booknotes: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

The books to review are piling up, and the longer they sit in the queue the more I feel obligated to be Insightful about what I've read. So in an attempt to resist intellectual overwhelm, here are a few shorter reflections on the books I read in the first half of October.

Lepore, Jill. The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death (Knopf, 2012). Harvard Professor of American history (and sometime MHS researcher) Jill Lepore's latest work is a collection of essays, most of which began as pieces for The New Yorker, and are published here in expanded form. Despite its formidable title, Mansion is episodic rather than exhaustive, exploring American understandings of humankind -- how humans begin, how we do and should live, how we die -- in a series of engaging chapters on such topics as baby food (and breastfeeding), children's literature (and children's libraries), teaching sexual knowledge, parenting advice, and the medicalization of the end of life. Lepore is a skillful writer and deeply philosophical historian who believes passionately in the importance of translating her scholarly work into terms meaningful outside the academy. As an historian, I appreciate her deft use of primary source research in essays that range across time and space, making eloquent and thought-provoking connections between seemingly disparate historical events, cultural enthusiasms, and the persons and places of America's past.

Strayed, Cheryl. Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (Vintage, 2012). After my sister raved about Wild and Bitch magazine offered me a compelling and eloquent author interview with Cheryl Strayed, I realized it was time to read Tiny Beautiful Things. Over the years, I've definitely been exposed to the "Dear Sugar" columns Strayed wrote for The Rumpus, and in fact have a favorite quote from one such column right here on the feminist librarian (look to your left). Yet I'd never read "Dear Sugar" systematically, and in some ways I'm glad of that. While each individual column has power, taken together as a book-length collection Strayed's attitude of kindness and care, the quality of listening and clarity of thought, become all the more beautiful and heartbreaking. The experience of reading Tiny Beautiful Things reminded me most strongly of the first time I cracked open Traveling Mercies. Cheryl Strayed's voice is as raw and redemptive as Anne Lamott's, though without the Jesus talk (for some of you that'll be a plus, for others a minus -- I urge you to read Tiny either way).

Summerscale, Kate. Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady (Bloomsbury, 2012). In the summer of 1858, one Henry Robinson appeared before the newly-created divorce court in London and petitioned for the legal dissolution of his marriage to Isabella Robinson on the grounds of adultery. His lawyer put forward as evidence Isabella's extensive and detailed diaries, which her husband had discovered while his wife lay ill with fever. The diaries, Mr. Robinson argued, provided evidence not only of Mrs. Robinson's unhappiness in marriage (she wrote openly about her hatred for her husband and her plans for desertion once her children were grown) but also of her desire for other men, and -- most damning of all -- her longstanding emotional, and perhaps physical, affair with a friend of the family. Summerscale uses court documents, family papers, and the press coverage of the trial to piece together the story of "Mrs. Robinson's disgrace." What emerges is a fascinating tale of Victorian marriage law, sexual morality, conceptions of mental health and madness, and the unstable boundary of fact and fiction.

Valenti, Jessica. Why Have Kids?: A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness (Houghton Mifflin, 2012).  Valenti's latest is a quick read that I polished off earlier this week while waiting for Hanna in the waiting room of her physical therapist's office. Using her own, fairly traumatic, entry into motherhood as a launching pad to explore the modern culture of mothering and parenting, Jessica Valenti (founder and former executive editor of Feministing) follows in the footsteps of Judith Warner (Perfect Madness), Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels (The Mommy Myth) in critiquing the culture of "intensive mothering" and its unrealistic expectations of modern parents. For anyone who has read these earlier works (or, indeed, follows discussions about parenting in the feminist blogosphere), there will be little new here -- though I think that in itself is noteworthy. Jessica comes from a generation or two past that of Warner, Douglas, and Michaels -- yet still seems held hostage, to some extent, by the same societal judgyness around motherhood and family life. I found myself wondering, as I read, why the hell we continue to feel trapped by other peoples' expectations. Obviously, public policy and law as a material effect on parenting options -- but in the realm of "styles" and personal decisions it really should come down to what works for you and your family -- if a given approach isn't working, try something else.*

Which is part of the reason why I felt impatient with the way Valenti saves some of her most pointed criticism for proponents of "natural" parenting, whose philosophies and practices she felt betrayed by as a new mother coping with the aftermath of an emergency Cesarean and a daughter who needed months in the NICU to survive. While her own struggles are what they are and deserve to be articulated, this sometimes leads to lopsided critique -- for example the pages and pages on the dangers of fanatic breastfeeding with only a single (very short) paragraph on the discrimination and judgyness leveled at parents who choose to (and are able) to nurse their kids. So it didn't work for her, In a book that otherwise admirably refuses to take "sides" in the banner feminist parenting battles, I felt the treatment of the parenting practices Valenti rejected on a personal could have used more nuanced discussion from a feminist perspective.

*I actually think this holds true for any family, whether young children are involved or not.

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