aslant: (elle s'amuse)
2013-07-12 10:09 am
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More milk, more hippie times (books 25 + 26)

25. Birthing From Within, Pam England & Rob Horowitz (1998)

I read large sections of this in 2009, when we took a BFW-style birthing class, but this was my first time reading it cover to cover. The BFW approach focuses on birth art, creation of rituals, and exploration of fears and expectations in order to prepare for a birth that can go in any direction. So it's not so much about creating a pretty vision of your perfect birth, but about preparing in a way so that you'll feel whole and respected no matter what goes right or wrong. However, as a time capsule from the late 90s, there is a lot that could use updating, and it is embarrassingly heteronormative and occasionally overly prescriptive on gender roles; there was one passage about how "women like to be comforted by strong male arms" or something and oh, I cringed. There are also some chapters that end confusingly, such as when England & Horowitz tell a bunch of stories about birth or postpartum rituals and then just say at the end, make a ritual for yourself! With zero information or structure on how to do that, if you wanted to, which is a notable departure from the rest of the book, which contains copious exercises, writing prompts, art project suggestions, and other things like that. At heart, BFW was more about art therapy, to me, but with the frustration of not getting an actual art therapist to analyze your stuff, so you kind of have to do it on your own. I took this with me camping and did some drawings in my journal on The Door To Birth, the Landscape of Birth, Worst Fears of Birthing, and others. I found it really helpful, but if you've never been to a BFW class this book and its exercises might be less helpful. As a refresher, it was perfect for me.

26. Ina May's Guide to Breastfeeding, Ina May Gaskin (2009)

This is the third breastfeeding book I've read in as many weeks, but I was glad I read this one last. A lot of Gaskin's info was similar to the other books (though Gaskin believes in hindmilk/foremilk and the other books I read have been more skeptical on this), but her approach integrates more first-person stories, which I loved. Partly this was fun to read because it was an extra peek into the hippie commune life on the Farm. Her experience as a midwife living in a community that valued breastfeeding so highly and used cross-nursing extensively is certainly unique, and the chapter where she describes their experiences with that (and writes more about the history of wet nursing and induced lactation) was pretty amazing. The final chapters contained some touching recommendations for normalizing breastfeeding (a reality show! aww, seriously?). If I had to pick two resource books to have on hand, I would probably choose this one and Making More Milk. Together they offer the most comprehensive (and least annoyingly drawn-out) advice on solving common issues.

So there you go. I'm still reading birth stories from these books but I think I'm kinda done with this genre for now. Pretty soon I'll be flailing about with my very own newborn! Hoo boy. One month(ish) to go!
aslant: (elle s'amuse)
2013-06-28 10:54 am
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Milk and not freaking out (books 23 & 24)

23. The Breastfeeding Mother's Guide to Making More Milk, Diana West and Lisa Marasco

Diana West is a rockstar in the BFAR world, it was pretty weird to read this book and realize I was more familiar with her from the forums than anywhere else. We've emailed back and forth once or twice about stuff, etc. But hey! A book is so much more useful than a forum, duh, and here's why! Once I got over the trauma of being reminded of how poorly things went with Penny last time, this book was a wealth of information, didn't make me feel overloaded, and is very well organized. With clean and concise prose, it separates out low supply issues by focusing on root causes, and then provides solutions that are very targeted. There's great advice on what is normal nursling behavior, and how to differentiate between normal issues and low-supply issues. While within the BFAR forums, there's kind of a "throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" approach to adding galactagogues to your regimen, with the sole goal of making more milk, this book separates them into specific effects. What is the actual cause of your issue? Are you trying to balance your hormones? Develop tissue? Stimulate the milk ejection reflex? Or simply ramp up your prolactin levels? It includes a super handy chart of all the herbs and their effects (with all the safety ratings neatly alongside) that I will be photocopying before I return this to the library. Sometimes the herbs you take don't effect your quantity, but affect your ability breastfeed in other significant ways. Lesson learned. This is the book I wish I had read before I had Penny. Highly recommended to any parents who are facing known low supply issues or supply questions: I would recommend this book over and above #24 for that reason.

24. The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, 8th edition, La Leche League International

This book is fantastic and I wish I'd known about it during my last pregnancy, but for different reasons. It acts as a guide to making decisions about birthing that are guided with breastfeeding in mind, and so I wish I had known about it when I was in my maybe-homebirth phase. Coming from LLL, this book focuses heavily on the concept of building a community, which I found myself wanting to dismiss (I realized in hindsight) because I didn't do that last time. But it's important! Minor quibble: with my amateur anthropologist hat on, some of the language in this book focuses too heavily on the concept of love, falling in love with your baby, love is natural etc, which I would qualify with a tonic dose of Hrdy: it is not simply "medicalized birth" that can cause distance or lack of love feeling. I felt very othered by the whole LOVE message, that was not my experience (though my experience also included not feeding at the breast, and also tremendous amounts of poorly managed back pain). As I think I've written here before, it is enough to simply be interested in your baby, and that's what most of the mother/baby stuff does. You don't have to love your baby to breastfeed, or to save them from being trampled on by the megasloths. Anyway...this book is handy for the sections that focus on different eras of baby development, but I skimmed a lot of it, because at the end of the day this book is meant to be a catch-all reference and guide, hence its heft at 493 pages. Highly recommended for new moms without a lot of exposure to breastfeeding culture; less helpful for everyone else probably. I did like the tear-sheet guides in the back, which include handy references on solving common problems like plugs and mastitis, oversupply, a pumping schedule, a diaper tracker, etc.
aslant: (elle s'amuse)
2013-06-17 09:39 am
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Fires of various varieties (21 + 22)

21. The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner

Here is my succinct and oblique review: this book didn't add up. It had its pleasures, and Kushner is practicing mastercraft here, but the plot wasn't enough for it to add up, in the end, to something greater.

22. Z, Therese Anne Fowler

Another case of not adding up to much. There was some cringeworthy tell-not-show going on in a few places, and I just don't think Fowler ever really got the reader to understand what drives Zelda Fitzgerald, or why her journey goes from socialite flapper to possibly insane person. I never got a sense of momentum from being inside Zelda's head, did she derive joy from being kind of crazy at parties? Unclear. She would just do crazy things -- did she like attention? Was it a thrill? It was completely silent, in the text. Hemingway was supposed to be a terrible villain driving one part of the plot, but instead he was just kind of...meh. The same with the marital conflicts -- they were there, and present, and sometimes were vivid, but other times just kind of fell flat. This book was most moving for me when it got to her later troubles and you saw the horrors of "the only true sanity for a woman is to accept her husband's dominion" 1920s brainwashing "psychology." There seemed to be a late theme that Fowler could have developed better -- the idea of being a person who tries and tries to be someone, and doesn't quite manage it, due to when and how she lived, and maybe she just wasn't that great a painter or writer -- but this revelation came late and again, didn't add up to what it could have been. In a few places I just plain didn't trust the author as a credible historian of this era, despite the namedropping and Big Historical Moment mentions that occur tediously throughout. Don't read this book, why are we even talking about it anymore?
aslant: (elle s'amuse)
2013-06-05 09:40 am
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20: Glamour in the labyrinth

20. Shades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette Kowal

Thanks, [ profile] mordicai! Fantastic recommendation. This is YA set in an alternative Regency setting where, without being precious about it, people can manipulate glamour to produce fantastic optical and sound illusions. There is love and conflict and oh, I don't want to say too much because I liked it and I want you to go read it unspoiled. I'll just quote the review, which aptly notes, "Like wandering onto a secret picnic attended by Pride and Prejudice and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell." It's awesome even if you're not a big Austen fan (I'm certainly not), and you should check out the author's super awesome period-appropriate spellcheck wizardry which makes the text itself a delight. First in a series! Highly recommended.
aslant: (elle s'amuse)
2013-05-28 11:02 am
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19: Patagonian runaways and other San Franciscans

19. A Seahorse Year, Stacey D'Erasmo

This novel was a beauty. D'Erasmo is a clear writer who evokes interesting characters, tells a story with a great plot, and doesn't eschew poetry (but who also doesn't get cute with implausibly-inserted-imagery, as some lesser authors do). The story is about a San Francisco family (a lesbian couple and a gay bio dad, they are neighbors) whose son descends into schizophrenia, and how things fall apart, or maybe don't, or do, from there. It is not so much about "oh look at this unusual family" (ignore the jacket copy) and more about real humans facing real problems, mental illness, loss of passion, infidelity, etc. I found the character of the son, Christopher, especially evocative; you get several chapters from his perspective as he goes through rounds of different kinds of residential therapy, falls in love, goes over the mental cliff and comes back from it, barely. This is fiction done very, very well and I recommend it very highly.

(In my head, the film version would be directed by Sofia Coppola, lots of gray shots of SF and spare interiors, with maybe Holly Hunter in gray hair as Nan (a less buttoned-up version of her character from Top of the Lake), a self-effacing Stanley Tucci or Ed Begley Jr as Hal. Do you do this when you read? I am constantly casting and re-casting roles as I read.)
aslant: (elle s'amuse)
2013-05-22 10:02 am
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18: Servants and scholarship

18. Up and Down Stairs: The country house servant, Jeremy Musson

After a terribly disappointing book on a similar subject earlier this year, I was determined to find some real scholarship, real history, on the lives of servants in the UK. This is an obsession of mine, and now I feel I've read perhaps the most definitive book on it, and can lay the obsession to rest somewhat! Musson begins with the 1400s, and each chapter moves forward to a distinct period of time, cataloging the changes in architecture, the family (in its oldest definition, meaning everyone linked to an estate, including servants), jobs, needs, entertaining, uniforms, social expectations, etc. It is very thorough and very satisfying, with lots of primary source material. He takes as his premise and conclusion that no matter what form it took, these relationships between rich people and poor people relied on a great deal of trust and their lives were, of course, deeply intertwined. But this is just the underlying premise, the majority of the book is concerned with the more meaty details of how jobs were performed, how the belowstairs hierarchy was managed, how they interacted abovestairs, how servants lived, how they weathered change, what they thought of their jobs in terms of prestige or duty or simply a wage. If this area of history is at all interesting to you, I highly recommend this book. It's readable, not dry, and I trusted the author throughout, he never came off as sloppy, making too many assumptions, as some writers of history do.
aslant: (elle s'amuse)
2013-05-20 09:46 am
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17: Amnesia in the UK

17. Slated, Teri Terry

This was fun! YA dystopia with a touch of romance at its best. This is set in a future England where autism has been eliminated, an authoritarian government rules, and young people can have their memories erased ("slated") in order to get a second chance at a happy life with a new family; they must wear a Levo, which monitors their happiness levels, and causes them to black out or die if they experience extremes of negative emotion, aiming for a 5/10, nice and even. This book has a lot to say about structures of control, about trauma, about happiness, about adoption, about being "ready" for adult life, and is a nicely considered meditation on the distance between rebellion and terrorism. Not heavy-handed at all, and for all the protagonist's/setting's similaries to Katniss/Panem, Kyla has an authentic personhood going on, she was not a mindless revenge drone, nor do the adults around her fall neatly into good or evil sides. The second in the series has already been released in the UK, coming in September for the US. Highly recommended!
aslant: (elle s'amuse)
2013-05-16 02:40 pm
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16: Witika fever in New Amsterdam (and #15 in a side-rant)

16. The Orphanmaster, Jean Zimmerman

This book succeeded the most when I wasn't putting on my critical Early Colonialist Lifeways hat*, but it's a passable historical fiction cum mystery novel some of the time, set in New Amsterdam back when there was a wall and a canal instead of Wall Street and Canal Street and other fun stuff like that. Our heroine, Blandine, is an independent trader living in the relatively liberated atmosphere of the early Dutch colony, and Zimmerman is best when tackling some of the interesting social dilemmas that come with the period: characters struggle with faith (how can there be a god if the wilderness is so harsh and "empty" which is really more about a crisis of separation from social structures of control) and with freedom and with race (that last one just enough to be more than passably readable, but not quite enough to pass muster). Along the way our Blandine gets caught up in the justice system, deals with suitors, falls in love in the least implausible sex scene I've ever read in my life, and oh yeah, solves a mystery of the Algonquian's cannibalistic witika (a.k.a. the wendigo) that has been murthering lots of sad orphans, etc etc. The plot moves nice and fast, and there are some interesting side characters, and lots of really fun Dutch vocabulary (groot kamer! stadt huys!) and references to current places (the hills of Breukelen! The farms of the Bouweries!). There was also not quite enough character development, however, for me to go beyond a "meh, passable beach read" review. There you have it.

* Zimmerman's book is #16 and all I'll say about #15 is that it is a pretty fucking racist book that I thought had been written in 1957 but was actually republished in 1957, originally published in 1898. That will teach me to be a lazy critical reader and skip the introductions! #15 is also technically a re-read but I think I must have only read some of it when I bought it years ago, most of it was pretty unfamiliar. I found out the real publishing date when I was only two or three chapters from the end, and with slow dawning horror realized I'd read the book all wrong. The author kept writing about "50 years ago" or "in our grandparents' time" and I thought she meant like, the 1920s, nope, she meant like the 1700s and the Civil War etc. I thought she was kind of charmingly old fashioned, but nope, she was just living in the 19th century. As one does. Anyway as a period piece it is a good reference for things like antiquated regional dialect vocabulary about weaving and making linen and other time-consuming things people used to do every day. Because I have read a bunch of books like #15, it makes a book like #16 look a little bit flimsy, I didn't buy that the protagonist would walk away from her house in New Amsterdam for a couple months and then return and just kind of...waltz in. Wouldn't there be ten thousand chores needing to be done? There was a certain social fabric of life in New Amsterdam that didn't ring true, thanks to #15. Anyway. End rant, please at least skim the intros in your nonfiction, don't make my mistake.
aslant: (elle s'amuse)
2013-04-30 11:15 am
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Daylight experiment, numbers & results edition

After a month of using little to no electric lights, our kilowatt-hours went down:
March 2013: 505 kWh
April 2013: 398 kWh
(April 2012: 538 kWh)

PGE helpfully tells me that the average temperature this April was 52°, compared to 51° last year.

Disappointingly, lowering our kWh usage did not affect our bill hugely:
March 2013: $58.52
April 2013: $48.25

...but there is a slightly bigger difference year-to-year:
April 2013: $48.25
April 2012: $62.96

Due to random legislated energy credits and miniscule rate changes, I don't view year-to-year as truly apples to apples, but it's still interesting. We could probably go further to reduce our kWh usage...for example we could install a motion sensor on the inside entry light (the only one that stays on continuously for convenience...already an improvement from the 3-4 lights we used to leave on at night for convenience) and we could unplug the power strip that has the tv/xbox power bricks on it.

We have nearly used up two 12" taper candles, and about half of a 6" pillar. The tapers were on hand, the pillar was new. We have a lot of natural light, so we didn't use candles except for tasks at the very end of the day.

Even if we didn't reap a jackpot here, it was a successful experiment, and one I'll continue to follow. It creates a natural bedtime barrier for Penny -- she now knows that when it's twilight, we get into our pajamas, and then just a short window of time for bedtime snack and last playtime before it's too dark. This is way, way easier than parental-imposed deadlines that are inevitably delayed by child-whines. I notice a HUGE difference in the family crankiness-o-meter when we stay up watching movies on the weekend now, bedtime is just a crabbiness pit of despair.

I'm more reluctant to stare into my phone or stay up late reading a book, so I infringe less upon my sleep time. This also fixes a bad habit of mine on nights when Kirk is working late -- I'm less likely to stick my nose in a book and ignore Penny's bedtime until it's too late, now. Kirk often stays up later than Penny and me, with Netflix or a lamp to read by, so our guidelines have been flexible. A few mornings in the kitchen I've thought, it's just so damn gray and dim in here but I haven't actually wanted to turn on the lights, they feel very unfriendly now. There was one morning when I got up and wrote by candlelight before dawn, and it was neat to blow out the candles when the light began coming in the windows. I bitch about our stupid nontraditional condo a lot, but it's situated nicely -- morning light in the kitchen and dining area, evening light in the living room/play area.

There are a few silly things that could probably improve with lamps -- brushing teeth and reading bedtime stories by candlelight is not really necessary, but we're used to the routine now and will probably keep going. I do think Penny is less resistant to lights-out time when it's a candle versus a lamp.

So we're not in it for the money. But the original goals of moving Penny's bedtime earlier and reducing weekday screentime were easily achieved, and I am definitely still in it for the general improved rhythm of our evenings.
aslant: (elle s'amuse)
2013-04-17 09:29 am
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Two possibly forgettable books (13 + 14)

13. Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants, Alison Maloney

Blah. I was excited about this and it turned into a hate-read. It is short and not detailed enough for me, I felt I learned more from reading several memoirs last year of cooks and ladies' maids, many of which were quoted or referenced in this book. Probably pretty handy if you want generic detail and a light read, perhaps better if you use it just to find names of additional memoirs to read.

14. Mayakovsky's Revolver, Matthew Dickman

I've had the twin Portland poets Matthew and Michael Dickman on my radar since reading a profile of them in an old New Yorker. Not only are they the Poet Twins of Lents (aka Felony Flats), published to heck and back, they portrayed the twin pre-cogs in Minority Report. What a strange world.

Anyway! Mayakovsky's Revolver was interesting, but not ultimately a volume of poetry that made me go YES, not in the way, for example, I did earlier this year with Brenda Shaughnessy, or even with Anne Carson. I frequently finished Dickman's poems feeling like I had exited a poem without really getting anything, or maybe there wasn't much to get. But not always. The section of poems about his (other) dead brother were good, and I loved Heaven (just us standing here together, asking each other/if we remember anything, what we loved, what loved us, who/yelled our names first?), I loved Birds of Paradise, and some of the poems in the Elegy to a Goldfish section were lovely. There are lots of references to the Hawthorne Bridge and other bits of Portland, which was fun, but there are also lots of scenes that make me think this guy and his brother might actually be kind of...dicks? Yikes. They kill a goldfish and torture their sister with it, they torture some poor kid behind the 7-11, a meditation on making a sick joke about a pedophile, other random crap that just made me think, why am I getting these painful insights into your life and why do I not particularly like you afterwards? Plenty of poets write about sick painful stuff and don't make it pretty; am I expecting this poet to make it pretty? I guess I'm expecting it to make sense, and not just act as off-color background, which is the impression I got here. The final longer poem On Earth was a nice bookend to the opening poem Heaven, and together those two were perhaps my favorites. On earth/survival is built out of luck and treatment centers he writes, the entire poem a meditation about how survival depends on a kind of vast chain of things surviving, his family, his mother taking the same exit to Lloyd Center to work, the woman he loves has to be there, his twin has to survive cancer because he can never be sick,/not if I want to stay on earth. Last week I was a bit obsessed with the idea of trying to write a poem that wasn't a poem, that rejected parallels and imagery and metaphor, something that cannot be recited in a portentious pretentious poetry reciting voice. There were times when I thought Dickman achieved that, his poems can be read in a normal voice and still achieve beauty, and not in that old-fashioned William Stafford way. Sometimes that was enough, but overall I think he is just an okay poet, with occasional brilliance.
aslant: (elle s'amuse)
2013-04-11 01:57 pm
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A winding genealogy (12)

12. From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family, James H. Johnston

I have been reading this in a browser-only ebook (why. whyyyyyyyyyyyyy*) for approximately a million months, and finally finished it today, after reading about it in the Harvard magazine approximately two million months ago. Ahem. Gotta crank these out if I want to get anywhere near my goal of 50 books!

This is a fascinating genealogy and deftly researched family history that starts with one literate Muslim slave from West Africa who was sold into the slave trade, and continues through his extraordinary life (he signed a document in Arabic! he became free and owned property well before the Civil War!) to his extraordinary heirs, one of whom eventually graduated as one of the earliest black matriculates of Harvard.

Yarrow himself was a pretty amazing person, and part of the reason we know so much about him is that he was famous even in his time, somewhat, without being famous for being rich or anything like that (famous in the sense that he was well-known within his community and managed to get into the historical record pretty solidly), and had his portrait painted twice. One of them is not as good and not very famous, the other is pretty extraordinary and featured on this book's cover -- a portrait sometimes described as the most sensitive early portrait of an African American. It is pretty neat just how much the author was able to dig up on his family and relations, his owners and his owners' relations, and in the process Johnston constructs a rich portrait of the intricately intertwined communities of early Maryland, following his struggles in slavery and life afterward, following his descendants into battle, emancipation, early education, and beyond (the Harvard part is great but not quite as interesting as Yarrow's story was, to me).

Anyway. Reading this book with several other related titles this year gave me some better context on the history and trends glimpsed through Yarrow's six-generation story (for instance former slave narratives give context of the larger fraught process for former slaves and Civil War veterans of color obtaining pensions, the Faust book on death and the Civil War for context on black soldiers, slaves, and bystander communities), which gave me the feeling that I'm finally getting to the stage of studying this period where I can knit it together to get an idea of the whole, as opposed to reading piecemeal stories and feeling like I'm missing something bigger. I still feel a big gap where the whole "Reconstruction and the Black experience" should go (doesn't that sound like a book that should exist? I could just read the famous WEB DuBois one but what I really want is a more critical modern perspective, and what I find are articles or journals or courses, not actual books) so perhaps my searches will turn up something to fill that gap soon.

* I am sure there is some way to get it onto mobile/Kindle and in fact the service claims this is a selling point but damned if I could find any tools within the reader screen that allowed me to do anything more than print-to-PDF that was page-limited to 68 pages. Agonized moan gnash teeth rage grrr etc.
aslant: (elle s'amuse)
2013-04-10 09:07 am
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Red herrings (11)

11. Autobiography of Red: a Novel in Verse, Anne Carson

Carson, you tricksy writer you. This is a novel in verse, but not in the way you'd think -- it reads quite nicely as prose for the most part -- this is also not a complete retelling of the story of Geryon (Geryon the monster was slain by Herakles, who killed also Geryon's red cattle and his dog), despite what the early parts of the (short) book led me to believe. There are red herrings all over the place, for instance in a modernized-but-vaguely-so story about Geryon as a gay male photographer and his sad love (?) story with Herakles, what is up with the two prominent references from Emily Dickinson about "on my volcano grows the grass" and "never have I held a peach so late in the year"? Hello vaginas. Is this Geryon being Anne Carson, gay male as stand-in for lesbian female, Geryon inhabiting the feminine, or another red herring? Unknown. And is Carson the Stesichoros figure? Maybe I'm being too literal here but there are certain meanings that would seem to flicker frustratingly in and out of focus, depending on which interpretation might be true.

I do know that Geryon is one of my favorite new characters. Is he really red like a monster, or does he just see red? I imagine that his vision is red, he sees only in shades of red, which he forgets unless, uh, triggered. He has wings, which he hides under an overcoat, and can fly but does so rarely. He has a kind of strange interface with the world, he doesn't quite interpret things the way others do.

There is a kind of contained sadness and rage in his whole story which made the abrupt ending a little unsatisfying, no catharsis, though not horribly so since there is a sequel which just came out, Red Doc> (yes complete with carat). But I have to wait for Kirk to finish before I can read it.
aslant: (elle s'amuse)
2013-03-26 01:14 pm
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Pulp! (9 and 10)

9. The Passage, Justin Cronin

10. The Twelve, Justin Cronin

So, these were fun! I was in need of good pulpy fiction, and a random post on Jezebel came just in the nick of time. I've been struggling to finish another book, about the influenza epidemic, so diving into two books about a different kind of epidemic was an interesting choice, in the end, but it did the trick. Cronin is a pretty passable writer, and his version of vampires is satisfyingly different from pretty much every other depiction out there right now. It's true what they say, he's a master of the backstory, you get to dig into the why & how some characters make difficult choices, though not in a way that's overly precious. He manages switching between narrators without making it trite, which is no mean feat these days. I don't want to say much about the storyline, to avoid spoilers, but I'll say that I felt in pretty good hands the whole way through. I do have some meta quibbles -- apparently there are no gay people in this universe, and biblical allusions (covert and overt) run pretty strong throughout, there is an unfortunate episode with a "tranny" side character, and there are three characters who are suspiciously magical/spiritual. Also, in this post-apocalyptic world, it seems pretty convenient that everyone who gets pregnant wants their child & keeps their child, I gave the side-eye to that unspoken theme. I did enjoy following this world from a recognizable near-future (Governor Jenna Bush!) into the eye of the epidemic and beyond, and to see the different versions of societies that survived -- you get to know three or four distinctly different survivor societies along the way. I read both of these books on the Seattle trip on my iPhone, which is a weird way to read a book, for me. I definitely don't absorb as much detail as I do from a physical page (travel + electronic page), and in a few instances I had completely forgotten someone's name, which robbed some of the "oh shit look what this person is up to now" revelations of their drama. If you enjoy Crichton-esque adventures, I highly recommend this series. It's better than the average pulp. The only downside is waiting for the third and final book to come out in 2014!
aslant: (elle s'amuse)
2013-03-18 10:59 am
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It's a girl! A very active, climbing, kicking, twisting, waving little girl. I totally cried, just like last time. Penny is very, very excited.
aslant: (elle s'amuse)
2013-03-05 03:58 pm
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Slavery in Arkansas (8)

8. Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project 1936-1938, Arkansas Narratives, Volume II, Part 2 of 7.
Sarah and Tom or Sam Douglas ex-slaves

I read this on the Library of Congress website (index), it is one volume I randomly selected out of the massive collection. The WPA sent writers (mostly white) to former slave states and border states to collect narratives from ex-slaves, mostly from those who had been no older than adolescents during the war. In the online introductory essay, many of the issues of race and racism inherent in the project and its methods are explained -- by and large it purports to be word-for-word transcriptions of interviews with ex-slaves, though the interviewers largely disappear into the text unheard, and it's impossible to tell what was really verbatim, what was edited or censored. Some of the writers attempted to transcribe the sound of regional dialects, occasionally rendering the text difficult to read, others did not. I liked the quote from Saidiya Hartman in the introduction, who wrote, "I read these documents with the hope of gaining a glimpse of black life during slavery and the postbellum period while remaining aware of the impossibility of fully reconstituting the experience of the enslaved" (from her Scenes of Subjection, 1997).

Sarah Douglas, pictured above with either her husband or brother, unclear, was one of only two pictures included in this volume. Some interviewers included evocative details about their interviewees' living conditions, which at that time were frequently in primitive cabins, usually with no windows. The vast majority described themselves as having fallen on harder times (viz the Depression) and having lost a house, or properties. Most were so crippled with age or disease that they could no longer earn a living. Few received any pension from the state, though some did. Things like clothing and soap and food were a luxury for many. The lucky ones lived with their children, though the vast majority described children who had died as adults, or moved so far away they had lost touch entirely during the great migration.

Reading through the couple hundred oral histories in this volume was equally fascinating and painful. There were details of folk superstitions, of how to fix natural dyes and how to make a banjo, and of the brutal whippings, family separations at auction, and cruel everyday realities of slave life. But there were equal accounts of this time as a kind of golden era (these accounts must be taken with a grain of salt given 1) the interviews took place during the Depression, 2) the question of whether interviewees were able to be fully honest with white interviewers), where their physical needs were cared for and they felt protected by the constrictions of plantation life. One of the standard questions was about the patrollers, later known as the Ku Klux Klan, in their various dialect disguises called the pateroles, the paddy rollers, the Patty Row, and stories of their brutality. A common thread in these stories was that they would show up and demand water in the middle of the night and pour it out in some way that made it disappear, and say something to the effect of, we just arrived from hell, pretty dry there. Hammett Dell, a young man at the time, recounted witnessing one of these scenes and then recognizing his master's laughter in the crowd, at which point he was no longer afraid of ill treatment. And yet embedded in these stories were so many details that just made it stark how many restrictions of behavior and speech and action that slaves accepted in their lives in order to survive. Many described themselves as thriving and content in conditions that could charitably be described as paternalistic, though it's still slavery, of course.

The hardest stories to read were about the infants and babies -- one infant who had to be "given away" (how? where? to whom?) when the mother was being walked from auction to her new owners, because it wouldn't stop crying. Another whose mother died after catching fire when she lay down at the hearth to keep warm while nursing her child at night. Some wrote about being bottle-raised by an aunt or grandmother (or simply the generic "grandmother" who would care for all the babies and young children while the field hands worked; most came in several times to nurse their children during the day), slave mothers were taken in as wet nurses to the white babies. Some young female slaves as young as 6 or 7 would have to nurse babies when they were scarcely strong enough to pick them up. The accounts of baby cradles tipped over (and subsequent whippings), white babies slapped or pinched or dropped, black child-nurses whipped when their charges had done something wrong, yup, antebellum infancy sounds pretty brutal. There was also frequent discussion of white parentage, or sometimes Indian, and inferred references to rape or molestation. Alice Davis told a harrowing story: "When I was one month old they said I was so white [my mistress] thought her brother was my father, so she got me and carried me to the meat block and was going to cut my head off" before her "old mistress" (the mistress's mother) came and bought the infant for $40, and kept her until the war ended, and the whole time the baby slept in the same bed as the older woman. Some interviewers simply noted that the ex-slaves were "octoroon" or noted their color/hair texture as coded references to parentage; one or two interviewees simply stated the names of the white slaveowners who were their fathers, and scrupulously called their mother's spouse their step-father throughout the interview.

Reading these narratives I took tons of notes on different themes -- motherhood, cabins, knowledge of the war, hiding things from the Yankees, how freedom came to them -- but overall the impression I came away with was one of, yes, a glimpse of what life was like, and a deeper quality of closeness with voices, concerns, knowledge, memories, relations, of this part of history that previously was pretty sketchy and ill-defined in my mind. So yeah. Filling in the gaps. There you go.
aslant: (elle s'amuse)
2013-02-21 11:52 am
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Poetry! (8)

8. Our Andromeda, Brenda Shaughnessy (2012)

I already gushed about Brenda Shaughnessy last week, and here I am again to tell you she's an incredible poet, sometimes funny with her wordplay and then just as suddenly she'll gut you with something. Last week I quoted a good bit of her Liquid Flesh, which really spoke to me about the kind of agony of depletion and confusion with a newborn, tiny self alone with a tiny self. The reviewers are right, there is also a lot of good stuff in here about sisters, lovers gone, her family, but the strongest section to me was the last section, eponymously titled with its final and longest poem that is also the name of the book, Our Andromeda (something about this name within name with name was deeply satisfying in the same way her poetry was). The whole section is about her son, Calvin, from different angles, all about his existence, his traumatic brain injury (a midwife birth in a hospital) that rendered him unable to walk or speak, his early life, and her imagining of alternate worlds for him and for herself as a mother. (You can read a few more details about it in this excellent interview with her and her husband, the poet Craig Morgan Teicher.) In Our Andromeda (the poem itself) she eviscerates herself for naivete, her friends and family for being distant, god for being evil, probability for being cruel, but there's so much more in this poem that I loved, it's not all bitterness, there is excruciating love, too. One of my favorite lines: The truth is you are the truth, / a child born to a liar who is learning / to change. Or how about the long list of what exactly would I be blaming God for, which inserts among mundane administrative missteps the line Setting things in motion so that / this poem would be written? There's a lot more in this collection than just motherhood, that's just the bit that speaks the most to me right now, of course. Highly recommended.
aslant: (elle s'amuse)
2013-02-18 09:00 am
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Intrigue and layers (and love) in cold war England (7)

7. Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan (2012)

From page one, Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) tells you how her story will play out: a spy, she was sacked 18 months into her job, "having disgraced myself and ruined my lover." But the unravelling of her life as an MI6 operative in 1970s London is still filled with tension, not to mention unexpected beauty, and it made me mutter out loud "oh god, oh god" in dread several times. Then there was the final denouement, which made me sit up straight and curse McEwan with respect and shock -- there is a peculiar identity-doubling-back trick pulled narratively, but not cheaply, and definitely not the way you might expect, and it's amazing. The book is also much more than a simple spy story. You get Serena's failtastic Cambridge years, her affairs, her distant voice, her voracious reading habits*, her observations on the state of sexism in her Majesty's secret service, her scrimping along on meagre pay washing her hair in the sink of her bedsit. And you get the years of the Troubles, of bombs and oil shortages. And you get her love affair, in 1970s Brighton, with Chablis and oysters and typewriters, as the tension simmers in the background.

Overall, the book brings you into the classic late-Cold War era Bond world, except instead of glamorous people sipping cocktails in a fancy bar you are in the musty basement processing boring files with your fellow underpaid drones wondering what the point of it is. But then the spy stuff emerges from the paperwork. It feels very authentic, and you get an interesting sense of the self-importance of the MI6 world of that era, its classism, its weird internal rituals and stuffiness, as seen by an observer who toes the party line but isn't entirely sure why, as the book goes on, though that's not really her main conflict. I don't know if I'm giving an adequate impression of why I loved this book so blurb compared the story to a Russian doll -- very apt. Layers and layers of intrigue. It drew me in quickly, it was suspenseful and complex, and I came away with even more respect for the author. It's incredibly good, without feeling boringly good for you. Please read this. You'll have fun. I can't recommend it highly enough.

* Including a book review column, and an incident which echoed one of my own tendencies in book reviewing: she moves from chatty confessional to thoughtful, and loses sight of what she was hired for. That was a rather uncomfortable mirror. Of course, dear LJ friends, you can't fire me if you don't like it. I'm writing for me, so just scroll on by.
aslant: (elle s'amuse)
2013-01-27 10:01 am
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How we die, how we kill (6)

6. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Drew Gilpin Faust

After reading her excellent Mothers of Invention, I dove right into This Republic of Suffering, published in 2008 and slightly more famous, coming as it did on the heels of the beginning of her Harvard presidency. Gratifyingly, there are names of a bunch of Radcliffe people in the acknowledgments who I used to work with, including Amy Paradis, who I credit with inspiring me to go to graduate school. Anyway, this book is completely fascinating, both for the story it tells (I am still getting up to snuff on the Civil War, sorry AP US History class that I largely ignored for the sake of a crush and other distractions, [ profile] baatasticyou know what I'm talking about!) and for its thought-provoking exploration of killing and death.

As a quick summary, Faust is here to tell you about the massive scale of death, its effects on society, how we attempted to grapple with it on a national scale. She is very, very good at making this story feel real with stories and words from individual soldiers as well as information about larger societal trends and government orders and such. She's good. This book is good. It helped me understand a little better my captivation with wars, too.

If you've followed my book reviews, you might know that this is my second delving into books about wars -- last year I read a lot of books about World War II and the Holocaust; now I'm on a Civil War kick (and also a WWI kick). Sure wars are dramatic and all, but until I read Faust's illuminating chapter 2, titled simply "Killing," I had not really had much insight into why they were fascinating to me. In this chapter, Faust lucidly walks the reader through the processes by which these Victorian-era mostly christian soldiers resisted killing, reconciled it with their religious beliefs, confronted its realities, and gradually lost all fear and moral inhibition about it -- this was especially true for soldiers who witnessed the death of their comrades. Once loosed, some took on an "almost maniac wildness" and it became more about the joy of battle, killing as sport, almost as pleasure, and not necessarily in a depraved sense. Not depraved because of course the entire point of an organized military is that is creates a structure and a form in which natural fears are suppressed (close ranks and the mechanisms of drills that lessen doubt, turn it into muscle memory). Although the Civil War was by no means a precision battlefield, some of the same human tricks were used that have always been used in order to turn reluctant soldiers into soldiers willing and able to kill -- distance, conditioning, propaganda, drills. I realized in reading books about wars I have been learning a lot about how we have killed, but I've only been getting sideways answers to the greater mystery to me, which is why we kill. Or how any person goes from citizen to soldier. I'm not saying that the instinct to attack or defend isn't human; but there is something extra happening in that transformation. This chapter gave me insights into how it worked in 1800s America, which I found invaluable. This only flaw in this chapter is that while Faust capably addresses racist violence during the war, she does not make a substantial connection between racist violence and non-racist violence. For some of these "conflicted Christian" soldiers, wouldn't they have simply been transferring the norms of white-on-black violence to the battlefield against other white soldiers? Perhaps that's too simplistic. But I wish she had addressed that connection. The chapter still stands on its own quite well, though.

A dominant theme of the book is how disruptive it was to lose the expected norms of a Good Death, which was widely understood and described in many ars moriendi books. A Good Death happened at home, surrounded by kin, and you reconciled with god (not necessarily as a confession, just in a "I accept god's will and am willing to die" way). There was an elaborate art of interpreting a person's fate from their last words, motions and facial expressions. And then of course the rituals of burial, memorial, and formal mourning. Men died far from home, some were blown to bits and unrecoverable, men were buried if they were lucky, graves named and location recorded if they were luckier, letters sent to their families only sometimes. Until after the Civil War, there was no conception of the state as an entity responsible to soldiers after their death; there was no ambulance service to remove bodies from the battlefield until the last year of the war, there was no central way to record all the names of the enlisted, never mind if or how they had died. Faust's accounting of this accounting is fascinating.

Faust talks about how some argue that in the modern age we have become disconnected from death -- it happens in hospitals, not at home, fewer religious rituals proscribe its progress. But she points out that in the Civil War era, when death was everywhere and touched nearly every family, "great effort was [still] required to control and repudiate its horrors" (p. 177), largely through the ars moriendi of a Good Death. Many people expressed the sentiment that the prospect of a loved one going into battle was less terrifying than if a loved one was to go to hell -- in this era a reality that could be indicated by a missing body, missing last words (many were made up or embellished by comrades who had promised to write to the families), or an attitude of rejection or anger at death.

I recall being a kid or 11 or 12 and first expressing my lack of belief in god, and people would ask, so what do you believe happens when you die? I still believe what I believed then -- that the obliteration of ego, of thought, of consciousness, can be its own kind of heaven. A kind of dissolution, a boundarylessness, that's what I picture happening: in a kind of zen way, a complete dissolving of the boundaries between what makes up "me" and what makes up "everything else" at an atomic level. In a way, this idea of losing the boundary between myself and the world is why I have articulated loudly to my spouse and my family that I never want to be embalmed -- it seems like a sort of denial of the permeability of death, to me, a barrier to decomposition. Thinking about all this, I still found it kind of bizarre how important Civil War era people found all the rituals and whatnot of death; it strikes me as almost more important to believe in hell than to believe in god, to make it so pressing to achieve the Good Death. Heaven, in their conception, was only newly conceived as a domestic picture of bliss -- the family together forever. The centrality of family was huge, for survival and as a mechanism to understand society and reality; perhaps it is the fear of the loss of the family that was more real to them than anything else.

As a last note, if you are ever putting together a course reader that needs to answer the question, how do writers respond to war, you could do a lot worse than Faust's excellent chapter 6, "Believing and Doubting" which discusses the roots of modernism during Civil War era writing, most notably through Ambrose Bierce and Emily Dickinson, but also others. I found this part particularly affecting: not just society and individual family bonds were threatened, but language itself, form, knowledge and knowing. (But then, I always was a closet deconstructuralist.)
aslant: (elle s'amuse)
2013-01-18 03:24 pm
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Dr. Faust's Patent Elixir for Subverting Dominant Historical Gender Narratives (5)

5. Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War, Drew Gilpin Faust

Drew Gilpin Faust used to be my boss. Okay, technically, she was my boss's boss's boss, but close enough. I revered this woman as a god when I worked with her at Radcliffe, purely for her skill as a leader (justly recognized a few years later when she was elevated to the Presidency at Harvard), and had only really heard about her scholarship secondhand. Yeah yeah, history, women, something like that. Well, it turns out she is kind of a big deal -- I should have guessed. This is her first book, from 1996, and it is not only a fascinating subject but very, very well-written (bestill my beating heart). Civil War history is also a subject that was very new to me, so reading this book encompassed not only learning some basic facts about the war (the South thought it would last only a couple months!) and then googling up various battles and towns and people as they were mentioned, to gain a greater context. Don't get me wrong, this is a fascinating book even without side-googling, it just made my enjoyment all the greater to go on little treasure hunts (albeit bloody and depressing treasure hunts).

Faust is largely here to dispel some of the big myths of white southern womanhood during the Civil War -- aside from a lot of noise and exhortations in the press, white women did not take up nursing, or teaching, or weaving cloth, or other industrial needs, in large numbers. They did not become capable household managers, either domestically or in the sense of farm and slave management. Apparently some of these ideas were well accepted as fact, some of them perhaps because of the 'Lost Cause' efforts in the post-war South, when women were energetically going around basically propping up white male entitlement and going overboard with honoring heroes etc etc, in order to enforce gender and race paradigms of power and hierarchy.

Not all women were abject failures, but the first half of this book is a lot of bitching and moaning, I'll say that. Southern women were stirred with very patriotic feelings at first, and then as the realities set in of all white men going off to war, and the slaves (depending on the area) either leaving for freedom up north or becoming verrrrrrry reluctant to do any work, there was a lot of huffing and confusion and wounded-heart ladies who finally experienced the negative side of white femininity in the south: all their lives, they had traded subservience and submission, getting protection and support in return. The war basically threw this all to hell, and the women, by and large, were not very good at getting on in the absence of the expected social systems. Some became teachers, yes; some became nurses -- though what we think of as nursing today was largely performed by slaves, and white women would read the bible or occasionally wash someone's face if they were deemed especially hardy. Many more had to decamp to relatives' homes further from battle lines, or took in large numbers of refugees themselves. Many were forced by necessity to actually become mothers to their children, when the slave nannies were gone. Since power and household management was so paternalistic, with a kind of "for your own good" violence practiced only as a (paternal you see) last resort, women in charge did not or could not take over physical punishment (for slaves and for unruly white boys, many of whom were raised to be kind of belligerent and wild) and thus either gave up considerable power and were unable to farm or run the household, or they resorted to violence in desperation and lack of control. Over and over again in diaries, letters and other forms there was the sentiment that women would not mind if all the slaves left them entirely, so as to lessen the burden of managing long as the women had 'one good one left to attend to me.' Honestly, it was astounding the scale of tasks they were unable to do -- many had never cooked a day in their lives, never mind dressed themselves or brushed their hair. Throw in extreme deprivation of consumer goods, a kind of hysterical constancy of mourning (which for many became a numbness), and you can begin to picture the abject chaos of domestic and social life for most of these women.

As losses mounted during the war, many women outright encouraged desertion through their letters, and as soon as two years into the war many encouraged their men not to re-enlist when their term was up. There are many excerpts from pleading letters sent to various men in power, begging to have one son spared, or a patriarch sent back to manage the plantation; aside from remarking that many were simply stamped 'File', Faust does not specify whether any of these letters were ultimately successful, though there was a lot of politicking by women to gain favored positions in the capitol, such as the jobs signing massive stacks of new currency, though ultimately that was done by a relatively small group of women. And you would not believe how shocked -- shocked! -- and unwomanly they felt collecting a paycheck. If they had not been starving, many would have been too embarassed to do so; even to have their names mentioned in the paper was considered a disgrace. I don't know how they remembered all of this, it's ridiculous. White womanhood was one big ritual of staying inside your tiny circle.

Late in the war, as Faust chronicles, women in high society turned from self-interest to outright self-indulgence, throwing lavish balls and parties at times when poorer people were starving themselves to feed their children (though even the rich were not immune from these shortages) -- a kind of defiant assertion of class privilege. At the same time, lower class women engaged in widespread bread riots, and raided fields before harvest. Faust offers some very trenchant critiques of the gender, racial, and class dynamics that were so in flux during the war. This is not a rosy portrait, nor is it a derisive picture of upper-class failures. She is a very balanced writer. She points out quite plainly that while northern women came into greater power during this era in a kind of triumphant way, due to their yearning for it prior to the war, southern women were uncomfortable with what power they were forced to take on, and after the war began many social projects aimed at both reinstating the antebellum status quo and asserting a tiny bit of power juuuuuust in case the menfolk failed them again. Faust also discusses how this history played into white southern suffrage movements in the south, which were focused on maintaining racial control over blacks as opposed to evening out gendered power in the polls.

I thought about this book a lot when I was watching Say Yes To The Dress: Atlanta last week (sick day tv FTW), comparing in my head some of the unfamiliar behaviors I was seeing in the show to what I was reading in the book. I'm still not sure what to make of those parallels, but knowing the historical background of white southern womanhood through Faust's book certainly gave me better context. There is a lot more in this book, parts of history that were appalling or charmingly bizarre or just unexpected (did you know as many as 300 women cross-dressed in order to fight in the Civil War?) and I recommend it if this era is interesting to you. But it is officially a Serious History Book written by a Very Serious Historian so it is not a light read. Still, I loved it.
aslant: (elle s'amuse)
2013-01-15 09:55 am
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Maternal love: it's not what you think (4)

4. Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy
Hrdy is justifiably the most influential, challenging voice in anthropology and evolutionary biology, and I found this book almost as enjoyable as her more recent Mothers and Others (see my 2012 review): where M&O was elegantly written and compact, Mother Nature tends to ramble in a few places, is much longer generally, and may have benefited from a more canny editor. But these are basically quibbles with what is an amazing, amazing book. Let me tell you more about how I learned to stop feeling guilty about my parenting experiences and love Hrdy even more than I did before.

Hrdy's central thesis is that maternal love as we know it is far from instinctual, it is in fact conditional, a phenomenon that emerges piecemeal and is "chronically sensitive to external clues." Humans do not, and have not over evolutionary history, nurtured every child that is born. We evaluate, at birth, both the baby and ourselves and the world around us. The bonding process is driven over the first couple weeks by the breastfeeding hormonal feedback loop, which is elicited by the newborn, and the whole thing is conditional on maternal acceptance of the child physically and emotionally, taking into account her perceptions of sufficient social support. Mothers who reject infants, fail to bond, abandon infants in dumpsters, commit infanticide -- as Hrdy explains, we can define these behaviors as mental illness, but in fact they are not aberrations but the finely tuned survival instincts of a species that has depended on a highly cooperative child-rearing model throughout our history on the planet (to read about that in depth, read her other book, Mothers & Others). Countering a couple centuries of Victorian-influenced anthropology, Hrdy musters a vast amount of evidence to point out that we aren't driven by the survival of our species as a whole (i.e. nurture all newborns by default, as some species do) but rather by context-specific decisions, hierarchy-driven maneuverings, and calculations over the long term. It was no contradiction in human history to abandon or kill a first child, perhaps even several early children, and then to rear a subsequent child (once social support is in place) with a perfectly "normal" amount of maternal love. It is how we have always survived and adapted to changing circumstances, since to rear an ill-timed or unsupported infant could mean death or ostracization (which may as well mean death in some circumstances).

Perhaps the hardest part of this book is the extensive exploration of the traditions and cultural practices of infanticide and newborn abandonment through history. There were many forms of sanctioned child abandonment, from the classic Greek "exposed on a hillside" practice to more prosaic hunter-gatherer tribes who simply abandoned a newborn in the bush, to a practice in early China of a special early-morning cart that would gather up babies drowned by midwives in milk buckets, to the extensive (and extensively fatal) system of foundling homes and orphanages in pre-modern Europe, like the Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence, which like many others offered an anonymous outdoor cradle or wheel so you could pass the child off anonymously. Fatality rates in these institutions were sky-high, with perhaps 20% of children surviving in a good year in a good institution. Rates of 99% mortality were not uncommon. Hrdy points out that while it might be preferable to reabsorb unwanted fetuses (as some species do), or in modern times to perform an abortion early on, we have actually evolved to have a ~72hr window after birth during which we are able to decide to abandon or expose a child, with fewer repercussions -- milk has not come in fully yet, and the cycle of prolactin/oxytocin has not been activated between mother and child. She comes back to this point several times: there is no "instinctual" birth behavior in humans that creates love in the moments or even hours immediately after birth. The cycle is primed in those early hours, and the infant itself is armed with a myriad of systems designed to help it to latch on (like the breast crawl phenomenon) or designed to make it irresistible (plump cheeks, wide eyes, calls of distress). What we have created as the "maternal love" phenomenon is a socialized phenomenon (one which was also conveniently used to argue that women are nothing but mothers in many Victorian and other early anthropological views), no more cemented into the human experience than our variable expectations and traditions around what we believe about the pain of childbirth and our ability to withstand it with or without help. This is not to say that no one experiences instant love; but that it is no more "natural" than ambivalence, and that we have many socialized beliefs that play into it.

There was also a section that fascinated me on theories about post-partum depression. One compelling theory posits that it is an artifact of a clash of instincts: a mother who was prone to depression, or who lacked sufficient help postpartum, may have chosen to abandon her newborn in another era. However, we have few culturally sanctioned ways to do that now. In this way, PPD may arise as a clash between systems designed to tell us "bad time to keep a baby" and our culturally conditioned belief that we want to keep the baby, or that we have no choice. Furthermore, PPD is also in some theories a remnant of lactational aggression: it appears as lactation ramps up, at a time when prolactin spikes and dopamine drops, sabotaging our ability to maintain adequate social relationships for postpartum support at precisely the time when we need it most. Either way, it seems exquisitely fine-tuned to remind us that no matter what, we did not evolve to sit alone in a house with a newborn all day long, and modern nuclear family patterns are often not adequate to the task of replacing the much wider systems of support available in extended families or near-kin tribal structures that we evolved to require.

One of the most interesting conclusions I drew from reading this book was how aspirational and ultimately impossible it is to achieve the reality of every child a wanted child. We know already, of course, that this assumes perfect foreknowledge, which is impossible even without Hrdy's theories; but it also attempts to circumvent an evolutionary instinct to keep fetuses to term and decide after the birth whether circumstances have improved, and whether to keep or reject a child. Abortion and birth control can go a long way to reducing the circumstances that led many women throughout humanity's history to abandon children, but they will never perfectly replace that 72-hour flexibility that became privileged through evolution.

Mother Nature went a long way towards helping me understand my own initial indifference (and occasional estrangement) from my own newborn: there is no perfect instant love encoded in our instincts. There is a waiting period, during which we are primed for love, and then we ride its hormonal track, so to speak, but only a little bit later. There is no magical missed opportunity during those earliest postpartum moments and hours -- though of course there is plenty we can do to make those moments either gentle and humane, or abstract and medicinal. I believe the homebirth movement has begun to correct the damages done by the industrialization and mechanization of birth, but we still have a long way to go to dismantle the (usually Western) socialized myths and beliefs about perfect maternal instincts and instant bonding. I recall so clearly when my mother said in the delivery room how much she loved watching Kirk and I fall in love with Penny Jane; it rankled because I felt no such thing, and felt guilty about it. I was interested in my newborn. Was it the start of the process? Yes. Was it a repetition of a received, socially encoded myth? Also yes.

There is much, much more in this book that I'm leaving out (to summarize: women prefer quality in birth spacing! men prefer quantity! settled living patterns and resource competition drove male-controlled reproduction patterns! grandmothers are the key to our species' longevity!) but if you are at all intrigued by some of these conclusions, I highly recommend delving into this rich, complex book. It explores history, anthropology, literature, art, sociology, evolutionary biology, plenty of monkeys, and lots of fantastic (but respectful) take-downs of the Victorian holdover theories that biased the early attachment theory researchers like Bowlby. If Hrdy's Mothers and Others was the best unintentional utopia, where I learned about how our species evolved to utilize large non-nuclear family structures to provision and support infants and mothers, then Mother Nature was a way to repair my entire set of assumptions and guilt over how I bonded with my child, and how to understand these processes in the context of our evolutionary history. I can't recommend it highly enough.

ETA If you want to read more about Hrdy's personal background and how it plays into her scholarship intimately, she talked about motherhood and 1970s Harvard in a two part interview with Scientific American last March: Part I and Part II.