Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood


Trevor Noah is either one of the most talented human beings in eternity, or he found himself an epic ghostwriter. Probably both, because Born a Crime sets out to produce a narrative that’s both gripping and funny while also imparting a brief cultural history of South Africa. Which should be easy, because what could be more amusing than injustice and bloodshed, right? Not only does Noah not fail miserably, the end result is nearly flawless. Even the one hiccup is arguably a matter of style in this rarest of birds: the nonfiction page-turner.

I could go on about how achingly relatable I found Noah’s descriptions of grappling with everything from religion to abuse, how his treatment of political issues struck the ideal balance, neither too specific to his own circumstances nor too didactic, how the revelrous perfectly complimented the revelatory. But I’ll let him speak for himself instead:  

I learned about how Christianity works: If you’re Native American and you pray to the wolves, you’re a savage. If you’re African and you pray to your ancestors, you’re a primitive. But when white people pray to a guy who turns water into wine, well, that’s just common sense.

Nearly one million people lived in Soweto. Ninety-nine point nine percent of them were black—and then there was me. I was famous in my neighborhood just because of the color of my skin. I was so unique people would give directions using me as a landmark. “The house on Makhalima Street. At the corner you’ll see a light-skinned boy. Take a right there.”

My grandmother treated me like I was white. My grandfather did, too, only he was even more extreme. He called me “Mastah.” In the car, he insisted on driving me as if he were my chauffeur. “Mastah must always sit in the backseat.” I never challenged him on it. What was I going to say? “I believe your perception of race is flawed, Grandfather.” No. I was five. I sat in the back.

In Highlands North the white never took flight. It was a largely Jewish neighborhood, and Jewish people don’t flee. They’re done fleeing. They’ve already fled. They get to a place, build their shul, and hold it down.

One thing I appreciate about South Africa is that we have not yet refined the system to the point where we feel the need to lie. “Do you know why I pulled you over?” “Because you’re a policeman and I’m a black person?” “That’s correct. License and registration, please.”

Carjackings were common in South Africa at the time, too. So common you weren’t even surprised when they happened. You’d have a friend coming over for a dinner party and you’d get a call. “Sorry. Got carjacked. Gonna be late.” “Ah, that sucks. Hey, guys! Dave got carjacked.” “Sorry, Dave!” And the party would continue. And that’s if the person survived the carjacking. Often they didn’t.

As for that flaw … Each chapter stands alone, beautifully crafted and tight. Most of them also demonstrate awareness of placement within the book as a whole, not repeating information, but that system breaks down a few times, most noticeably when Noah’s “middlemen” friends Tom and Alex are introduced to the reader in a chapter following one in which they featured prominently. He also twice delivers the line, “Cool guys get girls, and funny guys get to hang out with the cool guys with their girls.” But we’re talking minor annoyance here, and only to someone who reads the book in a sitting or two (now whose fault are the high odds of that happening, Trevor Noah?).

Aside from that small detail, the book sings, and sings, and sings. Because in Born a Crime, Noah shows he has what many celebrity writers lack: the ability to determine which personal stories shine light into everyone’s darkness, and a commitment to telling them in a way that grabs the reader and never lets go.


Big Little Lies

And now for something a little different …


Big Little Lies is a parental murder mystery crossed with a lampooning beach read. With a faster pace on the former front and a bit more character depth on the latter, it would have been exquisite. As is, I found myself periodically disinterested and wanting more clarity as to how much Liane Moriarty intended to sympathetically reflect modern parenthood as well as satirize it. Was I supposed to be laughing at these moms or feeling for them? Both? Sometimes it felt too heavy-handed in one direction (maudlin), and sometimes the other (derisive).

That said, Moriarty often did hit the sweet spot, deliciously skewering the “Mommy Wars”: “‘Of course, I don’t have a problem per se with working mothers, I just wonder why they bothered having children in the first place.’” Think Desperate Housewives when it premiered.

Also to her credit, the story got fairly gripping near the end, and passages like the following left me utterly delighted:

“Madeline thrived on conflict and was never happier than when she was outraged.”

“‘Where’s Jackie today, Jonathan?’” asked Gabrielle. The mothers were all mildly obsessed with Jonathan’s wife, ever since she’d been interviewed on the business segment of the evening news a few nights back, sounding terrifyingly precise and clever about a corporate takeover and putting the journalist in his place. Also, Jonathan was very good-looking in a George Clooney–esque way, so constant references to his wife were necessary to show that they hadn’t noticed this and weren’t flirting with him.”

It all makes for a four-star book, and perfect screenplay fodder.

Becoming Grandma: The Joys and Science of the New Grandparenting


Lesley Stahl’s “Becoming Grandma” has an identity problem. There’s no doubt in my mind that the veteran journalist wrote this interesting and often lovely little book as a memoir lightly sprinkled with references to science and anecdotes related by “girlfriends and colleagues.” Unfortunately, somewhere along the way—most notably in the subtitle “Science of the New Grandparenting” and the chapter on Hope Meadows, “a planned community in Rantoul, Illinois, created for the sole purpose of rescuing children who were abused”—the project acquired a veneer of serious reporting.

Once that happened, even Stahl’s repeated concessions—like “my small sampling” and “my admittedly unscholarly survey”as well as nods to “income inequality” can’t defend the book from the criticism that it draws sweeping generalizations from interviews with a narrow subset of humanity and two controversial sources (work on “innate” gender difference by Louann Brizendine, “whose books and conversations were central to [Stahl’s] education,” have been labeled “junk science” by some, and Wednesday Martin has been accused of blurring the lines between fact and fiction in her social scientific pursuits). Case in point: referencing tabloids and advice blogs works fine for a memoir, but not so well for serious nonfiction.

Accepting these caveats as table stakes and reading the book as primarily one of personal reflection, however, leaves much to enjoy. Stahl says of becoming a grandparent: “I was at a time in my life where I assumed I had already had my best day, my tallest high. But now I was overwhelmed with euphoria [similar to that generated by] … romantic and carnal love.”

She tells, with satisfying name-dropping and an almost unerring eye for relatability, tales of her own grandparenthood and the larger issues they implicate. Things like being part of the “sandwich generation” caring both for aging parents and new grandchildren, dealing with in-laws (“We find ourselves having to share the new center of our life with basically strangers”), and how perplexing her cohort of “have-it-all” women finds modern parents (noting “how much more engaged and eager-beaverly women today are about motherhood than I was”).

Stahl also speaks at length about grandparents like her feeling controlled and regulated:

We grans begin holding our tongues. We turn passive, lest we irk or antagonize. We see clearly that they hold a new card, the power to deny us access to the most precious thing on earth. So we enter a new precinct of best behavior and walking on eggshells. We live by their rules now, and rule number one is: Do it their way.

This can sometimes feel awfully crotchety, like when she writes, “Before I could hold Chloe, I had to sanitize my hands—on Taylor’s orders. I really do wonder how on earth my daughter survived all the germs I carried, the wine I drank when I was pregnant and the general carelessness I subjected her to.” That said, it’s often done in a self-aware way (“‘We’re becoming fussbudgets’”) and Stahl employs her formidable powers of perception to level with the reader: actually, she says, the younger generation doing anything differently “feels like a reprimand.”

Stahl tries to strike an objective tone when discussing issues of intergenerational strife:

I am issuing a call to arms to all grandparents: If you’re not already pitching in, start now; become actively engaged in your grandchildren’s lives…. I’m also calling on parents of young children who are denying or curtailing grandparent access: ease up (except in cases of egregious physical or mental abuse). It’s time to be forgiving. Swallow hard, if that’s what it takes, “for the sake of the children.”

Ultimately, though, the book is one written by a grandmother about grandparenting and as such it slants toward the older generation’s perspective. That said, it contains many reflections on life as a working mother that will make parents feel understood at the same time they’re being asked to stretch:

During the following summer in Nantucket, I grabbed any chance to be with [my granddaughter]. I would drop whatever I was doing, gladly. I’d give up a nap or stop reading the papers. I hadn’t been like that with [my daughter]. Back in those days I was never ever free just to simply, uncomplicatedly love my kid. Work intruded on her time, or she was intruding on my reading or my sleep. As a mother, I lived with teeth grinding and stomach turbulence from worrying about [her], my job, my husband’s depression, the bills, my parents, [her] piano lessons, my boss looking at me funny. My emotional neighborhood was an overcrowded tenement. I felt trapped; I was in a fight against an urge to unshackle.

Stahl waxes downright philosophic about how grandparenthood differs:

[We’re] playmates with our grandchildren versus the policewomen we were with our own kids…. [D]uring parenthood, [our feelings are] burdened with responsibility and fear, and lack of sleep. Grandparent love is unfettered, uncomplicated…. [W]ith grandchildren there is no weariness that competes with the elation and joy of being with them.

As a parent of three young children, I found these words reassuring. Maybe we don’t need to feel guilt about not slowing down to smell roses with our kids, maybe that’s just not our role right now. Along these lines Stahl offers up a fascinating thought: Because contentment bottoms out around our thirties and forties, she says, “[B]abies are being raised by people in the unhappiest phase of their lives. Which makes it all the more important that we happy, satisfied zikna step in.”

Though “Becoming Grandma” isn’t perfect—with the organization slipping and repetition in the back half—many grandparents, especially those of Stahl’s socioeconomic standing, will find much to love, and parents like me will find a number of true gems of expression and point of view.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking


There’s a reason “Quiet” is a New York Times bestseller and Carnegie Medal finalist: Susan Cain makes a powerful argument for rethinking the way most Americans view introverts in an accessible, engaging style.

Cain starts from the premise that at least one-third of us are introverts, a style of temperament that likely evolved to counterbalance the impulses of those who sit at the other end of the spectrum. According to Cain, the two groups diverge as follows:

Extroverts tend to tackle assignments quickly. They make fast (sometimes rash) decisions, and are comfortable multitasking and risk-taking. They enjoy “the thrill of the chase” for rewards like money and status. Introverts often work more slowly and deliberately. They like to focus on one task at a time and can have mighty powers of concentration [and persistence]. They’re relatively immune to the lures of wealth and fame….

Extroverts think out loud and on their feet; they prefer talking to listening, rarely find themselves at a loss for words, and occasionally blurt out things they never meant to say. They’re comfortable with conflict, but not with solitude.… [I]ntroverts prefer to work independently [and tend to be conflict-avoiders] ….

Extroverts tend to like movement, stimulation, collaborative work. Introverts prefer lectures, downtime, and independent projects….

Because they tend to speak less loudly, quickly, and often in a society that has embraced “the culture of personality,” introverts get treated as if they’re less intelligent, creative, and capable of leadership than extroverts—even though social science research disproves these notions. In response, Cain says, some introverts “act like extroverts, but the effort costs them in energy, authenticity, and even physical health. Others seem aloof or self-contained, but their inner landscapes are rich and full of drama.”

Recognizing truths like “solitude can be a catalyst to innovation,” Cain says, can help us move away from “think[ing] of introversion as something that needs to be cured.” Instead, we’d do well to respect introverts as much as extroverts and question corporate culture that blindly values “quick and assertive answers over quiet, slow decision-making.” We should give both students and employees more privacy and autonomy than do the fads of open-plan offices, teamwork, and group learning in large classrooms, Cain says, as well as “actively seek out symbiotic introvert-extrovert relationships, in which leadership and other tasks are divided according to people’s natural strengths and temperaments.”

Cain illustrates each of these observations—as well as explaining various other psychological concepts like “high sensitivity,” reward sensitivity, flow, self-monitoring, and “person-environment fit”—with attention-holders like the following:

If Abraham Lincoln was the embodiment of virtue during the Culture of Character, then Tony Robbins is his counterpart during the Culture of Personality.

During the 1988–89 basketball season, for example, two NCAA basketball teams played eleven games without any spectators, owing to a measles outbreak that led their schools to quarantine all students. Both teams played much better (higher free-throw percentages, for example) without any fans, even adoring home-team fans ….

Most importantly, Cain chooses an approach that works for every personality type: “None of this,” she writes, “is to denigrate those who forge ahead quickly, or to blindly glorify the reflective and careful. The point is that we tend to overvalue [the one] and discount the [other]: we need to find a balance ….” Cain certainly strikes a good one in this fascinating, well-written read.

Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design


At cocktail parties, on the playground, and, much to my husband’s chagrin, in the bedroom, I cannot stop talking about Happy City. The book rivals Jeff Speck’s fabulous Walkable City in the wealth of information it provides regarding the history and future of cities, towns, and suburbs as livable places. Charles Montgomery’s take differs in that it pivots on the idea of happiness, using social science research to make recommendations for innovations that will ease stress and increase community.

Though Happy City tends to belabor points with excess verbiage, its pace is redeemed by a wealth of interesting content like the following:

Even the smallest of private cars takes up about 150 square feet of road space when standing still. That’s thirty times the space used by a person standing, and 7.5 times the space used by a person on a bicycle or on a bus. The numbers diverge exponentially as we start moving. Someone driving alone in a car moving at thirty miles per hour takes up twenty times as much space as someone riding on a bus at the same speed.

“How would we build differently,” Montgomery asks, “if we could chart the connection between the designs of our cities and the map of happiness?” He starts by establishing that “the greatest of human satisfaction lies in working and playing cooperatively with other people.” And yet, the proliferation of “sprawlscapes [in] modern North America”—characterized by cul de sacs and strip malls rather than dense neighborhoods with mixed commercial and residential use—combined with the fact that many jobs still sit near urban centers, means people spend more and more time stuck in their cars and deprived of the opportunity for casual contact with neighbors and the feelings of belonging and trust such interactions produce.

The current landscape of our suburbs makes parents “sicker, fatter, more frustrated, socially isolated, and broke,” while simultaneously depriving children of the community, independence, and prosocial busyness that comes with walkability.

Meanwhile, those who reside in downtowns and neighborhoods close to them (dubbed “streetcar suburbs”) deal with commuters slicing through their world, making conversation-stopping noise, displacing public gathering spaces, “clogg[ing] the main streets and slow[ing public transportation].”

But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, until relatively recently, it wasn’t.

We got here, Montgomery says thanks to “the twentieth century’s dual urban legacy: First, the city had been gradually reoriented around private automobiles. Second, public spaces and resources had largely been privatized.” He looks at cities like Copenhagen that have made great strides (pun intended) toward improving walkability and concludes: “If a poor and broken city such as Bogota can be reconfigured to produce more joy, then surely it’s possible to apply happy city principles to the wounds of wealthy places.” After all, “Paris’s most glorious public gardens were built for the enjoyment of a ruling elite but now provide hedonic delights for all.”

Happy City includes a host of suggestions for reform, including “neighborhood upcycling” which entails making more room for “people of different incomes … and tolerance for proximity” in cities. When changes in zoning and building laws allow for conversion of garages to cottages and more: “Th[e] vast majority of … single-family lots in the city can legally include at least three households.” Streets can be “pedestrianized” to create public spaces, like when New York City closed Broadway to traffic near Times Square or a group of neighbors reclaimed an intersection now called Share-It Square in Portland, Oregon. “All the real estate now used to facilitate the movement and storage of private automobiles,” Montgomery points out, “is public, and it can be used any way we decide.”

Other “happy redesigns” include “bike lanes, traffic calming, good transit, and … bylaws that ensure vibrant commercial streets.” Innovations called “sprawl repair,” look at filling in those yawning Target parking lots and, “‘returning cities to a human scale.’” There are, Montgomery says, “a thousand ways to retrofit proximity and complexity into cities.”

We just have to resolve to do it.

“We have been seduced by the wrong technologies,” Montgomery concludes: “[T]he struggle for the happy city is going to be long and difficult. The broken city lives in the rituals and practices of planners, engineers, and developers. It lives in law and code, and in concrete and asphalt. It lives in our own habits, too.” But “[i]t is not too late to rebuild the balance of life in our neighborhoods and cities.”

Gail Cornwall is a former public school teacher and recovering lawyer who now works as a stay-at-home mother and freelance writer in San Francisco. Her work has been published online by The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Salon among others. You can find Gail on Facebook and Twitter, or read more at

First Dads: Parenting and Politics from George Washington to Barack Obama


First Dads offers a fascinating glimpse at the personal lives, parenting styles, and historical legacies of our nation’s presidents. Written in an accessible, engaging style with good flow and pacing, the text should appeal to anyone with an interest in parenting and appetite for history or celebrity.

Kendall doesn’t offer up much by way of parenting advice, aside from confirming the old Goldilocks theory: not too permissive and not too authoritarian, but just right, has proven best for America’s “first kids” too. A novel conclusion rocked one of my core beliefs though. I’ve always thought everyone should strive to be the best parent they can be, and that those who manage and attend to children well will naturally excel in other areas too. But Kendall says the best dads haven’t made for the most effective presidents. It’s a new lens through which to consider our attempts to “have it all.”

In this respect and others, I wonder whether Kendall can possibly offer the right take on the vast number of presidencies and historical events he covers. His presentation of the likelihood of George Washington having an illegitimate son, for example, differs with Thomas Fleming’s extensive research on the subject. (Kendall basically says, “Could have been true,” while Fleming writes in The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers that it almost certainly didn’t happen.) Generalizations about the effectiveness of the Obama administration also may be premature.

That said, First Dads is well worth reading, even if just for interesting factoids like the following:

As Grant’s volunteer aide-de-camp, Fred would live and eat in his father’s tent for most of the war. On many a night, father and son would sleep side by side.

Decades later, the White House staff was still telling stories about how “there was never a morning in the year that the whole five did not go and pile in to the bed with President and Mrs. [Teddy] Roosevelt.”

Play was as essential to the President as to his offspring. That Christmas, between lunch and dinner, Roosevelt squeezed in several hours of single stick—a form of fencing—with two friends from his Rough Rider days . . . whom he dubbed his “playmates.”

Like TR, [Hayes, a] Republican, who easily identified with the concerns of children, would also insist that it was the President’s duty to help protect America’s little guys from its big guys.

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World



Adam Grant accomplishes the barely possible with “Originals”: he writes a non-narrative account of industry and social science that’s so readable, putting it down feels like walking away from a fascinating conversation.

“When we marvel at the original individuals who fuel creativity and drive change in the world, we tend to assume they’re cut from a different cloth,” Grant writes, before setting out to debunk that myth. We all have “ideas for improving our workplaces, schools, and communities,” he says, but “many of us hesitate to take action.” Grant seeks to change that, sharing fascinating “studies and stories spanning business, politics, sports, and entertainment” that prod us to encourage originality in ourselves and others.

In addition to writing in accessible prose with a good eye for what information and anecdote will move and amuse, Grant effectively organizes and emphasizes his points, providing the reader with a roadmap that facilitates both attention and retention. Add in stellar pacing, and you’ve got a five-star book.

When it comes to parenting material, Grant doesn’t disappoint. “Originals” offers information of interest to caregivers throughout such as “[t]eachers tend to discriminate against highly creative students, labeling them as troublemakers” and “[r]esearch on highly creative adults shows that they tended to move to new cities much more frequently than their peers in childhood.” The book also focuses in great detail on combating the statistical probabilities of birth order (“[y]ounger brothers were 10.6 times more likely than their older siblings to attempt to steal a base”) and raising children to have an internal moral compass (“give ‘explanations of why behaviors are inappropriate, often with reference to their consequences for others’”).

Grant writes in closing, “Becoming original is not the easiest path in the pursuit of happiness, but it leaves us perfectly poised for the happiness of pursuit.” This sentiment also applies to the parenting advice he offers: encouraging questioning and fighting one’s own impulses doesn’t make the day-to-day of raising children easy, but it prepares them for a fulfilling, fruitful, compassionate, and, yes, original life.

Catastrophic Happiness: Finding Joy in Childhood’s Messy Years

catastrohpic happiness

The clever, self-aware, and eminently relatable Catherine Newman opens Catastrophic Happiness by assuring parents that the endless agonies of raising young children will in fact draw to a close:

One day you will cavalierly handle doorknobs and faucets and even, like a crazy person, the sign-in pen at the pharmacy. . . . You will have time to run and bike and do yoga and floss and have sex. . . . You’ll arrive at your campsite and the children will carry wood and play beanbag toss rather than cramming pinecones and beetles into their mouths before darting into the road to be run over by a Jeep. . . . They . . . won’t sob into their cottage cheese for no reason. They won’t . . . make you sing the ABCs like a lullaby, No, not like that, like this. They won’t ride the wheeled xylophone around the house like it’s a skateboard or lick spears of asparagus before leaving them, mysteriously, on the couch.

You will no longer feel an “impulsive desire to careen off alone to Portugal or Applebee’s, just so you can sit for five unmolested minutes,” she says, and because Catastrophic Happiness describes my experience as a mother thus far with almost disturbing accuracy, I believe her.

Newman writes, “I am so glad and grateful, I am. But sometimes the orchestra plays something in swelling chords of luck and joy, and all I can hear is that one violin sawing out a thin melody of grief,” and I internally shout, “Me too!” She says, “Those conversations when the kids are trying to tell me something but I don’t close my laptop long enough to look them in the eye and listen? Let me tell you how much I remember about those: nothing,” and I hang my head in commiserating shame. She writes, “The parent I want to be floats in and out of my life, and some days it speaks through me, and other days I lunge after it like it’s a shaft of sunlight I want to capture,” and I think, “Yes, those are the words for that, YES.”

Each chapter includes piercing observations like these carefully folded in with engaging narrative, beautiful wordsmithing (e.g., “Ben, this tender-hearted ten-year-old . . . still bolts into our bedroom in the dead of night, driven by a loneliness that beats in his body like a second heart”), and snort-worthy quips (e.g., “My god, can you imagine [having conjoined twins,] your kids sharing arms and legs? It’s hard enough for mine to share Laffy Taffy”), to form some of the most brilliant parenting essays ever penned. If some shine more than others, it’s only because Newman sets the bar blindingly high.

The following excerpts attempt to show how Catastrophic Happiness neither minimizes nor dramatizes the full panoply of parental emotion, validating and amusing this connoisseur of mommy memoirs in unparalleled fashion:

Birdy is newly three, and wiping her face is one of my favorite moments of the day: the way she turns it up to me like a ripe, smudged nectarine; the way I am my most tender, gentle self in this caring for her; the way I get to look at her with the kind of pure love that often, suspiciously, seems most profoundly to wash over me mere moments before the children will be asleep for twelve hours.

[Before kids, t]ravel was all about arriving somewhere else—the getting-there like a parenthetical blur of irritatedness and free Diet Coke. . . . [Then with small kids we] rummaged through our bags to deconstruct a four-hour plane trip into a thousand ten-second-long activities: mirror, keys, phone, tissues, Tampax, credit cards, lip balm. (“No, we don’t eat ChapStick. Yes, you do really want to.”) But somehow the maniac babies have become these actual people who turn traveling into a party, and you’re lucky you got invited.

When I was pregnant with her, I was so devoted to Ben that the idea of loving another baby seemed vaguely grotesque. It made excellent sense to have another baby, of course, but only so we could harvest its organs in case Ben ever needed them.

Language is tricky, because we imagine that we control it but we don’t. To speak is not to pull transparent meaning, godlike, from thin air; it’s more like composing a mosaic from a bin of used tiles, and some of the tiles are dirty or broken or not really the color you wanted, or someone has written “bitch” on one in tiny letters.

Ben is . . . as pleasant and springy as a deep carpet of moss, and has been for his entire life. When he was three, he woke us once in the night, saying loudly from sleep, “I was still using that!” followed by the quieter, cheerful “Oh, okay, you go ahead, then.” The worst thing I have ever heard him say about another person was in response to a recent question about a middle-school classmate: “Is she nice?” I’d asked, and he hesitated and said, barely tentative, “She is.” “Oh, man,” Birdy whispered to me, laughing. “She must be really awful.”

Newman writes, “I want[] everyone to like me! Everyone! . . . [N]ot only our cherished friends and family, but also my son’s orthodontist, the barista who rolls his eyes while I fumble apologetically through my wallet, the ex-boyfriend who cheated on me, and the Craigslist person who’s overcharging me for her used cross-country skis.” I’ve got two words for her: Mission Accomplished. I don’t just like Catastrophic Happiness and Catherine Newman, I revere them.

The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time

“The Sleep Revolution” is what you get when a powerful person feels passionate about a subject and writes with an unlimited research assistant budget: a comprehensive roundup of research and commentary peppered with personal anecdote that’s alternately intensely relatable (“This way of working and living seemed to serve me well—until it didn’t”) and completely foreign (“I treat my transition to sleep as a sacrosanct ritual. Before bed, I take a hot bath with epsom salts and a candle flickering nearby. . . .”).

Arianna Huffington starts with the following premise: “[I]n today’s world, the path of least resistance is the path of insufficient sleep. And unless we take specific and deliberate steps to make it a priority in our lives, we won’t get the sleep we need.” She then tells readers how to go about doing so, including cultural shifts away from the elite, “macho status we give to the willingness to forgo sleep”; policy changes for things like driving while drowsy and school start times; and practical tips for individuals (summarized below).

Though not exactly gripping and a bit long-winded, the prose reads well, particularly for the amount of science and data conveyed. Content too passes muster for the most part: only the chapter on dreams failed to interest me. With a few minor exceptions, “The Sleep Revolution” strikes just the right tone (e.g., “Here is a list of things I’ve tried. If any of these resonate with you, give them a try, too, keep what works, and discard the rest.”).

Most importantly, Huffington delivers a wealth of information on a subject of the utmost importance. That makes “The Sleep Revolution” a must-read, even though not a flawless one.

The following quotes give a feel for the book’s style and tone:

“[T]he benefits sleep offers in terms of our health, our clarity of thinking, our decision making, and our engagement in our lives requires reflecting on what matters most to us and then reprioritizing our days—and our nights—accordingly.”

“[T]here are differences between how men and women sleep alone versus together. A study from the University of Vienna found that women woke up more frequently throughout the night when they slept in the same bed as their partner, while men’s sleep did not change. . . . [W]omen said they had slept better only on nights they had sex. . . . [Also studies have ‘found that for women, poor sleep is strongly associated with high levels of psychological distress, and greater feelings of hostility, depression and anger.’”

“‘In twenty years, people will look back on the sleeping-pill era as we now look back on the acceptance of cigarette smoking . . . The chronic use of sleeping pills is an ongoing public health disaster.’”’

“‘Overwork has also become a way to signal class status: ‘I am slammed’ is a way of saying ‘I am important . . . .’ This represents a sharp shift from a prior era when having leisure was a ‘class act.’ . . . We have this weird reversal in the US where the elite work very long hours, while the poor typically can’t get even forty hours a week of work.’”

“‘We think of sleep as an inefficient use of time, and in fact it is the most efficient use of time in terms of learning and memory.’”

“During non-REM, slow-wave sleep ‘our brain undergoes a metabolic slowdown. During that time our cortex, the part of our brain that senses and reacts to the environment and is the essence of ‘us,’ becomes ‘disconnected’ from activity in other brain areas.’ Usually this type of slow-wave sleep happens early in the night, but if our sleep sequence is disrupted by things such as jet lag, drinking, or a crying baby, our slow-wave sleep might not kick in until the early morning—right when our alarm starts sounding.”

“[T]hroughout most of Western history people simply wore their daytime undergarments to bed. But the centuries spanning the Renaissance to the Baroque period were a turning point, as the wealthier class started to distinguish between day clothes and sleepwear. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, sleepwear became more affordable as linen was superseded by cotton. And in the twentieth century, pajamas as we know them [came into widespread use.]”

“[N]aps are great for us . . . even a short nap ‘primes our brains to function at a higher level, letting us come up with better ideas, find solutions to puzzles more quickly, identify patterns faster and recall information more accurately. . . .’ A study of older adults by researchers from Japan found that, along with moderate exercise, a thirty-minute nap increased the quality of nighttime sleep, and decreased daytime grogginess. . . . Experts say that the best ‘circadian timing’ for a nap is the early afternoon.”

“‘A biological clock is ticking in every person, producing an individual daily timing. This defines a person’s unique ‘chronotype,’ which can vary greatly between individuals. For some people, internal midday may coincide with external midday. Others can reach their internal midday several hours before or after external midday. Social jet lag measures this difference between our external social timing and that of our internal clock.’”

“Like a horror movie in which the police dramatically announce that the menacing phone call is coming from inside the house, . . . the primary nighttime danger to our sleep is all too often coming from inside the bedroom, in the form of a partner with very different sleep habits.”

“[S]leep makes us better at our jobs while simultaneously reminding us that we are more than our jobs.”

“The pattern went on for years until, just before he turned thirty, [Warriors player Andre] Iguodala told Keke Lyles, Golden State’s director of performance, that he needed to see a sleep therapist. . . . [H]e moved his devices out of the bedroom, set his thermostat to a cool, sleep-friendly temperature, and started wearing a Jawbone UP to track his sleep. . . . When Iguodala adjusted to a consistent eight hours of sleep a night, his points per minute went up 29 percent, his free-throw percentage increased by 8.9 percent . . . .”

“Sleep is clearly the next innovation frontier in sports. And that’s a good thing, because sports exert a powerful hold on American culture.”

“[W]e’re living in a time when people seem open once again to the power of sleep on our waking lives. We’re emerging from the Dark Ages of Sleep into a Sleep Renaissance.”

Huffington’s practical suggestions for improving sleep quantity and quality include:

Scheduling: “When we think of sleep as an actual appointment—a meeting of sorts, with ourselves—we’re much more likely to grant it the time it deserves.”

Screens: “First, banish all tech devices from your bedroom at least thirty minutes before you turn off the lights . . . . [If you can’t,] there are some technological hacks available. . . . The range of options is wide—from apps designed to help us sleep, to a universe of sleep-centric hardware like noise-blocking headphones, smart earplugs and light bulbs that mimic the natural light of sunset and sunrise.”

Caffeine: Limit caffeine generally and cut it off around 2:00 p.m., about 8 hours before sleep is desired.

Alcohol: “According to a 2015 study from the University of Melbourne, alcohol does indeed initially act as a sedative. But later in the night, it changes allegiances and acts as a sleep disrupter. . . . A study from the London Sleep Centre confirmed this, finding that ‘at all dosages, alcohol causes a more consolidated first half sleep and an increase in sleep disruption in the second half of the night.”

Sleepwear: “[W]ear to bed . . . anything you feel comfortable and relaxed in—except what you wear to work out.”

Sex (or masturbation): “‘Orgasms are Mother Nature’s best answer to insomnia.’”

Temperature: Huffington reports that the ideal sleeping temperature is somewhere between 60 and 66 degrees. Setting homes to remain in the 70s overnight, as many of us do can disrupt sleep.

Food: “We shouldn’t eat big meals right before bed . . . [because of acid reflux and] eating late or at odd times can disrupt our circadian rhythms and therefore our sleep-wake cycle.” Huffington reports that spicy foods, fatty foods, and sugar all decrease sleep quality for various reasons. Others improve it: “The necessary building blocks for sleep . . . contain magnesium (such as nuts, seeds, leafy greens, and bananas), B6 (such as fish, beans, and poultry), and tryptophan (an amino acid found in foods like chickpeas, seaweed, egg whites, pumpkin seeds, halibut, and most famously, turkey). Another food that may help us sleep is cherries, which are rich in melatonin. A 2014 study from Louisiana State University found that participants who drank a glass of tart cherry juice twice a day for two weeks slept an average of eighty-five minutes more each night than those who drank the placebo.”

Acupuncture: “Acupuncture has a long history as a sleep aid, and now modern science confirms what practitioners and patients have known for centuries. . . . increased nighttime secretion of melatonin and lowered anxiety levels.”

Herbs: One of the most popular herbs for sleep is lavender, which has been used throughout history for healing and relaxation. . . . A Thai study found that smelling lavender helps us relax by slowing down our heart rate, decreasing our blood pressure, and lowering skin temperature. Other studies have found sleep quality improved in a room scented with lavender or when lavender oil was sprinkled on pajamas or pillows. And in Germany, lavender tea has been approved by their equivalent of the FDA as a treatment for insomnia. . . . Valerian root . . . is a natural sedative whose use dates back to ancient Greece.” She also recommends GABA and L-theanine.

Meditative arts: Give yoga, meditation, and qigong a shot.

Daylight exposure: “A 2014 study . . . found that employees whose offices had windows got forty-six minutes more sleep every night than coworkers without access to natural light.” 

Routine: “When we walk through the door of our bedroom, it should be a symbolic moment that marks leaving the day, with all of its problems and unfinished business, behind us.”

Mind dump: “One way to finish every day and be done with it is . . . call[ed] the ‘mind dump.’ Before bed, write down all the things you can think of that you need to do. This can empty your mind and reassure you that you don’t need to remember your tasks through the night-your to-do list will be waiting for you in the morning.”

Gratitude list: “Making a gratitude list part of our bedtime routine . . . focuses my mind on the blessings in my life . . . rather than on the running list of unresolved problems.”

Sleep talismans: Huffington recommends using a “sleep talisman . . . an image that brings you peace and serenity, one that you can keep on your nightstand. It could be photos of your children, your pets, or a soothing landscape-anything that helps you exhale the tensions and incompletions of the day.” She also lists an old-fashioned music box and a “weighted eye pillow lightly scented with lavender.”

Breathing exercises: “The 4-7-8 method popularized by Dr. Andrew Weil, is rooted in the ancient Indian practice of pranayama. . . . you inhale quietly through the nose for four counts, hold for seven counts, and exhale with a whooshing sound through the mouth for eight counts. Weil says that with practice and regularity it can put you to sleep in one minute—and anything that can help you get to sleep that quickly is worth a try.”

Visualization: “Psychiatrist Brent Menninger recommends: ‘Visualize images that evoke serenity, like a picture of the Mona Lisa. . . . The half-smile relaxation response is available to you as you breathe. Inhale as you visualize serenity. As you exhale, express a half-smile. Inhale the serenity. Exhale with a half-smile. . . . The half-smile starts with relaxed lips which turn slightly upward and a loose jaw and the eyes are soft and relaxed. Then the half-smile spreads to the whole face as your scalp and neck relax and your shoulders drop.’”

Don’t force it: “[I]f you’ve been in bed struggling to sleep for twenty minutes, try switching to meditating or reading a book . . . that has nothing to do with work . . . .” In fact, actively try to stay awake (without screens, caffeine, etc.). Studies show, Huffington reports, that when one tries to stay awake rather than fall asleep, “paradoxical intention” leads to “a significant reduction in sleep effort, and sleep performance anxiety.”

Relaxation generally: Because people “develop a ‘fear of sleeplessness,’ which intensifies their emotional arousal perpetuating their insomnia. . . . [A]nything that can help us de-stress can help break the cycle.”

Combat jet-lag: “[W]e can adjust our eating schedules to trigger our circadian rhythms to adapt more quickly. ‘A period of fasting with no food at all for about 16 hours is enough to engage this new clock. . . .’ [F]ly in the afternoon if you’re headed west and in the morning if you’re going east. . . . If you have to take a night flight, . . . at least try[] to get in a nap the day before. . . . Another way to try to beat jet lag is to not adjust to local time at all. . . . Re-Timer, an eyeglasses-like piece of headwear that can be used not just by travelers but also by shift workers who need to make regular adjustments to their circadian rhythm, especially in the winter. Worn over the eyes, it exposes the wearer to a simulation of outdoor light, which, when used in the morning can help reset our body clock so that we can fall asleep at the right bedtime.”

Parenting: Illustrated with Crappy Pictures

I picked up Amber Dusick’s book after a friend described it as “[h]ands down the best parenting book I’ve ever read.” Verdict? Not so much. Parenting: Illustrated teaches one absolutely nothing about parenting; like Scary Mommy, however, it provides lighthearted commiseration for the, well, crappier parts of parenting. Without the pictures, I would have found the humor good-but-not-great, yet Dusick’s writing is ridiculously funny when accompanied by her amateur visuals. If you’re looking for a super quick, light read that will make you laugh out loud at least twice—thinking, “Yes! That’s totally how it happens!”—this is your book. Those seeking deep reflection or practical advice ought to look elsewhere.

Here are a few jokes that should give you a sense of Dusick’s vibe:

  • You know what changed after I had kids? Everything.
  • But enough of these superficial complaints. Who cares, right? My body made people. I’m like a wizard. Wizards don’t need perfect bodies because they wear robes. I have a robe. It is purple. (See how I distracted you from my body flaws by talking about wizards? This always works. Feel free to steal it.)
  • The only thing that was actually effective at tricking my babies into sleeping was not something money could buy. It was me. Well, actually it was my milk-producing nipple pacifiers. But we’ll say it was me because that sounds cozy.
  • All is quiet. I, too, can sleep. But this is the first me time I’ve had all day! I suddenly have a burst of energy! I’m alone and free! I’ll just check my email quickly before I head to bed. Four hours pass.
  • Kids like crackers. Parents like crackers because they aren’t candy, but are just as easy. I don’t trust crackers. Why? Because crackers create a mess that is larger in volume than the original cracker ever was.
  • Honestly, even the bad stuff is good stuff when it isn’t happening.
  • Changing a diaper in an airplane bathroom is like changing a diaper inside an empty refrigerator that a drunk person is pushing around on a dolly.
  • Oh sure, the waiting room has a designated “Reserved for Healthy Kids” section, but it is sort of like the division of smoking and nonsmoking sections in an enclosed space. . . . Every mother knows that when your child is sick he gets to play with the toys. When your child is not sick, you do everything in your power to avoid physical contact with the toys.
  • Some indoor play gyms are okay. As long as they hose them down or light them on fire once every few years. Other ones are breeding grounds for unsavory things. And I’m not just talking about feral kids with no parents in sight. I’m talking about malaria. . . . When we get home, I bathe them in bleach. But it doesn’t matter.
  • [My husband] gets sick. On the weekend. How very convenient for him. I try not to be bitter. He really doesn’t have control over the timing. At least I don’t think he does. So he proceeds to spend an entire day in bed. Alone. Moaning.
  • Crappy Boy likes to pretend. Hard. He was once a robot for three consecutive days. And one time, when he was four, he was a chimney sweep for nearly two weeks.
  • One toy and two children is a recipe for war. . . . My kids would fight over dog shit if there was only one pile of it available.
  • We have a serious toy overgrowth problem in our house. This is because toys can reproduce like weeds. They do it when we aren’t paying attention. Children are also to blame because they help with propagation. They introduce toy species into nonnative habitats. These toys are invasive. They ruin the landscape and even cause harm to the resident mammals.

Dusick concludes the book with a sort of parenting-specific Murphy’s Laws; my favorite ones follow:

  • If you are sweeping, the only path they can take is right through the pile.
  • The more you are running late, the more poop happens.
  • The more important a phone call is, the louder they become.
  • The one thing you forget to bring is the one thing they ask for.
  • The one day you only brought three diapers along is the day they will poop four times.
  • They only spike a fever after the sun goes down and the doctor’s office is closed.
  • If you toss out that half of a plastic Easter egg they got three years ago, they will notice.