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May 2012

Bringing up Bebe

Sorry: a quick administrative note. I'm getting hit with all sorts of stupid automated comments that are somehow making it through the spam filter, so I've had to enable comment moderation for the time being. Hopefully when these comments dry up I'll be able to take that back off. In the meantime, please comment away and I'll moderate and add your comments as soon as I can!

In honor of Mother's Day coming up, I think I'll just post about parenting books all week. The last one I read was one that's getting lots of press-- Pamela Druckerman's Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. (I originally got it from the library because I saw the author on the Today show, actually wearing a beret, which seemed so ridiculous it almost made me like her.)

BringingDruckerman relates the tale of her whirlwind romance and marriage, and how she eventually found herself in Paris, raising a baby girl (and later, twin boys). Her account is chronological: the account of her love affair, the experience of giving birth in France, breastfeeding, getting her baby to sleep through the night, and so on. Along the way she describes how the French method of child-rearing differs from the American; for example, most French women don't breastfeed, but yet they manage to get their babies to sleep through the night much earlier than American parents. Of course French parents pay much more attention to the food their children eat, and they also tend to send their children to daycares (state-funded, mind you) much earlier, and to try and instill more independence in them. Druckerman also noted that children in France seem much more self-sufficient and well-behaved, meaning that French parents can all get together, along with their kids, and still maintain an adult conversation at the same time.

It's not nearly as annoying a book as you might think; it's actually quite interesting in parts. (I was particularly blown away that French mothers receive both abdominal/core and pelvic rehabilitation therapy services after birth--now THAT's a good idea. Or you could, as my oh-so-helpful OB/GYN suggested, "just do some crunches." Thanks for all the high-level tips, doc.) But the fact of the matter is, as my sister would say, you raise your kids like the parents around you do. I can just see if you tried to give up breastfeeding in America, or have coffee* with other mothers and chat with them about adult things rather than all of you just following your toddlers around and attempting to teach them how to share with each other.

I read the whole thing, and it was okay. But unless I move to Paris (and the attention Druckerman says everyone pays to their appearance in Paris pretty much assures me I will never bother to visit Paris, much less live there) there wasn't much for me to learn or use here.

Reviews: New York Times; NPR

*Or have coffee at all, when you're pregnant or breastfeeding. You monster!

Parenting books, yet again.

Here's a shocker: I continue to read parenting books.*

I don't know why I can't look away from them. (Like one of my favorite lines from the short-lived Canadian sitcom An American in Canada: "It's like watching a car crash. Into puppies.") If I hear one being talked about on the radio, I must get it from the library--same deal if I see it being promoted on morning talk shows.

CuskNow, as if there aren't plenty of current parenting books out there to drown myself in, I've started to re-read parenting books I've already read. Oddly enough, I first read Rachel Cusk's A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother long before CRjr came into being. I don't know why--I think I heard the press about it, much of which was negative because this is not, emphatically NOT, your usual touchy-feely positive mommy memoir, and because I love negative people, I looked it up.

Because I have a child and my memory and brain have been shot ever since giving birth, the nice part of re-reading this book was that I really couldn't remember it. The sad part was that I can't even remember what I thought of it when I first read it. I think I found it interesting, and enjoyably (and honestly?) un-sweet, but I didn't have a kid then and it was all slightly more theoretical. Passages like the one below, I think, must make a lot more sense to me now.

"I did not understand what a challenge to the concept of sexual equality the experience of pregnancy and childbirth is. Birth is not merely that which divides women from men: it also divides women from themselves, so that a woman's understanding of what it is to exist is profoundly changed. Another person has existed in her, and after their birth they live within the jurisdiction of her consciousness. When she is with them she is not herself; when she is without them is not herself; and so it is as difficult to leave your children as it is to stay with them. To discover this is to feel that your life has become irretrievably mired in conflict, or caught in some mythic snare in which you will perpetually, vainly struggle." (p. 7.)

There's tons of other quotes I wanted to share but I'll let you discover them in her book, on your own,** if you're so inclined. It's definitely a different take on the subject than you'll find in most other parenting books.

*And I don't just read the fuzzy, memoirish types of books. I find myself going to my copy of Caring for Your Baby and Young Child about twenty times a day, looking up things like baby teeth (patterns of emergence), pinkeye, when to switch to a booster seat from the highchair, etc. For most of the medical-type questions I'm usually just overreacting to some imaginary symptom; mercifully, CRjr is very healthy. Some women turn to other suburban mommies; I turn to my book. It's just the way it's always going to be.

** Okay, just one more. "A health visitor came to see us in our embattled kitchen. She produced sheaves of leaflets and laid each one lovingly on the table for me to study while behind her the baby looted her handbag undetected. Have you taken her to toddler group, the health visitor enquired. I had not. Like vaccinations and mother and baby clinics, the notion instilled in me a deep administrative terror." (p. 166.) Ha!

I still enjoy Anne Tyler.

So I just finished reading Anne Tyler's new novel, The Beginner's Goodbye. Which, considering that I started it while CRjr was napping, and now it's later the same night, isn't that bad. It is all of 198 pages long, and, yeah...Anne Tyler is starting to phone them in a little bit.

BeginnersBut you know what? I don't really mind. Even Anne Tyler phoning it in is better literature than that written by someone like, say, Jennifer Chiaverini (I shouldn't pick on Chiaverini, her books are fine, but I think I read in an interview once that she didn't consider her books formulaic, which, considering she writes a series of novels about quilters, struck me as kind of funny). I can't say I loved this Tyler novel, but I did enjoy it, and I felt kind of peaceful when it was done. I love it when a novel does that for me. At no time during the reading of this book did I feel completely divorced from the events and characters of the novel (the way I often do with current literary fiction).

The plot here is simple. A man, Aaron Woolcott, deals with the untimely accidental death of his wife. And that's it. If this was a Jodi Picoult novel, his wife would have died from some "ripped from the headlines disease"; if it was a Jonathan Franzen or Tom Perrotta novel not only would she have been dying from some disease, but the main character would have committed adultery before she died, because hey, that's what people in Middle America often do when something isn't quite working in their marriages.

Of course my favorite thing about the book was the character. I liked Aaron Woolcott, I liked his contractor Gil (who is totally unbelievable--no contractors are that helpful), and I loved Aaron's wife, Dorothy, who only appears as a) a ghost, and b) in flashbacks. They are not really fascinating characters, but they are characters with the normal round of very human problems, and that, of course, is what makes them interesting. And there were small revelations about all of the characters' relationships along the way--many of which surprised me. Even after all these years Anne Tyler can still surprise me. It's nice.

The ending is decidedly abrupt--I never say this, but I could have used about 50-75 more pages. If you read this one, let me know what you think!

Real reviews: The Telegraph (this is the superior review, in my opinion); New York Times

I'm done trying Marilynne Robinson.

WhenI just don't care for Marilynne Robinson.

And it hurts me to say that, because many readers whose judgment I trust have told me that her novels (among them, Housekeeping and Gilead) are some of their favorite books of all time.* I've tried both those novels, and they were so boring to me that I simply could not finish them. Were they religious too? I seem to remember that they struck me as smarmily religious. But perhaps I just did not give them a fair trial.

So when a collection of her essays, titled When I Was a Child I Read Books, came out this spring, I thought, hey, I'll give her a try in nonfiction form. And that's a title you just have to love, right?

I took this book along on a car ride to visit my in-laws, and it couldn't even hold my interest halfway there. And trust me, the drive from my house to the in-laws is nothing but southern Wisconsin boringness in large highway form. Particularly in March.

The first thing readers should note is that this is a book of essays, and although many of them are about learning and imagination and reading, none of them are what I would call really ABOUT reading. (Making this a misleadingly titled book, in my opinion, designed to sell to people who love reading, and therefore still buy books.) The other essays include paragraphs like this, on why we need fiction:

"There is a tendency, considered highly rational, to reason from a narrow set of interests, say survival and procreation, which are supposed to govern our lives, and then to treat everything that does not fit this model as anomalous clutter, extraneous to what we are and probably best done without. But all we really know about what we are is what we do. There is a tendency to fit a tight and awkward carapace of definition over humankind, and to try to trim the living creature to fit the dead shell. The advice I give my students is the same advice I give myself--forget definition, forget assumption, watch. We inhabit, we are part of, a reality for which explanation is much too poor and small. No physicist would dispute this, though he or she might be less ready than I am to have recourse to the old language and call reality miraculous. By my lights, fiction that does not acknowledge this at least tacitly is not true." (p. 7.)

I'm not calling that bad writing. I suspect it is actually very good writing. But I'd have to read it a few more times to try and work out what she's really saying (I just typed it and I still got lost somewhere in the middle, like when I read tax form instruction booklets), and at the end of the day, I just don't care enough to put that kind of work into her essays. I need my essays a little more dumbed down, evidently.

Other reviews: New York Times, Shelf Love

*She's also a Pulitzer Prize winner.