Nothing I'm reading is sticking in my brain.

You ever had this problem?

At last, over the last few months of 2018, my eye/face fatigue problems* seemed to right themselves, and I actually got through quite a few books. The problem is, even though I read them and I'm pretty sure I found parts of them interesting, they mostly just didn't stand out or leave anything stuck in my brain that I just had to write about. So now I could either worry about my brain fuzziness, or I could just put it down to "reading while distracted" and move on. That's the course I'm choosing.

So what books did I read a month or two ago that I already can't remember?

Safekeeping, a memoir by Abigail Thomas. It's a memoir of a lifetime of Thomas's memories, primarily about her life as a "young, lost mother, [who had] four children, three marriages, and grandchildren." I think I maybe read something about it at The Millions that made me want to get it? Anyway, there were parts of it I enjoyed, and if you look up Abigail Thomas, wow, she's had quite a life, but overall I didn't find much in her experiences that spoke to me or provided me with insight. I think mainly I was impressed that anyone could stand being married three times, and also I was mainly just jealous that she had the energy (and started young enough) to have four kids. That's about it. Anyone else read this one and had more coherent thoughts about it?

I also read a short memoir titled Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, which I'm pretty sure I read about on Unruly's blog (yup, here it is). It was okay, but again, not really much I related to, and although I love me a good short book, this one was too short and its chapters too choppy, too unrelated. I just couldn't get into it.

I also tried an essay collection by Heather Havrilesky, titled What If This Were Enough?, that I really wanted to enjoy, but couldn't get past the first thirty pages of. I think her idea was okay, but I don't like to see my real thoughtful or "questioning the culture" essays anchored primarily by talk about TV shows (in one chapter she goes on for quite some time about Mad Men, and true to form here, I'm forgetting what point she was actually trying to make there). Don't get me wrong--I LOVE TV. TV and me is a true love story for the ages. But when I want quietly compelling essays, I kind of want them based on other things than TV. I kind of just want Wendell Berry, I'll admit it.

I did make it all the way through Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey through the Culture and Science of Pregnancy, by Angela Garbes but again, although it was interesting, it just felt slight. Yes, yes, yes, it's a real pain to give up drinking during pregnancy, and is it really necessary? I guess I just don't care about that argument anymore. For some reason I thought this book should feel bigger--the author handled the research nicely and shared her birth story with the level of detail I expect (a lot--don't bother telling me your birth story unless you are prepared to dish the nitty AND the gritty), but it just didn't set me on fire. It was no Labor Day, or even Pushed.

Somebody, for the love of all that's holy, recommend a book I can read and actually remember 3 days later? Thanks.

*Don't ask me, had it checked out to try and make sure it wasn't previously diagnosed eye problem getting worse or, you know, sinus or brain cancer. Everything came up healthy, so I'm just marking it down to facial/eye muscle fatigue, because that seems like the sort of dumb thing I'd have. My muscles and I have never quite operated on the same wavelength.

Laura Jean Baker's The Motherhood Affidavits.

So last week I said I had read Laura Jean Baker's memoir The Motherhood Affidavits, and I didn't quite know how I felt about it.

That is not completely true. I know how I feel about it. What I don't know how to do is write about how I feel about it without being unkind, or too harsh.

I have this problem a lot.

Let's get the basic details out of the way. The book is a new memoir by a woman who lives in Oshkosh (WI), has five kids, and is married to a criminal defense attorney. Interspersed with her stories of family life and the oxytocin lift that being pregnant and having babies gave her (which is one reason she sought to have multiple kids), are stories of her husband's law practice and the types of drug, family abuse, theft, and animal cruelty (among others) charges from which he defends his clients.

It's an interesting book, and although I live in Wisconsin and am passably familiar with Oshkosh, it's always eye-opening to read what is all going on in what you might otherwise think are peaceful small towns. Baker also does a pretty good job of describing the chaos of pregnancy and family life, as well as the logistic challenges of packing a family into a small house (which is the biggest house they can afford).

So what's the problem?


Okay, if you missed that, please understand that if you want to read this memoir fresh, you should stop reading this review now, because I'm going to tell you about the last chapter.

Still here?

In the last chapter Baker shares how she starts to realize that, for the sake of her health and the family's finances, it's probably time to stop having babies (after five). Then she further shares how they meant to get her husband a vasectomy, and just didn't get it done; so then she relied on the rhythm method (poorly; by not tracking her period and for having a weekend away with her husband and without her kids, in the middle of her fertile period) to not get pregnant; and she got pregnant. So then she had an abortion.

I was so sad to read a whole book that was weirdly affirming of life even in the depth of chaos and community crime, only to have the last chapter end with a death.

And don't tell me abortion isn't death for someone. I am too tired to have that fight; you know how I feel on this issue. I'm not dumb; I know the many reasons women (and men--abortion makes a lot of problems go away for men too, never forget) might need abortions, and I really do understand. But in this case? Just because a woman couldn't be bothered to figure out when her fertile period is or to ask her husband to wear a condom? Brother.

I'm really sorry it ruined the whole book for me. But it did. I'd be interested to hear what you think about it.

Teeny Tiny Review: And Now We Have Everything, by Meaghan O'Connell.

I was underwhelmed by Meaghan O'Connell's memoir And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I was Ready, which was disappointing, because it got a lot of good press.

Let's first consider how the author got pregnant at age 29 (or 28; she had the baby at 29), shall we? Here we go:

"'I still haven't gotten my period,' I had said to Dustin that morning when we were getting dressed.

'You say this every month, though,' he'd said. He wasn't wrong. I was one of those women who managed to be caught off guard every single month when their periods came. I never had a tampon on me when I needed one." (pp. 4-5.)

Wait for it...

[After she gets engaged:] "How good it was to have something I was scared to want but wanted all the same. When we had sex that night--we had to; how could we not?--I told him it was fine, he didn't need to pull out, my period had just ended, don't worry about it." (p. 8.)

I'm sorry, "pulls out"? Are you telling me that in 2018, people are still considering "pulling out" a valid contraceptive method? And a woman who is relying on "pulling out" has no idea what her cycle is doing?

So of course she ends up pregnant, and when discussing options, her boyfriend clearly thinks they aren't ready to be parents, and this is what he says:

"Come on. We can have this baby again in a couple of years." (p. 29.)

I'm sorry, are you telling me that in 2018 men still don't know that if you abort one baby, the next one will probably not be a carbon copy? (Yes, I get it, he means they can just have a baby, any baby, in a couple of years when they're more ready. But that statement seems to me a crystal example of men JUST NEVER THINKING ABOUT IT, NOT REALLY.)

To her credit, O'Connell came back to that statement with the only logical answer:

"Dustin,' I said. 'That's literally what it won't be, this particular baby.'" (pp. 29-30.)

Yeah, I could say more, but I won't. I just didn't like it. I'd like to re-title it, as a matter of fact: "Millennial and Annoying Millennial Fiance/Husband Discover Pregnancy and Parenting Is Hard." 

I will conclude by saying the jacket copy calls this book "a brutally honest, agenda-free reckoning with the emotional and existential impact of motherhood," and I didn't think it was all that honest or emotional. If you want that I would highly suggest you read Labor Day, which mostly deals with the actual delivery of babies, but also gets at the "existential impact of motherhood," which, I have found, is mainly "You will control absolutely fucking nothing from now on...good luck with that."


Reading while not paying attention.

I'm having a very odd autumn. I'm reading a lot, but I can't say I'm enjoying a whole lot of what I'm reading, or paying too much attention to it. I feel like I'm skimming a lot of books, and my feeling while reading them is, "yeah yeah, been there, done that."

IrbyTake Samantha Irby's essay collection We Are Never Meeting in Real Life. Irby blogs at bitches gotta eat, and I've been seeing her book (and its eye-catching cover) get a lot of attention. I did read the whole thing (it's a quick read) and laughed in parts, but after a while I thought, yeah, okay, LOL, I don't mind all the caps, but I GET IT NOW SO THAT'S ENOUGH KTHANKS. I will give her this: she'll tell you anything, and I like memoirists who do that. Take this scene, when she tries to spread her father's cremains in Nashville, on a trip with her girlfriend:

"As the better part of the cremains shook loose from where they had settled, a huge gust of wind came from the east. OF FUCKING COURSE.

Mavis's face was like Munch's Scream painting, all horrified wide eyes and open mouth, as I turned toward her with my dead father's charred bones and fingernails splattered across my face and crackling between my teeth. It was like coming home from a day at the beach, except replace 'sand' with 'gritty Sam Irby [her father] penis and entrails' lining my nostrils and in between my toes." (p. 183.)

And then there was the very different Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm, by Sarah Menkedick. This is a memoir about a woman who spent most of her life traveling, until she settled down on her parents' land in Ohio and became pregnant with her first child. Normally I eat that sort of thing up with a spoon (being interested in both farms and pregnancy) but this one didn't do much for me, even as I kept reading it:

"In my twenties, I flung myself into the world. I leapfrogged across continents, hungering for experience and proof of my own wildness. I taught English to recalcitrant teenagers on Reunion Island, picked grapes in France, witnessed a revolution in Mexico. To be aware was to be outside, under Mongolian skies and in bantam seaside bars, far-flung places where every conversation and scent prickled with exceptionality." (p. 4.)

The writing is fine and the subject is fine but while I was reading all I could think was "blah blah blah you travel it's all very exotic and now you're going to have a baby and connect with the Earth uh huh..."

I know. I'm a terrible person. You're really not going to like this next story.

BookshopLast week I also read a lovely light little novel titled How to Find Love in a Bookshop, by Veronica Henry. It's a nice little chick lit-ish romance, it's set in a bookshop, it's further set in Great Britain, and it's got several love stories that get happy resolutions. All of those things should have meant I should have been purring with happiness as I read it. And yet I wasn't. In fact part of me was distinctly thinking, as I said to Mr. CR, "Oh brother, go live your happy little love lives, bleah." Part of it was jealousy that the main character owned a bookshop and made it a profitable concern by the end of the book. I'm very jealous of that.

So there you have it. Don't send any cheerful, nice, gentle, earth-mothery, or lovey books my way this autumn. I won't be fair to them.

I really need to stop reading books about women getting pregnant (or not).

I never really used to be interested in children, babies, or pregnancy in any way. I'm not a very girly girl, I'm only Earth Mothery in the sense that I'm too cheap and lazy to buy and use makeup (which is really not very Earth Mothery at all), and, frankly, I've hung out with a lot of guys in my life, and guys are emphatically not interested in those things either.

But since having the CRjrs I find I am just addicted to all things pregnancy and parenting. Weird. I also am finding it weird lately how very little actual pregnancy, childbirth, and child care is found in fiction. There's fiction about families, sure. Fiction about "women's issues." Relationship fiction. But more nitty-gritty narratives actually describing childbirth and its aftermath? (With the exception of Joanna Kavenna's excellent The Birth of Love and Elisa Albert's angry but also excellent After Birth.) Rare.* So of course I have turned to nonfiction on the subject.

Art of waitingOne book getting a lot of press this fall was Belle Boggs's The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood. I read it in fits and starts, and as seems to be happening with a lot of my reading lately, I can't recall many specifics about it. Taken as a whole, I certainly wouldn't say it was one of my favorite books of the year, but on the other hand, I did finish it, and that says something. (It is my reading habit just to scatter-shot consider a lot of books. For every book I finish, I'd estimate that I start and discard about five others.) One aspect of the book that actually slowed me down was the fact that the author writes in a style I think of as "literary":

"It's spring when I realize that I may never have children, and around that time the thirteen-year cicadas return, tunneling out of neat, round holes in the ground to shed their larval shells, sprout wings, and fly to the treetops, filling the air with the sound of their singular purpose: reproduction. In the woods where I live, an area mostly protected from habitat destruction, the males' mating song, a vibrating, whooshing, endless hum, a sound at once faraway and up close, makes me feel as though I am living inside a seashell." (p. 3.)

It's not overly fancy, but it's just got a tone, you know? And in the rest of her introduction she proceeds to talk about the journals at her reproductive endocrinologist's office (including a scholarly one focusing on the fertility of monkeys), the North Carolina Zoo where a female gorilla is experiencing a miracle pregnancy, and more about nature in the form of cicadas and marmosets. Somewhere along the way she neglects to mention many of the actual details of going to the reproductive endocrinologist, which is actually what I'm more interested in.

However, there are enough moments to keep you going. I thought this observation was interesting:

"I'm always surprised when my students, boys and girls alike, from kindergarteners to high school seniors, talk about the children they will have someday. 'My kids won't act like that,' they say, eyeing an unruly class on a field trip. Or, worriedly, 'I bet I'll have all boys. What will I do with all boys?' It seems far more common for them to imagine the children they might have than they jobs they might do or the places they might live." (p. 12.)

That's a nice detail, told well. But overall it reads like what it is: a collection of essays, several of which were previously published elsewhere, rather than a cohesive whole.

AvalancheAustralian novelist Julia Leigh's memoir Avalanche: A Love Story, on the other hand? This book is like a scream. A long and anguished and personal scream packed in an amazingly compact narrative. I liked it a lot. (And, p.s., look at that cover. Wow.) This is how it opens:

"For a great many nights I injected myself with an artificial hormone produced in a line of genetically modified Chinese hamster ovary cells. I did this knowing that no matter how hard I hoped, no matter what I tried, chances were I'd never have a child." (p. 7.)

In 133 succinct pages, Leigh explores her relationship with her husband Paul (with whom she fell in love as a young woman, but didn't marry until she was in her later 30s; in the intervening years, he had married, had a child with, and divorced someone else), their attempts to use IUI and IVF to conceive using his sperm and her eggs; the disintegration of their relationship; her attempts to get pregnant using a friend's donor sperm; and her growing acceptance that no matter how much she wants it, biological motherhood might not be in her future. She spares no details, which I found very sad, but also very satisfying. Thank you, Julia Leigh, for just spelling it out: the procedures, the odds, the horrible circular questions-and-answers with doctors ("So you're giving me strong advice? Nothing wishy-washy? A: I can only advise you. It's up to you to do what you want. JL: But I have no medical experience.")

But most of all I thank Julia Leigh because she's saying out loud all the things I hear the voice in my head saying:

"I became very interested in what age a woman had her first child. Just as I used to try to figure out when an author had published their first novel, now I sought to compare myself with new mothers. The point of comparison was not to do better but to get a feel for the lay of the land. To gauge what was not impossible. Again, the persuasive illogic: if she could do it at age 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, then so could I." (p. 27.)

I can't tell you how much time I have spent on the Internet just offhandedly looking up when celebrities had their babies. Savannah Guthrie, anyone?

So. I don't know if you're interested in these topics at all. Even if you're not, I'd say DO read the Julia Leigh. It won't take you long and a woman this honest deserves for someone to read her book. Hopefully lots of someones.

*Masturbation, on the other hand? I've largely had to stop reading literary fiction by guys because I've just read enough about masturbation now.

Now THIS is more like it: Mama Tried, by Emily Flake.

Remember a few weeks ago, when I was going on and on about how I'd love to see a parenting book whose author actually shared some of the gory details of childbirth? All I can say after reading Emily Flake's Mama Tried: Dispatches from the Seamy Underbelly of Modern Parenting, is HUZZAH!

Now THIS is what I'm talking about:

Mama tried"Just like in the movies, I was in the back of a cab making little hoo-hoo-hoo sounds and trying to assure the driver I would not have a baby in his car, though I couldn't guarantee I wouldn't crap all over it. Luckily for everyone concerned, the hospital was only a mile away; when I got out of the cab I was holding my belly and bellowing like a sow. I was put in a wheelchair and whisked into an examination room, where I stroked the wall very, very gently and waited for a real doctor (they'd sent in a med student to take my family history; I was impolite to him). A real doctor showed up, took a look at my lady parts, and took out a walkie-talkie. 'Clear a labor room,' she said into it. 'Wait, am I in labor??' I asked. 'You,' she said, clearly biting off the words 'you idiot,' 'are having a baby RIGHT NOW.' She said this because I was 9.5 centimeters dilated. That promise I made to the cabbie could very easily have been false, and I would have had the New Yorkiest of all possible birth stories to tell.

Only one thing saved the cab's upholstery: the baby was coming face-up. This is not nearly as worrisome as a butt-or feet-first baby, nor as awful as that thing where their head gets jammed to the side and they're somehow coming...neck-first? Yikes--but it does make the whole process a bit more difficult. There was an awful lot of pushing. I moaned piteously for ice...

But: back to my face-up baby, stuck in the canal. After a couple of hours we had all had it with the pushing; I asked if maybe they didn't have one of those vacuum thingies handy? They did. Three contractions, a Hoovering, and a big doctor squeezing down on my belly later, out came the baby. The placenta was less eager to make its debut; the cord snapped, and my OB--a...brisk woman--reached on up there with her hand to pluck it out of me. She regarded it quizzically: 'That's a really raggedy old-looking placenta,' she said." (pp. 86-88.)

Well, fucking hell and thank YOU, Emily Flake, THIS is what I'm looking for in a birth narrative, complete with not knowing when you should go to the hospital, birth not quite going the way you thought, doctor-being-a-dickhead moments. AMEN. And of course there's a reason I responded to this story with every fiber of my being...


When my second CRjr made his way onto the scene it played out much the same way: I dilated nicely and everyone at the hospital thought he would be popping out shortly after we arrived. Of course that is not what happened. I tried to dilate to the full 10 centimeters for many hours, and then pushed for several hours, before which a nurse actually said to me, "Huh, I hope he's not coming face-up, that can be..." and then she trailed off as she saw me looking at her, "...uncomfortable."

Of course he was coming face-up.

To make a long story short, because you, unlike me, may not be into gory birth stories, the littlest CRjr also made his appearance thanks to one of those "vacuum thingies." But, and here's the part you really may not need to know, I still have some physical issues from the experience. So for the last three years, no kidding, I have been beating myself up, thinking if I had just stayed home a little longer, I could have dilated further, birth could have gone faster, and maybe I could have avoided some problems...

But God bless Emily Flake, now I know that even if I'd arrived at that damn hospital at the full 10 centimeters things may not have gone any better. And I cannot tell you the good that this does for my soul. So maybe that's what I'm looking for in these birth narratives: solidarity with what women go through, and what they come back from.


Have I also mentioned that this book is hilarious? Not only is it a quick read, it's illustrated, and Flake's pictures and their captions are really the best parts of the book. Just imagine her pictures and captions for her description of the third trimester: "The Dampening." (Horrifying but hilarious.) At one point the author also asked her sister, a postpartum nurse and lactation consultant, who her least favorite patients were. Her sister's reply? "'Oh, you know, older, professional moms who read too many parenting websites.'" (p. 37.) In other words, patients just like the author. God love modern parenting.

It's a great book. Get it for any new (or newish) mom you know, who doesn't mind a bit of swearing, off-color humor, and a good gory birth story. (Or, even if you don't get this one, consider Let's Panic about Babies!, another hilarious, truthful book about parenting.)

Rivka Galchen's Little Labors.

As previously noted, since having kids I've gone gaga for parenting books.

What's really scary--to me, at least--is that, of the parenting books, I read, I only post about a few of them, which means I am reading way too many parenting books, both of the self-help and memoir/essay varieties. I can't say I really enjoy a ton of them, but yet I keep reading them.

Little laborsSo when I saw that novelist Rivka Galchen had published a little memoir/essay collection titled Little Labors, I thought, well, I'm going to have to read that too. It's definitely one of the more "literary" examples of the genre; here's how The New Republic reviewed it: "Everything one could possibly need is dispensed via dense, tiny, mysterious pellets--a fortified shot of literary enrichment we didn't even know we needed, but that now feels vital and enthralling."

Ostensibly the book is about babies and books. But the books in question are something a somewhat avant-garde novelist would read and comment upon, like Sei Shonagon's The Pillow Book. This is not a book where the author dishes about giving birth and then blabs about all the celebrity memoirs she's reading and what they're making her think about. (And really, weirdly, female comedian memoirs did make me think about gender issues and culture, a lot.) That's the sort of book I would write, low-culture boob that I am. Galchen's is more, what's the word I'm looking for...removed? Here's the first chapter, in its entirety:

"Children's books. Books for young children rarely feature children. They feature animals, or monsters, or, occasionally, children behaving like animals or monsters. Books for adults almost invariably feature adults." (p. 3.)

Well, okay. True enough. But nothing here was as gritty in a motherhood way (read: not violent, but definitely sometimes gory), which is still kind of what I'm searching for in one of these memoirs. You know what I really want to read? I want to read a book of essays in which women share all the details of their birth experiences. Really. I think it would be instructive. Horrifying, but instructive, and perhaps even beautiful. Come on. People write roughly a million horrible war memoirs every year--why is that bloody subject okay, but birth is not?

Anyway. Here's another bit from Galchen's book, just to give you the flavor:

"My life with the very young human resembles those romantic comedies in which two people who don't speak the same language still somehow fall in love. Like say, that movie I saw on an airplane with the wide-eyed Brazilian woman and the doofy American man who end up together, despite not being able to communicate via words...Yes, it was like those comedies, only without the upsetting gender dynamic of the effectively mute female. Though with the same believability. And arguably the dynamic might still be considered upsetting." (p. 31.)

It was okay. But if anyone's got any suggestions for me about that gory book about motherhood, please do let me know.*

*I think this is why I love Rachel Cusk. She's been more honest than anyone else I've seen about what goes on in the immediate aftermath of having a baby, and in marriage.

Deanna Fei's Girl in Glass: Some good stuff here.

Girl in Glass
by Deanna FeiHardcover

Periodically I get emails from authors or publicists asking if I will review certain books here. I keep my review policy pretty simple: I don't accept books for review. I do this for several reasons: 1. I cannot handle the thought of more mail coming into my house that I have to open and try to organize, and 2. I really want to be free to say what I don't like about books, and I am often uncomfortable doing that when someone has sent me a free book. I also really don't like feeling like I "have" to read something, and my local public library is excellent. I never have any problem finding things I want to read and I never have any shortage of reading material.*

That paragraph got away from me a bit, but the point is, sometimes authors or their publicists contact me to read certain books, and that happened with Deanna Fei's Girl in Glass: How My "Distressed Baby" Defied the Odds, Shamed a CEO, and Taught Me the Essence of Love, Heartbreak, and Miracles. When I receive those emails I often do let the author know that I will read the book, if I can get it at the library and if I feel like it, and this was one of those books. It also got quite a bit of press attention when it was published.

And it was okay that it did; it's a fairly interesting book. The glimpse inside a natal intensive care unit, and the feeling of how utterly horrifying it must be to give birth at roughly 5-and-a-half months pregnant, makes it a worthwhile read on any level. (Although I wouldn't recommend it if you're expecting yourself, or have just had a baby and are still worrying about anything that can go horribly wrong at any second.) Sometimes it got a little melodramatic for me (the author is a graduate of the Iowa Writer' Workshop, after all), but one thing I really appreciated was the author's bravery in sharing how she often wondered if it wouldn't be better for her daughter (and easier for her) if her daughter simply didn't make it. That's a horrifying thought, but it's an honest one, and I appreciate the author's willingness to share it.

Where I feel the book struggled a bit was in organization. The first half is about the premature delivery and the author's time with her daughter in the NICU; suddenly the author shifts in tone and narrative to the story of her struggles with their health insurance and her husband's employer's (he worked for AOL and the CEO at the time was Tim Armstrong) blaming of "distressed babies" like hers for running up the costs of health care. Again, this story is told well. But the two halves of the book seemed so distinct and so different, it was like they were different books. Personally I would have preferred a bit more integration of the stories. But perhaps that's not the way it went: I can certainly picture if your baby is in the NICU, that would blot out all other concerns.

Speaking of being all over the shop, I'm sorry for the disjointed nature of this review. I'm disjointed lately. This was an interesting book; do give it a try if you can handle the sometimes gut-wrenching details of helping tiny, tiny little babies live.

*TIME to read, on the other hand, I still find distressingly hard to come by.

Wednesday Martin's Primates of Park Avenue: Skip it.

I wasn't all that bothered by all of the media pieces accusing Wednesday Martin of playing fast and loose with her facts in her bestselling memoir Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir. I was more bothered by the fact that it just wasn't that interesting.

Perhaps it's just a subject-matter problem. How interesting can you make stories of parenting and living among extreme wealth on Manhattan's Upper East Side? Doesn't anyone with a TV or any basic cultural knowledge about New York City (or even just extremely wealthy people) know that Alpha Moms and Dads with a lot of money compete viciously among themselves for places for their children in the right preschools and schools, not to mention living in the "right" door-manned buildings and carrying the right Birkin bags? Martin tries to give an anthropological spin to this memoir--throwing in Anthropology Lite tidbits here and there to explain dominance behavior like other women aggressively "charging" her on the sidewalk, or the dangers of "going native"--but nothing is noted, footnoted, or really explored in any real in-depth way to make that tactic any more than a gimmick to sell this book.

The book did periodically give me a chuckle (but not really for the right reasons); I enjoyed this quote, when Martin is talking about trying to sell their townhouse downtown: "I was forever making it look pristine and then rushing out the door so a broker and client could "view" it." (p. 25.)

Now I don't know if we should blame Martin or her editor for that one, but all I could think was, come on, Wednesday. We sell houses in the Midwest too; you don't really have to put "view" in quotes for us.

In one of the final chapters, Martin actually does do some poignant writing about losing a baby while in her second (nearing her third) trimester, and nobody who has ever had a baby or lost a baby will be unaffected by it. But even then she reminds you that the problems of the rich are entirely different from those of the not rich:

"She [the expected third child that they lost] was a burden, in a way, this baby, taxing our space and stealing the older one's crib and requiring private school and college tuition and a renovation and four or five more years of a full-time nanny." (p. 207.)

I'm sorry for her loss, but those aren't really worries [oh, those full-time nannies, they really do cost!] to which I can relate. Skip this one.

Meghan Daum's Shallow, Selfish, and Self-Absorbed: Read it.

If you can believe it, I've actually got a little backlog here of books read and reviews unwritten. So this week I'll try to post some teeny-tiny reviews. Many people tell me smaller doses of me are better for everyone involved anyway, so this should be a great week!

I really enjoyed the essay collection Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum. This comes as no surprise, as I am a huge Meghan Daum fan.

I have kids, and they're keepers, but I can certainly understand why a person would choose not to reproduce. So I enjoyed reading these different viewpoints and reasons for not having kids, but what I liked best about this book was the diversity of writing styles present. They were all essays, sure, but each writer here seemed (to me) to showcase a very different writing style and voice. And periodically the book just really made me chuckle, in the best possible way. Consider this paragraph, from Sigrid Nunez's essay "The Most Important Thing":

"I remember a woman, a mentor, who once asked me if I thought I'd make a good mother. When I told her honestly that I didn't know, she was mightily displeased. It was as if I'd confessed to being a bad person. But I am astonished by those who are unfazed by the prospect of child raising. A male friend of mine, childless but confident, once assured me, "You just give them lots and lots of love." Perhaps only a man could believe it is as simple as that." p. 104.

That made me snort again just reading it.

Other authors included in this collection are Lionel Shriver, Geoff Dyer, Courtney Hodell, Laura Kipnis, Kate Christensen, Paul Lisicky, Anna Holmes, Michelle Huneven, Pam Houston, Jeanne Safer, M.G. Lord, Rosemary Mahoney (particularly good), Elliott Holt, Tim Kreider.

It's a great collection. Read it.

Unabrow: Misadventures of a Late Bloomer--funny stuff.

I struggle to find humorous writing that I really enjoy. Everyone does, I think. For some reason, quality humor writing seems hard to find, and individual readers' tastes in humor can vary widely.

So it was a pleasure to find and read Unabrow: Misadventures of a Late Bloomer, which honestly, I think I chose based on its cover alone (although I can't remember where I would have seen it). The author, Una Lamarche, blogs at The Sassy Curmudgeon, and also apparently writes YA novels. She also writes very, very funny essays.

I particularly liked her essays about childbirth and parenting. In one essay, on the stages a woman goes through in her lifetime with her body, here is how she describes childbirth:

"By the time you've lived in your body for thirty years or so, there's not much it can do to surprise you anymore. All its sounds and smells and unsightly bulges have been cataloged and then either frantically hidden or hopelessly ignored. Which makes it all the more shocking when your body up and does something you never thought possible. Which, in my case, was to make a cuter, littler body inside of mind...Since I am lucky enough never to have suffered a major illness or been forced to run more than fifty feet in my adult life, I'm here to talk about the transformative experience of baby making."

And she concludes that story with:

"And I never criticized my body ever again.

Hahahahaha. Lies. Of course I do. But it has gotten a lot better, with the exception of my vagina, which I choose no longer to look at, since the last time I did, it resembled an appliance that you try to shove back in its original box, but it won't fit, and there are cords and polystyrene peanuts hanging out. It was depressing, so we just email now." (pp. 31-33.)

There's nothing earth-shattering here. But the whole book was a really enjoyable read, and I came away from it really just liking Una.* Give this one a try if you're looking for a good light nonfiction summer read.

*Yes, of course I know I don't really know Una. But I do know how she feels about her vagina.

Yet another reason not to judge other people's self-help reading.

Mainly because that sort of thing will always come back to bite you in the ass.

When I worked at the public library, I often checked out books to parents about "1,2,3 discipline" and "spirited" or "indigo" children. What I used to think was, well, I don't know that you've got 'spirited' children--you might just have brats.

And here are the titles I checked out at the library the other day: Difficult to Delightful in Just 30 Days; Taming the Spirited Child; and Raising Your Spirited Child.*


*Please note that neither of the CRjrs are really too "spirited." I'm just busily trying to find some nice, harmonious way to reconcile my massive need to control with their massive needs to not be controlled. We're all learning here.

One marriage, one family, two books.

Somewhere along the way I saw Michael Chabon's essay collection Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son discussed somewhere, so I thought I would give it a try.

There are a lot of modern novelists I can't stand, and Chabon is one of them. I have tried several times to get into The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and I just don't understand the appeal (or the story). So I did what I usually do: wait for said novelists to write an essay collection, and then I get them.

Chabon's greater theme is indeed "manhood," as far as it pertains to coming of age, fatherhood, past and present relationships, and work. There are some good essays here, with some humorous moments; in one, Chabon talks about taking his son grocery shopping, where another customer tells him he is a "good dad." He accepts that, but goes on to say:

"I don't know what a woman needs to do to impel a perfect stranger to inform her in the grocery store that she is a really good mom. Perhaps perform an emergency tracheotomy with a Bic pen on her eldest child while simultaneously nursing her infant and buying two weeks' worth of healthy but appealing breakfast snacks for the entire cast of Lion King, Jr. In a grocery store, no mother is good or bad; she is just a mother, shopping for her family. If she wipes her kid's nose of tear-stained cheeks, if she holds her kid tight, entertains her kid's nonsensical claims,buys her kid the organic non-GMO whole-grain version of Honey Nut Cheerios, it adds no useful data to our assessment of her...Good mothering is a long-term pattern, a lifelong trend of behaviors most of which go unobserved at the time by anyone, least of all the mother herself." (p. 12.)

I liked that. Very much, in fact. His chapters about being a father were my favorite, actually; other than that I could pretty much take him or leave him (which seemed about right, considering how I feel about his fiction).

As I was reading Chabon's book, I got the urge to read Ayelet Waldman's essay collection Bad Mother. I had read bits of it years ago, but never the whole thing, and I thought now might be a good time to revisit it, as Waldman is actually married to Chabon (and they have four kids). So then I re-read the Waldman.

What did I find in these two takes on the same married, with kids, writing lives? Well, I enjoyed them both, although bits of the Chabon felt a little like a slog sometimes (I was prepared to prefer the Waldman on length alone--her book is 208 pages to Chabon's 306, and I do like me a short book). But in the end? I would choose the Waldman as the more interesting and pertinent read (at least for my own reading preferences). I can sum up the difference in how they handle one story in particular.

At one point, Chabon alludes to the fact that he and his wife have been through both pregnancies and terminations, and leaves it at that, while Waldman devotes an entire chapter to their experience of having a pregnancy tested for genetic anomalies, finding evidence of one, and making the choice to terminate. I did not enjoy this chapter--I can certainly understand their choice but it makes me unhappy anyway--but at least Waldman spells it out for you. She engages with the unpalatable in a way that Chabon never really does. And that, if you must know, is how I see a lot of marriage, parenthood, relationships, what have you--staring the unpalatable in the face and then having the guts to tell the whole story afterwards. This is why I never mind when other women tell me their childbirth stories, horrific or otherwise. At least it seems honest. I never quite trust people who gloss over the big stuff, by saying things like "we've been through pregnancies and terminations."

The title made me want to like it.

With a title like People I Want to Punch In the Throat: Competitive Crafters, Drop-Off Despots, and Other Suburban Scourges, I really wanted to love Jen Mann's book.

It's a short book of humorous essays on parenting, of the sort I've been consuming like bon-bons ever since I had the CRjrs. There's a lot of this sort of thing:

"I love my cleaning lady just a little bit more than I love the Hubs. No, that's not true. I love her a lot more than I love the Hubs, and I'm not afraid to tell her, or him." (p. 32.)

And this:

"I have a confession to make. No, this isn't the part where I reveal that I'm a closet crafter who has a craft room in my basement where I hoard countless dollars' worth of rubber stamps, paint, tulle, ribbon, and glue guns (yes, glue guns, plural, because every good crafter worth her glitter knows you need more than one size). Even though that's all true, I'd rather talk about my even more embarrassing confession: I want a minivan. Baaad." (p. 103.)

Yeah, it's okay. I read the whole thing (it's only about 200 pages long). And it had a few moments. But overall? It just wasn't all that funny. As types in the genre, I'd much more heartily recommend Karen Alpert's I Heart My Little A-Holes, Drew Magary's Someone Could Get Hurt, or even Amber Dusick's Parenting: Illustrated with Crappy Pictures.

The glory years: Kids' nonfiction

I gotta tell you, all hardcore nonfiction readers should have at least one little kid. Because I'm finding that little kids really LOVE nonfiction. And it's super.

CRjr has become all about perusing the nonfiction shelves at the library. (Might I also add that taking the CRjrs to the library on a regular basis has been balm to my routine-loving soul. We go, we pick up our holds, we visit the little lizard who lives there, we wander the kids' nonfiction section, they play at the train table while I try to sneak in a chapter of whatever I'm picking up on hold, we look at pop-up books, we pick some Scooby-Doo readers off the shelf, we go. We could probably vary the order of those events, just once, but hey, why fool with a working system?)

So this week it's all sharks, manta rays, giant squids, and the moon. Last week it was body parts, trucks, and cranes. Did you know that sperm whales eat squids? And that squids have beaks on their mouths? Beaks that get stuck in whale stomachs, form little balls, and get coated with ambergris, which is whale digestive juices? That the perfume industry makes use of?

Mother Nature is a mad scientist, I tell you, and let's hear it for CRjr, taking me on the wild and wonderful tour of all things kids' nonfiction.

Amber Dusick's Parenting: Illustrated with Crappy Pictures

Oh, I really enjoyed Amber Dusick's book Parenting: Illustrated with Crappy Pictures.

The book delivers exactly what it promises.* Dusick dishes on parenting two small boys, and accompanies her stories with stick-figure drawings of her anecdotes. I laughed my way through it one night in about an hour, and when Mr. CR asked what I was laughing at, I handed it off to him, and then he laughed through it too. Mr. CR has a charming but elusive giggle, rarely spotted in captivity, and I was touched that he laughed at many of the same things in this book that I did.

He even laughed at my favorite chapter, which didn't have as much to do with parenting as it did with marriage. One of the obligatory stories in Dusick's book is about how the entire family got the (throwing-up) flu, starting with the kids, moving to Mom, and finishing up with Dad, who gets his flu on the weekend, and gets to spend his time alone in bed (whereas Mom spent her sick time during the week, caring for the kids). So this is what transpires: "I tell him matter-of-factly that he is not dying. He just had the flu.

The same flu, I remind him, that I had while taking care of the kids all week.

This is where he is supposed to have an epiphany of how amazing I am and what a hard week it has been for me and why I'm ever-so-slightly annoyed and jealous that he has been in bed for two days.

Only he doesn't. Instead he says something that is so completely the opposite of what I was expecting that I'm stunned.

[and this bit is is cartoon form] I must have a stronger, mutated version of the virus." (p. 122.)

Tee hee. Good stuff, this.

*And you've got to love a woman who says this, straight up: "I hate well-child doctor visits. Especially once I started noticing that my kids would get sick approximately forty-eight hours after their well-child visits. Every. Damn. Time." (p. 98.)

Moms who drink and swear.

I am firmly on record as not minding swearing in my nonfiction (or fiction, really) books. However, I do think the swearing needs to be warranted. (For instance: I don't mind it when Matt Taibbi swears in his writing. I think most of the topics he covers require some amount of swearing, such as when he perfectly describes Alan Greenspan as a "one in a billion asshole.")

However, one book I leafed through recently contained just too much (unwarranted) swearing to be amusing. The title? Appropriately enough, Moms Who Drink and Swear: True Tales of Loving My Kids While Losing My Mind. It's a collection of short essays, based on the author's blog of the same name,* and it just didn't do much for me. For instance, she includes what she calls "Conversations with Crotchfruit" (the "crotchfruit" being her children? I've never heard that word, personally):

"Zach: Why do you wear underwear that goes straight up your butt?

Me: Thongs? I wear these so underpants lines don't show through my pants, okay?

Zach: And it probably doesn't get stuck in all those dents all over your butt either. I get it.

Me: OH MY GOD! GET OUT!" (p. 49.)

I have several questions about this exchange. Mainly, because this is a woman who also references sometimes suffering from hemorrhoids, what on earth is she doing wearing thong underwear? Let's just say this was a woman to whom I couldn't relate. I read about fifty pages, wondered why I was wasting my time, and took it back to the library.

Here's a sample entry from the blog: "In July, I posted the first of what I hope will be many Fuck You Dinner recipes, a recipe for good goddamn homemade chicken tenders. I promised to share more, but I’ve spent the summer telling dinner to go fuck itself and letting my crothfruit’s shitty dinner requests roll and not cooking much." That's pretty much what the book is like.

The Kids Will Be Fine.

Now there's a title that's a balm to every mother's soul.

The other book on parenting that I read last week, largely while parenting (well, sort of: I was outside with the CRboys, supervising, but clearly I was also reading, slacker mom that I am), was The Kids Will Be Fine: Guilt-Free Motherhood for Thoroughly Modern Women. The good news is that, according to Brit author Daisy Waugh, evidently "the kids will be fine."

Waugh takes on all the offenders who have ever offered pregnant women or mothers unsolicited advice on how best to raise their children, and works at debunking the myth that you have to be a total martyr to your children's needs in order to do a good job raising them. Overall, hers is kind of a refreshing take on the subject, and the kicker is that most of her chapters are all of two to three pages long, so it was easy to read her book in short bursts. I find this is necessary these days, as roughly every 30 seconds I am called upon to blow some more bubbles, help someone in the bathroom, separate someone else from his favorite remote that he loves to chew on, etc.

Waugh starts off with a bang on the topic of pregnancy, admitting she had pain relief during her deliveries and couldn't imagine why everyone wouldn't.* She then moves on to caring for babies, working or not working, child care, school, and so on. Here she is on not attending every single last one of her children's sporting events or school functions:

"My children (less as they grow older, of course) would generally prefer it if I attended their school functions. Why wouldn't they? And yet I still don't. Because, as I explain to the children, time is of the essence. Although I love them tenderly (duh), there are other things--not related to them--that I either need or would prefer to be doing.

Added to which, by the way, even if I didn't have work to do; even if I had a fleet of nannies and housekeepers and--gosh--a tax-deductible chauffeur to attend to the parking, I would still want to limit what hours I spent, in this short life, making polite conversation on rain-soaked sideliens or sitting in school halls watching other people's children playing musical instruments badly.

Children who grow up understanding that their mother's world doesn't solely revolve around theirs are much the better for it. In my opinion." (p. 137-138.)

Personally? I think she makes a good point. Several, actually.

If I have a slight quibble with this book, it's that I feel some of the chapters actually end a little abruptly. She's going along on a subject, tickety-boo, and I'm really quite interested to see how she resolves the point, and then, bang, the chapter's over, without much actual resolution.

But still. An interesting little read, and of course I'd love to believe her title.

*I don't really agree with her on the need for medicated labor. It sounds stupid, but I didn't really mind unmedicated labor. Labor you know is going to end. It's the recovery period from the all sorts of bad things having a baby does to your body that does me in.

Two books on mothering you can actually read while mothering.

So of course over the past few years I have read more than a few books on parenting, simply because I am in the thick of parenting (and it's still relatively new to me). Although I tend to plow through a lot of informational books on kids, health, and parenting methods*, I also read quite a few memoirs and humorous books on the subject. The last time I went to the library there happened to be, purely by chance, two (somewhat) similar such books waiting for me.

The first of the two I read was the catchily titled I Heart My Little A-Holes: A Bunch of Holy-Crap Moments No One Ever Told You about Parenting. I think I learned about this one on the New York Times bestseller list (it was originally self-published, and then re-issued by HarperCollins), and it's written by a mother who blogs at Baby Sideburns.

As you can probably tell from the title, this collection of short essays on motherhood is a bit saucier than most. It opens up, for example, with a number of chapters under the broad (no pun intended) heading of "5 Funny Stories about Vajayjays."  And the second grouping is called "Bundle of Joy My Ass, More Like Bundle of Hell." Now, that's not subtle, but it IS kind of funny. And, to me anyway, refreshing. You have to kind of like a woman, I think, who offers you a chapter on "a lot of shit you don't need when you're having a baby": she lists "a fancy bedding set, clothes that go over a newborn's head, a wipes warmer, newborn shoes, expensive baby clothes, a fancy stroller, a baby bathtub, the Bumbo seat, and pee pee teepees." Although, for the record, I do love my baby bathtub, but that's because it's a great model that folds up, and also because my bathroom is about 2.3 square feet, so washing the CRboys in the sink would have been a tight fit.

So I can give you the flavor of this one pretty easily. Here's the beginning of the "Chugga Chugga Typhoid" chapter:

"Before I had kids I had no F'ing idea how many times I would have to take them to the doctor's office. I mean, you go to the doctor once a year, right? Well, twice. Once to your regular one, and once to the one with the stirrups. Giddy up.

But apparently babies need to go like 9,000 times a year. And that's just for wellness checkups. Which they're always F'ing well for. And then the second you get them home they're like pulling at their ear or barfing up their spleen or some shit like that and you're dragging them back to Flutopia because they caught something when they were there for their wellness checkup." (p. 39.)

Later on in the same chapter Alpert says she hates the train table in her pediatrician's waiting room, and calls it the "Ebola train table." This, my friends, is a mother with whom I can work. She swears, she's annoyed that she got hemorrhoids even though she had two c-sections, and she includes a handy list of items that her kids' grandparents should not buy them for the holidays.

It's not the most smoothly written or well-edited book. But it did make me F'ing laugh.

*I'm still laughing about the response of a friend of Mr. CR's, who is a doctor. When I asked him a fairly basic medical question and told him I'd read about it (and further asked if he didn't get this question from others when they learned about it), he laughed and said, "Oh, CR, people don't read."

Short chapters are my kryptonite.

Well, I may be using the word wrong. I've never actually seen any of the Superman movies or read the comics (although I do own the soundtrack from the TV show Smallville). What I mean is, I'll get sucked into almost any book if it offers short chapters, even if I'm not enjoying the book or the subject matter that much. Because I seem to be powerless against them, short chapters are my kryptonite.

Glitter and Glue
by Kelly Corrigan

The Short Chapter Lure most recently got me to page 136 of Kelly Corrigan's latest memoir, Glitter and Glue. Corrigan is the author of the memoir The Middle Place, which was a rather surprise big bestseller. I never got around to reading that one, so when I saw this new memoir by Corrigan, I thought I'd give her a try. In The Middle Place, she laid bare her own struggle against cancer and her relationship with her father; in this book, she writes about her time working as a nanny in an Australian family with two children (in a household where the children's mother had recently died from cancer) and how her experiences there made her re-evaluate her (often contentious) relationship with her own mother.

In retrospect, I should have known this wasn't going to be a book for me when I read this: "That schedule left all unpleasant tasks to my mom, who liked to point out, Your father's the glitter but I'm the glue." (p. 47.) Now, I understand all the unpleasant tasks being left to Mom. But saying things like "your father's the glitter but I'm the glue"? Yeah, no. In the 100+ pages I read, I did get the picture that Mom Corrigan was a formidable and surprisingly funny woman and mother, but I just can't imagine any of the mothers I know saying anything like that.* But: as previously noted? Short chapters. So even when the book wasn't setting me on fire I just kept on going, really feeling like I was getting somewhere, because every 3-5 pages I got a new chapter.

It's not a bad memoir. Corrigan's a serviceable writer and keeps the story going nicely, and her story is not without insights, like: "But now I see there's no such thing as a woman, one woman. There are dozens inside every one of them. I probably should've figured this out sooner, but what child can see the women inside her mom, what with all that Motherness blocking out everything else?" (p. 88.)

But somewhere in the middle I thought, am I only reading this because I feel like I'm flying through its short chapters? Am I really enjoying it? And the answers to those questions were "yes" and "no," so I'm going to read the last ten pages or so for closure and then take it back to the library.

Have a happy weekend, all.

*In my family we're more apt to say less poetic and more pragmatic things, like "Thank God spring is here so I can get that man into the garden and out of the house."