Posts tagged ‘book reviews’

Book Review: Real Life & Liars

We interrupt this vacation blogging again to address what I read on my vacation, which started with the fabulous Real Life & Liars, the first novel by Literary Mama’s fiction co-editor, Kristina Riggle.

I’m in the happy position now that a good portion of my bookshelf is filled with books written by women I know and like. I suppose there could be some anxiety in this — what if I don’t like the book as much as the writer? — but so far I haven’t been disappointed. Still, many of those books developed out of columns I’d been following for a while, or grew in my writing group. In Kristina’s case, I’d only read one short story of hers, What Kind of Mother (published on Literary Mama), and although we correspond regularly and were lucky enough to meet last winter at a conference, I had no idea what her writer’s voice, her fiction voice, might be like until she read a portion of the book at an event during that conference and I was mesmerized. The mother of two young kids that I’d been talking to over dinner before the reading disappeared into a pot-smoking, raspy-voiced mother of three grown children, grudgingly submitting to an anniversary party thrown by her eldest daughter, a polished suburban mother completely different from herself. I knew then not to worry about the rest of the book.

And I adored it.

The book takes place over the weekend of Max and Mirabelle Zielinski’s anniversary party, a family reunion at which a number of family secrets and lies are revealed. Riggle narrates the story from the perspectives of Mira and her three children: Katya, a suburban mother of three who, as Mira puts it, “drags [her younger siblings] along under the wheels of her train”; Ivan, a struggling songwriter who can’t see the love that’s right in front of him; and Irina, who is accidentally (reluctantly) pregnant and married to a man who isn’t going to let her screw it up.

Mira sees her children like she’s got a magnifying glass on them, and Riggle emphasizes Mira’s maternal perspective subtly by granting her the only first-person narration of the book; her three children’s stories are all told in the 3rd person. Meanwhile, Mira’s husband Max, a successful novelist, doesn’t get a turn at telling the story, which nicely underlines his position in the family: in it, certainly, but always maintaining a bit of distracted distance. As his son, Ivan, puts it of Max, in one of my favorite lines of the book: he “always seems to be writing his novels on the opposite wall of whatever room he’s in…” It’s a tricky thing to handle the shifting perspectives so fluidly, but Riggle pulls it off without a hitch.

I won’t give the story away by telling what happens, but instead, and in the spirit of this sharply funny and concise novel, I’ll just share a few of my favorite passages:

Here’s Katya: “A mosquito lands on her linen pants and stabs through to suck at her. What’s one more parasite, Katya thinks. Go ahead, suck me dry along with everyone else. The reflexive shame kicks in at thinking of her family this way.”

Here’s Ivan: “For a time, Van had a poster of his hero taped on his apartment wall. Bob Dylan stared down at him every night and every morning, heavy-lidded, cigarette drooping.

“Then Van got drunk on whiskey and self-pity one night and ripped it down, and in the blazing light of morning, through his hangover fog, he’d noticed that the paint had faded all around where it was taped, so he’d been left with his imprint. It was like a chalk outline around the corpse of his ambition.”

And Irina: “She always seemed to zoom back toward home base after every relationship went up in flames, brushing ashes out of her hair.”

But my favorite character is Mira, knowing but flawed Mira, who muses, “We all have the best-laid plans for our children, and they go and ruin it all by growing up any way they want to. What the hell was it all for, then?” Mira’s children don’t need her like they used to, her marriage has settled into something more comfortable than passionate, and her job, teaching college, may be coming to an end as well. She’s faced with some things that are making her reflect on her choices, but she knows she’s got a lot to be grateful for; she did a lot right. And although I’m at a very different stage in my life than Mirabelle Zielinski is, I loved her voice, and felt like I was in very good company reading her story. She and her family are characters that are going to stay with me a good long while.

For more about Kristina Riggle, visit her website, her blog over at The Debutante Ball, or just go buy the book.

Book Review/Giveaway–Who’s Your Mama: The Unsung Voices of Women and Mothers

The hardest aspect of editing Mama, PhD was not editing the selections, nor working with the publisher to fine-tune essays, nor copyediting, nor even coordinating all of this work with a coeditor living 3,000 miles away who had two (now three!) kids of her own. No, I think really the hardest part was actually getting the essays. We sent out a call for submissions to our friends, and asked them to send it to their friends; we published it on list-servs and websites and broadcast it as widely as we knew how. It wound up in places that we didn’t even know existed, like the Women and Crime mailing list. But still, many of the essays came from women of similar backgrounds and in similar disciplines as ourselves. For Mama, PhD this wasn’t a deal-breaker: the collection winds up accurately reflecting the diversity of women in higher education. Still, I know there are more stories out there that we didn’t manage to uncover, and I’ll always wonder how we might have found them.

Yvonne Bynoe, who edited Who’s Your Mama: The Unsung Voices of Women and Mothers, found an amazingly diverse group of women to contribute to her anthology. The women are different races and ethnicities; they are single, widowed, divorced and partnered, gay and straight, mothers and childless, at home with their kids and working outside the home. The women are not all professional writers, but they contribute deeply-felt stories which are powerfully told.

Mary Warren Foulk’s piece, “Which One’s the Mother?”, beautifully traces her complicated road to lesbian motherhood, and I loved Kathy Bricetti’s sweet essay, “The Baby Bank,” about going with her partner to a sperm bank, way back in 1992.

Christine Murphy is resisting friends’ and family pressure to jump on the “baby train” in “Mommy Maybe…” — and wondering if she’s making the right choice. Liz Prato writes poignantly of her decision not to have children in “Is Life Without Kids Worth Living?” With a mother who died at fifty-eight and two aunts who passed away in their forties, she feels that “knowing the parent-child relationship can come to such an abrupt end has shut down our desire to have kids.”

In “The Mother I Always Wanted,” Robin Templeton describes how her pregnancy makes her finally confront the reality of her own troubled mother; sitting on an airplane on the way back home, she writes, “I fanned myself with the laminated safety instructions, closed my eyes and a neon warning scrolled behind them like an interruption from the Emergency Broadcast System: Beep. This is a test. Beep. You are your mother’s chid. Beep. Your baby will be raised by a woman raised by your mother.”

Eileen Flanagan also addresses the legacy of difficult mothering in her essay, “A Pellet of Poison: I Don’t Want to Feed Racism to My Children the Way My Mother Fed It to Me.” Untangling what she was taught from what she wants to teach her children, she searches out slave narratives, abolitionist histories, novels and songs; she writes, “In the realm of race, I can also face the heat of my family history, sweating out whatever I’ve absorbed and teaching my children to do the same. Stories are like saunas that can help draw the poison out of us.”

And I loved Lisa Chiu’s essay “Ching Chong!” which hopes her son won’t hear the playground taunt that haunted her childhood: “Nico’s classmates haven’t yet asked him where he’s from. But when they do ask–and they will–I hope he will answer the question with clarity and confidence. I hope he will respond in a way that educates people, informing them not just of his own cultural background but of a world that is multi-hued, complex, and complicated.

“It took me years to come up with my own succinct answer to the question, replying that I’m a second-generation Taiwanese American woman who was born in Canada and raised in Cleveland. It took a long time for me to learn how to define myself. Now, it is time for me to guide my son along his cultural identity journey. I know where we’re from. And I’m gaining clarity in knowing where we’re going.”

I like these essays for asking good questions rather than presuming to have all the answers. These are women in the midst of journeys, and it’s interesting to follow along with their thinking.

Want to read this book? Leave me a comment by Saturday, May 30th, and I’ll choose someone at random to receive my advance galley.

Book Review: The Food of Love

I was curled up on the couch with a cup of tea, happily reading an advance copy of The Food of Love: Your Formula for Successful Breastfeeding, the first mom’s breastfeeding how-to with detailed cartoons that I have ever read, when I came across a big star drawn at the bottom of a page and this message printed inside it: “Hey, you! If you’re reading this book and you’re not just about to have a baby then go and make dinner for someone who just has!”

So, I got myself off the couch and emailed my son’s classmate’s mom, who has just delivered her third child, that dinner was on me.

And then I got back to my reading, because even though I stopped breastfeeding two and a half years ago, I still remember how hard it was for me at the beginning. I’m glad that there’s a good book–a sharp, funny, manageably-sized one (handy for one-handed reading while breastfeeding!)– helping new moms navigate the often-complicated physical and emotional logistics of breastfeeding.

Open the cover and where normally you would find a blank page or maybe just a title page, you find a line drawing of a brand new baby, complete with hospital bracelet and umbilical clip. “Well done,” the text begins. “You have just undergone the most physically and emotionally exhausting process of your life. You have successfully subdivided. You have a baby. You can take it home with you. Unlike a library book, which you have to return after three weeks, this child is yours for years and years. But what do you do with it? What next?”

The next two hundred pages go on to detail “what next,” from “What are Breasts?” to “Stress and Depression” and finally, “When it’s time to wean” with detailed (and often quite funny) drawings, up-to-date medical information (including footnotes!) and a helpful index of topics from abscess (ew) to yogurt, and many stops in between, all written in the wry tone of an experienced and entertaining older sister or friend. A drawing of The Good Mother shows a woman lying on the couch, gazing at her nursing baby while laundry spills from the washing machine, toys litter the floor, and a toddler sits contentedly at her feet with a sandwich, watching tv; the corollary drawing of The Good Friend, who plays with the toddler, brings him a drink, and perhaps tosses the laundry into the dryer isn’t pictured, but strongly implied throughout the book.

The book ends similarly to how it opens: “Ignore this book” reads the header. It goes on to elaborate, “Guilt is the curse of parenthood. This book is meant as a funny, handy guide to helping you to enjoy your baby. Feel free to disagree with it. It’s not a prescription, and you know your baby better than I do…. Look at your baby. He’s perfect. Well done.”

Not nearly enough baby and childcare books take the time to offer this message, and not any I can think of do so with such excellent cartoons. The Food of Love is a breath of fresh air, and a book I’d add to any new mom gift bag.

Book Review: enLIGHTened by Jessica Berger Gross

I don’t remember when I first walked into a prenatal yoga class. I was teaching at Stanford at the time, a two-hour daily commute, and maybe the fact that I was so darned uncomfortable –pacing around the conference table during class, fidgeting in my seat during office hours, using cruise control so that I could stretch my legs on the long drive — sent me to that cool, pine-floored studio once a week. There I gathered with the other round-bellied mamas and we stretched and balanced and relaxed through our ninety minutes.

After Ben was born, I returned to mom and baby yoga for a bit but, unsurprisingly, didn’t find the peace and relaxation I’d enjoyed during prenatal yoga. Ben was a noisy, needy, perfectly typical baby and although I aspired to be the kind of balanced yogini that could nurse while standing on one leg in vrksasana (tree pose), I could barely relax lying on the floor with him in corpse pose.

I returned to yoga during my second pregnancy; this time I wasn’t working outside the home, but renovating our house and caring for a three year-old kept me even busier. The once-a-week session seemed like the only time to spend thinking about this coming baby, and I wound up asking my yoga teacher to serve as my doula during my eventual 17-hour labor. I can’t say I consciously practiced yoga during the labor, exactly, but the training I’d absorbed, the thoughtfulness about breathing and stretching and opening, all helped me ride my labor peacefully almost toward the end. I say “almost” to account for the brief interval between feeling the urge to push and getting the doctor’s green light to push, when I recall shouting to my doula, “There is not enough yoga in the world to get me through this!” She laughed, which made me laugh, which distracted me enough to survive that last minute until I could push Eli out.

But again, mom and baby yoga wasn’t for me (especially since I never could find a mom + baby + preschooler yoga class), and yoga has fallen by the wayside as I find my best exercise time is a quick run before the boys wake up. My yoga mat is rolled up in the garage, gathering dust, and I look at it sometimes, thinking I should bring it upstairs, lay it out next to my bed, and try to get in a quick pose or two before bed. All of which explains why I jumped at the chance to read Jessica Berger Gross’s new book, enLIGHTened: How I lost 40 Pounds with a Yoga Mat, Fresh Pineapples, and a Beagle-Pointer. I thought it might help me get back on the mat.

I know Jessica’s writing from Literary Mama, of course, but also from her work editing the gorgeous anthology, About What Was Lost. EnLIGHTened is part memoir – a journal of her struggles with weight and the emotionally unhealthy family dynamic that contributed to her eating issues —part gentle how-to. She is so honest in her writing about her past (starting with the confession that her childhood nickname was the mean “Bubble Berger” because of the extra layer of fat she carried), that a reader is immediately sympathetic and open to her advice. The book is practical and pragmatic, full of diagrams of yoga poses, recipes, and sutras (both in Sanskrit and in English); she is so convinced of the benefits of her path that she offers a reader lots of ways to join her, and the result is friendly, charming, and accessible. I may not go as far as she does in her low-fat diet (I’m lucky not to have weight issues), but she makes me think twice about the ice cream in my freezer, or at least consider serving myself a much smaller scoop.

I figured I would read her book the way I do books by Michael Pollan or Barbara Kingsolver (books with which enLIGHTened shares some thinking): I am a member of her choir – I am a vegetarian, organic food-buying, yoga-aspiring writer – but as such, I try to be extra-sensitive to preaching, proselytizing and didacticism. So I’m happy to report that whenever she strays into potential eye-rolling territory, she pokes a little fun at herself. For instance, in the chapter on purity and cleanliness, she describes attending a retreat in which she was led through a thirty-minute exercise in “conscious sipping:”

“It was unnerving to drink so slowly. After all, I was used to downing a juice while talking on the phone or blow-drying my hair or driving my car or checking my e-mail. Plus, I was already hungry and it was only the first morning. “What do you want out of the next sip?” Alison asked. I wanted to be comforted, I wanted to be filled. (To be honest, I wanted a grilled cheese sandwich.)”

Later in the same chapter, she writes, “If you eat healthy and low-fat most of the time, you can splurge on the occasional more-indulgent foods.” I perked up, wondering what would count as indulgent for someone who bemoans her previously unenlightened nightly snack of Cheerios and chocolate chips (please! My indulgent snack is a bowl of melted peanut butter, topped with vanilla ice cream, granola, and chocolate syrup.) So she continues, “On a weekend—not every weekend, but on the occasional Sunday—Neil and I will go out for whole wheat organic pizza made with hormone-free cheese (I know, I live on the edge).” If she’s living on the edge, even my decent diet puts me over the cliff, but that’s fine. The point here is not that you slavishly follow every tenet she outlines here –I agree with her that we’d probably be healthier if we did, but I certainly can’t – but she offers a great menu from which you can choose.

Yesterday I finished reading enLIGHTened and then washed off my old yoga mat and rolled it out next to the bed. This morning I was already awake when the alarm clock went off, having been woken at 5 by my 7 year-old climbing into bed next to me. At the sound of the alarm, my almost-4 year old thundered down the hall and climbed in, too. I extricated myself from the warm pile and stood on the mat a moment, groggily collecting myself in tadasana (mountain pose) before stretching my arms up over my head and bending one leg at the knee in vrksasana. The boys giggled from their cozy nest, but tomorrow I’ll encourage them to come join me. Now I know this is the perfect way to start the day, and I’m grateful to enLIGHTend for reminding me.

Review: Between O and V (poems)

One of the unexpected pleasures of moving up the masthead to Senior Editor of Literary Mama has been getting to correspond with all the other department editors about pieces they’re considering for publication. It’s been particularly enlightening for me to work with our poetry editor, Sharon Kraus, since my formal poetry education is limited–aside from the odd 2-week unit on poetry in one class or another–to one college seminar on Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, plus reading my dad’s work. I still remember how he responded when I wrote him about an English class in which we were studying e.e. cummings: he wrote me a sonnet about how he would teach poetry!

So when Maria Scala, one of Literary Mama’s columns editors, said she was interested in exchanging reviews of recent publications, I jumped at the chance, though I had to warn her — and now caution you readers –that I can’t write very knowledgeably about the form. I respond to what I like, pause to admire unexpectedly effective word choices, remember images that resonate with me. I read her chapbook, Between O and V, straight through over lunch the other day, which is not at all how one should read poetry, I think, but speaks to the appeal of Maria’s writing. Reading these poems felt rather like sitting down with a beautiful bowl of ripe cherries, not wanting to stop consuming them till they were gone, and then sitting still, satisfied, for a time at the end.

There’s a mood of concern in some of these pieces, a sense of worry about the future, which speaks to me (I’m the one who’s got a fortune which reads “You are worrying about something that is not going to happen” taped to her laptop, remember?). “I’m not long for this world / if I don’t have you” goes one stanza; or in a poem titled “Nonna,” in which a mother tries to busy herself away from thoughts of grief, “I fear for the day / when I have to make myself / forget this way.” Deep sigh.

The perspective in these pieces feels familiar to me; it’s a voice old enough to see her parents clearly, as people apart from being parents, and now starting to reconsider some of the impressions and ideas of her childhood. These are moving poems about relationships and writing, particularly interested in family, but there’s a light touch to them, in pieces like “House Rules,” which begins simply “Stick together.” Or the sweetly funny “Now I Am Married,” in which the narrator, her husband away on business, “awakens[s] in the middle of the night / cold and surprised / heartbroken too: / remembering how good it is / to accidentally elbow you in the head / so that I can kiss it better.” I loved “My Friend Is Left-Handed,” which made me laugh, in the context of these carefully-observed pieces, with its opening line: “After all this time, / I never noticed.”

But my favorite is perhaps “My Literary Uncle,” which ends, “I pare down each experience / hoping to leave / a lovely mess of shavings / behind.” This collection is a lovely mess of shavings indeed, and then some.

MotherTalk Blog Book Tour: Getting Unstuck without Coming Unglued

On the one hand, I could say–with a great sigh of relief and a handful of salt tossed over my shoulder– that it has never happened to me.

On the other hand, I could say that my eight years in graduate school (and the three years’ office work before that) were a protracted block, a self-imposed detour from the writing I should really have been doing the whole time, an elaborate (and ultimately expensive) procrastinatory ploy.

I’m talking about writer’s block, of course, a subject that I’ve been thinking much more seriously about since reading Susan O’Doherty’s sharp, smart, and sensitive Getting Unstuck Without Coming Unglued: A Woman’s Guide to Unblocking Creativity.

Before I go further, I should say that I am not an unbiased reviewer. I first discovered Sue’s work in Andrea Buchanan’s anthology, It’s a Boy; her beautiful essay, “The Velvet Underground,” about her music-loving, costume jewelry-wearing son, Ben, struck a chord with me, the mother of a Ben who used to wear “dress-up hair” to school. I came across Sue’s work next in Jessica Berger Gross’s anthology, About What Was Lost; “The Road Home” details, with agonizing honesty, her journey through multiple miscarriages to motherhood. When my co-editor and I were collecting essays for Mama, PhD, I remembered “The Road Home” and wondered if Sue might have a story to tell for the anthology. Indeed she did, and in working with her to edit her essay and pave the way for its publication, I’ve come to respect her and admire her writing even more.

So when I saw that MotherTalk was enlisting bloggers to review her book, I signed up, looking forward to reading a book I knew I’d enjoy, despite thinking, mistakenly, that it wouldn’t really have much to say to me.

But here’s the thing: my truth, of course, is more complicated than the two versions I offer in the first two paragraphs above. I would never say that graduate school was a waste of time or even a detour from a more satisfying writing life. I did a lot of good writing in graduate school, including a very readable 300 page dissertation. Graduate school, and the courses I took and taught, gave me a great framework for reading and writing that I draw on to this day, and I’m proud to have earned my doctorate.

Still, Sue’s book has made me wonder for the first time whether if I’d skipped grad school and stayed at work in publishing, would I have kept noodling away at the workplace novel I started at my desk? Would I have continued adding sentences between phone calls and correspondence? Is there enough of a writer in me that I would have kept at it, after work, and on lunch hours? Or would something else have come up to interfere with that writing?

Maybe, maybe someday I’ll dig out those fragmented bits of that novel, dust it off, and see if it might still have life in it. In the meantime, though, here I am, seven years post-doc and five years into motherhood, developing a different and very fulfilling writing career. At the moment, I have more ideas than time to write them all out. I can gaze out my window and see writer’s block just hovering out there, past the trees in my neighbor’s yard, but here come Eli and Ben, thundering down the hall giggling, trying unsuccessfully to sneak up on me at my desk, and I race to finish my sentence, jot a few notes to remind myself where I was headed, close the laptop and bounce onto the big bed with them. For now, writer’s block and I are keeping at arm’s length.

So even though I didn’t pick up Sue’s book looking for answers, I’m happy to report that it gave me some anyway. Each chapter in the book is followed by an exercise intended to help you apply the chapter’s lessons to your own creative life and artistic goals. I decided, as a diligent reviewer, to do the exercises, starting in order, and although I haven’t finished (none of them takes more than twenty or thirty minutes, but each warrants a return visit, a reflection a few days later), I’m learning plenty from them already. Some of the exercises are serious (completing the “Girls Should…” sentence with messages you received as a child; identifying your inner critic) and some are a lot of fun (imagining a day without consequences, or imagining your greatest success) but so far I’m already filling pages with memories from my childhood, images I’d forgotten, ideas for future essays: in short, loads of new material. Thanks, Sue!

Like any good teacher, Sue makes her points in this book by telling stories. She’s brave enough to describe the ups and downs of her own creative life, and then sympathetically relates the stories of several of her clients, women at all different stages of their artistic careers, some trying to come to terms with past difficulties, some trying to address current hindrances. And again, although none of these stories is exactly relevant to my own situation right now, each taught me a little bit more about keeping creativity active throughout various different stages of life, whether single or partnered, parenting or childless, younger or older.

When I first started reading this book, I kept thinking of writers I’d give my copy to when I finished writing the review, thinking I’d absorb the lessons and move on. But now I think I’d like to keep it on my shelf after all, and I’ll be giving some copies as gifts.

Scenes from Spatulatta

Well, the Spatulatta Cookbook arrived earlier this week and the kids are eating it up. This is not the first kid’s cookbook we’ve encountered; in fact, among the over one hundred cookbooks on my kitchen shelf, five are for children. We’ve got the classic, Mollie Katzen’s sweetly illustrated Pretend Soup; we’ve got Linda Collister’s beautifully photographed Cooking with Kids, plus the retro-looking Look and Cook, by Tina Davis. We’ve got my childhood favorite, Mud Pies and Other Recipes, which is full of recipes to make for your dolls and stuffed animals in the backyard. And then we’ve got a real treasure, Michel Oliver’s La Cuisine est un Jeu d’Enfants, with an introduction by Jean Cocteau. This was given to Tony by his grandmother, and is inscribed thus:

“This is to mark your very first birthday–and I hope you will emulate your Mamma and Papa in the preparation of gourmet foods–I will look forward to your first efforts–and I hope it will be a souffle–that’s my favorite.”

Nothing like setting a child’s sights high! (And in fact, with such familial encouragement, Tony embarked on a culinary career that included, as a kid, chicken kiev and lemon meringue pie, and now covers most of our family dinners). We don’t use this cookbook much — it weighs about ten pounds, for one thing — but I love a cookbook for kids that includes such basics as coq au vin, pain perdu and sauce bechamel.

We use all these cookbooks, but what sets Spatulatta apart is that it is written by kids, the two girls behind the Spatulatta website, Isabella and Olivia Gerasole. As a serious cookbook reader, I was worried that this might translate into some cutesy, written-by-adults-to-sound-like-kids tone, but that’s not the result at all. The recipes are peppered with little comments like “Pretty neat, huh?” and “This is the fun, slimy part…” and Ben, a brand new cookbook reader (let alone reader) was delighted at these remarks aimed at him. I like that each step in a recipe is explained clearly enough for a five year old to understand, with cooking terms marked in bold and keyed to a glossary in the back. It’s a smart cookbook, too, with its spiral-bound, coated pages that wipe clean, tabbed section dividers and plenty of room to write in notes. The people who designed it know what they’re doing.

In our first 3 days with this cookbook, we made Extra E-Z Fudge, Heart-in-Hand Cookies, and Berry Dip & Roll, which were all a tremendous success and are not at all a representative sampling of the recipes in the book, which are seasonally organized and include a nice section of vegetarian recipes. I let Ben call the shots, and he went for the sweets; we’ll get to the Bunny Salad, Black Bean Chili, and other healthier choices another day. The one surprising omission from the cookbook, I think, is breakfast! Pancakes, french toast, and muffins tend to be a staple of most kid’s cookbooks, for good reason: they’re simple and plenty good for you. Spatulatta leans more toward lunch and dinner foods, when I’m less inclined to think of involving the kids in the cooking in favor of getting a meal on the table promptly. But of course, the more I include the kids in the kitchen, the less of an art project cooking will be for them, so I like that Spatulatta will help nudge us this direction. My kids, at 5 and 2, are definitely younger than the target Spatulatta audience, but this cookbook will grow with them, and I’m looking forward to the meals along the way.

MotherTalk Blog Book Tour: Writing Motherhood

Very early on the morning of July 4th, 2001, I climbed out of bed and took a pregnancy test. As I waited for the result, I left the stick resting on the edge of the bathroom sink and sat down at my desk to write a few lines on my computer. A few minutes later, I went back and added some more thoughts, trying to absorb the fact that I was pregnant.

That was the start of my mothering journal.

I’d kept journals sporadically in the past: a small, cream- colored book my aunt gave me before a high school month in England; a cloth-bound book I bought before my junior year at Oxford University. But when I didn’t have a discrete period of time to document, I could never keep a journal going. I’d get fed up with myself for using it as a dumping ground for my complaints about adolescent life, or I’d get hung up with worry about someone finding it.

But this time was different. I’d just started a new job, I was pregnant, Tony and I bought a house: my life was changing fast, changing permanently, and I wanted to keep track of my thoughts.

That January, my computer crashed and took my journal with it. I lost teaching notes, syllabi, years’ worth of emails, but it was the journal’s loss that made me cry. It took me a few days to regain perspective (I hadn’t lost the baby, I kept having to remind myself, only the writing about the baby), but when I did, I took myself to a good art supply store and bought a nice journal with lined pages and an elastic strap to keep it closed.

And now I have a neat pile of six on the bottom shelf of my bedside table, with the current one, a pen in the middle holding my place, on the top shelf next to my lip balm, the current New Yorker, and a water glass.

I’ve kept it going.

The problem, though, was that before long the journal was not enough. I’d start something, jot down a funny thing Ben did or make an observation about my new life, and then it would sit there, undeveloped. I didn’t have any compelling reason to develop my thoughts into an essay. And after years of steady writing in graduate school, culminating in a nearly 300-page dissertation, I didn’t really even know how to write an essay about myself. I cast about for a year or so, writing unfinished essays during Ben’s naps, not knowing what to do with them. Eventually I lucked into a writing group and from there landed a position at Literary Mama and, between the gentle pressure of my monthly turn to present at writing group and the inspiration of the essays I edit, I found my way to a regular writing gig, a book, and a new life as a writer.

But it all would have been much simpler if I’d had Lisa Garrigues book, Writing Motherhood, back then.

I confess, I haven’t read any other writing books, so I have nothing to compare this to. Well, that’s not even quite right; I haven’t finished any other writing books. I’ve poked around Bird by Bird (and found it quite useful when I do), read a few lines of Writing Down the Bones, but I’ve always gotten a little impatient with the books, always had a moment when I realized, “Wait… no one’s asking me for snack, no one needs a dry diaper, I should be writing!” and put them down. So one of the things I like most about Garrigues’ book is that she invites you to do just that. It is not a book to read cover to cover (although I did, for this review, and it holds up perfectly well to that sustained attention), but one to pick up and read for twenty minutes when you have an hour free, or five minutes when you have ten: pick it up, find your inspiration, put the book down, and write. Because just as no one learns to parent by reading parenting books, no one learns to write without writing.

I like the bold orange cover of this book, which won’t get lost on my desk; that bright flash will always peek out from under the messy pile of drafts, bills, and Ben’s latest train drawings, and remind me to write. I like her tone, which is encouraging and friendly throughout; she leaves behind any kind of authoritative teacher voice and comes across as a woman you’d happily share a coffee with. Garrigues calls her writing prompts “invitations,” another subtle way that she manages to lighten up the task of setting down to write. And I like that she gives you lots and lots of good stuff to read, because the most important work in becoming a writer, after writing, is, of course, reading. Garrigues gives you her own short essays (on topics ranging from copying other writers, to marriage, to mama playdates); some of the little essays are hardly about writing at all, but about mothering, and then as she comes to the end and crystallizes the feeling that she’s expressed in the essay, she neatly raises a question for your own writing. She provides sample “mother’s pages” (essays written by her students), and she offers loads of great quotations from other writers. She also offers concrete advice on everything from buying a writer’s notebook to setting up a productive workspace. I have both of those things, but I still picked up a couple good ideas from her. She closes the book with an entire section on moving from new writer to a writer seeking connection and publication, with ideas on setting up and maintaining writing groups and taking one’s writing public. And then, in case there weren’t already enough ideas to keep you going in the text of the book, she offers a list of 99 writing starts and a bibliography.

I am keeping this review short because, inspired by Garrigues book, I want to get back to my writing! But I want to leave you with a couple quotations. The first, from Annie Dillard, resonated with me right now as I struggle to clear space in my days to write:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.

And now here’s Garrigues:

This book is, in part, a story of growing up and into a role I claimed for myself.

Is she talking about mothering or writing?! The point, as she claims throughout the book, is that the two are not mutually exclusive but complimentary roles that feed and develop each other. We should take advantage of that fact, and make time to write our lives.

Garrigues teaches writing classes, and those of you in the NY/NJ area should check them out. For anyone looking for on-line writing classes, I highly recommend Susan Ito’s parent lit workshop (which I have taken) and the new poetry workshop led by Violeta Garcia-Mendoza (my editorial assistant in Literary Reflections). Literary Mama will soon be offering monthly writing prompts, with personal feedback from th
e Literary Reflections editorial staff, as well as listings of workshops and other resources for writers. Get writing!

MotherTalk Blog Book Tour: The No-Cry Discipline Solution

When Ben was about a year old and Tony and I were beginning to despair of ever getting an uninterrupted night’s sleep again, we attended a baby sleep seminar (we only had one kid, so we had time for things like this). The seminar, led by the same calm and competent woman who’d taught our birth and nursing classes, ran through the basic information about what disrupts a baby’s sleep (teething; stomach upset; brain development; disturbances in the force…) and various approaches to handling them. She covered Ferber, she covered Weisbluth, and then she mentioned a new book, by Elizabeth Pantley: The No-Cry Sleep Solution. I was sold by the title alone, which set her ideas well apart from the other, more well-known sleep docs. I was not about to put Ben in his crib, shut the door, and leave the room. I didn’t believe that would teach him anything that I wanted him to learn.

So I bought Pantley’s book and read it thoroughly. She advises that you start by making charts of your child’s sleeping and waking patterns, and I still have one of these, of a fairly typical night. I wrote:

Last night Ben slept from 7:15-8:15; 9:20-12:30; 1-2:30; 3-4:15; 4:30-6; 6:30-8:15. Oy.

But after a couple weeks of somewhat demoralizing charting, I began to see some patterns, began to be able to pat him down to sleep again without always nursing him, and slowly, gradually, our nights improved. And neither of us cried about it.

Now, perhaps our nights would have improved without my charts, but Pantley’s book, with its tables and graphs, its supportive advice and its frequent quotations from other parents, helped make me feel like I was not alone, like I was taking steps to improve our situation and, most importantly, like it was going to get better. And it did.

So I was already inclined to like The No-Cry Discipline Solution, and when I saw that MotherTalk wanted reviewers, I signed up because while sleep is no longer an issue (some combination of our experience and Eli’s personality means Eli has always slept more easily than his older brother), discipline certainly is. I don’t know what’s to come, but right now, I can’t imagine two more intense subjects for discipline than a 5 year-old and a 2 year-old. We are Discipline Hungry around here, and I ate Pantley’s book right up.

First of all, lest you get the impression from her title that this book will have you tiptoeing around your kids, afraid to discipline them lest they shatter like so many wineglasses, don’t worry. Pantley’s not looking to provoke tears, but she acknowledges—often– that telling your kids no is going to upset them, and that’s ok. As she puts it, “You want your child to be unhappy about his misbehavior and the consequences it brings. This leads to better self-discipline and will help him to make decisions about how to act.” But I do agree with her that once the crying starts (my child’s or mine!) the opportunity for reasoned conversation, thoughtful reflection, or calm acceptance has been lost. And given how rarely those opportunities come at all, I don’t want to deliberately forestall them. So no-cry, here we go.

The opening section clearly and concisely sets out a foundation for discipline. She dispels myths that can get in the way of parenting well (“Good parents don’t lose their patience”) and promotes attitudes that support it (“Parents who do the right thing 70% of the time should feel proud of the job they are doing.”) She connects how you parent a teenager with how that child’s been parented as a kid, and I love the chart which makes it all look so clear: “Typical Older Child Behavior (leaves dirty dishes/clothes around the house); Preferred Behavior (obvious!); “How to Help Your Young Child Develop Preferred Behavior (as a Toddler, Preschooler, or Young Child).” Now, of course I know (and Pantley acknowledges) that it’s not always a direct route from A to B, but still I find such charts comforting; they suggest that there’s a possibility of success.

This section offered a lot of information I already know. I’m fortunate to parent in the context of a co-operative preschool, and we gather frequently for parent education meetings and more informal gatherings that cover a lot of Pantley’s material. Still, it’s useful to have the information gathered in one place, by a writer with a cheerful and encouraging tone. Sometimes it’s just helpful to pick up a book that tells you: “Keep in mind that [your child] isn’t out to get you, he isn’t trying to anger you, and he doesn’t have a master plan to drive you crazy. He’s just going about life in his blissful little world.” I like all the book’s quotations from parents, too, which offer a community like my preschool community; the remarks remind you that you’re not going it alone. The lovely pictures of kids throughout the book remind you why you make the effort (I’m going to keep flipping to the picture of Tristan, on page 137, when I need a laugh).

The second section, building on the first, offers basic parenting skills and tools. She starts with a list of the various problems that can trigger difficult behavior and offers ways to address them. Again, these are set out in a clear and concise way: Problem (Tiredness, for example), Solutions (make sure your kids gets naps; try not to drag them around on a day’s worth of errands; etc.) She offers a long list of strategies to get you through a tricky transition or diffuse a temper tantrum, from playacting to happy face cards to time outs. Some are silly, some are serious, but since one size doesn’t fit all, it’s great to have loads to choose from. Here, as in the rest of the book, Pantley offers charts, quotations from parents, a “reminder page,” for those of us with short attention spans, with a list of strategies; she’s offering a lot of information and makes it both easy to find and easy to use.

The third section, on anger, is the one I really focused on, because lately this is my biggest issue. I can absorb all kinds of good advice about disciplining my kids, but if I can’t speak to them without losing my temper, then they’re not going to hear it. The trick, for me, has always been that the big stuff doesn’t necessarily make me angry, and an easy day after a good night’s sleep doesn’t always guarantee a day without a flare-up. I can sail pretty calmly through playground meltdowns, grocery store whining, or my five year-old’s recent chant “You don’t know anything about me! You don’t know my feelings!” with a quiet, “I’m sorry you’re feeling like that right now,” but then find myself surprisingly worked up by a bit of toothpaste flying off the toothbrush into my hair. I grab the toothbrush from the out-of-control hand while part of me watches me lose my temper and thinks, “Really? This is the battle you’re fighting today?”

But as Pantley reassures us, this is normal. This happens because we’re doing this hard work — guiding willful people through the day, all day long, often without much support, parenting moving targets, kids whose ideas and needs change without warning–and because we are human, our reactions don’t always fit the perceived crime. What hel
ped me even more is her reminder that adults need reminders and test limits, too. We don’t always obey the known rules; we sometimes, willfully and consciously, “disobey.” Think about it. Why else are there speed limit signs posted every five miles on the highway? So Pantley offers a plan to manage anger, and even more helpfully, ideas on how to identify and reduce the situations that cause anger.

It has worked for me. In the past few days, we’ve endured an unusual series of bedtime meltdowns sparked by my refusing Ben’s last-minute requests for more dinner, dessert, more playtime, more books, etc. I’ve been hit, kicked, and called “Stupid butt-head Caroline” by my usually even-tempered and peaceful five year-old. And tempting though it has been to march him into his room, turn out the light, and slam the door, I’ve instead managed to keep some perspective. Two of his good friends are moving away next month. He is graduating from preschool next week. His little brother is suddenly a very active player in our games and our family plans. We haven’t gotten to the part where he doesn’t melt down at all, but we’re working on that, and in the meantime, I haven’t lost my temper with him since reading Pantley’s book. Tony and I have already spent time talking about adopting some of her ideas, and as soon as I finish this review, he’ll start reading the book.

The final section, “Specific Solutions for Everyday Problems,” offers an alphabetical list of the misbehaviors a parent has to deal with, from babytalk to yelling, and capsule strategies to address them. The section and its epigraph give you a great sense of the overall tone of Pantley’s book:

The list of topics in this section sounds like my three-year-old daughter’s daily to-do list!

It’s a serious book, but it knows humor can help. Here, and with its charts, its clear, non-patronizing tone, its careful repetition, the book simply models the approach it suggests we take with our kids.

This is not the first book about discipline that I’ve read, but I think it may be the last. Pantley isn’t afraid of writing out the obvious, and that turns out to be helpful to read, so I’ll leave you with one more quotation:

Children are childish. Children are inexperienced, naïve, and narcissistic. They have limited knowledge about social rules and expected behavior. Furthermore, they are separate people from us and they have free will.

Someone without kids might read this and think, why bother? But I read this and smile. Indeed, they are separate people, they have free will, and doesn’t that just make the days interesting?!

MotherTalk Blog Tour: Healthy Mother, Healthy Child

I started practicing yoga when I was pregnant with my first son, Ben. Until then, yoga had always been on my big life “to-do” list, like learning to play guitar and living in Paris. It wasn’t until the nice lady who was giving me a pregnancy massage told me that the burning pain under my shoulder blade was from my diaphragm (yes, that’s right, it got pushed all the way over there), that I made the time for yoga.

And it helped. It didn’t just help the burning pain, it helped me sleep a little better, and to stress out a little less; it helped me feel more balanced – physically and emotionally—for the rest of the pregnancy.

After Ben was born, I went back to yoga with him. He was kind of a fussy, colicky guy at first, and mom and baby yoga seemed like a great solution: calm baby, calm mama. Well, it didn’t entirely work out that way. I was still a little too unsteady about being a mother to manage tree poses with a baby in the crook of my arm.

Yoga on my own continued to work wonders, however, and I kept at it as much as I could, figuring that a calm mama could better handle a fussy child. When I got pregnant the second time, I practiced yoga all the way through, and was attended through a 17 hour natural childbirth by my yoga teacher/doula.

Now I don’t get to yoga classes very often at all. My family’s schedule seems to shift daily, so right now I need the kind of exercise that I can grab when the opportunity presents itself. I run every other day and aspire to setting aside some time, a place, at home where I can lay out a mat and sink into a nice downward dog every once in a while.

I’m newly motivated to do this by reading Elizabeth Irvine’s Healthy Mother, Healthy Child: Creating Balance in Everyday Life, a book I learned about from Andi and Miriam at MotherTalk. It’s a gorgeous, easy to manage book – you could lay it on the floor next to you as you practice, so that you can see if you’re getting the poses approximately right. Irvine writes with an engaging tone, and peppers her prose with plenty of real-world examples to support her points. “We take on board whatever thoughts we feed ourselves,” she says, pointing out how deflated you can feel, for example, after a well-meaning friend says, “You look tired.” She offers strategies to avoid absorbing everything the world dishes out.

The book’s thus much more than a yoga manual. Irvine believes, as I do, that what we eat and what we think and how we feel are all pretty tightly connected. As she puts it, “You know the saying, ‘you are what you eat.’ Similarly I feel there’s truth to ‘we are what we hold in ourselves.’ We become what we think, read, and watch and whom we spend our time with.” So she offers useful and specific nutrition tips—not just about what to feed yourself and your family (whole grains; juice instead of soda, etc), but how, suggesting ways to get your kids involved in the preparation of meals in order to get them more interested in actually eating what’s on the table, and sitting with you to do so. She’s preaching to the choir with me. Tony and I have insisted on family dinner since Ben was a little bug, and it has its ups and downs, of course (our toddler, Eli, having now rejected both high chair and booster, does a lot of jumping down from his chair and running around the table at dinner), but still, we are convinced, having grown up with nightly family dinners ourselves, that this is a ritual well worth passing on to our own kids.

Now, I have a pretty low tolerance for the kinds of floaty ideas that books like this seem often to offer, and happily Irvine’s writing is as grounded as she’d like us all to be. Still, she does recommend visualization, a technique that always wakes up my inner cynic. Back during my first pregnancy, a friend told me about her childbirth prep class in Berkeley, in which she was instructed to visualize her contractions “hugging and caressing” her baby. We laughed and joked about visualizing the IV full of pain medication (though in fact, between the two of us we’ve now managed 4 drug-free deliveries).

But this book isn’t just about me, of course; remember the title? And look again at the cover photo, that little body folded next to his mama’s. It’s about teaching my children some healthy habits, offering them some tools to get them through the day. And I believe Irvine when she claims that kids are particularly adept at visualization techniques. Most nights after Eli is settled into bed, I crawl in for another cuddle with Ben, who asks me to tickle his belly and tell him the story of the day he was born. Irvine would certainly approve of this sweet ritual, and I’m not looking to drop it anytime soon, but I might suggest adding a little visualization tomorrow night, and see how Ben and I do with it. Irvine offers a couple narrative routes to get you started (“Seeing A Star,” “The Rainbow,” “Soaring with an Eagle”), and I’m sure once you get in the habit, it’s pretty easy to come up with some that work for yourself and your child.

She suggests a variety of other calming strategies, like drawing a mandala (not my style, but I can see Ben, who loves to concentrate on a drawing, getting a lot out of it) or writing acrostic or diamante poems, two ideas I love. All of these various techniques – yoga, breathing, visualizations, balanced nutrition—Irvine argues, can make a difference in helping a child deal with difficulties from eczema (the condition in her son which first led Irvine to alternative therapies) to ADD to a lack of self-confidence and more. They certainly can’t hurt. Also, I appreciate how she cycles back to both her tips and the various issues they might assist with throughout the book, approaching them all from different angles, to reiterate her argument that we are fully interconnected beings.

I began to lose Irvine slightly in the last section of the book, “Home,” which seemed a little less grounded in practical advice and information and a bit more reliant on platitudes (“Each child is a unique gift;” “Children have magical ways about them”). But in the generous spirit of the book, I’ll think of these as mantras, to repeat (perhaps through clenched teeth!) during difficult moments of parenting.

I found the book simple, clear and useful. It reiterated some things I know already and practice, inspired me to try adding a couple more habits to my family life, and taught me a few things I didn’t know. I’m looking forward to adding some of her ideas to our daily routine.