Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

This book was one of those that I couldn’t put down. It was like juicy gossip shared among moms at a playground. So many of the descriptions of the mothers and how they treated each other rang so true to me. Even the children seemed like realistic characters, each of them with a precisely drawn and unique relationship to his or her mother, and I feel that is a challenge for a writer to pull off.

I haven’t seen the show based on it yet, but judging from the novel, I will say that Reese Witherspoon cast herself perfectly. Her character is big and loud and hilarious, but with an edge of anger and sadness from a tough divorce. Another main character is Jane, a young mother who’s new in town, and has a hard time navigating playground politics with mothers a decade older than her. There’s a bully in the kindergarten class and the daughter of the PTA pres alpha mom has been victimized, but no one is sure which child is the bully until the end. Class and generational tensions are rife, but some of the strongest friendships in the book are the ones that cross these barriers.

I didn’t know that domestic violence would be a main topic of the book, but I was impressed at the way it was handled. It wasn’t easy to read the inner thoughts of an abused wife and understand in a deep way why she would stay and what it would take to leave.

The twist at the end was absolutely perfect. It’s a happy ending, tied up in a neat bow; justice is done and our heroines are in a better place than they were. An incredibly satisfying read.

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The Gardener and the Carpenter

The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children by Alison Gopnik

This philosophical book about parenting was written by a developmental psychologist who uses insight from her research and discussions of evolution to explore the ultimate purpose of the parent/child relationship. I found it hugely reassuring and even inspiring. Gopnik titled the first chapter “Against Parenting,” meaning that she disagrees with the way “parent” has become a verb in our culture, a form of work rather than a simple, fulfilling relationship. She thinks parents focus too much on working to make their children turn out a certain way. Instead, she says they should focus on simply creating a positive environment for children to grow up in. Children are individuals, after all, and parents’ and schools’ efforts to standardize their outcomes are likely to be futile. Gopnik makes very reasonable arguments for why parents worry about the wrong things, and why the things we do as parents don’t make much difference anyway, not in the way we think they do. She even weighs in on the endless screen time debate, comparing the new technology of tablets and smartphones with the old technology of the book, pointing out that people have always adapted to new ways of communicating and processing information. Along with All Joy and No Fun, I consider this one of the most helpful and comforting books on parenting I’ve ever read.

The Barter

The Barter by Siobhan Adcock

 

I could not put down this creepy ghost story. The narrative is split between two mothers, one in the present, and one about 100 years ago (who becomes the ghost). I related so hard to Bridget, the contemporary stay-at-home mom: the subtle competition with her mom friends, the mindlessness and boredom, her fierce protectiveness toward her baby daughter. ‘Mommy wars’ tension seethes underneath every interaction she has with another woman, including her own mother. Rebecca, the turn of the century farm wife, was somewhat stranger. Through the stories of her older relative, Frau, mythical/fairy tale elements enter the story and lead directly to its horror. The title comes from Rebecca’s birth: while in labor, her mother was asked if she would trade an hour of her life, and an hour of her daughter’s, for both their survival. Of course, there’s a catch. Both Rebecca and Bridget have significant marriage problems. Bridget’s are fairly typical: her husband works too much and is never home, they don’t appreciate each other or connect as they used to. I found it harder to relate to the Rebecca’s marriage issues because they’re caused by extreme sexual repression and the husband’s complete refusal to engage in honest discussion. This is the kind of book I’m not sure I’ll be able to get out of my head. The feeling of being stalked and watched in your own house, of your child not being safe–that is real terror.

Parenting Parody Books

I read a couple short books that are parodies of parenting advice books. Often these books are given to parents as gag gifts.

Sh*tty Mom: The Parenting Guide for the Rest of Us by Laurie Kilmartin, Karen Moline, Alicia Ybarbo, and Mary Ann Zoellner

I felt ambivalent about this one. It’s mostly a lot of rants about people who make parenting harder, especially “perfect” moms who make the rest of us look bad and feel guilty and inadequate. There are step-by-step instructions are about how to slack or get away with slacking. And their definition of slacking is my definition of normal. There were a few essays that rubbed me the wrong way, but most were witty and truthful.

How to Traumatize Your Children: 7 Proven Methods to Help You Screw Up Your Kids Deliberately and With Skill

I preferred this book to Sh*tty Mom because it was actually reassuring in a weird way. It provides illustrated step-by-step instructions for ruining a kid’s childhood in several different ways. Chapter titles include “It’s All About You: Parent as Narcissist” and “Validation Is For Parking: Parent as Self-Esteen Killer.” Reading it made me feel better about the small mistakes I’m making as a parent–at least I’m not calling my boys names or literally neglecting them. There are moments in parenting when that perspective is helpful. The tone makes the joke clear: you, reader, are a good parent laughing at truly terrible people who damage their children.The illustrations provide extra humor.

Unfinished Business

Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family by Anne-Marie Slaughter

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This book has been on my list to read ever since I heard that the author of the widely shared Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” got a book deal. It lived up to my anticipation, presenting an analysis of American work/family issues that goes beyond issues of gender.

Slaughter’s main thesis is that American society has a widespread bias against care work and caregivers, which has historically disadvantaged women in the workplace. She argues that gender discrimination is often discrimination against people with family responsibilities, or people who are otherwise unable to be the ideal worker/corporate drone that companies prefer to hire and advance. She wants flexible workplaces and career tracks, more pay and respect for caregiving professions, and a shift in attitudes and policies to truly value caregiving, and not just pay lip service to it.

I found myself nodding along with the book frequently, agreeing with Slaughter’s analysis almost always. She studiously avoids gender essentialism while acknowledging historical inequities between men and women’s experiences of work and home. She places the blame for our current situation primarily on institutions and cultural narratives rather than on individuals, while advising women and men on how to deal with today’s reality and work toward improving things for everybody.

My main critique is just that Slaughter is perhaps too pro-capitalist. In my opinion she’s overly enthusiastic about freelance work and companies like Uber and Thumbtack, especially in the absence of national health care, which she acknowledges we need. I think flexibility is not enough, and would prefer companies and clients simply to require less slavish dedication of workers. Slaughter buys in too wholeheartedly to the necessity of overwork, accepting too readily the idea that long hours are necessary to advance in most fields. She doesn’t even bring up ideas for slowing the pace of work for everybody, for example, by disabling after-hours email, outlawing overtime, or limiting the work day to six hours, as some European countries and companies are experimenting with now. But these critiques are perhaps a little radical.

Slaughter worked for the State department under Hillary Clinton, reporting directly to her and calling her a great, understanding boss. Had Clinton won the electoral vote, and not only the popular vote, Slaughter would almost surely have had the president’s ear and might have been able to advance these ideas toward creating concrete policies that would help families. But now, even if Democrats win the next congressional and presidential elections, it might be too late for me to enjoy more generous family policies, like paid parental leave. This is one of the many things I continually mourn  as we watch the current administration’s plans unfold.