One-Minute Book Reviews

March 1, 2010

An English Bride Walks Down the Wrong Aisle in Julia Strachey’s Tragicomic Novella, ‘Cheerful Weather for the Wedding’

A young woman’s anxieties about her wedding escape the notice of her oblivious mother

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding. By Julia Strachey. With a new preface by Frances Partridge. Persephone, 118 pp., $18, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Virginia Woolf rightly called this novella “extraordinarily complete and sharp” when she and her husband published it under their Hogarth Press imprint. One of its most unusual aspects is that Julia Strachey gives away its ending in her first line: She tells you that on March 5, Mrs. Thatcham, a middle-class widow, married her 23-year-old daughter to the Hon. Owen Bigham, a diplomat eight years her senior. She makes clear soon afterward that Dolly has married the wrong man.

How does Strachey create suspense after showing so much of her hand? In part, through her masterly use of theatrical techniques, which she studied in drama school. All of the action in the book takes place on Dolly’s wedding day at mother’s North Yorkshire home. Cheerful Weather for the Wedding has roughly the structure of a three-act play — with scenes before, during, and after the ceremony — and it rushes forward on a tide of clever repartee. For a slim book, it has a large and well-observed cast of characters: friends, relatives, servants, and a former suitor of Dolly’s who turns up hoping to plead his case. Strachey shows the bride in her white Edwardian bedroom before the wedding:

“All about the airy bedroom, maids of different kinds, in dark skirts and white blouses stooped low and searched about for stockings and garters, or stood warming satin shoes and chemises in front of the coal fire.”

But Strachey offers more than a catalog of domestic minutiae, however telling or amusing. Anglo-American literature abounds with heroines handicapped in courtship by the deaths of their mothers: Anne Elliott in Persuasion, Lily Bart in House of Mirth, Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady. Cheerful Weather for the Wedding involves a lack of maternal guidance of a different sort. Hetty Thatcham is so dense and foolish, she is oblivious to her daughter’s anxieties about the imminent wedding. She doesn’t notice — or pretends not to see — that Dolly copes by hiding rum in the folds of her bridal gown.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is a tragicomedy about the harm done by mothers who are too self-absorbed to understand — or even recognize — their children’s pain. And Strachey shows how that damage can sweep up people beyond the family. Dolly’s younger sister appears shocked to find the bride-to-be drinking rum out of a bottle in a bedroom minutes before the wedding. “I’m sorry to say it, Dolly,” she said, “but in some ways it will be a good thing when you are no longer in the house. It will not be so demoralizing for the servants, at any rate.” 

Best line: On a parchment lampshade with a galleon and leaves painted on it that Dolly receives as a wedding gift from Miss Dodo Potts-Griffiths: “The galleon and leaves were not, in any sense, painted from Nature, yet they were not exactly diagrammatic either. Rather it was though an average had somehow been arrived at of all the Elizabethan galleons and of all the leaves that had ever before been painted on a lamp-shade, and a diagram then drawn to represent this average.” 

Worst line: “ ‘However; s-s-s-s-s-ssh-sh-s-s-s.’”

Furthermore: Julia Strachey was a niece of Lytton Strachey, a member of the Bloomsbury group. Partridge is the co-author of Julia: A Portrait of Julia Strachey (Little, Brown, 1983), co-written with her subject. Persephone Books reprints neglected 20th-century novels and other books, most by women.

Janice Harayda is a novelist, award-winning critic, and former book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can also follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda. She satirizes American literary culture, such as it is, on her Fake Book News page (@FakeBookNews) on Twitter www.twitter.com/FakeBookNews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 25, 2010

2010 Delete Key Awards Finalist No. 2 — ‘It Sucked and Then I Cried’ by Heather B. Armstrong

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:00 pm
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From Heather Armstrong’s It Sucked and Then I Cried: How I Had a Baby, a Breakdown, and a Much Needed Margarita (Simon Spotlight):

“Leta knew how to poop, she knew how to eat, SHE HAD TO KNOW WHAT TIME IT WAS, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD.”

“‘HA! ANOTHER BABY? The logistics of more than one TOTALLY BOGGLED MY MIND.”

“But this time we couldn’t park in the special parking space because I was no longer pregnant (THANK THE LORD GOD JESUS!) and we had to park in the non-pregnant parking space and walk an extra twenty feet to the door. We found this inconvenience totally unacceptable as we were living in America and shouldn’t have to walk an extra twenty feet for anything. AM I RIGHT? AM I RIGHT? This is the best country on Earth! WE DON’T WALK NOWHERE FOR NUTHING. Damn straight.”

Armstrong knows how to type, she knows how to blog, SHE HAS TO KNOW HOW ANNOYING IT IS TO READ SO MANY CAPITAL LETTERS, EXCLAMATION POINTS, AND MISPUNCTUATED SENTENCES, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! Especially when she SAYS MEAN THINGS about old people like her stepfather, such as: “Maybe if you SCREAMED A LITTLE LOUDER THE WINDOWS WOULD EXPLODE.”

Read the full review of It Sucked and Then I Cried.

The Delete Key Awards finalists are being named in random order, beginning with No. 10, but numbered for convenience. This is finalist No. 2. You can also read about the Delete Key Awards on Janice Harayda’s page (@janiceharayda) on Twitter. The winner and runners-up will be announced on March 15 on One-Minute Book Reviews and on Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 21, 2009

Heather Armstrong’s Memoir of Pregnancy, Childbirth and Motherhood — ‘It Sucked and Then I Cried’ – Shrieking All the Way to the Psych Ward


The creator of a popular blog tells how she found her way to a mental hospital and back

It Sucked and Then I Cried: How I Had a Baby, a Breakdown, and a Much Needed Margarita. By Heather B. Armstrong. Simon Spotlight, 258 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

Heather Armstrong warns on her blog, Dooce, that she “CANNOT RESIST THE CAPS-LOCK KEY.” The same caution applies to her unabashedly self-indulgent memoir of pregnancy, childbirth, and the infancy of her first child, which made her so anxious that she checked herself into a mental hospital after she got no relief from psychotherapy and drugs that included Risperdal, Ativan, Trazodone, Lamictal, Effexor, Abilify, Strattera, Klonopin, and Seroquel.

How did Armstrong like breastfeeding? “Everything I’d ever read about breastfeeding had to have been written by a man with no tits, because everything said that as long as the baby was in the right position it wouldn’t hurt to breast feed. THAT WAS A LIE.” What did she think when her daughter woke up at 2 a.m.? “Leta knew how to poop, she knew how to eat, SHE HAD TO KNOW WHAT TIME IT WAS, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD.” Would Armstrong consider having  another child? “‘HA! ANOTHER BABY? The logistics of more than one TOTALLY BOGGLED MY MIND.”

It Sucked and Then I Cried is intermittently funny but has a lot of bathroom humor and sometimes a nasty edge. Armstrong writes unkindly that when her stepfather raises his voice, she thinks: “Maybe if you SCREAMED A LITTLE LOUDER THE WINDOWS WOULD EXPLODE.” If she hates it when people shout at her, why does she spend so much time in this book doing what she calls “S.H.R.I.E.K.I.N.G.”?

Best line: No. 1: Utah stores sell soaps “in the shape of Joseph Smith’s head.” No. 2: “A few days after Leta turned four months old we took away Leta’s pacifier and it felt like we were running a division of the Betty Ford Clinic.”

Worst line: “But this time we couldn’t park in the special parking space because I was no longer pregnant (THANK THE LORD GOD JESUS!) and we had to park in the non-pregnant parking space and walk an extra twenty feet to the door. We found this inconvenience totally unacceptable as we were living in America and shouldn’t have to walk an extra twenty feet for anything. AM I RIGHT? AM I RIGHT? This is the best country on Earth! WE DON’T WALK NOWHERE FOR NUTHING. Damn straight.”

Editor: Patrick Price

Published: January 2009

About the author: Armstrong lives in Utah with her husband, Jon, and has had a second child since finishing It Sucked and Then I Cried. She has more than a million followers on Twitter at www.twitter.com/dooce.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

April 15, 2009

Ruth Reichl’s Memoir ‘Not Becoming My Mother’ – An Apple Falls Far From the Tree

The editor-in-chief of Gourmet remembers a mother diagnosed as manic depressive

Not Becoming My Mother: And Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way. By Ruth Reichl. Penguin, 112 pp., $19.95.

By Janice Harayda

This elegant memoir is a gentler nonfiction counterpart to Diary of a Mad Housewife, Sue Kaufman’s tragicomic 1967 novel about a well-off woman who chafes against the sterility of her life as a Manhattan wife and mother. Kaufman’s Tina Balser decanted her resentments into a journal. Mim Reichl recorded hers in letters and on scraps of paper that her daughter, the editor-in-chief of Gourmet, drew on for this slender book.

Born in 1908 in Cleveland, Mim wanted to become a doctor like her father. But she yielded to parental pressure to get a Ph.D. in a field she disliked so much, musicology, that after obtaining her degree she never played her violin again. A lifetime of frustration followed as she explored paths to fulfillment that kept turning into cul-de-sacs: volunteering, raising children, starting a business.

Like legions of her contemporaries, Mim Reichl was overeducated for work as a housewife, a woman who might seem to embody what Betty Friedan would call in The Feminine Mystique the problem that has no name.”

“I can feel myself growing more and more rebellious,” she said when her bland first husband complained about her housekeeping. “Who cares about menus and the way they are cooked when there are so many more interesting things to think about?”

A move to New York and a happier second marriage didn’t end her discontents. She wrote The Homemaker’s Encyclopedia, 12-volume set that she and her husband produced and that sold well. But when that project ended, she had trouble finding a job. In the years just after World War II, many Americans considered it unpatriotic for women to take jobs from the returning soldiers.

“You women and girls go home, back to being housewives, as you promised to do,” an army general said in a televised speech.

As the years of underemployment wore on, Mim was diagnosed as manic depressive and took lithium. “Was she crazy, or was she crazy because she had nothing to do?” Ruth Reichl wonders.

A good question, but perhaps oversimplified. Mim thought in either-or terms (“I am a failure” and “My children have abandoned me”) and treated her daughter at times with shocking cruelty. Her reaction was brutal when Ruth, who had become a food writer, got her first book contract. “Do you think we sent you to graduate school so you could write cookbooks?” she asked. “When are you going to do something worthwhile?” Mim’s behavior often seems less typical of manic depression than of borderline personality disorder, characterized in part by a tendency to see the world in black-and-white, one of several alternate diagnoses unexplored in the book. At times, Mim’s mental health seems so fragile that the focus on her thwarted career seems misplaced: You wonder if she could have found satisfaction in any field or had condition, perhaps biological in origin, that would have caught up with her in any job. For all we learn about her, Mim remains an enigma.

But if Reichl leaves questions unanswered, she has written a warm and forgiving portrait of a woman who gave her many reasons to do otherwise. The most poignant sections of Not Becoming My Mother suggest that Mim never stopped trying to solve the problem of her life. As an old woman, she wrote: “Who am I? What do I want? … I need to find me.” That line echoes softly one that she wrote years earlier: “I am so sorry I did not pursue a career. If I teach Ruthy nothing else, I must make her see this. In the end, it is meaningful work – serving people – that matters most. It is what we were made for.”

That line – in which Mim seems to imply that motherhood is not “meaningful work” – makes this an odd book for a publisher to be pitching to the Mother’s Day gift market. It tells a bleak enough story that its arrival in stores may be a few weeks premature. This is an iffy prospect for your mother, but it could be fine gift for a daughter who is graduating in June.

Best line: “A fifties ad for Dexedrine pictured a sad, pretty young woman holding a dish towel and surrounded by dirty dishes. ‘Why is this woman tired?’ asked the copy. ‘Many of your patients – particularly housewives – are crushed under a load of dull, routine duties that leave them in a state of mental and emotional fatigue. For these patients, you may find Dexedrine an ideal prescription. Dexedrine will give them a feeling of energy and well-being, renewing their interest in life and living.”

Worst line: Reichl says that as she read her mother’s papers, “I began to understand that in the end you are the only one who can make yourself happy.” She doesn’t say exactly when she found the cache that inspired this book, but she was apparently well into adulthood. And you don’t believe for a minute that a woman as accomplished as Reichl “began to understand” so late in life that she had to make herself happy. After all that has come before it, that line – found in the last paragraph – seems glib.

Recommendation? This is a good book but overpriced. A typical 250–300 page hardcover costs $25. This one has 128 pages and costs $19.95. You do the math.

Published: To be published on April 21, 2009

Read an excerpt from Not Becoming My Mother.

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s copy of Not Becoming My Mother. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

August 11, 2008

No Consolation in Ann Hood’s ‘Comfort: A Journey Through Grief’

A mother’s account the death her 5-year-old daughter from a ruthless form of strep contrasts with Elizabeth Edwards’s approach to the death of her 16-year-old son

Comfort: A Journey Through Grief. By Ann Hood. Norton, 188 pp., $19.95.

By Janice Harayda

It is Ann Hood’s bad luck that I read Comfort a few days after finishing Elizabeth Edwards’s Saving Graces, which has a moving section on the death of her 16-year-old son. Edwards says that on what would have been Wade’s 17th birthday, she and her husband went to a park and handed out 100 printed cards that read:

“CELEBRATE WADE’S BIRTHDAY
“July 18 would be the 17th birthday of Wade Edwards of Raleigh. Please use the attached coupon to celebrate his birthday with an ice cream or treat from the Pullen Park concession stand.

“The gift you can give in Wade’s name is to do something nice for someone else.”

This lovely gesture caused some pain for Edwards and her husband, John, the 2004 Democratic nominee for vice-president:

“It occurred to us later that this would have been a happy way to celebrate Wade’s birthday if he had lived. Instead, the delight on the faces of the children as they returned from the concession stand with ice cream treats was a sad reminder of what it might have been had Wade lived.”

Sad it may been, but the incident shows a warmth and humanity less apparent in Hood’s more self-absorbed account of death of her 5-year-old daughter, Grace, from a ruthless form of strep in April 2002. In a typical passage in Comfort, Hood seems outraged that nearly a year and a half after her daughter’s death, her church sang “Amazing Grace” on a September Sunday “close to Grace’s birthday” and “without any warning” beyond the usual notice in the bulletin. She and her husband went to see the ministers and apparently got the apology they sought: “It was a mistake. They were sorry. It would never happen again. In fact, they would not play ‘Amazing Grace’ in September, or in April, the month Grace died.”

Hood’s anger about this incident is believable. Anyone who has lost someone greatly loved knows that small events can have titanic emotional force and you may need do all you can to protect yourself from them. But “Amazing Grace” is perhaps the world’s most popular hymn www.hymns.me.uk/50-most-loved-hymns.htm and invariably ranks on surveys among the top ten. Perhaps more than any other, it has brought comfort to older people and others facing their own deaths. And the satisfaction that Hood finds in her church’s willingness ban the hymn for two months a year — even as she allows that it still “should be played” at other times — typifies the me-first tone of Comfort. This approach differs both from Edwards’s altruism and from the more journalistic treatment of books such as John Gunther’s classic memoir of the death of his teenage son, Death Be Not Proud.

In a sense, the self-indulgence of Comfort is true to life. Grief makes narcissists of us all. A searing loss can leave us – when we want most to remember someone else – aware only of our own pain. But Edwards and others have found ways to acknowledge this reality while offering a more complex view of grief.

In Saving Graces Edwards writes of going after storm to the cemetery where Wade was buried and seeing a man, carrying a small dog, who often visited his father’s grave: “The only tree in the man’s section of the cemetery had fallen, and it had fallen across the grave of his father. His pain and helplessness were overwhelming. I made a small bouquet from the flowers at Wade’s grave and took them to him. He usually brought something for the grave, but that day he was empty in every way. Sometimes we pressed on as if we were not weakened, and then we saw ourselves in someone else.”

Saving Graces is Edwards’s first book, and Comfort is Hood’s tenth. But that cemetery scene may tell you more about grief than anything in Comfort. Hood spells everything out as neatly as an article in Good Housekeeping or Ladies’ Home Journal, two magazines for which she writes, in prose as smooth as glass. Edwards leaves some things implicit or unanswered, as great novelists do. (Why was that man at the cemetery carrying his dog?) In that sense, Saving Graces is truer to perhaps the most painful aspect of grief: Its depths are unknowable, except to the people who feel it them.

Best line: After Grace’s death, Hood and her husband adopted a baby girl from China and learned in the process some Chinese mothers mark or “brand” their babies with small scars before they abandon them “as a sign of love.” She and her husband traveled in a group of families, all of whom received their children at the same time: “Soon people were lifting pant legs or the cuffs of sleeves to show the small scars on their babies.” On the neck of her new daughter Hood found “a thick rope of scar tissue, round and small,” which a pediatrician belived was a burn that had healed.

Worst line: Hood says that she used to sleep holding her daughter in the crook of her arm: “So that I literally held Grace day and night for the first year of her life.”

Recommendation? Tara McKelvey wrote correctly in a review in the New York Times Book Review that Comfort “doesn’t offer comfort, not really – only grief.”

Published: May 2008 www.wwnorton.com/catalog/spring08/006456.htm

Furthermore: Hood also wrote Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine and The Knitting Circle. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 27, 2008

Frances Richey’s Poetry Collection ‘The Warrior: A Mother’s Story of a Son at War’

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:51 pm
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Internal and external conflicts intersect in a collection of 28 poems

The Warrior: A Mother’s Story of a Son at War. By Frances Richey. Viking, 84 pp., $21.95.

By Janice Harayda

Not long ago, I went to an American Ballet Theater production of Sleeping Beauty with a companion who called it, with some justification, “a walking ballet.” The choreography may delight crowds, but you don’t go to this one for aerial special effects such as long sequences of dazzling grand jêtés.

The Warrior is a collection of walking poetry, billed by its publisher as “a memoir in verse.” Frances Richey, a yoga teacher, began to write its 28 poems when her son, a West Point graduate and Green Beret, went on the first of his two tours of duty in Iraq. Her book is about the distances – physical and emotional – that war puts between a parent and child.

Richey is earnest and at times pedestrian writer who works mostly in unrhymed, variable-length free verse with the occasional hint of an internal or end-rhyme or both (“and since my son was the only one / who’d never hunted”). In a poem called “The Book of Secrets,” she recalls her son’s early years: “ … Mornings, / when I left him with the sitter, / I had to close my heart, // or else obsess he was crossing / Oak alone.” You don’t doubt the sincerity of her words, but they read less like poetry than stenography, a literal transcription from life without the alchemy of a great poem. In some of the other poems, no thought seems too obvious to avoid making explicit. “I can’t protect him,” she tells us in one. “Will he come back?” she wonders in another. “ On learning that Iraq can be cold, she reflects, “I was always asking if he was warm enough. / Put a sweater on, I’d say. Your jacket …”

Other poems are less prosaic, and two are particularly good. In “The Aztec Empire” Richey considers artifacts of human sacrifice that she sees in an exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum and links them elegantly to the sacrifice of human lives in Iraq. And in “Kill School” she describes a combat training program that teaches a soldier how to kill by having him rock a rabbit “like a baby in his arms, / faster and faster,” then smash its head against a tree. Richey doesn’t call her book a collection of antiwar poems, but these two poems speak for themselves. And their direction, like that of the other poems in The Warrior, is no less clear because they walk instead of soaring toward their destination.

Best line: From “Kill School”: “The trainer showed him / how to rock the rabbit / / like a baby in his arms, / faster and faster, // until every sinew surrendered / and he smashed its head into a tree.”

Worst line: You may need to assume a lotus pose to appreciate: “… Green: / color of the fourth chakra, / Anahata; it means unstuck — / the heart center — / the color of his fatigues.”

Editor: Paul Slovak

Published: April 2008 www.francesrichey.com

You may also want to read: Robert Hass’s Time and Materials: Poems, 1997–2005, winner of the 2007 National Book Award for poetry, which has several poems critical of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq, including “Bush’s War. ” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/15/

Furthermore: Richey also wrote the poetry collection The Burning Point. She lives in New York City.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

June 3, 2008

Do ‘Attachment Parenting’ Gurus William and Martha Sears Make Berry Brazelton and Penelope Leach ‘Look Like Conan the Barbarian and Nurse Ratched’?

Filed under: How to,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:16 am
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Since 1992 more than a half million people have bought The Baby Book, the influential infant-care manual by pediatrician William Sears and nurse Martha Sears. The Searses recommend carrying an infant in a sling — ideally, for “many hours” a day — as part of an approach to child-rearing that they call “attachment parenting” or “high-touch parenting.”

That approach comes under blistering fire in The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women (Free Press, 2004) www.simonsays.com, a witty and irreverent critique of the unrealistic and guilt-inducing demands made on contemporary mothers, by scholars Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels of the University of Michigan and Smith College. Douglas and Michaels write of the Searses:

“When it comes to properly nurturing your child, these two make the likes of T. Berry Brazelton or Penelope Leach look like Conan the Barbarian and Nurse Ratched. The Sears philosophy is as simple as it is impossible: Reattach your baby to your body the moment she is born and keep her there pretty much until she goes to college. If you do not do this, your child will fail to bond properly to you and you to her, and the rest is a straight road to the juvenile detention center for her and the Betty Ford Clinic for you.”

Douglas and Michaels add:

“While Dr. Bill and Martha do acknowledge that working mothers are real and do refrain from saying anything explicitly condemnatory about them, the massive edifice of attachment parenting that they construct is one that no working mother can fully scale and conquer….

“Especially if you are accustomed to high achievement and to cutthroat competition, attachment parenting opens the door to standards of excellence that would put any law partner wannabe to shame.”

Read an interview with the authors of The Mommy Myth on Salon at dir.salon.com/story/mwt/feature/2004/02/19/mommy_myth/index.html. Read an excerpt from their book at www.msnbc.msn.com/id/4163361/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 11, 2008

An Antidote to Mother’s Day Sentimentality (Quote of the Day / Jane Austen)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:09 pm
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Had enough Mother’s Day sentimentality? Any of Jane Austen’s more astringent comments on motherhood might neutralize it. This line from Sense and Sensibility is perhaps the most biting comment on motherhood to appear in any of her novels www.mollands.net/etexts/senseandsensibility/sns21.html (and comes from the e-texts section of AustenBlog www.austenblog.com)

“Fortunately for those who pay their court through such foibles, a fond mother, though, in pursuit of praise for her children, the most rapacious of human beings, is likewise the most credulous; her demands are exorbitant; but she will swallow any thing; and the excessive affection and endurance of the Miss Steeles towards her offspring were viewed therefore by Lady Middleton without the smallest surprise or distrust.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Phyllis Theroux Writes About a Memorable Mother’s Day in ‘Peripheral Visions’

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:29 pm
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Phyllis Theroux has a lovely essay on a memorable Mother’s Day in her collection Peripheral Visions (Morrow, 1982). It seems that on one holiday she awoke at 6 a.m. to find that the youngest of her three children had disappeared. Theroux aroused her family, and after “sending everyone up and down the streets and alleys for 20 minutes of shouting,” filed a missing-child report with the police. Then it occurred to her that her son might have gone to her garden in a neighborhood cooperative four blocks away. She drove toward it, spotted Justin in his pajama bottoms, and took her sobbing child into the car. “I woke up and remembered it was Mother’s Day and I didn’t have a present,” he said. “And I thought maybe I could find some flowers to pick. But when I got to Oregon Avenue, I remembered I wasn’t allowed to cross it by myself.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 27, 2006

The New Year’s Resolutions of Kate Reddy, Working Mother

Allison Pearson satirizes sexual double standards at work and at home

I Don’t Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother. By Allison Pearson. Anchor, 338 pp., $13.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Working mothers! Can you identify with any of the following New Year’s resolutions?

“Adjust work-life balance for happier, healthier existence … Spend more time with your children … Don’t take [husband] for granted … Attempt to be size 10 … Call friends, hope they remember you.”

These are the resolutions of Kate Reddy, the high-octane fund manager and heroine of Allison Pearson’s merciless send-up of sexual double standards, I Don’t Know How She Does It. Kate believes she was “educated for something better than the gentle warming of Barbie pasta.” But her firm’s diversity initiatives are sham, her young children “have not grasped the principle of Quality Time,” and when her nanny calls in sick, the only available temp is a “close relative of Slobodan Milosevic.” Kate’s husband means well, but his good intentions are destined to count for only so much “until they programmed a man to notice you were out of toilet paper.”

One of the great virtues of this novel is that Pearson understands – and lampoons – the cultural forces that hold women back, such as diversity programs designed to more protect firms from lawsuits than to end discrimination. She never suggests that Kate would have fewer problems if she had a different husband or children or had spent years in therapy. But she hedges her bets with an over-the-top subplot about Kate’s father that that shows that not only does her heroine work with cretins – her father was pretty awful, too. Pearson tries to connect the two ideas by suggesting that women who succeed in finance tend to be “Daddy’s girls.” This may be true, but she tells us this instead of showing it convincingly, and at times causes the novel to cross the line from satire into farce. And when the inevitable marital crisis erupts, Kate’s husband takes action too cruel for a man who cast as saintly until them.

Even so, nearly every page of the novel has a sparkling or trenchant observation that helps to make it the best send-up of sexism at work of the new millennium. Every reader may have his or her own favorite line. Here’s one that fits a holiday week: “Like any other family, the Shattocks have their Christmas traditions. One tradition is that I buy all the presents for my side of the family and I buy all the presidents for our children and our two godchildren and I buy Richard’s presents and presents for Richard’s parents and his brother Peter and Peter’s wife Cheryl and their three kinds and Richard’s Uncle Alf … If Richard remembers, and depending on late opening hours, he buys a present for me.”

Best line: Here’s one that involves Kate Reddy’s 18-month-old son: “Ben has discovered his penis. Lying on the changing table, he wears the rapt, triumphant expression of a being who has just found the on-off switch for the solar system.”

Worst line: “My dad has always confused sentimentality with intimacy.” This is telling, not showing. And that “intimacy” is one of Pearson’s rare descents into psychobabble.

Recommended if … you have incipient carpal tunnel syndrome from all the packages you wrapped while your husband was watching The Game.

Editors: Jordan Pavlin at Knopf, Alison Samuel at Chatto, and Caroline Michel at Vintage.

Published: October 2002 (Knopf hardcover edition). September 2003 (first Anchor Books edition).

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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