I obtained this book because it was "Briefly Noted" in the New Yorker, and I was intrigued by the idea of a literary novel set in DC. The protagonistI obtained this book because it was "Briefly Noted" in the New Yorker, and I was intrigued by the idea of a literary novel set in DC. The protagonist of this book, Helen, is seven years older than I am, and while there are some differences between her upbringing and mine—her family lives in Washington proper, not the VA suburbs; her dad is a Republican and works in the White House; they're private school kids—there are still enough similarities to the world I knew growing up, where dads worked for the government or in the Pentagon, and the Beltway was both a metaphor and the physical outer ring of the known world, to keep me interested.
I've read some of the other reviews on Goodreads, and I can understand the knocks one might have against this book. It is "quiet," it is slow, it resists the urge to transform its heroine's life with a career break or a promising love interest. It's essentially about the problems of growing up in a WASP family where no one says what they mean or how they feel, where no one says much of anything at all, and as a product of such a family, the main character herself can come off as a bit bottled-up, a bit detached. A cool, cerebral observer of herself. Finally, Helen's repeated, self-conscious assertions that no one cares anymore about the Iran-Contra affair (she is trying to write a book about her father's minor involvement in it during the '80s) defuse but don't quite alter the fact that perhaps no one really does care about it anymore.
But you know what? I love cool, cerebral self-observers, and I don't mind quietness, and I really loved this book. I can't say how I would have responded if I hadn't grown up in the shadow of Washington myself. Part of what Karen Olsson does so well is to realistically evoke the looks and feels of things I haven't thought about for years, but do have points of reference for, and the way they hit, the way she gets them so right, is so immensely pleasurable. But she's also a really good observer of family, of social interaction.
For example, here's a moment at a Christmas party that Helen attends with her sister and her father, a party her family has been going to for decades:
"I saw a head, a younger one with stubbly sideburns and impish eyes, floating above the crowd, attached to a tall man (though not too tall, his head perhaps not actually so lofty as it seemed in that moment). Our eyes met; instantly I blushed; and into my own head came the thought that this might be a different sort of evening than the one I'd anticipated. My heart accelerated for maybe five beats until I saw next to him a pregnant and pretty companion. But of course. Courtney ran over and gave him a hug. It was apparently someone she knew."
It's all here: Helen's tone, her restraint, the way Olsson keeps the book feeling achingly real at the expense of a more conventional kind of drama (the guy does not turn out to be unattached after all; Helen, who is 34, never does stop reaching for men who come up a little short). Helen spends the whole book sifting through her family's past, looking for the truth of what happened to her dad during the scandal, for the reasons why she and her alpha-type older sister can't quite get along; these are also, presumably, related to Helen's own malaise, the reasons why she hasn't made more of herself by her age. She succeeds, and she doesn't; she changes and doesn't; the story makes sense, as you skate along the outside of it, and then when you try to explain it to yourself it doesn't, quite. I don't fault anyone who wanted this book to add up to more, somehow, but I enjoyed it just the way it was, came away with a pleasant feeling (maybe Helen's very restraint is what did it) of wanting it to go on, wanting just a little bit more....more
I'm so glad that Jessica reviewed this book favorably, because otherwise I might never have found it (or picked it up or taken it seriously). Of all tI'm so glad that Jessica reviewed this book favorably, because otherwise I might never have found it (or picked it up or taken it seriously). Of all the stuff I've read about natural childbirth so far, Birthing from Within strikes what seems to my still-yet-to-give-birth self the best and most helpful attitude, equally balanced between celebration and acknowledgement that childbirth is a hairball thing that will hurt like hell—an admission disconcertingly missing from some of the material in the natural-birth field. Specifically, this book was the best so far at helping me imagine what labor might feel like, physically and psychologically (favorite passage: the one where she explains that most women during labor experience a moment where they believe they're going to die). It also has a very useful section on natural pain relief techniques, listing and describing about ten of them.
The book is also all about birth art, and while I haven't made any of that yet and might not, though I probably should, I still found it a great read and wise even among its moments of woo-woo-ness. I appreciate the ways that she focuses on birth as more than a medical event, but a rite of passage; sometimes, even natural-childbirth material has a medical focus, in that it's all about avoiding medical "interventions." Pam England goes a step deeper, and I applaud her for it. ...more
I don't know if any of the stuff Michel Cohen says is true, but I started reading this as a unicorn chaser after reading sections of Dr. Sears's attacI don't know if any of the stuff Michel Cohen says is true, but I started reading this as a unicorn chaser after reading sections of Dr. Sears's attachment parenting bible (specific sections recommended by a friend, which admittedly did have some useful content, along with a sanctimonious tone and a goodly side-portion of fear-mongering), and it really helped. I appreciate the author's dry wit and no-fuss approach, as well as his foundational assumption that sane parents make for sane kids & a sane family life. I'd like to live in a world where this slender-ish, A-to-Z-organized manual could be my only baby and toddler care guide. Do I? I'm going to try to find out....more
I don't know what I was expecting, but I don't think the book was what I was expecting.
I never got into Sleater-Kinney's music. I didn't try that harI don't know what I was expecting, but I don't think the book was what I was expecting.
I never got into Sleater-Kinney's music. I didn't try that hard, just put on one or two of their CDs a few times and didn't cotton to what I heard (my memory is that the music didn't fit my cookie-cutter notion of what "punk" should sound like), but still, my failure to appreciate the band felt like a failing for a college student in Portland at the turn of the millennium. Having read Carrie Brownstein's memoir, I think I might give the band another chance.
The thing that will stay with me most is the melancholy tone of the book. It's not a triumph, it's sort of a rueful looking-back that never seems to say exactly what it means, but which paints a runny watercolor picture of regret, pride, insecurity, loneliness. As a character study, it's pretty fascinating: Carrie as a child is predictably bright, but also serious, shy, and an inveterate class clown who will apparently do anything to draw attention to herself. I'd never met anyone quite like her. (And it's fun and weird, now, to watch episodes of Portlandia and know that someone so funny can also be so deep and brooding. I guess maybe a lot of comics are, but I've never had one step out from behind the comedy mask and explain it before.) The parts of the book about her anorexic mom and her family growing up are fascinating. But then the story shifts, and it's tantalizing but it also feels like little bits and pieces. Maybe not hearing the whole deal is the price we have to pay for moments of candor, an overall impression of vulnerability on the page.
Not sorry I read it. Wish the title had been explained somewhere in the book. Suppose it's probably from one of S-K's songs?...more
In my search for "raw" books about motherhood, this is currently the winner. It shredded Bad Mother by Ayelet Waldman, and any of the other personal eIn my search for "raw" books about motherhood, this is currently the winner. It shredded Bad Mother by Ayelet Waldman, and any of the other personal essays I have read so far*, even though it also has the feeling of something that must must must be grounded in a lot of personal experience.
Very fast read, urgent, hard to stop once you start. Not much of a plot, but in a way that's the point: the main character's lost in a haze of recent-motherhood. It's that character's salty voice and pungent attitude that are the whole driving force behind the book. There are two threads/themes, ostensibly: one is about hating women (the narrator's mom, a woman terribly ill suited to motherhood, died when the narrator was a young teenager, and we hear that story, as well as capsule stories of many unsatisfying friendships with women she's had throughout her life, ever since). This plot thickens when a '90s Riot Grrrl rocker type named Mina shows up in town, and the narrator, Ali, finds herself very much wanting to be friends with her. The other theme, of course, is the difficulty of motherhood itself—Ali finds that it swallows her, and even though she's complicit in some ways in being swallowed, she also hates that about it. There are moments when Ali's presence becomes a bit grating. This can happen especially at points where the reader happens not to agree with her about some fine point of breastfeeding or birthing or parenting dogma. But overall, the author does a great and believable job of portraying what it would be like to love your kid and appreciate your life and be proud of yourself but also filled with rage about the whole thing—how stuck and lost you feel, how it's changed you, how you can't go back, how hard it can be when the whole cozy adulthood you've spent your life cultivating is just over and gone, seemingly forever. This book feels like an imaginative essay dedicated to shedding light on something that's real and true and rarely spoken.
*I'm only four or five books in. I suspect that all roads in this genre lead to Adrienne Rich? Anyway, suggestions welcome....more
VERY light read. This book is like a junk food you find yourself eating, growing increasingly irritated with yourself as you reflect that it isn't eveVERY light read. This book is like a junk food you find yourself eating, growing increasingly irritated with yourself as you reflect that it isn't even especially good junk food.
The first 65 or so pages were absorbing, as the author described her early career and her journey to marriage and motherhood. Then the narrative thread disappears (most of the pieces in this book have been published before, so it's basically a collection of essays, put together after the famous dust-up over the piece, not reproduced here, where Waldman claimed to love her husband more than she does her four children), and so did a lot of my interest.
It's not bad-bad, just over-wordy and not all that interesting or provocative in the thoughts it espouses. A few funny moments, but not exactly a laff-fest. There are some points I agree with. But if you're going to call your book Bad Mother, I want some sense of transgression or truly dangerous honesty, and there's not much of that here. Maybe, after the huge reaction to her infamous essay, she was just tired of defending herself.
A blurb on the back of my edition praises Waldman's "remarkable candor." Perhaps it is an unfair comparison since Waldman doesn't enjoy the privilege of writing anonymously, but I've found more remarkable candor about parenting matters on any number of random online threads. Waldman creates a few avenues that would be interesting to explore (for example, I would have sincerely loved to hear about how and why she went on to eventually have four children, since she's pretty vocal about the ways in which caring for the first one as a baby was crazy-making). But for the most part, the book jerks from topic to topic and does not take any of the openings that might have turned it into something deeper. It's more of a loose collection of observations about Michael Chabon's dreaminess, and woman's cruelty to woman.
What a freaking great book. I love it when a bestseller deserves its popularity. Bringing Up Bebe is the perfect rejoinder/antidote to attachment pareWhat a freaking great book. I love it when a bestseller deserves its popularity. Bringing Up Bebe is the perfect rejoinder/antidote to attachment parenting. I read it when pregnant, and it has made me more excited than anything else yet about becoming a mother. I love that Druckerman is doing layman's anthropology (she does it very smartly, and without making the mistake of ever pretending that she is something other than a layman). I love the timely reminder that we can be good and loving parents without adhering to the most hysterical edicts of Dr. Sears. There are a lot of potentially useful tips in Bringing Up Bebe—so much so that I would like to skim it again and take notes—and also plenty just to think about: American parents, for example, can try individually to be more "French," but Druckerman convincingly portrays France as a place where parents as a whole are much more on the same page about how to parent than we are here, and she shows how that makes parenting inherently less anxiety-provoking for them. And though she doesn't hard-pedal it, I challenge you to read this book without getting politically fired up about daycare—to wit, it's insane that American women do not have access to universal, high-quality, low-cost day care for their kids, as French women do. I'm pretty sure that some large percentage of the "mommy wars" can be attributed to over-stressed American women eating each other alive, when we should be getting mad and eating the system....more
I enjoyed this book. Throughout it, I strongly felt that the author was the kind of person I could be friends with IRL. We've both lived in Portland aI enjoyed this book. Throughout it, I strongly felt that the author was the kind of person I could be friends with IRL. We've both lived in Portland and back east. She has connections to New Mexico and Philadelphia. We clearly share more than a few aesthetics, references, and concerns.
The stories here are tightly focused, their main characters educated white women who are feeling existential angst as they get a little older and make their adjustments/accommodations to the role of mother. (I actually found this book because it was included on someone's online list of tell-it-like-it-is books about motherhood.)
At best, they are beautiful and stark and true. At worst, they remind me what's hard about writing stories that hew close to the truth: they can be a little elliptical and low on drama. And I write that as much as a reminder to myself as anything else—I also like writing stories that are quiet and "real," but there are pitfalls. My favorites in the collection were also the sprawliest, Visiting Philly and the one about going to a hot springs outside Albuquerque.
If Mary Rechner wrote a novel, I'd read it....more
A delayed flight. A Hudson News outlet at JFK. A pregnancy. There weren't that many books to choose from, and I chose this one and read it with the waA delayed flight. A Hudson News outlet at JFK. A pregnancy. There weren't that many books to choose from, and I chose this one and read it with the warped and frantic concentration of the long-haul traveler. I think I'd read a review of it somewhere, and it intrigued me—a book for people who hate asking! By someone who doesn't! I hate asking, oh god, I do. I'd rather walk, improvise, stay home, suffer. I'm a practitioner of what Palmer calls "minimal DIY," or actually trying to 'do it yourself.' Where does this attitude come from? Pridefulness, shyness? Two parents who also hate asking for help? A morbid fear of entanglement. A part of me that's always looking for a clear path to the exit, the ability to make a quick getaway. A belief drilled in by the monotony of grade school that it's easier, quicker, and better just to do whatever it is by myself. (Hell, group work usually resulted in me doing my own share and also everybody else's, anyway. It didn't seem fair even then, but there must have been something about it I liked: the control, the autonomy, probably even the sense of self-righteousness.) To this day, when someone asks me if I need something, my knee-jerk reaction is to say "no, I'm fine"—before I even really consider the question. So, back to Amanda Palmer. I think I'd heard of her band, the Dresden Dolls, in passing, but I didn't know anything about her or her TED talk or the way she's been internet-famous for having the most successful music-related Kickstarter project ever. She starts the book with a dilemma. She's 38, newishly married to the writer Neil Gaiman, and can't bring herself to accept financial help from him, in the form of a loan to float her until the fruits of her next big project come through. It's kind of a hokey setup—bet you can guess which way she resolves this problem by the end of the book—but it gets the job done of introducing the topic. Then Palmer backtracks and introduces her story from the beginning. She got her start as a street performer, a "living statue" of an eight-foot tall bride who would give flowers to passersby who put money in her hat. She writes about busking as a kind of gift economy, where psychic goods change hands and hearts (I see you, you see me), and money too, but usually as a sign of these other, less tangible forms of recognition. Later, when Palmer starts her music career, she's deeply informed by her street performer experience. She forges close relationships with her fans, she sees performance as a kind of energetic exchange, and she is hyperfocused on community. She pours her energy into maintaining her fanbase, building those relationships, helping fans out and getting helped out by them. She portrays herself as someone who asks frequently, and though she calls less attention to it, she also paints herself convincingly as someone who gives a lot. Asking graciously, it is implied, is not just about making requests out of the blue but also about preparing the ground. People may be glad to help, but never more so than when they sincerely believe that you also have helped or would help them. Palmer also astutely observes that she is the kind of person who's insatiably driven to seek intimacy, but also morbidly afraid of commitment. She's happier enjoying brief, intense, spiritual moments of connection with hundreds of fans than she is in the web of a traditional committed relationship—which is why, even though she's a virtuoso asker, she has special trouble accepting financial help from the man she is married to. Ultimately, Palmer doesn't spell out exactly how to ask with grace. I'm not sure I'm convinced ultimately by the distinctions she draws between asking, begging, and demanding. But the book fascinated me anyway. It made me think about why I am the way I am, and what it would mean to be different. It was the right book at the right time, since being pregnant can change even a hardened DIYer's orientation toward help. The flight was delayed four hours by torrential rains in San Francisco. This reviewer missed the last BART train from the airport. Her husband asked the neighbor whether he could borrow a car, and did, and came to get the reviewer at the airport at three o'clock in the morning. She felt a tiny bit guilty but, mostly, effusively grateful....more
I feel uncharacteristically stumped about what to say about this book. I really liked Bluets, and Maggie Nelson's style here is familiar from that booI feel uncharacteristically stumped about what to say about this book. I really liked Bluets, and Maggie Nelson's style here is familiar from that book. But is The Argonauts really fucking deep, or kind of a rambling miscellany? Can it be both?
Pleasant top-notes of D.W. Winnicott, a refreshingly candid birth story, observations on loving & building a family with a transgender person. I think my favorite thing here was the amusingly named concept of the "sodomitical mother" (which comes from Susan Fraiman)—as I took it, it means the mother who has other sources of pleasure besides her kid, and/or who takes a sexual pleasure in motherhood? Okay, it's getting kind of foggy. Maybe it means a mother who is into mothering but also into sexual pleasure qua pleasure on the side.
Anyway, I go back and forth. I enjoyed reading it, and it may be the high-water mark of my search for badass books about motherhood so far, even if it's only 50 percent by volume, or less, about motherhood at all. But—here, I'm going to say it—The Argonauts also feels sometimes as if it's got more style than substance. Like as if it were the most sophisticated Mad Lib ever written. I've often looked askance at the practice of quote-collecting, and that's a major part of Nelson's method. In Bluets, it had the effect of making me wonder whether I'd underestimated the practice, but in The Argonauts it feels more like a tic that's out of control....more
I can't say anything that hasn't already been said, but: this book got me through the first trimester of my pregnancy, and for that I shall be eternalI can't say anything that hasn't already been said, but: this book got me through the first trimester of my pregnancy, and for that I shall be eternally thankful. Exhausted by the crush of producing a new human, I fell asleep upon its pages many times, and perhaps that alone has given me a special feeling for it. Who was my favorite character? How can I possibly choose—Nikolai, Natasha, Pierre? The hysterical old prince Bolkonsky? I enjoyed the military bits more than I was told that I would. The Battle of Borodino is indelible. I have a weird soft spot for Tolstoy's impassioned defense of Kutuzov's skills as a general. Love how much he hates Napoleon, and how evil (in the Hannah Arendt sense) he made his character. So many indelible scenes, really...Nikolai meeting Marya...Natasha dancing with Denisov...Nikolai's first battle...Pierre in the Masonic temple...Denisov in the hospital...the duel with Dolokhov...the Rostovs trying ineptly to pack their stuff and get the f. out of Moscow. Personal favorite, maybe, Nikolai and Natasha and Sonia in costume, racing around in their sleighs at night. Pure magic, all of it. I even liked its almost willfully misshapen structure, not quite a novel, but not really anything else, either. No means of really knowing, but Pevear and Volokhonsky's translation seems great. The language was fresh and precise and lovely....more