Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Book Review: No Milk! by Jennifer A. Ericsson, illustrated by Ora-Eitan

January 23rd, 2018

Reviewed by Tirzah Mae:

“There was no milk because he didn’t know that you need to squeeze the cow’s udders for the milk to come out. Because he was a city boy.”

No Milk!

And that’s the gist of it.

Truly a delightful little book, although it isn’t quite as explicit as Tirzah Mae’s explanation makes it sound. Parents of city boys and girls (like my own city-born Tirzah Mae) will have to explain why all the things the city boy tried resulted in “No milk!” and why “A little pat? A little squeeze? A little tug? Could it be?” finally produced milk.

A favorite of Tirzah Mae and Louis alike (and I don’t hate it, so there’s that.)

Book Review: For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage by Tara Parker-Pope

November 20th, 2017

What makes for a good marriage? What combination of inborn traits, behaviors, and life circumstances makes for marital longevity and bliss?

Sure, there are plenty of people willing to opine based on their personal experiences with marriage, or perhaps on their experiences counseling married couples or divorcees. But what does the science say?

Ostensibly, that’s what Tara Parker-Pope set out to explore in For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage.

And, if you do a cursory reading of her book, you’ll come to certain conclusions about the best marital model. Mainly, you’ll come to think that an egalitarian, 50-50 marriage is the way to go. It is clearly the best option. That is, if you fail to read page 254 carefully. There, a couple of paragraphs belie the drumbeat of “egalitarian is best” to which the entire rest of the book marches:

“It’s often a surprise when people learn that a traditional marriage, which is marked by the male breadwinner/female homemaker roles, is widely viewed as the most stable marriage. It had the lowest divorce rate in the studies by Dr. Hetherington. But just because these marriages are stable doesn’t mean they always are the most happy.

For a traditional marriage to thrive, both partners have to be happy with their individual role, perform it well, and feel respected by the other partner for the contributions they make to the marriage and family. If one partner changes, particularly if the wife decides she wants to work outside the home, the marriage can be stressed, often beyond repair.”

I love how shocked Parker-Pope is (and how she attributes her own shock to “people”) that experts on marriage stability regard the traditional marriage to be the most stable model (you know, based on things like… data.) I also love how quickly she jumps to discredit that result. I mean, it may be the most stable, but clearly one couldn’t actually be, you know, happy in a marriage like that.

When I read that second paragraph, I can’t help but think that the things she’s arguing make for a happy traditional marriage are things that make for a happy marriage altogether. Even if both spouses work, they will be happiest if both are happy with their individual role, perform it well, and feel respected by the other partner for the contributions they make to the marriage and family. And if one partner changes, perhaps maybe if a woman decides she wants to stay at home with the children? The marriage is stressed – not necessarily by the desire, but by the change in family dynamics that must be navigated before a new equilibrium is reached.

Now, does this mean that Parker-Pope’s book is not worth reading? Not really. I found it to be interesting. It sparked lots of conversation with my husband (always a nice thing whether or not the topic of discussion is marriage – but it’s especially nice when a book about marriage enables conversation with your spouse.) There was other information that is applicable even if you reject the pervasive belief that egalitarianism is the best model for marriage (for instance, did you know that couples with MORE conflict tend to have stronger marriages? It’s really in how conflict is brought up and managed that makes the difference.)

I don’t think this is a great book to read if you feel like your marriage is in trouble. It’s not terribly practical in that regard. I also don’t think it quite succeeds at the subtitle’s aim of discussing “the science of a good marriage” (given its failure to look any deeper at the most stable model of marriage – the two paragraphs above are literally ALL that is said about traditional marriage.) But if you’re like me, in a happy and functional marriage and eager to continue learning and growing within that marriage, I think this could still be beneficial (or at least interesting).

Rating: 3 stars
Category: Marriage
Synopsis: Attempts to discuss what the science says about successful marriages (that don’t end in divorce), but without really regarding a traditional marriage as a viable option (and therefore leaving out an entire area of inquiry that seems rather important to this reader.)
Recommendation: Interesting information, probably not helpful for a struggling marriage.

Book Review: Show Them Jesus by Jack Klumpenhower

May 20th, 2017

Kids need the gospel too.

Jack Klumpenhower’s thesis is simple, obvious, and only rarely acted upon.

I’ve been teaching children for almost 20 years now (I know, I was very young when I started). I’ve seen a lot of different Sunday School curricula, a lot of different midweek programs, a lot of websites for teaching the Bible to kids. Almost all of them agree that the gospel is important.

But when push comes to shove, lessons are moral tales or informational lectures. Every lesson ends with a “what you should do” or “who you should be” – without necessarily pointing to who Christ is or what He has done on our behalf.

Klumpenhower diagnoses the problem:

“We’ve been dispensing good advice instead of the good news. Eventually kids will tire of our advice, no matter how good it might be. Many will leave the church. Others will live decent, churchy lives but without any fire for Christ. We’ll wonder why they’ve rejected the good news, because we assumed they were well grounded in it. In fact, they never were. Although we told them stories of Jesus and his free grace, we watered it down with self-effort – and that’s what they heard.”

He explains the necessity of the gospel:

“Only the good news fights both smugness and insecurity, declaring both that we’re horribly sinful yet more loved by God than we could dare imagine.”

He describes the freedom that can be found for teachers and parents in sharing the gospel:

“Don’t be discouraged. Kids will need correction sometimes, but our mission is not to hound or plead or talk them into anything – it’s to speak God’s word of salvation, peace, faith, and the righteousness Christ gives.”

And then he gives practical examples, one after the other, of how to incorporate the gospel into your teaching, your classroom discipline, your home.

Klumpenhower gives tips for finding the gospel in every Bible story (even those obscure Old Testament ones). He encourages teachers to ask three questions of the text: What is God doing for his people in this story? How does God do the same for us – only better – in Jesus? How does believing this good news change how we live? I enjoyed how Klumpenhower walked through the process of studying a passage with an eye to the gospel. Even for those who are not teachers (although, if you’re a parent, you are a teacher), the exercise of finding the gospel throughout the pages of Scripture is still beneficial. This is not contorting the Scriptures to fit a “gospel-focus” – this is reading the Scriptures as they were intended to be read. Jesus excoriated the Jews of his day in John 5:39 saying, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” If we are not finding Christ in every page of Scripture, it is because we are not looking. All of Scripture testifies to Him.

In case you were quick to come up with a counter-text, a passage that can’t possibly be about Jesus, Klumpenhower does describe a few different ways that the gospel can be showcased in Scripture. First, there’s the “what does God do in this story and how does he do it better in Jesus?” that I mentioned above. But there’s also the “what does this passage reveal about God’s nature – and how is that aspect of his nature more fully seen in Jesus?” And there’s the one we see fairly often in some of the darkest stories: “what human problem does this passage reveal that God solves by sending Jesus?”

When discussing New Testament stories and texts, Klumpenhower encourages teachers to see Jesus as beautiful and to portray him as such to their students. Not primarily as someone to be emulated, but as one to be worshiped. He relates a time when he asked some students to give reasons why Jesus was better than good works. The only reason they could come up with was that Jesus died on the cross for their sins. Now, that’s a wonderful reason why Jesus is better – but it certainly isn’t the only one. He made a goal of showing in every lesson that year why Jesus is better than the many things that compete for our love.

Going beyond the content of our lessons, Klumpenhower encourages teachers (and parents) to consider what their classroom culture and their responses to difficulties say about the gospel – and to intentionally align their classroom’s atmosphere around the gospel. He gives an abundance of tips and examples for how to to do this and what it might look like.

One of my favorite aspects of this book was the inclusion of two little sections at the end of each chapter. The first section was “Questions You Might Be Asking”. Here, Klumpenhower addresses those questions I’ve heard or seen or asked a dozen times: “It sounds like you’re saying it doesn’t matter how we act as Christians. Don’t we still have to work hard to obey God?” “I understand some Old Testament passages are prophecies about Jesus. But aren’t you going too far in saying it’s all about Jesus?” “Do you really need that much context – like the whole book – when you’re going to teach one Bible passage? It sounds like a lot of reading.” The second section is “Show Them Jesus Right Away”. In this section, Klumpenhower offers immediate practical steps for teachers, parents, grandparents, youth leaders, song leaders, etc. to take to implement some of the concepts from the chapter. He always offers a practical step for parents and for teachers, the other positions are included as applicable.

In case you haven’t figured it out, I was highly impressed with this book – both with its thesis and with how Klumpenhower describes the process of actually showing students Jesus over the course of a class session. This would be an excellent book for Sunday school teachers and children’s ministry directors and kid’s club leaders to read together or individually. But it’s also a great book for parents (homeschooling or not) to read. The truth is, we ALL need the gospel – we need to set the gospel forever before our eyes. Klumpenhower’s excellent Show Them Jesus provides the rationale and the tools to do this – for ourselves and for our children.

Rating: 5 stars
Category: Children’s ministry
Synopsis: Why children need the gospel and how to communicate the gospel to them in all our Bible teaching.
Recommendation: Are you a parent, a grandparent, an uncle or aunt? Do you teach children in Sunday school, midweek clubs, or youth groups? This book will challenge and encourage you to clearly communicate the gospel to the children you work with in everyday life. Highly recommended.

Reading board books from 100 Best Books for Children by Anita Silvey

March 15th, 2017

Anita Silvey has selected what she considers the 100 best books for children, from birth to teenage years. The first five books Silvey selected for her collection are board books. We’ve checked them out of the library and enjoyed reading them through together – although we enjoyed some significantly more than others :-)

Goodnight Moon written by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd
I know people love this book. But I just can’t bring myself to even like it. I read this to myself to say that I did, but elected to not read it to my children (lest they like it and I end up stuck reading it aloud ad nauseum.

Board books

Mr. Gumpy’s Outing written and illustrated by John Burningham
Not long after reading about this title in Silvey’s book, I chanced upon a paperback copy at a library book sale and snapped it up. I enjoyed the gentle story of the children and the various animals that joined Mr. Gumpy on his outing (after having been warned not to horse around) – but I thought the illustrations were rather lacking. Then I happened upon the board book version at the library and picked it up to read to Louis – and the illustrations were much better. Once I compared the two, I realized that the colors do in fact show up a little differently, but the main difference was that I had been reading our copy to Tirzah Mae at naptime under a dim lamp in her room – and was reading the board book to Louis in the quite bright library!

Louis reads "Freight Train"

The Very Hungry Caterpillar written and illustrated by Eric Carle
I expected Tirzah Mae to enjoy this more than she did, but I’m wondering if maybe it’s a timing issue. I enjoy The Very Hungry Caterpillar and think we’ll probably pull out the copy we own later on when Tirzah Mae is showing interest in numbers, or when it’s monarch time and we’re inundated with caterpillars feasting on our milkweed.

Tirzah Mae plays with her "Freight Train" activity

Freight Train written and illustrated by Donald Crews
This was already a favorite of Tirzah Mae’s and mine – and we were thrilled to check it out of the library again. We’ve been reading it and doing activities with it and reading it again. It’s one of a selection of books Tirzah Mae has memorized and “reads” to herself frequently. This definitely deserves a place on any such list.

Carrot Seed

The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Crockett Johnson
When I first read this book’s spare text, I wasn’t sure what to think or whether I liked it. Silvey describes this book as having a “believe in yourself” message – a message I happen to despise. But that isn’t really the message. The message is about the benefits of hard work and patience even when others doubt there will be any outcome. That’s a message I can get behind. Besides, I had to learn to like this book since Tirzah Mae likes it rather a lot. She loves the simplicity of the text and illustrations – and it can’t hurt that all the illustrations are orange, her favorite color.

Book Review: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

January 17th, 2017

Theology tells us that man is depraved (Definition: “morally corrupt, wicked”). Every human is born with original sin. Yet despite man’s depravity from birth, the world is not wholly evil – it does not, has not degenerated into utter chaos and anarchy. Why is this?

Theology has an explanation for that as well. Common Grace is the grace of God that is present for all men, whether they believe the gospel or not. Common grace is responsible for all the good that unregenerate sinners do, and for the restraint of evil through means such as conscience or societal constraints.

But what if man’s innate evil were NOT constrained? What if it had free will to do whatever it chooses without fear of conscience or law?

If this were true of the whole world, surely the world would not last long – everyone would murder everyone and, after a brief period of chaos, all humanity would be obliterated (and that’s just speaking of the natural course of unrestrained sin, without discussing God’s judgment upon sin.)

But what if it was just one man who was evil without constraint? What if, indeed, one were able to split himself into two, with one half unrestrained evil and the other half still the restrained recipient of common grace?

This is the premise of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (even if Stevenson chooses not to couch it in such explicitly theological terms.)

Does this surprise you?

It certainly surprised me.

The names “Dr. Jekyll” and “Mr. Hyde” are so well-known, so frequently thrown around to mean simply two separate personalities that I believed this book to be about multiple personality disorder. In fact, I’m almost certain I read something once that described J.R.R. Tolkien’s Smeagol/Gollum character a continuation of the literary fascination with multiple personality disorder typified by The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Yet this book is quite emphatically NOT about multiple personality disorder. It’s about unrestrained sin and trying to find a way to avoid the struggle Paul describes in Romans 7:21 “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.” Except that Dr. Jekyll wants to find a wholly natural solution to this problem (apart from the supernatural answer God gives to the problem of sin at work in our bodies: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Romans 7:24-25a ESV)

Discovering that this book was not what I’d expected was an altogether pleasant surprise. Also a pleasant surprise, this is a short book, coming in right around 100 pages, and quite readable. As a result, I highly recommend it to people such as myself – people who are pressed for time but who want to think deeply about the human condition and who desire to be “well-read”.

Rating: 5 stars
Category: Classic fiction
Synopsis: Dr. Jekyll tries to separate his “evil” side from his “good” side, with unexpected results.
Recommendation: Highly recommended

Cookbook Review: Classic Rachael Ray 30-Minute Meals

January 11th, 2017

While I enjoy complicated techniques and fancy ingredients on the occasion, I generally have three priorities in cooking. I like my recipes cheap, quick, and tasty.

Which is why I’ve been selecting cookbooks from the “quick” section at my local library.

Rachael Ray features prominently in this section, and I chose Classic Rachael Ray 30-Minute Meals for my first foray into the world of Ray.

Rachael Ray book cover

The Recipes

With 500 or so recipes, this book doesn’t skimp like some do. The recipes are divided into 4 broad categories: Everyday, Parties, Date Nights, and Kid Chefs. Each recipe contains a side-bar “menu” that includes the entree and suggested sides (recipes for sides may or may not be included depending on their complexity: “Green salad and Crusty Bread” does not have a recipe.) Some recipes include a little blurb with recipe descriptions or personal stories, but not all recipes do.

I tagged quite a few recipes in the “everyday” section as interesting (most of the party recipes were a bit too fancy for me, see above) – and I tried three recipes altogether.

Our family loves curry, so I was eager to try Ray’s “Curry in a Hurry”, which used golden raisins and mango chutney for sweetness (rather than the coconut milk we often use in our curries). I tried it with green curry paste and added extra vegetables (green peppers and sweet potatoes if I remember correctly.) We found that it was INCREDIBLY mild and quite sweet. I suppose we shouldn’t have been terribly surprised – green curry paste is much milder than red curry paste, so we’ve often felt the need to add more green curry to recipes (especially those written for the generic American). Also, both sweet potatoes and bell peppers tend to be sweet vegetables, so… Even so, while the idea was interesting, the reality wasn’t even compelling enough for me to try modifying it for future use.

The second recipe we tried was “Mamma’s Broccolini and Ricotta Pasta”, which was very easy to put together, but lacked something in oomph. Perhaps it was because I used frozen brocccoli instead of broccolini (does broccolini have a stronger flavor?), but we ended up loading this with Parmesan cheese (not in the recipe at all) to give it a bit more flavor – and still found it pretty bland. Sad day.

The third recipe we tried was much more successful. “Chili for ‘Veg-Heads'” is a vegetarian chili recipe with three different types of beans (black, red kidney, and refried beans) as well as peppers and onions. I love me a vegetarian chili, but Daniel likes to have meat in his meals, so I added a pound of ground beef but otherwise made this as written. Daniel conceded that it was good enough to use as a base for developing our own recipe (hooray! I’ve tried a half dozen or so chili recipes over the course of our marriage, none of which merited such high praise – the most common complaint Daniel has had is that my veggie-loaded chilies are too sweet.) As written, the chili is VERY mild (do I sense a theme?) – so most of our modifications have involved adding heat by mixing up the pepper types and/or quantities. I’ve included our favorite rendition below.

Overall thoughts

From the recipes we tried, it appears that Ray really does deliver on the 30 minute promise. Even with cutting up vegetables, I was able to complete the recipes we tried in half an hour. So that’s good. As far as my other two priorities: cheap and tasty? Eh. Many of the recipes call for unusual ingredients, which are generally more expensive (both because they’re harder to find and because you’re more likely to have ingredients left over that you can’t figure out how to use.) As far as taste goes, the three recipes we tried all ended up on the bland side. Then again, we tend to like highly seasoned dishes – so your results may vary.

As far as health goes, I was not tremendously impressed with the suggested menus, which were starch-heavy and vegetable-poor. Skip one of her starches and add an extra vegetable side (or two) if you want a balanced meal. Also, Ray apparently has no idea what constitutes “healthy”, so just ignore anything she says about health (thankfully, she mostly avoids discussing it.)

How is this book for browsing? As mentioned above, some recipes have little blurbs, others don’t – which means you often have to read through a recipe in order to get a sense of what it’s like. You may or may not enjoy that. There are full-page photographs every 5-6 pages (or so, I didn’t actually count), and smaller photos more frequently than that – but a fair number of the photos are of Ray rather than the food, which I find HIGHLY disappointing.

Overall, I am not impressed with Rachael Ray (based solely on this cookbook – I don’t have any other knowledge of her or experience with her.) She fails at two of my primary criteria for recipes (cheap and tasty) – and provided a sub-par recipe reading experience. Again, your results may vary.

Sample Recipe: Chili for Veg-Heads
Liberally adapted by Rebekah Garcia :-)

  • 1 lb ground beef or pork
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 medium bell pepper, seeded and chopped
  • 3 jalapeno peppers, seeded and chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced (or 4 tsp pre-potted minced garlic)
  • 1 tsp beef base
  • 1/2 tsp liquid smoke
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 quart diced tomatoes
  • 2 cups black beans (drain and rinse if using canned)
  • 2 cups kidney beans (drain and rinse if using canned)
  • 1.5 Tbsp ground cumin
  • 1.5 Tbsp chili powder
  • 0.5 Tbsp Frank’s Red Hot Sauce
  • 2 cups refried beans
  1. Brown ground beef or pork. Add onions, peppers, and garlic and saute until onions are translucent.
  2. Add rest of ingredients and heat through. Serve with your choice of chili toppings.

Book Review: Winter Blues by Norman Rosenthal

January 3rd, 2017

My mother took me to the doctor nearly every year of high school. I listed off the same complaints: decreased energy, depressed mood, weight gain, dry skin, general malaise. We asked that the doctor check my thyroid. Thyroid disorders run in my family after all. The doctor would ask more questions, would order a lab draw. A few days later, I’d get the results and discover that there was nothing wrong with me.

Every November, when the letter came announcing my normal lab results, I’d wonder what was wrong with me – because there clearly WAS something wrong with me, whatever the lab results said.

And then, one year in college (if I remember the timeline correctly), the doctor gave me a depression questionnaire and announced that there was in fact something wrong with me.

Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD.

I started taking an antidepressant, and within a couple of weeks I felt better (by winter standards) than I’d felt for years. By summer standards? Me on an antidepressant still didn’t come close. But it was enough to convince me that this was indeed my problem.

Since the diagnosis of SAD ten or so years ago, I’ve experienced a couple of episodes of major depression and have read about depression in general. But I haven’t read any books on Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Winter Blues

Until this year. This year, I read Norman E. Rosenthal’s Winter Blues – and it changed my life.

Dr. Rosenthal was the researcher who first described seasonal affective disorder, a cyclic form of depression which varies throughout the year based on light exposure. Winter Blues describes the discovery of SAD and its features, discusses the diagnostic criterion for SAD (including a number of charts to help patients understand their own seasonal patterns), and details the treatment of SAD using phototherapy, psychotherapy, and pharmacotherapy. Additionally, Rosenthal includes a variety of case studies of seasonality throughout history, in modern times, and in language and poetry.

It is the section of phototherapy, the area where Rosenthal did a great deal of research, that changed my life. After reading the section on phototherapy (sometime in October), I ordered a Lightphoria 10,000 Lux Energy Lamp from Amazon (link is to Amazon, not an affiliate link). I’ve been using the light (which is smaller than ones described in Rosenthal’s chapter on phototherapy) approximately 30 minutes daily since the light arrived on Halloween. For the first winter in almost fifteen years, I have had the energy to work steadily throughout the day without collapsing into overwhelmed-ness. Interestingly enough, while the lights had a significant impact on my energy level, it did not fix my mood. My mood continued to decrease through November until I initiated my usual winter antidepressant. The combination of the two modes of treatment has resulted in the best winter I’ve had for at least a decade, maybe even two. My mood and coping has been so markedly different that my family remarks on the change.

Using my therapy light
Using my therapy light while working on this blog post

This is not to say that I am an unequivocal fan of this book. Rosenthal’s language can be a bit flowery for my taste at times (at least for what is essentially a self-help book. Give me the facts, I say.) More distressing, while much of Rosenthal’s discussion of treatments is evidence-based, he recommends that SAD sufferers limit carbohydrates despite having only anecdotal (versus empirical) evidence of that strategy’s effectiveness.

Overall, though, I recommend Rosenthal’s Winter Blues for sufferers of SAD and those who suspect they might have some form of seasonality. Sections of this book may also be helpful for family members and friends of those with SAD.

Rating: 3 stars
Category: Medical/Psychology – Self Help
Synopsis: Rosenthal describes seasonal affective disorder and its treatment with an aim to help sufferers cope.
Recommendation: Recommended for those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder or possibly for sufferers’ close family and friends.

Book Review: Stop Second Guessing Yourself: The Toddler Years by Jen Singer

August 9th, 2016

Doubts seem par for the mothering course.

You see the amazing mother on Facebook who is doing enrichment activities with her children every day of the week (Debbie, I’m looking at you!) and you wonder if your children are missing out because you mostly just stay home and work around the house.

You see other children who are talking in full sentences or singing songs or correctly identifying colors at age 1 and you wonder if maybe you’re the reason your child isn’t doing those same things.

Your toddler melts down when you tell her it’s time to get ready for bed and, instead of going straight to bed (like she’s trying to do), you go to the bathroom to brush her teeth (despite that having been your bedtime routine for months.) And when she melts down, you wonder if maybe you’re doing this mothering thing wrong.

A book called Stop Second Guessing Yourself: The Toddler Years sounds like just the thing. You need something to help you develop confidence in your own mothering so that you can relax and just get on with the mothering instead of constantly, well, second-guessing yourself.

If you pick up Jen Singer’s book hoping to get that, though, you’ll be disappointed. Rather than a confidence-inducing book for mothers, this is a collection of tips for a variety of toddler parenting situations. For the most part, it’s Jen’s own tips – although it does include some blurbs in sidebar form from Singer’s “” community. For the most part, the tips were in the relaxed category – hacks to get your kids to do what you want (without necessarily parenting their hearts) or to cope with the inevitable frustrations of toddlerhood.

Okay, I suppose, if that’s what you want. For my part, I prefer my “tip” books to either be

  1. from an experienced mother whose outcomes are known (Homeschooling mom of a half dozen who has well-mannered teenagers? I’d love to hear her tips of mothering)
  2. a compilation of research-proven methods (a la Nurture Shock)
  3. or

  4. a compilation of tips from hundreds of different moms (because out of hundreds of moms, one of them might have circumstances and/or personalities that mesh with yours and your child’s)

So I wasn’t a huge fan of this book. Your results may vary.

Stay tuned, though, if you’re interested in hearing my advice for how to stop second guessing yourself as a mother.

Rating:2 stars
Category: Parenting Advice
Synopsis: One mother’s advice on how to cope with the toddler years. Emphasis on coping (versus parenting).
Recommendation: Not a fan, don’t recommend.

Book Review: Beautiful Babies by Kristen Michaelis

June 13th, 2016

This is basically a defense of the Weston A. Price diet for pregnancy and early childhood. The nutrition advice ranges from odd to downright dangerous. The rationale for the advice is nostalgia and cherry-picked scientific studies. And Michaelis (like a lot of self-taught nutritionists) despises me and my ilk (that is, people with actual training in nutrition.)

A review in which I annoy you by summarizing each chapter of the book using the words “In which…” Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Chapter 1
In which Michealis reveals that she has no credentials that give her any right to be talking about nutrition – apart from watching food-fright documentaries and reading people like Michael Pollan, Joel Salatin, and Sally Fallon (all of whom are interesting to read, but hardly bastions of science-based nutrition recommendations.)

Chapter 2
In which Michaelis explains that nutrition matters (*gasp*). Except don’t pay any attention to those nasty reductionist dietitians with their advice meant to avoid specific proven risks. No, you should jump on the fetal origins hypothesis (which is a reasonable and scientifically supported hypothesis that a mother’s environment during pregnancy affects her child well into adulthood, but which currently has little evidence of sufficient quality to use to make broad-ranging dietary recommendations) which means you should eat a primitive diet (what? Okay, fetal origins really doesn’t suggest need for a Weston Price style diet – but that doesn’t stop Michaelis from using the one to support the other.)

Chapter 3
In which Michaelis tells you what to avoid: MSG, corn, GMOs, vegetable oils, industrial meats/dairy/eggs, refined sweeteners, and modern gardening/farming practices. Michaelis’ rationale is a mixture of misguided nostalgia and alarmist pseudoscience. Oh, okay. She occasionally includes a bit of real science – and then completely screws up the application. For example, she recommends avoiding corn (and corn-fed animals) because corn oil has a much higher than recommended Omega 6 to Omega 3 fatty acid ratio. It is true that corn oil has a high Omega 6 to Omega 3 fatty acid ratio – and that almost all Americans could stand to eat more Omega 3s relative to Omega 6s. But…the list of corn ingredients Michaelis wants you to avoid? Only 3 of the 21 corn-derived ingredients contains fat. So… unless she’s got another good reason to avoid corn products, she’s just being silly.

Chapter 4
In which Michaelis tells you what TO eat: bone broth, traditional fats and oils, wild and pastured animal foods, natural sweeteners, and “properly prepared” grains. In general, there’s nothing wrong with these items, even if the emphasis is off. Good advice: choose butter or olive oil over partially hydrogenated margarines or shortenings. Advice with some nutritional support, although not enough to warrant broad-based recommendations: wild or pastured animals have a more favorable fatty-acid profile and soaked grains have better nutrient bioavailability (but a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains – even the unsoaked kind – is unlikely to be deficient in those micronutrients.) Completely spurious advice? bone broth and natural sweeteners. As far as sweeteners go, your body doesn’t care whether it’s “natural” or not – if it’s sugar (and that includes honey, maple syrup, sucanat, sorghum syrup, coconut palm sugar, and others), the body treats it as sugar. If it isn’t sugar (stevia and “artificial sweeteners”), the body processes it as whatever it is – whether a sugar alcohol, an indigestible starch or whatever. Of course, the real travesty of this chapter is what Michaelis omits. Please note the two food groups she doesn’t bother to mention in any degree: fruits and vegetables. Whatever the controversies nutrition science may have, there is one thing about which every science-based dietitian and nutrition researcher can agree – the general US population should be eating more fruits and vegetables.

Chapter 5
In which Michaelis helps you learn what to eat to poop well. Because your gut is your second brain. Sigh. I don’t even know where to start with this. Let’s just say that some people do have digestive issues that compromise their overall health. Most people don’t. Probiotics are good – but their benefits are frequently overstated. The most important thing you can do to have a healthy digestive system is to get sufficient fiber and water – like, say, from fruits and vegetables (which don’t necessarily need to be lactofermented, thank goodness!)

Chapter 6
In which Michaelis tells you what to eat to be fertile and to have a healthy pregnancy. The “fertility” section is more of Price’s general theories combined with more recent research from the Nurse’s Health Study. Want to hear what the science actually says? Read the highly readable The Fertility Diet by Jorge Chavarro, Patrick J. Skerrett, and Walter Willett – and keep in mind that even a well-executed study like the Nurse’s Healthy Study can’t prove causation.

The “pregnancy” section is where it gets exciting, because Michaelis has somehow figured out the cause of both morning sickness and preeclampsia, two relatively common pregnancy conditions that researchers have been puzzling over for years! (Can you sense the sarcasm?) Of course, the problem is nutrition. And the solution is a variation of the Brewer’s Diet, a favorite diet of natural childbirth advocates everywhere. Problem with the Brewer diet? Well… there are several. While the Brewer diet apparently had great success for Dr. Brewer’s (low-income, minority, teenage) patients in the 60s and 70s, nutrition science has failed to find links between the components of Brewer’s diet and healthy pregnancy. While protein deficiency may have played some role in increasing risk in Brewer’s patients, studies of moderate vs. high protein intake in pregnant women have failed to show any protective effect of increased protein intake. While Brewer’s teenaged patients may have needed the 3000 calories per day that his diet recommends (because they were still developing themselves, in addition to supporting a growing baby in their wombs), research clearly links excess weight gain during pregnancy to development of preeclampsia (and we’re talking weight gain even before those preeclamptic women started putting on all that fluid.) Additionally, while Brewer’s patients may have had nutrient deficiencies that made intake of large quantities of liver helpful and not dangerous, those of us who are adequately nourished in the first place should not be overloading our diet with items high in retinol (preformed Vitamin A), which is highly toxic to a developing baby. We should instead be getting our Vitamin A in the form of carotenoids (from vegetable sources) which our body converts to Vitamin A as needed, without the toxicity to the developing baby.

It’d be nice if we knew the exact cause of preeclampsia and could avoid it at all costs. But the reality is that we don’t know what causes preeclampsia. We know risk factors – first pregnancy with a new partner, high or low maternal age, overweight or obesity prior to pregnancy, excess weight gain during pregnancy. But none of those are a guarantee of preeclampsia – and the absence of those are not a guarantee against preeclampsia. As nice as it would be to just put ourselves on a diet for nine months to keep preeclampsia at bay, the truth is that there is very little evidence that dietary interventions make any difference in the development of preeclampsia. And if there is any promising research along that vein at present? It suggests that maybe increasing dietary fiber might make a difference. What, you mean like eating more fruits and vegetables? Oh. My. Word. That’s pretty much the most preposterous thing I’ve ever heard suggested (Sarcasm, again, in case you didn’t catch it.)

Chapter 7
In which Michaelis reminds you that everything those nasty government-shill dietitians tell you is wrong. (I have a feeling I’m becoming less charitable and more cynical as this book goes on.) But this chapter rehashes that cholesterol and saturated fat aren’t bad for you (dietitian me: it’s complicated). Michaelis also tells you that you don’t need an iron supplement (dietitian me: anyone who is routinely recommending iron supplementation to pregnant women without confirmation of anemia is acting outside the bounds of science-based practice anyway). According to Michaelis, sushi won’t give you listeria but raw cheese might (dietitian me: both sushi and raw cheese are relatively more risky than cooked fish and hard cheeses. In both cases the odds of problems are low but the problem – miscarriage or stillbirth – could be severe if it happens. Mothers should be aware of the risks and make their decisions based on information.) And finally, the occasional glass of red wine won’t harm your baby (dietitian me: probably not, but excess drinking can… and it’s worthwhile for you to find better coping mechanisms than drinking.)

Chapter 8
In which Michaelis leaves the realm of nutrition to promote every other kind of quackery you can think of. After all, Western medicine KILLS PEOPLE (dietitian me: but not as many people as would die prematurely if they opted out of Western medicine for the mumbo-jumbo you’re suggesting.)

Chapter 9
In which Michaelis informs us that breast isn’t always best – in which case you should opt for a homemade baby formula! Dietitian me: Where do I go with this train wreck of a chapter? She’s right that breast isn’t always best. In the developed world, the risk of a woman transmitting HIV through her breastmilk is greater than the risks of formula feeding. For women who are unable to produce breastmilk because of hypoplasia/insufficient glandular tissue, forcing a baby to an empty breast is not best! A drug abuser can pass drugs through her breastmilk to her baby. A severely malnourished woman may have trouble producing high quality milk. BUT… the women reading Michaelis’ book are unlikely to be drug abusers and the degree of maternal malnutrition required to malnourish a breastfed baby is incredibly rare in the United States. As for the appropriate alternative to breastmilk? Iron fortified infant formula. Period. Full stop. Even if you scrupulously follow Michaelis’s recipes for “whole food” infant formula, you’re going to end up with variations in nutrient content because (I’ve got a big surprise for you here) whole foods don’t always have the same nutrient content (even if it’s the same brand). Some organic liver will have more Vitamin A and some will have less. Some homemade broth will have more calcium and some will have less. It’s the nature of natural. But unlike your breastmilk, that liver and homemade broth wasn’t designed by God to be consumed by your baby. Your infant could end up with too much or too little and you’d have no way of knowing until the damage was done. At least with infant formula, you actually do know what the nutrient content is. It’s regulated, controlled. It tries to get as close to breastmilk as possible (which, yes, it doesn’t get close – but it can get closer than anything you can mix up at home.)

Chapter 10
In which Michaelis slams WIC and promotes baby-led weaning. At least she’s honest: “I don’t remember much of what my WIC nutritionist told me.” I’m hoping that what she DID remember was a false memory. Because no WIC dietitian worth her salt is encouraging moms to “just mix a little [infant cereal] in with their [baby’s] milk in a bottle or sippy cup.” Michaelis goes on to explain why this was terrible advice. It’s because babies can’t digest starch like that found in infant cereal. For that reason, babies shouldn’t be given starchy foods until they cut their two year molars. Problem is, Michaelis only knows the beginning of the research (that babies have less pancreatic amylase than adults) and didn’t bother to look at the whole picture (Check out Alice Callahan’s excellent treatment of the topic at Science of Mom if you’re interested in learning more about whether infants can digest infant cereal.) On the other hand, offering cereal in a bottle is truly terrible advice that can promote excess weight gain and possibly increase choking risk. Cereal should be served by spoon.

The ironic thing is that while Michaelis goes full-on WIC-hating in this chapter, I don’t disagree with her basic premise. Once infants are ready to eat solid foods, they can eat “real foods” (that is, the same foods the family is eating.) Most infants and toddlers eat WAY too many starches and sweets – because they’re being plied with cookies and crackers all day long instead of what they should be getting, little bits of everything the family is eating. But then again, I’d be emphasizing fruits and vegetables and whole grains and lean protein sources instead of liver and bone broth and sauerkraut (not that I don’t love me some bone broth and sauerkraut – they’re just not really necessary for good health.)

Fortunately for me, the last 50 pages of this book are recipes rather than more of the same from the first 170 pages. If I’d have had to go on… I might have bashed my head against a wall.

The reality is that nutrition science is in its infancy. There’s a lot we don’t know about how to optimize our diets for health. Some government recommendations (cholesterol restriction) and the ensuing dietary changes (a population going crazy on hydrogenated vegetable oils instead of animal fats) have been for the worse. And for every government recommendation that isn’t fully founded in the research there are two thousand non-governmental, non-reputable recommendations based on a single bit of research (that happens to be contradicted by every other piece of research.) But the answer to an infant science that sometimes lets us down isn’t to ignore science altogether or to cherry-pick studies that fit our predetermined viewpoint, as Michaelis does all throughout her book. The answer is to evaluate the science critically and to go with the stuff that has the most support (rather than jumping on the bandwagon for the newest study). That is not at all what Michaelis does.

With the risk of sounding like a broken record, Michaelis majors on the minors – things that have minimal to no scientific support – while completely ignoring what I (as a nutrition professional) consider to be the most important food advice any American can receive: eat more fruits and vegetables. It’s not sexy advice. It doesn’t have the cachet of ancient wisdom only available to primitive cultures – or the allure of a governmental cover-up. But it’s the soundest advice I can give you. Eat more fruits and vegetables. Aim to include a fruit or vegetable (or two or three) at every meal and snack. You – and your babies – will be better for it.

Rating: 0 stars
Category: Diet Advice
Synopsis: A defense of the Weston Price diet – and a slam on people like me.
Recommendation: I do not recommend this book.

Book Review: Your Pregnancy Week by Week by Glade B. Curtis and Judith Schuler

April 12th, 2016

The front cover of Your Pregnancy Week by Week proudly announces that it is “The only best-selling guide written by a doctor.” The spine contains a medallion announcing “The only best-selling guide written by a doctor.” The back cover proclaims the book to be “The expanded, fully updated edition of the best-selling pregnancy guide written by a doctor.”

So the major selling point of this book is that it is written by a doctor. Glade Curtis is a board certified OB-GYN, which means he’s the perfect guy to walk a woman through every week of her normal pregnancy, right?

Well, that depends a lot on your view of what pregnancy is. Is pregnancy a medical condition to be monitored and controlled (as you would diabetes or heart disease?) or is it a life event to be cherished and enjoyed (as you would an engagement and preparation for a wedding?)

Curtis (and the obstetric community as a whole) tends to think that pregnancy is a medical condition to be monitored and controlled. As such, Your Pregnancy Week by Week consists of telling a woman all the things that might go wrong with her at any given point during her pregnancy, all the tests which might be necessary to make sure that nothing is going wrong, and why she should trust her doctor implicitly and herself not at all during pregnancy.

Okay, someone not quite as passionate about pregnancy and birth as I am might feel that I’m overreacting to this book. Things can go wrong during pregnancy, they might say. Tests are sometimes necessary. You should be able to trust your doctor. Your own instincts aren’t always right when it comes to pregnancy. And, for that matter – pregnancy isn’t simply a life event like an engagement. Things are happening in your body!

And I agree completely, dear not-so-passionate-about-birth-as-I. Things do go wrong during pregnancy – I, of all people should know. I could have died during my pregnancy with Tirzah Mae. Tests are sometimes necessary – the ultrasounds to make sure Tirzah Mae was still growing when my body was no longer functioning as designed, the blood tests that finally told us that my kidneys and liver had stopped doing their jobs – those were necessary (and without the blood tests indicating the need for delivery both Tirzah Mae and I would have died.) It is incredibly valuable to have a caregiver you can trust – which is why I am SO grateful for my midwife, who was alert to normal pregnancy and knew when to refer when my pregnancy became anything but normal. That’s why I’m SO grateful for my OB, who values women and who works with them to help them have as normal a delivery as possible.

Pregnancy isn’t SIMPLY a life event like an engagement. Your body is changing, your hormones are changing. You’ve got extra blood pumping through your veins, an extra body inside your own. Things are happening to your body that you want to understand. You want to know if those changes are normal or if they’re something to be worried about. In some cases, you NEED to know if they’re normal or if you should be worried about them (ten pounds weight gain in one day – that’s not normal. It’s definitely something to be worried about.)

But Curtis and his co-author aren’t simply helping women understand what is normal and what isn’t. They are detailing, every week, another horrible thing that can go wrong during pregnancy (tacking a line at the end about how really only two in a thousand women are going to have this problem, so don’t worry.)

Curtis explains (week after week) why a woman shouldn’t ever be afraid to get a test or a procedure because they only ever help your doctor and you and your baby (and have never been PROVEN to be harmful – the anti-precautionary principle). And he explains (week after week) why a woman should be afraid to drink caffeine, eat sugar, eat artificial sweeteners, take an over-the-counter drug, etc (because it has never been PROVEN to be safe – the precautionary principle.) The doctor is always right and can do no harm. The woman is always to be doubted and will kill her baby if left to her own devices. (Okay, I’m exagerating a little.)

Oh, and don’t even get me started on the unscientific suggestions Curtis has for labor. He encourages enemas (for the patient’s safety and comfort, of course!), fasting during labor, lying down during labor, and episiotomies. Continuous fetal monitoring is necessary for baby’s safety. And if you aren’t sure you want a natural labor? A doula is a bad idea (well, actually, are you SURE you want a natural labor? If I give you this epidural, then you’ll be so much more comfortable and will be so much easier to monitor and won’t try to move around or anything… big plus? you won’t have to hire a doula!)

Yeah. No.

Choose to have a pregnancy and childbirth not defined by fear. Choose to trust that your body is fearfully and wonderfully made. Choose NOT to read Glade Curtis and Judith Schuler’s Your Pregnancy Week by Week.

Rating: 0 stars
Category: Pregnancy
Synopsis: An overmedicalized, fear-based, doctor-is-always-right tome on pregnancy
Recommendation:If you want to be scared out of your mind by all the things that could go wrong in pregnancy and to be convinced that every intervention your doctor might suggest is absolutely the right decision, you’ll want to read this book. If you prefer to learn what a normal pregnancy looks like, how to deal with the normal problems of pregnancy, and to make evidence-based (versus fear-based) decisions for your pregnancy and childbirth – this is not at all the book for you.

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