The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey by Trenton Lee Stewart

One year after the conclusion of the adventure that brought them together, the Mysterious Benedict Society reunites, only to find their benefactor kidnapped. They embark on a quest to rescue Mr. Benedict from his sinister twin, Mr. Curtain, following clues to Portugal, Holland, and a deserted island. Readers can expect the same wordplay, wry humor and plot twists from the first volume.

One thing I noticed in reading this sequel that slipped by me in the first book is how progressive the gender roles are in this series. The four main characters are two boys and two girls, and they are given nearly equal time, though Reynie (a boy) is the main protagonist. The roles they each play within their group are not stereotyped by gender. Kate is the action hero of the bunch, while Sticky is a bit of an egghead intellectual. Constance may be weak and small, but that’s more because of her age than her sex, and she is also forceful, stubborn, and determined, outperforming Sticky in a crucial moment. Among the adults, things are a little more traditional. Men outnumber women, and the men are more active, as spies, villains and heroes, while the women are assistants and mother figures. But the children are the focus of the book, the most interesting characters who get the most time to shine.

I think the reason I didn’t notice this aspect of the series the first time around is because it seems so natural that these characters should have these roles in the group that it doesn’t even occur to the reader to consider the book’s treatment of gender roles. And that’s a good thing. Undoing stereotypes can only happen under the radar in this way; the second you realize the author is using his characters to make a point about gender stereotypes is the second you stop caring about them and chalk the book up to propaganda. When characters break stereotypes, they should do it like the members of the Mysterious Benedict Society, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for them to do, as if they couldn’t imagine doing differently, and readers will believe it and internalize it. However, perhaps that level of unself-consciousness is only available to child characters. Anyway, I’d be proud and happy to give this book to either a boy or a girl, because I’m sure it would entertain readers of either gender, and they’d become less prejudiced without even noticing it.

Free-Range Kids

Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry) by Lenore Skenazy

If you google “Lenore Skenazy,” you’ll find several websites calling her America’s Worst Mom. She’s not a child-killer and has never been to court for abuse or neglect. She got all that negative publicity because she allowed her 9-year-old son to ride the subway by himself one day, and wrote about it for the NY Times, and then went on a few daytime talk shows to defend her decision. This book is an extended defenseof similar decisions and a parenting philosophy based on teaching kids to do things on their own rather than hovering and doing things for them. Skenazy backs up her ideas with lots of research into how frequently things like child abduction actually happen, regardless of media hype. She organizes the book with a common-sense list of “commandments” about how to actually allow children to live a “free-range” lifestyle, including how to handle the parenting police.

Since I’m not even a mother yet, I won’t really have a need for this book’s ideas for a few years. Obviously, the first year is not really the time to be teaching freedom and independence. But I hope that I remember this book 6-12 years from now, when my kid starts asking to do things like walk to the library alone, and have the courage to say yes. I liked the overall message of reducing parental anxiety and encouraging independence in children. To be honest, I’m lazy sometimes, and I like the idea of not having to do things like drive my kid four blocks to a bus stop every morning. Anyone who gives me permission to skip BS parenting tasks like that is ok by me. I like hearing someone tell me that child abduction is not really all that common. Soothing my anxieties about my child’s future safety is a good thing. As Skenazy points out, kids today are safer than they’ve probably ever been, and we should remember that instead of hovering inappropriately.

Barbara Kingsolver at the Nashville Public Library

Last night I got to see Barbara Kingsolver read from her latest book, Flight Behavior, and answer lots of good questions. She ended up outlining several rules for writing that she tries to follow herself. I thought they were wise, but daunting, especially #3 and #5. Here they are:

  1. The first sentence of the book should make a promise that the book will keep.
  2. Keep a large trash can next to your desk, or use your delete key often. The best gift you can give your readers is to withhold the bad writing.
  3. Make sure the idea is important enough that it’s worth spending a couple years of your life on. The book should ask a question that’s never been asked before.
  4. Give the reader a reason to turn every page. Plot is important.
  5. Do something dangerous in the writing to make it challenging for yourself, to keep yourself interested and engaged while writing.

Kingsolver also told how she wrote her first novel ina closet as a 31-year-old pregnant woman with insomnia. It’s always heartening to hear about writers who got started when they were older than you currently are, especially when you can find glimmers of their story that make you feel like you have something in common. (Hey, I’m pregnant too!) It’s like the opposite feeling you get from hearing about someone like Keats, who composed several masterpieces and died at an age when you didn’t even feel like an adult. That just makes you want to give up, doesn’t it?

I first saw Kingsolver speak in 2005, when I was a junior marshall at Centre College’s commencement ceremony. I remember her speech as very urgent, environmentalist, and inspiring. I felt jealous of that class for having such a good speaker. The year after I graduated, there was another great address by Tim Russert, just a couple years before he died. But in 2006, we were stuck with Gordon Gee, who was chancellor of Vanderbilt, and spent his entire speech at Centre College talking only about Vanderbilt. Before he led Vanderbilt, he was president of Ohio State, so between those two schools, he represented four graduate programs that had rejected me. I’m not bitter or anything. If only Barbara could have come again! I wouldn’t have minded if she’d given the exact same speech two years in a row!


Initiate: The Unfinished Song, Book One by Tara Maya

Initiate is first in a fantasy series that tells a fairy tale that’s wide in scope and deep in mystery and myth. The fifth book in the series, Wing, came out this month, and I participated in its blog tour. One thing that makes the series unique is that instead of the medieval setting so common to fantasy novels, Maya chose a neolithic, or Stone Age setting. Instead of swords, warriors carry bows and spears. The world feels newer, younger, closer to its magical origins. Fairies are all around, mischievous, interfering, and sometimes fearsome. Though the information on Stone Age technology and society is surely accurate, Maya thankfully doesn’t get bogged down in her research like another writer who focuses on that time period.

The story follows several characters, switching among them, and building a mythology and a magic-riddled world around them and their societies. The biggest flaw in the series so far is the tendency for the many characters to get muddled and confused in the reader’s mind, but I’ll take my share of the responsibility for that. I have no doubt that plunging further into the world and letting go of the shreds of disbelief that hinder all enjoyment of fantasy writing would allow the reader a perfect understanding of the plot and its twists and turns. Dindi, the primary protagonist, is the initiate of the title. She has ambitions to become a Tavaedi, a sort of priestess, dancing with the fairies, and must undergo a rite of passage to prove her talent and worth. Brena, who wants her two daughters to join the Tavaedi as well, reminded me of a pageant mom, coaching them in their dance practices. Kavio, exiled from his people, travels friendless through the wilderness. War rages between the tribes and interferes with the initiation trial, endangering all the young people.

I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the prose in the novel. The sentences are rich in description, fitting for the strange and beautiful world they create. But then I shouldn’t have been so surprised: Maya’s blog is full of great tips for writers, so she kind of knows what she’s doing. The book ends with a bit of a cliffhanger, like many series novels. It doesn’t feel like a cheap trick, as cliffhangers sometimes do, since enough of the key questions of the narrative were resolved. The ending is satisfying, while inspiring readers to pick up the next volume.

The Girlfriend’s Guide to Pregnancy

The Girlfriend’s Guide to Pregnancy: Or, Everything Your Doctor Won’t Tell You by Vicki Iovine

I was very deliberate in choosing which books about pregnancy I wanted to read. I didn’t want to read anything that would make me feel bad in any way. I didn’t want something that would give me too many unnecessary details about rare birth defects or obscure things that cause miscarriages, because that would just make me paranoid for no reason. I don’t need to hear about scary things that only happen to one woman in a million. Second, I didn’t want anything too judgy, anything that would imply you’re a bad mother harming your unborn child if you don’t do X, Y, and Z. Both of these are criticisms that I had heard about the #1 pregnancy guide, What to Expect When You’re Expecting. I heard that the diet it recommends is ridiculous and impossible to follow, and that the book said expecting mothers should ask themselves if what they’re eating is good and healthy for their baby before every bite. I don’t think there are expletives enough in the English language to express how I feel about that idea.

So I looked around online for books on pregnancy that seemed sane, and The Girlfriend’s Guide to Pregnancy was a name that got mentioned. It was the first book I picked up to give me an overview of what was going to be happening to me. Some things I liked about it were the non-medical focus and the fact that it talked about things like maternity clothes and what to bring to the hospital. It was practical, giving an efficient overview of things I’ll need to know about and will encounter on this journey.

The thing I had the biggest problem with in this book is the body-shaming. It gives all sorts of information about how your body changes in pregnancy, and how it is forever different afterward. The information is useful. But Iovine conveys this information in a tone of horror, as if a mother’s body is disgusting. As if conventional beauty standards are completely correct to judge a non-flat stomach as cringeworthy. She gives advice to women on how to handle psychologically the fact that they no longer qualify as attractive based on these insane standards that our culture has, helping them set realistic expectations, and that is definitely something that pregnant and post-partum women deal with. For example, I’m glad to know that I should give myself 9 months to get back to my pre-baby weight; 9 months up, 9 months down is a solid, sane principle I’ll remember. But the book never once questions the standards of beauty or expresses any outrage that women are being judged in this way, when obviously their bodies have more important things to do than to be judged and ogled by men, things like making a baby. I know that this is a tension most women feel in their own lives: emotionally buying in to conventional beauty standards while knowing intellectually that they’re BS. But I just thought the horror-show descriptions of pregnant and post-partum bodies did more to feed the flames of body-hatred than to help women accept the changes in their bodies. It reinforced the idea that our bodies are disgusting, rather than celebrating the amazing life that our bodies are nurturing.

Another problematic thing was the way the guide talked about sex. I certainly appreciated that sex was a topic it discussed. It was good to hear about recommended positions for late pregnancy and how others dealt with changes in libido and their bodies. I just didn’t like the way that the book talked about husbands and their desire for sex. It was as if the husbands were insatiable sex monsters that the women could never turn down without horrible consequences. If that’s what your husband is like, I don’t know why you’re having his baby, unless it’s that you’re so abused you have no other option. Obviously, saying no to sex, even for several months, should not be a big deal in a healthy marriage, especially if it’s for a legitimate medical reason. A well-adjusted adult male should realize he does not have a right to have intercourse, even if he’s married, and should be able to handle a period of abstinence if he has to. The book even facetiously suggested that all women should conspire to tell all their husbands that their doctors recommend not having sex until 3 months after giving birth, rather than the 6 weeks they typically say. Encouraging dishonesty about sex in a marriage is never a good thing. Again, my main problem was that many of the book’s statements about sex were based on sexist assumptions, like the idea that men are always entitled to sex and wives should feel guilty when they aren’t up to it.

Iovine even combined her poor attitudes about pregnant bodies and sex to talk about how some husbands only have sex with the fat cows gestating their children out of pity or mercy, because the women are so disgustingly hideous that no man could ever be attracted to them. Because of course, men never want to have sex except out of pure animal lust, which they can only feel for young, thin women. They never do it to express caring or commitment or affection or even just to relieve boredom.

Iovine discourages exercise in pregnancy, mainly because she had a particularly traumatic experience herself, bleeding she believes was caused by her exercise and which made her fear a miscarriage. The decision not to exercise makes sense for her based on what happened to her. But since this wasn’t a medical book, I wasn’t told whether or not the medical research evidence is on her side, and that’s what should determine whether Iovine’s view on exercise in pregnancy is one that is worth promulgating. A couple of her reasons for this recommendation had a blame-the-victim, better-safe-than-sorry message that bothered me, and that I had picked up this book specifically to try to avoid. By Iovine’s logic, in order to avoid unending guilt and regret, pregnant women should all just stop living our lives and sit in one place for our entire pregnancy. Generally, this attitude went along with overly dramatic statements overvaluing motherhood and overstating its importance in a woman’s life. Here‘s a great article by Jessica Valenti (personal hero) about why being a mother should not be considered a woman’s most important job; she explains it better than I ever could.

I was also slightly annoyed by the weird capitalization of “Girlfriend” and the just-between-us-girls Sex-and-the-City-brunch tone. The cloying, syrupy word “precious” was used far too often to describe babies and fetuses. These were grating, sentence-level annoyances, much less serious than the anti-feminist assumptions. Overall, I would not recommend this book to another pregnant woman.

I’m pregnant!

I announced the news to my family last night at Thanksgiving: I’m pregnant! The baby is due in May. I’m 14 weeks along and everything is going well.

I’ve been reading a few books on pregnancy and child-rearing, as you can imagine, but I didn’t want to review them publicly until now because that might have raised suspicions, and I wanted to share this news on my own timeline. So in the coming weeks, along with my regular reviews, I’ll post the reviews I’ve written on these books, and of course the reviews will have some of my own ideas about pregnancy in them, along with my opinions of the books.

Though my life will be changing a lot in the next year, I don’t expect this blog to change much. I am not suddenly going to turn into a “mommy blogger,” unless that just means a mother who keeps a blog. I don’t expect to upload many thousands of baby pictures here or to start sharing recipes or talking about crafts. That’s not really me. I just want to keep reading and writing about books. My post frequency may decrease, but I hope the quality doesn’t. I hope that this blog helps me remember to make time for myself in addition to caring for my child and teaching my students.


NW by Zadie Smith

NW is about two friends, Natalie and Leah, who grew up together in the northwest (NW) part of London, a not-so-nice neighborhood. Natalie was born Keisha to an immigrant family, and is a classic striver, working her way up to be a barrister. Leah works for a social services agency. Natalie has children, Leah doesn’t. Leah has a happy, sexually active marriage, Natalie doesn’t.

The most interesting thing about this novel to me were its micro-explorations of class and race and the way they affect a friendship over the course of years, especially when friends are not equally successful. All the little things that add up to resentment and guilt, the petty jealousies and the differences in attitudes and expectations. Really, this book tackled class issues in a raw, personal way that is incredibly rare, but which is crucial because that’s how we experience class. There were also some weird and interesting sex scenes: an extended discussion of masturbation, a former couple hate-fucking, and a threesome with a pair of internet-stunted college kids. Even if the experiences described are not exactly fulfilling for any of the characters, I much prefer reading this kind of sex scene to the kind of bland, generic, happy, emotionally static sex I’ve been reading about lately.

Before reading the book, I had read reviews that said Smith had just revolutionized the novel. I picked it up out of curiosity to see if she really had. I didn’t see too much new here in terms of form, but maybe I just need to have someone smarter than me explain what’s so new about this. The language seemed fresh and it was a good story, so I was happy, even if the novel hadn’t been reinvented.

The Plains of Passage

The Plains of Passage by Jean M. Auel

I don’t know why I’m still reading this series. This book offered nothing terribly different from the previous installments: an overabundance of researched anthropological detail, a heroine without flaws who makes no mistakes, terrible, unneccessary sex scenes, and distinct, easily resolved episodes loosely strung together overlapping a glacially-paced main plot.

Ayla and Jondalar spend some time with a tribe run by a madwoman. This episode disturbed me because the description of the tribe seemed like a men’s rights activist’s caricature of what will happen if women get any power. The men are imprisoned, enslaved, and maimed. The women hunt incompetently, so the tribe is unlikely to survive the winter when Ayla and Jondalar show up. The leader is a true misandrist who of course was warped by the abuse she suffered at the hands of several men. Of course Ayla and Jondalar save the day, giving the tribe a civics lesson before going off into the sunset, to be mythologized into visiting gods.

Lots of rape in this book. Ayla helps a girl recover from a gang rape, then later stops the same gang from raping another woman. We learn that the primitive societies that in previous books seemed so progressive about premarital sex are really not all that sex-positive. Only women who have been ritually deflowered in a first rites ceremony are allowed to have sex without losing their reputation. This new cultural wrinkle seemed tacked on solely to increase the drama surrounding the rape episode. And it makes the culture much more creepy and nonsensical even than later cultures that insist on virgin brides. In this case, the rape victim didn’t lose her reputation because it was clear the men had violently forced her, but if it had been one of those “gray rape” situations, she would have been shunned.

This series in general seems to be using ancient people to explore contemporary issues of sexuality. That’s not a bad premise. It has potential, at least. One reason I keep having issues with the series is that it makes an implicit claim to know what our ancestors were like, and thus what true human sexuality is like, what we were like before civilization warped us. And that’s something that’s so hard to prove, so hard to make into a single story. The series is a novelization of evolutionary psychology, complete with all the issues that that field has. The series also seems to think it’s more progressive than it really is, but maybe it just seems that way because it’s dated, written in the 80’s and 90’s.

Various events endangered Ayla’s animals, her two horses and her pet wolf, so of course she had to whine incessantly about how the animals were like children to her, and she just couldn’t stand to lose one of them because she’d already lost her son and wah wah wah. I always find it annoying when people treat animals like they’re human beings, in books and in life.

In previous books I complained about how ridiculous it was that a few characters were responsible for all the important inventions that made civilization possible. In this book we witness the invention of soap, sledding, pottery and representational portrait sculpture.

This book marked a step toward communication between the clan and the various human tribes. Toward the end of the book, Ayla and Jondalar meet and help a clan man who is considering proposing that the clan begin trading with “the others,” and they consider making similar proposals to their people. They meet a man “of mixed spirits” (half clan and half human) who proposes marriage to Jondalar’s cousin. The series as a whole seems to be moving toward bringing the two societies together, for conflict or cooperation or both. The clan is ultimately doomed to die out, but they will be at least partially integrated into human society through intermarriages like the one in this book. The main reason I’m still reading is to see what will happen with this macro-level plotline. I especially want to see what’s been happening with the clan Ayla grew up in since she left.

Tender Is the Night

Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I have fond memories of reading The Great Gatsby in high school, but I wasn’t able to get into this novel in the same way. It’s longer, denser, more oblique and more demanding of a reader. The characters are harder to sympathize with, their motives almost impenetrable at times.

The thing that bothered me the most about the book was protagonist Dick Diver’s unawareness of his privileged position and his sense of entitlement. He’s a hotshot young doctor whose career somehow survives the astounding breach of ethics of falling in love with and marrying his underage patient. He’s surprisingly culturally insensitive even for his time, dropping ethnic slurs with abandon and offending the natives in almost every European country he visits. He drinks and parties and brawls with taxi drivers and gets bailed out of jail by the consulate, and helps his friends out of similarly senseless jams. He has multiple affairs and flirtations and seems not to care about their effect on his partners or wife. He feels like he deserves his job, though he’s not actually performing it. He’s oh-so-emasculated because his rich wife pays all his bills and allows him to live in luxury on the French Riviera. I feel so incredibly sorry for him. In so many ways, his life is blessed beyond belief, but all he does is whine. I don’t really think that these aspects of Dick’s life and personality are meant to be especially admirable; rather they’re the flaws that any protagonist with depth displays. That doesn’t make him or the novel any more likeable or enjoyable, though.

The plot is concerned with the gradual dissolving of the Divers’ marriage. It’s hard to sympathize with any of the characters because they’re all so selfish. For example, I just cannot comprehend a woman who encourages her 18-year-old daughter to begin an affair with a married man twice her age. Dick acts like he’s a martyr of some kind because of his wife Nicole’s mental illness, but most of her worst breakdowns are caused by his bad behavior. Nicole’s mental illness itself is pretty incomprehensible, since no one knew much about psychology 100 years ago, so it’s hard to tell if she has PTSD, or bipolar, or if she’s just kind of playing sick to get sympathy.