The New Neighbor

The New Neighbor by Leah Stewart


I was excited to see that Leah Stewart had put out another book and that she was coming to Nashville for the Southern Festival of Books. Leah was one of my professors in my graduate program at UC and I’ve enjoyed her previous books. When I heard Leah describe this new book, I recognized a thread from a novel-in-progress she read at UC almost a decade ago: a story about a WWII nurse. When she published The History of Us instead, I wondered what happened to the nurse. Apparently, Leah’s been working on that character for a very long time, and this book is her final form.

Margaret is the WWII nurse, now 90 years old and retired to a secluded cabin near Sewanee, TN. She becomes intrigued with the mysterious woman who moves in across the lake from her, Jennifer. The story alternates between Margaret’s first person narration and Jennifer’s third person perspective. Jennifer has a past she’s hiding, and Margaret is inclined to play detective.

This book has all the suspense and tension of a psychological thriller or detective story, but without the fighting or action scenes you might expect from those genres. Instead there are guarded exchanges, carefully planned revelations, and lots of flashbacks. Leah had me hooked from the beginning with Margaret’s wry, crotchety voice, and I couldn’t stop reading. The ending surprised me three times that I counted. The moral murkiness of the characters’ choices kept taking me aback. I’d recommend it wholeheartedly.


2666 by Roberto Bolano


This gigantic, posthumous book includes several tenuously connected narratives, each of which is long enough to be at least a novella. The longest, most central story is about a series of murders of women in a Mexico border town modeled on Ciudad Juarez. The women’s bodies are described in brutal, clinical detail, and most of the crimes are never solved. The effect is an overwhelming pile of bodies, an endless accumulation of violence. Some other passages reminded me of Marquez in their dreamlike quality and fantastic improbability. The beginning and ending narratives seem most removed from the crimes in Mexico, concerning a trio of European academics and their scholarly obsession, a reclusive German writer.

I didn’t always find the book easy to read, whether because of the violence, because the characters were sometimes hard to connect with, or because it was just so long. The style seemed a little alienating at times, but I’m sure that was a deliberate choice. There was a payoff, though, once I could see the connections between the various narratives. The ending of “The Part About the Crimes,” in particular, I found sinister and moving. Sometimes reading a gigantic book like this makes you feel like you’ve really accomplished something, even conquered something. There are some stories that just have to be long.

Shadow Scale

Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman


Shadow Scale is the sequel to Seraphina, a fantasy novel in which dragons can take human form. The protagonist is a half-human, half-dragon young woman who’s trying to stop a war between the dragons, her country, and its neighbors.

Seraphina travels to neighboring lands to find other dragon hybrids like her, aided by her ‘mental garden’ in which each of them has an avatar. In the previous book, I thought this garden in her mind, which she accesses through meditation and describes in copious detail, was tedious, overly interior, and annoying, but it was setting things up for this book, in which one of the denizens of her garden goes rogue and tries to control the minds of all the others in real life. I’m still not sure whether the intrigue was worth the conceit, or if there would have been another way to accomplish it.

Again, the romance plot was the strength of the book for me.  The adventure plot had some great twists. Another pleasant surprise of the story was its inclusion of LGBT characters.The ending was fairly resolved, but could use another sequel. It seems almost like the next book will depict an open marriage, which will be the first I’ve seen in YA fantasy.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson


In this book, journalist Jon Ronson explores the concept of shame and the way it is wielded as a weapon of social control. He begins with a story in which he was the person heaping online shame on some men who impersonated him on Twitter, and who had strange academic-sounding justifications for doing it. But he spends most of his time telling the stories of several people who have been publicly shamed on the internet, most notably Jonah Lehrer and Justine Sacco, the woman who made the tasteless AIDS joke on Twitter while boarding a plane to Africa. This allows him to show both sides of the issue, to explore how satisfying it can be to shame someone we feel deserves it, and the devastating consequences for the victims. The conclusion seems to be that shaming destroys lives without reforming them, and the satisfaction of participating in an online pile-on isn’t worth the bad karma. It’s a fascinating topic, and one worth learning about for anyone who has felt profound shame or feared others’ shaming reactions.

What I’ll do differently this time

Half of the reason to have a second child is to correct the mistakes you made with your first one. I’ve been thinking a lot about what will be different about this birth, this baby, and what I bring to the experience now that I didn’t have before. Of course, the biggest difference is that I’ll have to do all the same things I did for Cogan, except that now I’ll have to do them while also caring for a toddler at the same time. God help me. But there are a few lessons I learned through my mistakes and my few victories.

The timing of my first child’s birth was almost ideal. He was born on the first day of summer vacation, and I didn’t have to miss a day of school for the entire pregnancy. My maternity leave was the first 9 weeks of the next school year, and that was very convenient for everybody. I thought I couldn’t hope to repeat this dream scenario, but somehow I seem to have gotten even luckier. This birth, as long as it’s full term, will be timed about as perfectly as possible, especially for our finances. My due date falls during spring break, so I hope to just skip the last quarter of the school year and enjoy an extended maternity leave during the summer. When I go back to work in August, the baby will be 4 months old. My first maternity leave was partially unpaid since it was at the beginning of the school year, and I planned this pregnancy’s timing to avoid that situation again. This one will be paid for as long as 6 years of accumulated sick and vacation days last, then with short term disability, then with deferred summer paychecks I was entitled to anyway. (Of course, the fact that I’m forced to do these calculations is ridiculous. We all need paid maternity and paternity leave.)

I’m not as physically fit as I was going into my first pregnancy, and I won’t be able to work out as often or as hard this time. I’m also three years older and one kid busier. For this reason, I expect to gain more weight and to bounce back a bit slower than I did the first time. I hope I can be patient and kind with myself about this and not let body image issues get me down.

During those last miserably uncomfortable weeks of pregnancy, I want to get massages and to see a chiropractor who specializes in pregnant women. Anything to alleviate that awful back and hip pain. I don’t know why I didn’t try this three years ago, but this time I want to give it a shot.

I want to keep things as normal as possible for as long as possible. That was my philosophy the first time, and I think it worked well. For example, when I woke up on my baby’s birthday showing signs of early labor, David wanted to stay home from work, but I sent him off. I wanted to continue my comfortable routine as long as I possibly could, down to the hour. I also hope this intention will also make the transition as easy on Cogan as possible.

I want to hire a doula because I had a volunteer doula for my first birth and she was great. I guess I could use the volunteer doula program again, but as far as I know there’s only one doula on call, so there’s a chance I might not get her. I think it’s a service worth paying for, and I wouldn’t want to deprive a needy first-time mom of the volunteer doula if she wants her.

When I came to the hospital to give birth the first time, I didn’t expect not to be given a room immediately. Instead I was in triage for two hours waiting for a room to empty, and that was something that didn’t even occur to me when I was writing my birth plan. Now I know it’s a possibility and how to deal with it.

As soon as I see a midwife and it’s determined that I’m actually in labor, I want my nitrous oxide. If it slows down my labor, I don’t care, as long as I spend all of the extra time sucking down that laughing gas. Last time, this nurse told me to walk the halls while I was in triage, and I did, hating every minute. I was a hospital gown in the most intense stages of labor, making horrible groans while people in waiting areas looked on. I felt exposed and wanted privacy. No way will I listen to anyone telling me to parade myself around when I feel so vulnerable. Give me a closed door and a gas mask, stat.

Nursing will probably suck (ha!) again. I’m convinced that until babies are about 3 months old, their mouths are just too little to suckle without hurting their moms (although my experience might have something to do with the size/shape of my nipples or something too, so maybe it’s different for other women). Hopefully my skin will still have some residual toughness from almost two years ago. But I think knowing that at the 3 month mark it gets better will help in itself: the first time around I thought I was looking at a solid year of that torture. I’ll also know a little better how to deal with that initial engorgement and what a proper latch looks and feels like. I also want to try what I’ve heard is called “natural breastfeeding,” which seems to mostly be about a different idea of proper position.

I won’t bother trying side-lying nursing until the baby is able to roll over. But once he can, that’s probably all I’ll do.

This baby’s baptism will be in Nashville. Family can come to us this time; we come to them often enough. (Hopefully the new house will be ready to be seen by then…)

Nursing at night was my very least favorite part of having a baby, because the sleep deprivation made me a little crazy for a while. As soon as the doctor says it’s ok, I want to night wean. I’ll keep asking about this as often as possible. Maybe I’ll even make weekly calls and ask for weigh-ins between appointments to make sure we don’t delay night weaning a single night longer than necessary.

When I go back to work, I won’t freak out when my supply dips and we have to supplement. This was a real struggle for me with Cogan. I felt like a horrible failure for not being able to pump as much milk as he guzzled down ever day, and in a panic, asked our babysitter to feed him less, which resulted in more night nursing and less sleep. For this reason, November 2013 was a bit of a low point for me. I really don’t want to repeat this drama, so I hope I can keep my emotional reaction in control when I inevitably run into the same problem again. I hope I can remember this whole experience, and how it turned out fine in the end, and chill.

My favorite stage of nursing was when we were down to only 2 or 3 feedings a day. That amount of nursing was so easy, it felt like a total joy and not a bit of a burden. I want to get to that stage of nursing as fast as possible, and maintain it as long as possible.

I want to try to listen to my husband more when he encourages “cry it out,” if that’s necessary. I am glad we waited as long as we did, but once Cogan started sleeping all the way through the night (I define this as ‘from when I put him down at night until after I wake up in the morning at a normal hour.’ None of this ‘4 straight hours’ BS.) life started to feel much easier.

One thing I think I did well with Cogan is his language development. He’s a big talker for his age, and while some of that is surely his personality, some of it might be the way I talked to him constantly. Even before he could respond much, I tried to make sure he was hearing words. (I talked to myself a lot.) We developed a kind of call-and-response way of communicating, where I’d repeat what he said (or what I thought he was trying to say), and after a while he followed suit and tried to repeat my words. It gives him lots of practice speaking with a model to try to copy. And we read a lot, of course.

I’m pregnant again!

I announced to my family via phone last night: I’m having another baby! He or she is due in late March. I’m 16 weeks along and we’re both healthy. Cogan doesn’t really understand what’s happening, but if I ask him, “What’s in my belly?” he says, “A baby!” And he looks really cute in a “Most Awesome Big Brother” shirt.IMG_4360


I know it’s going to be a challenge to work full time while parenting two kids. I hope to continue to post good reviews and write about my life in other ways and other places as well. I’ll do my best; that’s all I can ever do.

Tomorrow I’ll write in a little more detail about the changes I expect in the next year, and how I think it will be different from being a first-time mom.


Dramarama by E. Lockhart


This YA novel is about a friendship between two teens who are obsessed with musical theater. Sadye and Demi feel out of place in their boring Ohio town–Demi more than Sadye because he is black and gay–so they escape to a seven-week summer drama camp called Wildwood. Some chapters are pure dialog, transcripts of audio recordings that Sadye and Demi make to remember their time at Wildwood.

I was particularly impressed by a conversation between Demi and Sadye in which he tries to explain the limits of colorblindness, and why it’s not enough to allow close friendship between people of different races. That issue wasn’t necessarily resolved between them, but I was thrilled just to see that idea in print in a YA book.

One main lesson is about overcoming petty jealousy. Sadye feels greatly outclassed by her friends at Wildwood, some of whom have already appeared on Broadway, but by the end is able to see them as flawed humans with their own struggles. Sadye has conflicts with the directors of her shows, and really raises some good questions about the way the philosophy and structure of the theater facilitate the authoritarian tendencies of directors. I concluded that Sadye would do better as a director herself than an actor.

The ending is not traditionally happy, and involves a sacrifice on Sadye’s part. I appreciated the complexity of this ending and didn’t need it to be neat and tidy. I don’t think this book is quite as good as The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, another YA novel by Lockhart I’ve read, but it’s still a fun read.