november-december 2011 reading

Portobello by Ruth Rendell — The November mystery group selection. My group had a fine time explaining to me that this was Not a Mystery, which it’s not, by classical definitions, but I enjoyed reading it. I was never a mystery reader before, and leading this group hasn’t turned me into one, but it has led me to a lot of books I would never otherwise have read, and I’ve enjoyed more of them than I thought I would.

Learning to Drive by Katha Pollitt — I have loved Katha Pollitt’s writing since I first got a subscription to The Nation when I was sixteen. A couple of these essays first appeared in The New Yorker, and stylistically, they are the best of the bunch, but despite some unevenness, I loved the whole collection. If you’ve lived most of your life on the Left, it’s kind of great to get to read a book where people belong to Marxist study groups and have parents who were Communists and who generally write about the world you live in.

The Uncertain Places by Lisa Goldstein — I love fantasy novels that take place in the real world and rely on fairy tales, so I had very high hopes for this novel that takes its inspiration from an unknown Grimm’s fairy tale. It starts out in Berkeley in the 1960s, with two best friends dating two sisters who live with their eccentric — and, as it turns out, haunted — family in a sprawling, multi-style house up in wine country. Sadly, the rest of the book wasn’t quite as good as the first fifty pages or so, but I still enjoyed it.

The Case of the Lost Boy by Dori Hillestad Butler — December’s mystery selection. Dori Butler is the current president of our Friends of the Library group and the author of a number of children’s books. This one won the Edgar for best children’s mystery last year. It is narrated by a dog, and it’s both funny and sad, as dog stories often are.

Cherry by Mary Karr — I’ve read or listened to all of Karr’s memoirs out of order, but they seem to work that way. Someday perhaps I’ll go back and reread them in order and see if I have a favorite. I do love the opening line here: “No road offers more mystery than the first one you mount from the town you were born to, the first time you mount it of your own volition. . . ”

White Ghost Girls by Alice Greenaway — I actually read this sometime earlier in the year; I’ve forgotten just when, but it was wonderful, so I wanted to be sure to include it in the list. It’s about two girls with a photojournalist father during the Vietnam War. They’re living with their mother in Southeast Asia while he comes and goes, and they’re trying to figure out the war and growing up and their parents and the world.

L Too Big To Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin — I may be the only person in the world who finds financial journalism both fascinating and soporific. As a result, I have listened to almost every Planet Money podcast several times, and so I was looking for something new and hit upon this one night whilst browsing my library’s eaudiobook collection. It’s sort of an odd book, being one of those nonfiction tomes with unspecified sources that nonetheless pretends to know what is going through Hank Paulson’s head at any given moment. But it served its purpose well enough.

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones — If I were into making top ten lists, this book would be on one for sure. A man steps out on his wife and fathers a child with his mistress, whom he secretly marries. Then his wife has a girl just a few months later. The secret wife and child know all about the “real” family, but the real family knows nothing about the secret. The girls grow up in 1980s Atlanta, and of course, eventually, they meet. Searing and impossible to put down.

In addition to regular books, I also spent a good chunk of the second half of this year reading books on pregnancy and childbirth. Most of them are terrible — at least terrible if you are not an upper-middle class heterosexual married white person. Judging by the census data on births, relatively few mothers-to-be fall into that category these days. And yet in pregnancy book land, everyone has a committed husband and is just dying to buy pink or blue items to outfit their nursery. It’s astounding. It’s like some weird form of time travel. The book that contained the sentence, “If you have no knight in shining armor to change your kitty litter. . .” I nearly threw across the room. (It was a library book, so of course I didn’t. I just took it back the next day, as I did with a number of the books I checked out.)

For the record, though, there are a few that I made it through, so I’ll make some notes about them here.

Our Bodies, Ourselves: Pregnancy and Birth by the Boston Women’s Health Collective — This is the only book I read that I would actually recommend unreservedly. Given that I grew up with Our Bodies, Ourselves on display in many of my friends’ houses (oddly, I didn’t get my own copy until after college) and given my general proclivities, it is perhaps not surprising that I loved this book so much. But still. It is the only book I read that was consistently inclusive of single women, lesbians, women of color, women in unhealthy relationships, women who’ve suffered abuse, women with mental or physical health problems — in other words, the only book I read that seemed like it was about ordinary women. It also gets big points for being informative but not judgmental and for including a whole chapter (actually, a couple of chapters) on advocating for better care for pregnant women, babies, and new mothers.

Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin — If you really want the full on whacky hippie homebirth reading experience, you check out Spiritual Midwifery, which is charming in the way of all handlettered books from the 1970s. Gaskin clearly decided, however, that she needed to write something for slightly more mainstream audiences, and I was quite pleased with the result. The first half of the book is childbirth stories, which I actually find get kind of repetitive after awhile. The second half is a nice overview of the actual process of childbirth, which I found informative and reassuring. Of course, I haven’t actually given birth yet, so my mind may yet change.

Understanding Your Moods When You’re Expecting by Lucy J. Puryear — I had high hopes for this book, as it seemed to promise to focus on mental health issues (of which I have some) and pregnancy. It does, but it also falls very much into the trap of the happily married well to do pregnant woman who is happy to be having a baby. I would think that such a book might also want to address the emotions of single mothers, people who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant, people who are disadvantaged. Sigh.

The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding by La Leche League International — Hands down the most judgmental book I picked up in the course of perusing the shelves. A friend of mine saw me reading it and said, “That book was nearly responsible for the death of my first son.” I am not quite sure why I keep reading it, except that it’s full of such astounding hubris, like the quotation from the doctor who says that nobody deserves a full night’s sleep, and that after all, he gets up in the middle of the night to help his patients without, so a mother should get up in the middle of the night to help her own baby with joy. (My mother says, “Yes. Of course he gets PAID to get up in the middle of the night.”) In addition to thinking that (of course) anything other than full-time breastfeeding is bad, the book also thinks daycare is bad, working mothers are bad, and single-parent families are bad. I’ve just been reading it in the past month, which may explain why I find all of this hilarious rather than offensive — earlier on I think I would have found it much more upsetting.

Altogether, that brings me to 56 books for 2011. People keep telling me I will never read again after I have a baby, I will never read again, but I find this hard to believe. Stay tuned this time next year to find out how I fare.