and For Humanism by A.C. Grayling

the_god_argument The God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism
by A.C. Grayling

I was first introduced to A.C. Grayling when I picked up Life, Sex and Ideas: The Good Life Without God a couple of years ago.  Reading that book was really my first encounter with philosophy, and I have since then read many articles and essays by Grayling.

In The God Argument, Grayling first explores religion and notions of god(s) – how and where they originated, why they persist, and what makes them illogical, irrational, and unable to stand up to dispassionate scrutiny.

“There is a true, important, though harsh-sounding point to be made about the origins of the major religions influential in today’s world: that they derive ultimately from the superstitions of illiterate herdsmen living several thousand years ago.  That is a mere fact, not a rhetorical flourish.”

***

“To put matters at their simplest, the major reason for the continuance of religious belief in a world which might otherwise have long moved beyond it, is indoctrination of children before they reach the age of reason, together with all or some combination of social pressure to conform, social reinforcement of religious institutions and traditions, emotion, and (it has to be said) ignorance – of science, of psychology, of history in general, and of the history and actual doctrines of the religions themselves.”

He addresses the most common arguments for religion and the existence of a god made by believers, and I found myself nodding my head over and over, pleased to discover that many of the conclusions and responses to these arguments I’ve come up with on my own are basic, uneloquent versions of what philosophers, scholars and scientists have concluded – which isn’t lauding my intellect by any means, but rather a statement of how clear it all seems even to the relatively unschooled when emotion is laid aside.

The second half of The God Argument is a persuasive argument in favor of humanism –

“In essence, humanism is the ethical outlook that says each individual is responsible for choosing his or her values and goals and working towards the latter in light of the former, and is equally responsible for living considerately towards others, with a special view to establishing good relationships at the heart of life, because all good lives are premised on such.  Humanism recognizes the commonalities and, at the same time, wide differences that exist in human nature and capacities, and therefore respects the rights that the former tells us all must have, and the need for space and tolerance that the latter tells us each must have.

“Humanism is above all about living thoughtfully and intelligently, about rising to the demand to be informed, alert and responsive, about being able to make a sound case for a choice of values and goals, and about integrity in living according to the former and determination in seeking to achieve the latter.”

Man, I love this stuff.  I mean, it sounds like if we as a human race could actually achieve that, we would live in something pretty near to utopia, no?  And that’s the problem with religion: overall, it’s intolerant and oppressive and dictatorial.

I really enjoy Grayling’s writing.  The only downside of a book like this is that it’s largely preaching to the choir; it seems to me unlikely that a person of religious conviction would read something like this.

I recommend this to anyone who questions things, and anyone who doesn’t.

Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams

Breasts-cover Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History
by Florence Williams

I stumbled upon this book while perusing the shelves at Barnes & Noble and was immediately intrigued.  Who wouldn’t be, with BREASTS emblazoned across the cover in all caps?  As it turns out, I’m really glad I read it.

Categorized under Science on the back cover, this non-fiction book covers just about everything you ever wanted to know – and probably never even thought to wonder – about the glorious organs for which mammals are named.  Clearly the author has the utmost respect for her subject, having undertaken painstaking research and world travel to learn about the human breast’s history, present, and future, and even offering her own breasts up for scrutiny.

Williams covers fascinating ground in Breasts, offering up such little known facts as, “To be functional for nursing an infant, a mammary gland need fill only half an eggshell.  Big breasts are not required,” as well as the more sobering fact that our breasts are, unfortunately, like soft sponges, soaking up and storing a lifetime of toxins.  The human breast is both awesome in its abilities, and extremely vulnerable.

Breasts, it seems, have always drawn admirers – and not just, or even mainly, for their ability to feed human infants.  Breasts have an undeniable sexual allure, and women have been finding ways to enhance and augment their breasts for much longer than most people probably realize.

In the early twentieth century, implant materials included glass balls, ivory, wood chips, peanut oil, honey, goat’s milk, and ox cartilage.

Before that, paraffin injections were not unheard of, and once the plastics revolution hit, experimentation with polyvinyl/polyethylene sponges implanted into women’s breasts took place.  The vast majority of these, not surprisingly, had very bad, and often deadly, or at least disfiguring results.  Even when silicone finally hit the market, it was initially injected directly into women’s breasts, rather than being contained in an enclosed implant.

“There’s nothing like America’s consumer culture to convince us that what we have isn’t quite good enough,” Williams posits.  For as long as – perhaps longer than – there have been women pining for bigger, “better” breasts, there have been doctors willing to make those dreams come true, even arguing that small breasts are a “deformity.”  How’s that for feeding on our vanity and insecurities?

Inevitably, Williams discusses breast cancer at length – everything from risk factors to the rise in incidence to ongoing research and treatment – and ultimately, how little is still really understood about human breasts.

If a woman is postmenopausal, she can reduce her risk by eating well and exercising and by not drinking excessive alcohol or smoking.  Unfortunately, though, these gains are small.  It appears that by the time a woman reaches menopause, her cancer destiny is mostly laid out by some mysterious combination of her genes, the pattern of growth taken by her breasts, and the accumulated damage (or lack thereof) to her cells over many decades.  Menopause is simply the end zone in a game of chicken between breasts and carcinogens.  By this stage of life, it’s too late to change the things that may have set her down a particular path: the childhood exposures, her reproductive history, the hardiness of her genes.  New exposures, such as to hormone therapy, may put her over the edge.  But her cells will keep aging no matter what she does, and as they do, they’ll collect more mutations.

All of this has had me obsessing over my own breasts and their possible destiny –

I’ve always assumed that my multiple pregnancies have offered me a good measure of protection from breast cancer, but as it turns out, my first pregnancy came too late in my life (age 29) to do me much good in that respect; apparently, pregnancies occurring in the late teens and early twenties offer the best chance of cancer protection.  Additionally, while breastfeeding offers some good cancer protection because of the dynamic, specialized combination of hormones that course through a woman’s body during lactation, every time a woman weans a child, her breasts go through a period of “involution” where cells are radically changing and are vulnerable to mutations that can lead to cancer; so theoretically, the more times a woman weans, the more risk she is exposed to, and especially in older mothers who have accumulated more toxins in their breast tissue just be virtue of having had breasts longer than younger mothers.  So there’s another couple of Xs on my risk factor chart: multiple weanings, and older mother.  I’ve also always assumed that I had a pretty slim chance of developing breast cancer because there isn’t a family history of it, especially on my mother’s side.  However, what I know now is that the vast majority of women who do develop breast cancer have no family history of it, and I realize now that it’s possible that neither my mother nor her mother developed breast cancer (to date, anyway) because they both had children young and had hysterectomies while still in their 30s.

It is frightening to ponder these things.

From a purely aesthetic standpoint, I’ve succumbed in very recent years to being unhappy enough with the looks of my breasts that I’ve begun daydreaming about buying some perky new ones.  After reading this book, though, I’m leaning the other way.  I’m in my mid-forties, after all – why shouldn’t I have breasts that show their age and all they’ve accomplished?  I’ve successfully fed seven babies with these babies – and when I really think about it – that these two humble mounds of flesh have provided the sole sustenance for SEVEN babies for the first several months of each of their lives – I’m kind of awestruck.  They have more than fulfilled their intended purpose.

In a nutshell, Breasts is illuminating, humbling, and sobering.  I highly recommend it to anyone who has or loves breasts.  We all owe it to these magnificent organs to understand and respect them more than we do.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

bird-by-bird Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
by Anne Lamott

This little non-fiction jewel is about writing, so it’s not likely to appeal to many people who aren’t interested in writing, although there is plenty of wisdom about life, as well.  Anne Lamott has lived a pretty colorful life and has a lot of wisdom to share, sprinkled generously with humor.

In Bird by Bird, Lamott talks honestly about the ups and downs of a writer’s life, condensing the material she covers as a writing teacher into a book.  It’s mainly geared towards those who wish to write fiction – she covers character development, plot, and dialogue – but she talks at length about bigger issues that face writers of every stripe, from getting motivated . . .

You begin to string words together like beads to tell a story.  You are desperate to communicate, to edify or entertain, to preserve moments of grace or joy or transcendence, to make real or imagined events come alive.  But you cannot will this to happen.  It is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work.  So you might as well just go ahead and get started.

. . . to the deep desire that some people have to write –

Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong.

She offers such sage advice as committing to “short assignments” because looking too far down the road can be immobilizing, and accepting that the first draft of anything is sure to be shitty.  Lamott speaks honestly, too, about every writer’s desire to be published, and how rare it actually is to be published, and how being published usually isn’t all it’s cracked up to be anyway.  In other words, do it for the love of writing, not for the desire to be published.  A hard pill to swallow, but no doubt true.

This book was published, however, back in 1994!  I do wonder what Lamott might have to say were she to write an updated edition to this book, taking into account the explosion of blogging (where virtually anyone can be a “published” writer) and self-publishing.  How have these things impacted the craft of writing?  Has the market  – and the niche of the writer itself – been diluted by work published based on commercialism and pure marketability rather than true writing talent?

This is a book I’ll hang onto and refer back to in my own writing endeavors.

The Boy’s Body Book by Kelli Dunham and Steven Bjorkman

the-boys-body-book_1The Boy’s Body Book: Everything You Need to Know for Growing Up YOU (Boys World Books)
by Kelli Dunham and Steven Bjorkman

PUBERTY.  It’s a rare parent who can utter that word aloud without shuddering, or at least squirming a little.  Eventually, though, we all find ourselves face to face with people who resemble our sweet children, but who seem to have been taken over by cranky aliens.

I have found myself in just such a situation lately with my second son, age 10 1/2.  It’s not full-blown puberty yet, but it’s a-comin’; oh, the mood swings!  The tantrums!  The storming off!  And while I pride myself on being able to have frank conversations with my kids about most things under the sun, sometimes it helps to have a book at one’s disposal to get the conversation started, or to further the conversation.

boysbodybook02

I actually stumbled across this book on Amazon while I was searching for something of a similar nature geared towards girls, because my twins aren’t far behind.  I’m really glad I found this book for boys.  It covers all the important stuff – stuff, I’m pretty sure, that is covered in what used to be the Fifth Grade Growth and Development Film shown at school, but which is now, apparently the Sixth Grade Growth and Development Film (probably a year too late, since by sixth grade, most boys are knee-deep in a lot of these changes already) in our school district.  It covers everything from body odor to body hair to peer pressure, to feelings – all in straightforward, down-to-earth language.

pages

I read it cover to cover in about an hour, and will be leaving it in my son’s room for him to read at his leisure.  I’m hopeful that it will ease his mind about what he’s experiencing, and provide a springboard for further conversation between him and me, him and his dad, or even him and his older brother.

Highly recommend.

 

The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn

homework The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing
by Alfie Kohn

Whereas The Case Against Homework is a book for parents by parents, The Homework Myth is more of a scholarly rebuke of homework as it currently stands in American schools.  The Case Against Homework lays out countless anecdotes that illustrate the downside of homework, as well as step-by-step strategies to address homework issues.  The Homework Myth, in down-to-earth terms, addresses the most common arguments made in favor of homework, and deconstructs the studies that supposedly support homework as an institution.

As I read Kohn’s book, I found myself almost laughing because I have indeed encountered all the very same arguments in favor of homework at my own kids’ school – arguments that really don’t hold water when you examine them: the “reinforcement” argument; the “BGUTI – or Better Get Used to It” argument; the “parents demand homework” argument; the “homework teaches responsibility, blah blah blah” argument.  They’re all pretty much hooey.

So why does homework persist?  In short, we are a competition-driven culture, our schools are driven by standardized test scores, and test scores have become the measure of achievement for school-aged children.  And at what price?  stressed out, burned out kids who are not being encouraged to develop critical thinking skills, creativity, inquisitiveness, or a passion for learning.

If you are a parent who is fed up with the homework problem, this book will validate your feelings of frustration.  I would recommend it to not only every parent with school-aged children, but educators as well.

The Case Against Homework by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish

book

The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Children and What Parents Can Do About It
by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish

Homework has been a thorn in my side for a long time.  While my oldest son, now in high school, attended a private school for pre-k through second grade and wasn’t required to do homework until second grade, my other children who have attended public school only have brought homework home since kindergarten.  Kindergarten!  Boy, have times changed.  I can’t remember being assigned homework until fifth grade myself.  Admittedly, that was a long time ago, and much has changed on the educational landscape since I was a kid.  This isn’t a public school vs. private school debate, however; the homework problem extends to both sides.

The homework issue has only gotten worse as more of my kids have entered school, and we fight a daily battle over it.  In truth, my heart has never been in it, though, and I resent being placed in the role of homework taskmaster when I think it’s ridiculous to require young kids like this (I currently have a first-grader, two third-graders, and a fifth-grader, in addition to my high school sophomore and two younger children who are not yet school age) to do homework in the first place.

The Case Against Homework validates all of my frustration, and then some.  Written by two parent activists, one of them an attorney, the first part of the book gives voluminous anecdotal data about the actual impact of today’s average homework loads on children and families, including:

  • The adversarial dynamic that is foisted upon parents and their kids over homework;
  • Loss of downtime for kids;
  • Intrusion on valuable family time;
  • Loss of time for other enriching activities for kids;
  • Encouragement of a sedentary lifestyle;
  • Stressed out kids

Studies are also cited which conclude that, despite conventional wisdom, homework does not teach responsibility or self-direction, especially when kids are too young to be developmentally equipped for these skills and, in fact, require a great deal of parental direction and involvement in their homework, and there is little to no correlation between homework and academic achievement, especially in elementary school.  Excessive homework (which includes any homework for kids who are not developmentally ready to tackle it after spending all day at school) burns kids out and leads to frustration and a dislike for school, which is directly counter to what homework proponents insist homework accomplishes.  Additionally, all those worksheets your kid brings home to do?  More than anything, they teach rote learning, and not real thinking.

The second half of the book explains how to go about effecting change in your community, on the district level, school level, and classroom level.

I am finally fired up enough about this issue to take action, and this book has inspired me to spearhead a campaign for change in my community.

I highly recommend this book to all parents of school-aged children.

Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon

far-from-the-tree-cover-223x339 Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity
by Andrew Solomon

Where to start?

I was eager to devour this tome (702 pages, not including Acknowledgments, Notes, Bibliography, and Index) when it started generating buzz in the Down syndrome parenting community a couple of months ago.  At its core, it’s a study of the relationships between parents and “alien” children – that is, children born with differences so fundamental as to make them seem alien to their parents.  The chapters include such titles as “Autism,” “Schizophrenia,” “Down Syndrome,” “Rape,” and “Transgender” to name a few, bookended by the first and last chapters titled “Son,” and “Father,” recounting the author’s own “alien” identity as a homosexual and how that played out in his role as a son, and then as a father.

How do these families forge bonds?  How do they cope with the challenges inherent in the differences that divide them?  How do these children find their own identities when those identities can’t necessarily be passed down to them by their parents – and how do such parents nurture or squelch those identities?  These are the questions examined at the heart of this book.

I was, of course, especially interested in the chapter on Down syndrome, and I wrote about it here: On Down Syndrome and Falling Far From the Tree.  I won’t rehash what I had to say about except to say that it stirred up very mixed feelings for me.  Here are a couple of other reviews by parents of children with Down syndrome, if you’re interested: Far From the Tree – I Finally Finished It by Alison Piepmeier; and “Far From the Tree” Review: Families On the Edge by George Estreich.  The consensus seems to be that, while Solomon covers important ground on Down syndrome, he missed the boat on quite a bit.

And I wonder if the same can be said about any of his other subjects in the book.  Overall, the book is sad and bleak.  I read the chapter on Autism, for instance, with great interest, as I have a number of friends who have children who have been diagnosed with autism.  To be perfectly frank, Solomon’s portrayal of autism is pretty horrifying, despite the fact that he wants to get the message across that these parents experience a love for their children that is at least, if not more, profound than parents of neurotypical children.  I was left wondering, “Is this really how life looks behind closed doors for these people I know who have kids with autism?”  Even more so, I wondered – and am still wondering – what those people I know would have to say about Solomon’s treatment of autism – would they dispute the picture he paints as we parents of kids with Ds have disputed his picture of Down syndrome?

In Cristina Nehring’s article, Loving a Child On the Fringe, in which she takes on Solomon’s book, and specifically his take on Down syndrome as the parent of a child with Ds herself, she lashes out at him for, in the end, seeking an “A-1” baby for himself, and for wrongly seeing himself as an “adversity survivor” when his child is born and needs a CAT-scan to investigate some apparent physical anomalies.  I read Nehring’s article before I read Solomon’s book.  Having now read the book, I think Nehring exaggerated; although Solomon and his husband do go through the usual process of sifting through donor profiles once they’ve decided to have a child via egg donor and surrogate; in the end, they abandon that and conceive a child with a close friend, and they forego amniocentesis that would detect birth defects.  When their newborn requires a CAT scan, Solomon describes the terror any new parent would feel at being told that their brand new baby may have something seriously wrong with it.  In that brief span of time between being told that, watching his newborn son undergo the scan, and finally being told that all was well, Solomon discovered in himself what most of we parents who have children with unexpected conditions discover: that our love for those children prevails over terror.

All that said, however, I’m still at sort of a loss about this book.  I wonder what the real point of it is: if the point is to engender tolerance and compassion for diversity, I think Solomon paints too bleak a picture of most of his subjects to accomplish that.  And who, exactly, is this book’s intended audience?  If it’s for the general public, I think in large part it will only serve to reinforce the societal feeling that difference is scary and unpleasant.  If it’s meant for the families of children with “horizontal identities,” I think, unfortunately, Solomon falls short of the mark despite his extensive research.