As you might imagine, Mother's Day was on the mind of many reviewers this weekend. Which seems about right. A belated happy Mother's Day to all mothers. And just a general happy day to everyone reading out there.
In the spirit of Mother's Day, the cover of the Sunday Review features two books about motherhood. As you might suspect, if we're talking motherhood books there are bound to be references to French motherhood. Judith Warner writes in her review, "Just as everyone was getting ready to throw out the Baby Bjorns and start practicing detachment parenting Ã la franÃ§aise comes a new book, from the esteemed philosopher Elisabeth Badinter, warning that French motherhood isn't all it's cracked up to be." Published in Europe in 2010 (where it was a #1 best seller), The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women argues that French parents are growing too enamored with "naturalness," which tethers mothers to their babies, stealing away all but motherhood. Warner isn't sure she agrees with Badinter-- but on the other book in the review, The New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work, and Family by Madeleine Kunin (a former Clinton administration ambassador to Switzerland who served as the first woman governor of Vermont),she feels quite differently. "Kunin's is not a book of literary value, like Badinter's. The writing is unremarkable, and there are no big, interesting philosophical ideas. Yet whereas BadinÂter's argument is beautiful and essentially wrong, Kunin "” Pollyanna-ish faith in the family-friendly nature of female politicians aside "” is almost unimpeachably right, as she diagnoses what we in AmeriÂca need, why we've never gotten it, and how we may have some hope of achieving change in the future."
Anne Enright is a favorite around these parts, so I started getting nervous as I read the opening of Judith Newman's review of Enright's new book, Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood. Newman tells us that "writing well about children is tough. You know why? They're not that interesting. What is interesting is that despite the mind-numbing boredom that constitutes 95 percent of child rearing, we continue to have them." Uh oh. Luckily, I read on: "To write well in the mother-child arena, a person must understand that the essential condition of motherhood isn't pleasure or wonderment or even terror "” although there's plenty of that. The essential condition is absurdity. Samuel Beckett could have come up with a great book on babies. Anne Enright has."
Jeanette Winterson reviews John Irving's newest novel In One Person, which she tells us is "a story about memory. Inevitably it is also a story about desire, the most unsettling of our memories. And it is a story about reading yourself through the stories of others." The novel is narrated by Billy Dean, who is thirteen and fatherless when we first meet him. Winterson tells us, "Desire and its unsettlements of the soul are as central to John Irving's work as lost fathers." Billy is bisexual, which creates desires and unsettlements in his life, and Winterson summarizes the effect as follows: "Desire is democratic; we fall for the wrong people, across age, class, color, gender. Desire is difficult; it messes things up. Desire is defiant; our desires square off against our assumptions, our morality, our conscience and our notion of who we are. There is no doubt that Irving thinks this is a good thing. He is not simplistic, though, not ever. He understands that we don't always act on or act out our desires. Sometimes we just suffer in silence. Yet he also realizes that the shock to our self-knowledge, or our lack of it, remains the same either way."
Ed. Note: Last week, John Irving posted about his new book on Omnivoracious. You can read the post here.
The Washington Post tackles Steve Coll's Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, which it calls "a big book about big oil, big money and big government." Pointing to a recent article in "Texas Monthly" magazine, reviewer MoisÃ©s NaÃm includes a quote from Coll that reveals the hurdles he needed to overcome to write the book: ""reporting on Exxon was not only harder than reporting on the bin Ladens, it was harder than reporting on the CIA. ."‰."‰. They have a culture of intimidation . . . they make people nervous, they make people afraid." In pointing out that by 2005 Exxon's profits had reached $36.1 billion, NaÃm writes, "the company's size, its profits, internal discipline and the critically important product it sold "” energy "” gave ExxonMobil inordinate power, which it used ruthlessly." Whether dealing with taxes, climate change, unfriendly legislation, or disagreeable politicians and world leaders, ExxonMobil put its incomparable resources to work to get its way-- often in the form of lobbyists. And unlike so many companies, they never appear to have stepped outside the lines of the law. But as NaÃm points out, "it is easy for a company to stay inside the lines when, as this book shows, it is drawing them itself."
Screens, screens, and more screens. A lot of anxiety comes with the technology we've so rapidly embraced as a normal part of modern life. If you have kids, their embrace may be quicker and offer more conflicting feelings than even your own. Mike Musgrove reviews two books intended to help us deal with the conflicts of the digital age. They are James P. Steyer's Talking Back to Facebook: The Common Sense Guide to Raising Kids in the Digital Age and Net Smart: How to Thrive Online by Howard Rheingold. The books are directed toward slightly different audiences. You could say that Rheingold's book is about living in the digital age and Steyer's is about parenting in the digital age. Musgrove summarizes the books as follows: "For their respective audiences, both books aim to serve as a wake-up call. Technology isn't inherently good, and it isn't inherently bad, the authors argue "” but, then again, technology isn't exactly neutral, either. To get the most benefit out of the Web's vast offerings, we need to more closely examine how we, or how our kids, are spending time online. It's a hard thesis to contradict." And both books are prescriptive. They offer sage advice on how to interact with your technology, how to limit that interaction, and how to maximize your experience while you're engaged. It seems like we're getting to the point where a user-friendly handbook for all this technology might come in handy, and depending on your individual needs, one of these books might fit the bill.
The small publisher McSweeney's has been on a roll. Their latest is a cookbook called At Home on the Range by Margaret Yardley Potter. That probably doesn't sound too exciting, but if the author's name sounds like something out of a different era, that's because it is-- she is the great, great grandmother of the author Elizabeth Gilbert, At Home on the Range having originally been published in 1947 when she was a food columnist for the Wilmington Star in Wilmington, Delaware. As the Noelle Carter writes for the LA Times, "Potter's more well-known descendant, writer Elizabeth Gilbert, reintroduces her great-grandmother to readers in a forward to this new release. At once delightfully humorous and remarkably insightful, At Home on the Range is written both for "” and ahead of "” its time. Recipes aren't rigidly structured, but flow like a casual kitchen conversation between close friends, various dishes woven together with stories and motherly advice, relayed with a wit that apparently runs in the family." This is a truly entertaining read. At once modern and practically historical, and always entertaining. Carter cites the following advice during a bread-baking recipe: "Now relax. Sit down, light a cigarette, write a letter or make your own plans for the next fifteen minutes while the dough 'tightens up' as we bakers say.... "Is your cigarette finished? Let's go. This is fun." If permission to smoke doesn't move you, my advice is to use the "Look Inside" feature on Amazon. That's what I did (I don't have a copy in the office). And I just kept reading and reading...
Here's one of those brainy, entertaining commentaries from The Millions.
There's also a guide to the upcoming Nebula Awards.
Truman Capote's typewriter was recently sold on E-Bay. Seems like it could have gotten more.
NPR has a first read from a book that I enjoyed last weekend: Gone Girl.
In tribute to mothers, Book Riot has a list of words that owe their existence to "mother".
I got this off Brain Pickings, although I don't believe they're the original source. It's a video guide to Shakespearean insults. Use them wisely.