Why Have Kids?

Why Have Kids?: A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness by Jessica Valenti

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I’ve liked and enjoyed everything I’ve ever read by Jessica Valenti, founder of the blog Feministing, so when I heard about this book, I knew I had to read it, not least because it’s so perfectly relevant for my life right now. This amazing excerpt only made me more excited to pick it up.

When I finally got to pick it up my anticipations were confirmed–this is the best nonfiction book I’ve read this entire year by far. I want to give this book to every mother and expectant mother I know because I feel like it has the power to make motherhood more bearable through taking apart the myth of “total motherhood” that is so oppressive and generates so much anxiety and guilt. Reading this book made me feel so reassured and so validated. It’s not just me, our culture really is screwed up where parenting is concerned. Our expectations of parents are incredibly unreasonable. We expect people to follow “natural” parenting practices, but to do all of these things on their own, without the support of a community and extended family, forgetting that these “natural” practices evolved in a prehistoric context where there was no artificial division between work and family life and no one lived hundreds of miles from supportive relatives.

This book is the best prophylactic against post-partum depression that I can imagine. I bought a copy for my Kindle so that I can re-read chapters of it when mother-guilt starts to overwhelm me. I hope I can use its ideas to do cognitive therapy on myself and take apart the anti-feminist assumptions behind those feelings, talking myself into feeling better. Valenti deals with all the issues that I tried to take on in a recent personal essay, but backs her point of view up with tons of research and a deep understanding of the social context in which we make decisions about parenting. She delves into breast-feeding, anti-vaccination, work-life balance, the choice to be child-free, and criminal prosecutions of mothers for absurd offenses and accidents concerning their children, born and unborn. Some chapters concern obscure parenting trends, like “elimination communication,” while others provide a more general, historical overview of parenting issues, especially how gender and class impact those issues.

Valenti somehow manages to take a position on several fraught, divisive parenting issues without providing unnecessary fodder for “mommy war” drama. This rhetorical elegance is particularly impressive, considering how engaged the book is with the blogging and internet forum community where the battles of the mommy war are often fought. Here is a thoughtful review of the book by the blogger blue milk, who’s quoted in the book. Her review provides a more nuanced perspective on the book than I’m capable of now, since I’m still not a mother yet and I haven’t been blogging on parenting issues for years.

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Boys in Poverty

Boys in Poverty: A Framework for Understanding Dropout by Ruby K. Payne and Paul D. Slocumb

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Most of this book was already somewhat familiar to me, as I had already read Ruby Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty in an education graduate class. In many ways, this book is simply a more specific application of the ideas in that one, focusing on boys in particular rather than all low-income students. I think the first book superior to this one because it’s more broadly applicable.

I was somewhat skeptical of the parts of the book that I thought made too much of small sex differences, suspecting gender essentialism and stereotyping. I think culture explains most of these differences, not chromosomes, hormones, or brain structures. I do agree that in many ways boys seem to be struggling more than girls in schools right now (I see it in my classroom every day), and I blame our culture’s limiting construction of masculinity more than any other one thing. I think that the culture of poverty works with that destructive construction of masculinity to severely limit options for boys and in some cases send them down the wrong path. The book is at its best when it describes specifically how these cultures work and what teachers can do to turn them in more positive directions. Concentrating on essentialized differences feels less useful because there are fewer things teachers can do to help if this is “just the way boys are.”

The parts of the book that are probably the most directly useful for teachers are the tables at the end of each chapter that suggest specific interventions for paticular age groups, and the appendix, which includes a personal resource assessment as well as three activities for students to use to understand consequences and plan for their futures. Teachers should also keep in mind that most of the interventions recommended for at-risk boys would also be effective for girls.

Les Miserables movie

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The new film version of Les Miserables is amazing. I was excited about it, and it lived up to my expectations. It’s an incredibly, startlingly intimate film, with many of the major solo songs filmed in extreme close-up with long, uncut shots. They just sing straight at the camera. I’ve never seen another musical do anything like that; singing on set instead of in the studio paid off big time. These moments are balanced with panoramic battle scenes and gigantic sets, showing off the things that film can do and a stage production can’t. It was super smart of the director to focus his energy on taking advantage of his medium that way.

I’m glad I finished the novel before this film came out. There were a few small references to the novel that I’d never seen in a stage production: an elephant statue, Marius’s grandfather, Enroljas’s death. The subplots and history lessons that had been cut from the musical stayed cut, of course, and the show was still almost 3 hours long, so there was no room for them anyway. But it was still fun to recognize those few little items that this film salvaged from the novel. Also, I heard that the actor who plays the bishop was the original Jean Valjean. That seems fitting as well.

I cried twice. Fantine had never made me cry before, but Anne Hathaway’s performance was so powerful that I couldn’t help it. I’d seen an interview with her where she talked about how it would be wrong and dishonest to try to be pretty while playing this character who was just falling apart and suffering so terribly. She was right, and deserves the best supporting actress Oscar without a doubt for that humility, for putting her performance ahead of her image. My second sobfest was at the ending, of course. That line, “To love another person is to see the face of God” gets me every time.

When It Happens to You

When It Happens to You by Molly Ringwald

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Back in September I got to see Molly Ringwald read at the library, and it was pretty awesome. I finally got around to finishing her book last week.

When It Happens to You is a novel in stories, with each story centered around the theme of betrayal. The stories have some characters in common. The main characters are a couple dealing with adultery; also included are their elderly neighbor, the mother of their daughter’s school friend, and the actor that the wife dates during their separation. The links between the stories are loose, but the thread of larger narrative about this couple, as well as the general theme, unify them barely enough. The characters are flawed and interesting, though mostly pretty privileged. They’re selfish and short-sighted, but easy to relate to. The title story is perhaps the most chilling, told in second person from the perspective of a betrayed wife. The language is detailed and satisfying, humorous at times. Flashbacks are rich and well-handled. The ending gives a sense of hope without being hokey. It was an enjoyable read.

Our Bodies, Ourselves: Pregnancy and Birth

Our Bodies, Ourselves: Pregnancy and Birth by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective

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My nurse-midwife gave me a copy of this book as a reference to use throughout my pregnancy and to help educate me about what’s in store for me. I found it useful, unobjectionable, and comprehensive, but somewhat dry.

Since I was hoping for a pregnancy guide that would offer a voice of sanity and avoid inducing guilt and unneccessary worry, I appreciated that the chapter on “Taking Care of Yourself,” which included information on diet and exercise, concluded with a section on “Keeping It All in Perspective.” I never felt like the authors were placing unreasonable or tyrranical expectations on pregnant women; instead they showed an awareness of the distress women often feel during this transitional time. One of my favorite things about the book was the way it included many women’s voices and experiences in the form of italicized anecdotes, often offering differing perspectives on the same issue. The personal touch here helped to liven up the occasionally bland, textbook-like prose.

This is a book with an agenda, but that agenda is one that I find inspiring at best and inoffensive at worst. It makes a point of giving information on women’s health issues that privileged women may not have to worry about, like AIDS, domestic violence, and teen pregnancy, and I appreciated this inclusive spirit. This was clearly a political choice, as were the pictures showing women of many races and colors. The conclusion is about advocacy for better health care and family policies. Personally, I’m in agreement with the authors on these issues, so this didn’t bother me.

For the most part, this book discusses women’s health care issues in a journalistic, unbiased tone, seeking merely to impart information.  However, the book uses the word “intervention” repeatedly to refer to things like epidurals, pitocin, and C-sections, giving them a negative tinge and subtly discouraging readers from choosing them. In general, the authors believe that “natural” vaginal birth should be the default option, and other methods of giving birth or relieving pain should only be used when clearly medically indicated. Women whose births are characterized by these “interventions” may feel somewhat judged, but not viciously or capriciously.

Stylistically, the book is unusual because of its constant use of the second person plural; this perspective was deliberately chosen to emphasize the fact that this is a book by women, about women, for women. In some ways I really appreciated the carefully non-judgemental tone that the book cultivates. However, as a way of keeping a reader interested, this tone was a failure. It made the book more bland and boring, but I don’t know how this could have been avoided without taking a more personal point of view, which would have undermined the book’s politics and presentation. This carefully distanced perspective also led to lots of vague, overly obvious, and borderline meaningless sentences like these:

    • As during other times in our lives when we experience great changes or challenges, having good support is key.

    • No matter what your circumstances, doing your research, talking with your health care provider, and seeking out support from knowledgeable organizations can help you make good decisions about medication during pregnancy.

    • Taking the time early in your pregnancy to find a trustworthy provider and a safe, comfortable birth setting is a worthwhile endeavor.

    • Talk with your health care provider to decide what self-care is best for you in this situation.

Sentences like these can be frustrating for readers with questions so specific and personal that no single reference book can ever answer them all. I guess these quotes show that there is a problem inherent in writing a book for all women, and this is a literary problem, not a political one. Women are not monolithic, so the audience is so fragmented and diverse that it becomes impossible to address every concern. This book’s solution is to attempt to gloss over every possible question, sometimes in inanely cursory ways. It makes for boring reading and sometimes useless non-information.

However, if “boring” is the worst thing I can say about a pregnancy guide, I’m content. The principle of “First do no harm” definitely applies here. Our Bodies, Ourselves‘s avoidance of body-shaming, sexism, mother-guilt and general snarkiness vastly outweighed any yawns I might have endured in digesting the vast amounts of information it was offering. I do feel  like reading it gave me the basic vocabulary of birth and pregnancy, and a solid starting place for building the knowledge I’ll need to make informed decisions when my time comes to give birth. And that’s the most important thing I was looking for, really. I would recommend Our Bodies, Ourselves: Pregnancy and Birth to another pregnant woman, especially one inclined toward midwives and more “natural” birthing practices.

Reached

Reached by Ally Condie

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I named the first two of this series as among my favorites of 2011, so I was looking forward to the conclusion of the trilogy. In this installment, Cassia is separated from her two suitors, Ky and Xander, as each play different roles in the Rising, a movement aimed at taking down and replacing the repressive Society. The three protagonists take turns narrating as they fight a plague that threatens both the old and the new orders, as well as their own lives and those of their family members. There are more mind games and questions of loyalty as the two factions play the characters off each other and they search for answers in scientific research and in their own memories.

The love triangle is really handled well in this series. It was nice to see the two rivals treating each other with respect, even working to save each others’ lives, rather than sniping at each other and undermining each other or even fist-fighting. If you’ve read the first two books it’s easy to guess who Cassia will end up with. To keep the tension alive, there are a couple minor female characters who take an interest in Ky and Xander. Though this might seem like an easy way out, giving the spurned suitor a consolation prize, the book didn’t turn away from some mature analysis of why Cassia and Xander just wouldn’t have worked out, and why second love can be deeper and stronger than first love.

The writing style is poetic and almost ethereal in Cassia’s chapters. I think if she were the only narrator, it might be too much, but Ky’s and Xander’s sections interject a more blunt, matter-of-fact style so that it feels more balanced and grounded. The final couple pages are really beautifully written, envisioning a happy ending not just for the main characters but for their entire world.

Xenocide

Xenocide by Orson Scott Card

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Xenocide is the third of the Ender books. (Here’s my review of the second, Speaker for the Dead.) The title literally means killing a stranger, but in the series means the equivalent of genocide, except killing an entire alien species instead of a race of humans. It picks up a lot of loose threads from Speaker for the Dead, and a reader who hasn’t read that volume might be lost.

There are a lot of philosophical and metaphysical discussions in the novel as characters work together to solve scientific problems and ethical dilemnas. Among the themes and issues debated are sacrifice, slavery, biological determinism, and the nature of God. They solve their problems by figuring out a way to escape natural law and travel faster than light, and in so doing, get a couple surprises. It’s really the kind of book that can make you think abstractly in a challenging way, but if abstract concepts bore or confuse you then this is not the book for you. In addition to characters from the other Ender books, this novel introduces the world of Path, where people follow a fundamentalist religion, led by people with OCD who they call “godspoken” because they believe that the gods speak to them through their disorder. I enjoyed it and the next book, Children of the Mind, is on the list!