Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life

by Anu Partanen
Harper     2016
432 pages     Nonfiction

Americans have long heard about the superiority of the Nordic form of Socialism, and more recently we have heard about the Finnish schools and the superiority of their education system. Frankly, this is not news to me. I have been hearing about it for years from my Norwegian sister-in-law, Arna. For all the years she has been married to my brother, she has bragged about how much better the Norwegian theory of everything is compared to the American theory of anything. And then, lo and behold, a book by virtually the same name, The Nordic Theory of Everything by Anu Partanen appeared on my Kindle from the publisher. Would I review it? Of course, I thought. Now I can finally figure out what Arna was talking about. Well, it has taken me several months to get through the book, which I read in fits and starts, but I can now assure you that for the most part, Arna is right. The Nordic way is the best way for many of life's situations.

Partanen is a journalist who came to the United States when she married an American. She begins by discussing all the things that most confused her when she arrived in the United States, including the things she took for granted in Finland, her home country. (The same social conditions she speaks of regarding Finland apply to the other Nordic countries as well). For example, she had a difficult time figuring out co-pays for health insurance. No such thing in Finland. Taxes were also a problem, including the complicated nature of the forms and deductions. One of the things that most surprised her was parental leave and childcare—something that is taken for granted in the Nordic countries.

The central thesis of the book is contained in the prologue: "What could a bunch of tiny, cold, insignificant countries, where everybody looks the same, acts the same, and thinks a good time is a plate of pickled herring have to offer the diverse and dynamic United States?"

The Nordic Theory of Everything addresses four major concepts that Partanen finds difficult to understand in the United States: healthcare, the educational system, the family unit, and governmental participation in everyday life. I found the entire idea of family leave and childcare to be the most fascinating, particularly because we in the United States are embroiled in a huge debate regarding these issues. Partanen calls this the "Nordic theory of love." She says that "authentic love and friendship are possible only between individuals who are independent and equal." Most Nordic countries are quite egalitarian when it comes to new parents. Both parents are allowed leave when there is a new child in the family, and the parents return to their jobs exactly where they left off. Although companies in the United States are getting better about family leave, there tend to be many more constraints on the leave than in the Nordic countries.

And then there is education—free education for all through university. My nephew Will, born and raised in the United States, is a Norwegian citizen because of his mother. He is attending graduate school in Norway tuition free. University education for all is a concept that is also being debated in the United States, and Partanen has a lot to say on this matter as well. All of her informative book is well-researched but also shows a great deal of common sense. She believes that the Nordic model for the role of government in the lives of a country's citizens is not inhibiting, but frees the citizen for social mobility, entrepreneurship, and effective citizenry. Ultimately, she believes that America's social systems are out dated and old fashioned, but in the closing chapter of the book, she maintains that the United States can fix many of our social concerns and constraints and reinvigorate our society if we follow the Nordic model.

So—I was discussing the book with my nephew, Will, who is finishing his fifth year living in Norway with all his education free. He espoused everything that Partanen says in her book. When I asked what he felt were the weaknesses in the system, he suggested that the Nordic countries are quite insular and unwilling to accept people unlike themselves. "Are they racist?" I asked. "Yes," he replied, "I would have to say that there is a streak of racism in the culture." My conclusion is that no culture is without its problems, but Partanen offers a "careful and judicious" case for some remodeling that should be happening in the American theory of everything.

A review in the New York Times.
A review in the Seattle Times.
Anu Partanen website

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Raising Human Beings: Creating a Collaborative Partnership with Your Child

by Ross W. Greene, PhD
 Scribner     2016
281 pages     Nonfiction
The Shortlist

At a family picnic the other day, my granddaughter (age 5) was having a hard time focusing on eating her dinner. There was a lot of food on her plate, and she had touched none of it. My daughter said to her, "I think that you have two options here: one option is to just sit here staring at your plate until the picnic is over. The other option is to come up with a solution with me about how much you need to eat and then eat that amount so that you can go and play." My granddaughter decided that the second option was the best. She said that she was worried that there was too much food on her plate. She and her mother figured out the amount she needed to eat; she ate quickly; and then got up to go play with her cousins. One of her aunts watched the entire exchange and remarked, "Gee, I wish I had known that strategy 10 years ago when I needed it."

In his excellent book, Raising Human Beings, Dr. Ross Greene has created a plan to encourage collaborative partnerships between parents and children that can help to resolve the many scenarios that parents and children have to negotiate on the pathway to adulthood. The goal, of course, is for parents to help their children develop skills to become independent without becoming adversarial. 

To go back to my granddaughter's food situation. Dr. Greene suggests three sets of options, One option is Plan A, the plan in which the parents are in control. "You are going to sit there until you finish that food." Plan B is the plan my daughter chose. It takes into account the child's problem and together they seek to find a solution. Plan B actively uses three steps (empathy, define adult concerns, and invitation) to establish understanding and work in partnership to come up with solutions that address every party’s concerns.

 Dr. Greene also offers Plan C in which the parent defers to the child's skills, beliefs, values, preferences, personality traits and goals. An example of this would be another granddaughter's decision not to play soccer anymore and to try out for the cheerleading squad, instead. Still athletic but more social. Her parents deferred to her decision-making skills, even though her father was disappointed because soccer had been an interest that they shared.

Raising Human Beings has a child rearing plan that goes way beyond the "Because I said so!" form of decision making to a much more collaborative and affirming style of parenting. Ultimately the child becomes a far more confident decision maker—ready and able to become independent. The reviewer in Publisher's Weekly concludes: "This book is a game-changer for parents, teachers, and other caregivers of children. Its advice is reasonable and empathetic, and readers will feel ready to start creating a better relationship with the children in their lives."


Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Crepes of Wrath: A Pancake House Mystery

by Sarah Fox
Alibi       2016
257 pages     Cozy Mystery

The setup of The Crepes of Wrath is good. Marley comes to the small beachfront Washington community to help out her cousin Jimmy who has landed in the hospital with pneumonia. Jimmy runs a popular diner in Wildwood Cove called The Flipside Pancake House. Marley takes a leave of absence from her job as a legal assistant in Seattle to help out. We never meet Jimmy because he is murdered on his way home from the hospital. At that point, Marley becomes consumed with trying to figure out who has murdered him. The town is small and everyone becomes a suspect in Marley's eyes.

The setting is also good. The Crepes of Wrath takes place off season in a small beach community. I could visualize the spot and the people who live there. The Flipside Pancake House restaurant reminded me a bit of Gull Landing, the little restaurant in our vacation spot of Pentwater Michigan. It stays open all winter and only serves the community. The Victorian house that Marley inherits when Jimmy dies sits on the beach, but houses are being torn down all around it to make way for new development, which of course, is an anathema to the townspeople. Hence the tension in the community and potential murderers who may want Jimmy's beach front property.

The plot moves along rapidly, which is good, and the climax is a bit of a surprise. I found myself engrossed in the final chapters as it becomes more and more dangerous for Marley to move around in the community as she seeks to solve the murder. Although there was foreshadowing as to who the murderer might be, I was surprised when the murderer was revealed.

What is totally lacking in The Crepes of Wrath is a reason to read the book. I felt that the author Sarah Fox was just going through the motions—clicking off all the components of a cozy mystery—setting (check), motive (check), recipes (check). As a reader, I never connected with the characters. Even though the story is told through the eyes of Marley, we never really know her, and we know her love interest, Brett even less. And speaking of love interest, both of these characters—Marley and Brett—are supposed to be in their thirties, but this is the most chaste, 14-year-old romance ever. (Would readers of cozy mysteries be offended if the main characters did more than just feel "the electricity" between them.)  Romance (check)!

If you want to know what a cozy mystery should contain, I refer you to the Cozy Mystery blog, which gives you a run-down of all the components. And oh, by the way, the recipes at the end of the book are very good. If the rest of the book were only as good as the recipes. . .

So, why waste time reading a so-so cozy mystery? For the same reason that we sometimes mindlessly click through TV channels or flip on ridiculous websites; our brains need a rest. It had been a rough week, and I needed a rest. Now, I am ready to tackle meatier fare. Oh, and by the way, have you watched The Night Of on HBO?

The Crepes of Wrath is available as an ebook for $3.99. Cheap therapy!

Here's a review by a blogger who felt like I did about the Crepes of Wrath.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

You'll Grow Out of It

by Jessi Klein
Grand Central     2016
304 pages            Essays

And now for something completely different! 

Comedic essays by stand-up comedian and television comedy writer, Jessi Klein. At first, when You'll Grow Out of It arrived from the publisher, I had no idea who Jessi Klein was. (I hesitate to say this because it might make me sound like an old woman and totally out of it.) But then I remembered that she is on "Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me!" on NPR sometimes. She also won an Emmy for writing for the Inside Amy Shumer show. 

OK. Now we have her creds out of the way. I picked up the book because I have an enormous stack of books, and I wanted something completely different. You'll Grow Out of It is a series of essays that include some of Klein's stand up routines, and  stories that she told on The Moth, and Comedy Central. Some of the stories are laugh out loud funny, and some are poignant, including the essay about trying to become pregnant. Many of the stories speak to issues of femininity, feminism, and the feminine mystique. There are stories concerning finding someone to date and stories about breaking up. There is a charming story about how she got engaged and a delightful one about the search for a wedding dress. As a modern woman, she doesn't quite understand the whole concept of objectification of the female body and the female psyche. One delightful story talks about how she attempted to get a tighter ass—because she suddenly realized that sexy was now all about butts and not boobs. 

My favorite story is How I Became a Comedian. I have often wondered how someone chooses to enter the rather humiliating world of stand-up comedy. Even though she wanted to do comedy badly, it took her years of therapy and comedy writing in order to get up the courage to get in front of an audience. The story plays to all of our insecurities and anxieties. She found that the late comedienne Joan Rivers was her inspiration to get out there and perform her own material.

I was able to find several of the stories from the book on YouTube. A story about her sister's wedding at Disney World was told on the Moth on You Tube. She reads another of her stories on a website called Riot Live. It is called Poodle vs. Wolf and it concerns those gorgeous women (think Angelina Jolie) who are gorgeous no matter what. They are the Poodles. The wolves are those gorgeous women (think Tina Fey) who have to work a bit harder to be beautiful.

Kirkus Reviews says that You'll Grow Out of It  is a "lively irreverent collection, leaving the impression of a strong woman with a sharp eye for the ludicrous." Jessi Klein is a "gifted comedian" who "turns the anxieties, obsessions, insecurities, and impossible to meet expectations that make up human nature into laughter."

If you loved Bossy Pants, you will enjoy You'll Grow Out of It, although if I had to choose, I would say that Tina Fey's book is better.

An Interview with Jessi Klein
Comedy Central presents Jessi Klein

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

by Helen Simonson
Random House     2010
358 pages     Literary Fiction

Major Pettigrew is a very proper British man in a constant state of irritation over something or other that doesn't meet his standards.  One reviewer catalogues his irritations: "We see him annoyed, dyspeptic, displeased, disapproving, disappointed, dismayed, horrified, outraged, angry, appalled, exasperated, resentful, wincing, and flinching!" When we meet him, he has just learned that his brother Bertie has died, and shock and grief have taken over his attitude.

Then the doorbell rings, and he finds Mrs. Ali, the village shopkeeper, on his doorstep, and he is struck by love at first sight. Well, it isn't really first sight, because he often buys tea at her shop, but through the fog of his grief, he sees her really for the first time. The Pakistani woman (who, by the way has never been to Pakistan) has come to collect the payment for the newspaper delivery, and when he invites Mrs. Ali in, he finds that she is intelligent and a reader of Kipling and Keats—his favorite authors. The two become friends and persist in a very decorous relationship, despite the prejudices of the local busybodies and her upright, conservative Pakistani relatives. 

The first third of the book establishes our understanding of Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali and gives us a clear-eyed view of the small British village where tradition and busybodiness rule, but change creeps into every corner. Although Mrs. Ali and her deceased husband have been in the community for several years, they are relegated to a class below that of the traditional residents, who actually believe that they live in a "utopia of multicultural understanding." We also meet Roger, Major Pettigrew's thoroughly modern and very crass son, a constant source of annoyance to the Major. In the Major's eyes, Roger can do nothing right, and when Roger says that he and his American girlfriend, Sandy, are going to rent a weekend cottage in the village, Major Pettigrew is beside himself.

The second third of the book develops the major subplots, a retrieval of a valuable shotgun from his dead brother's wife, the yearly out-of-control golf club party, and the arrival of a nephew to run Mrs. Ali's store, which makes her feel superfluous. In the third section, all plot lines are resolved and Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali find that love can conquer all, amidst middle age and local prejudice.

Simonson is a master of subtle humor, and she has the curmudgeonly Major Pettigrew's character down pat. The humor sometimes is laugh-out-loud funny, and I found myself frequently chortling. For example, shortly after meeting the American girlfriend, Sandy, Major Pettigrew meets a land developer Frank Ferguson, who has arrived from New Jersey to work on a luxury condominium development in Major Pettigrew's back yard. The Major muses: "Two Americans in as many weeks was, he reflected, approaching a nasty epidemic."

My absolute favorite paragraph concerns the local Lord's niece, Gertrude, who the Lord is having trouble marrying off because she is "stubbornly plain." Otherwise, the Lord might try to marry her off to the American, Ferguson.  He says, "Her mother was such a great beauty, you know. But she's happiest in the stables shoveling manure. In my day that would have sufficed, but these days, men expect their wives to be as dazzling as their mistresses." To which the Major responds, "That's shocking. How on earth will they tell them apart."

There is much to love about Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. Major Pettigrew reminded me of my Uncle Merrill, who was very proper and always irritated about something. I also related well to the romance between the Major and Mrs. Ali. As a person who was given a second chance at love, I know full well that when you fall in love in middle age, you take the person with peculiarities and habits intact. 

This is my book club choice for August. Some readers are pairing it with A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. I do want to read this book, but I think I am done with old men for the time being.

Helen Simonson has a new book out that has received a lot of attention. The Summer Before the War was released in March of 2016. It also appears that the movie rights for Major Pettigrew's Last Stand have been purchased, and we may be able to have a delightful evening with the Major and Mrs. Ali.

The review in the Washington Post.
Helen Simonson's website.