Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Book Review: Brain Rules for Baby, by John Medina

One of the more overwhelming aspects of impending parenthood, I’ve discovered, is the infinite amount of advice people would like to give you. Searching for a book on pregnancy and parenting leads one to vast, candy-colored landscapes of literature, with each book insistently tugging in a different direction. It’s nearly impossible to separate fact from opinion, largely because most parenting "facts" boil down to opinions, anyway. This book caught my eye because it offers parenting advice within a framework I find particularly interesting: brain development, neuroscience, and quirky scientific studies.

Which isn’t to say that this is dry, boring nonfiction. This is definitely science for the layperson, and it’s fascinating. I wasn’t really in the market for a parenting book until I flipped through this one and browsed through a couple of Medina's interesting summaries of studies on baby brains, and the accompanying anecdotes from his own experience.

This book offers a mountain of interesting facts and extremely useful advice, but Medina takes great care to warn readers about taking parenting advice with a grain of salt. He writes up front that the data coming back from this sort of science is dangerously seductive, and that it's all too easy for parents to jump to the wrong conclusions and freak themselves out because "that's what the scientists say." The esoteric factor that makes neuroscience so interesting tends to complicate things for frustrated, sleep-deprived parents that just want someone to tell them what to do. Ultimately, for all of the information this book gives, Medina's advice for creating a smart, happy baby boils down to simple stuff we should be doing anyway: love your spouse, and love your kid.

His full disclosure regarding the ambiguity of the data is comforting, considering how he can't quite keep a few of his own biases out of the mix, including a definite grudge against video games and television. But, hey, everyone's got an opinion on parenting, right?

I don't usually go in for this kind of book, but I will definitely recommend this to anyone who is expecting or has young children.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Book Review: Black Thorn, White Rose, by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

This is one of what I gather to be a whole host of “alternative fairy tale” short story collections. It has sat on my shelf for years, forlornly waiting to be read. I recently started picking at it, a story at a time, while reading other things. It’s solidly average-to-decent, but I actually liked it more than I thought I would.

As with most genre short story anthologies, the entries in this book all revolve around the common theme of turning a classic fairy tale on its head. The stories approach this from a number of angles, resulting in everything from alternative viewpoints to entire transplants of the setting; I only knew that some of them were related to a classic tale because they were in this book to begin with. Even so, each tale does what it sets out to do, as the settings are suitably evocative and the morals (altered and revised though some may be) are crystal clear by the end of each.

This collection suffers from the hallmark lack of consistency that plagues most short story collections, but I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of duds in this one. Granted, only one or two stories struck me enough that I’m still thinking about them, but each and every one of them were fun to read. I liked some less than others, but there were none I outright disliked, which is rare in a collection like this.

Turns out, this collection is perfect for the use I had for it: fun, escapist, bite-sized reads. Most of the tales presented have a sensual, feminist bent, but there really is something for everyone, with altered fairy tales of all different moods and directions. I’m not exactly chomping at the bit for another in this series, but I will definitely pick one up once I’m in the mood for it again, and would definitely recommend this one to those who are fans of the adult fairy tale.

Verdict: 3 out of 5