Career of Evil- Robert Galbraith

This is the third book in the Cormoran Strike series, so there are probably spoilers in here for the previous two.  If that is a thing you care about.

THIS BOOK. SO SO SO GOOD.

Strike and Robin are back, keeping busy with some surveillance cases. One day, Robin receive a woman’s severed leg in the post and it is clear this killer has a personal ax to grind with Strike and has his sights set on Robin as his next victim. Strike is quick to identify three likely suspects from his past and when the police don’t take his leads seriously enough, he and Robin do some investigating on the side, of course. All the while, the killer is keeping busy, stalking Robin and killing and dismembering his way across London.

Plot-wise, this wasn’t my favorite mystery in this series. There are several chapters told from the killer’s POV that read like textbook serial killer behavior. He’s misogynistic. He puts on a pretty face to his girlfriend. His thirst to kill ramps up over time and he gets clumsier and more desperate as he seeks that kill-high more and more frequently. All of that felt very done before, not to say that the killer wasn’t super creepy. It was kind of interesting to see the killer’s POV in the story, but again, it’s been done before and I guess evil serial killer is just not compelling enough for me any more (I guess I’ve read too much serial killer stuff).

In addition to the somewhat tired feel of the killer, there are three clear and obvious suspects from the start. While they are all horrible men and I never was certain who was the killer, I was almost able to pull all the pieces together. Galbraith/Rowling is very good at not constructing a mystery in which the answer is obvious to the reader, leaving enough out of the text to leave you wondering and pursuing the truth, but there was such a limited suspect pool for whom we all get extended backstories, it would be impossible to not come up with a theory that touches on the actual solution to the mystery. All that to say, I still cared about the mystery and the killer was dangerous and there were some seriously scary parts with him in them, but really, this book was more about the Strike-Robin dynamic than anything.

There is a serious amount of character and relationship development with Strike and Robin in this installment and Strike and Robin are what make this series as good as it is. The more Rowling that I read, the more I realize that her strength lies in the development of characters, something that was apparent in The Casual Vacancy, but is especially satisfying in the Cormoran Strike series. Robin is amazingly likeable– smart, strong, principled, and wickedly talented at detective work. And I have a weak spot for Strike– he’s exactly the kind of gruff, intelligent hero I can’t get enough of and his interactions with Robin are always the highlight of these books. I was kind of blown away by how much I liked seeing the two of them together in this book– there were a lot more opportunities for a new kind of intimacy to develop in their relationship. This book is the first time that Strike and Robin really acknowledge that they are friends and confidantes, that their relationship is more than strictly professional, and that there might even be more than platonic feelings between them.  I don’t want to say too much, but this is the first time I’ve really seen Rowling write sexual tension and go figure, she’s amazing at it.

The final chapter left me with my mouth hanging open. I have no idea what actually happened there and I’m sure it will be at least another year before I can find out. More Strike, more Robin, an actual answer to what the heck that last sentence meant–gah, I can’t wait. These books are some of my favorites. Basically, everyone needs to read them and love them as much as I do.

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A Window Opens- Elisabeth Egan

Alice is a married mother of three in her late 30s, living in the New Jersey suburbs of NYC.  She works part-time at a women’s magazine writing the column on book recommendations and this gives her a nice balance between being present with her children, taking time for herself (spinning class! book club! wine with friends!), and remaining active in the career force.  But then, her husband, Nicholas, loses his job as a high-powered corporate attorney and decides to go into practice for himself.  In the meantime, Alice decides to take on a full-time job to support her family while Nicholas’s business gets off the ground.  She finds a well-paying job with Scroll, the latest innovation in bookstores.  Alice thinks she’ll be curating a collection of ebooks for customers to choose from in Scroll’s luxurious reading lounges, complete with free trade coffee and organic snacks.  But Alice is actually entering the retail world where customer demand and the dollar are the bottom lines.  Her job offers very little flexibility, includes a 90 minute one-way commute, and requires Alice to be hooked up to email and her phone all the time.  At first, she is thrilled to be taking on this new challenge, but real life soon gets in the way.  Her kids are handling things alright, but she is never quite satisfied to be spending so little time with them.  Her husband begins drinking more and more.  And on top of all that, her father’s cancer has returned and is not responding to radiation.  Alice tries to make her new job work alongside the personal interruptions, but she eventually finds that she is being made miserable trying to “have it all” and that the job she has put her life on the line for is making her miserable.

This is a very “ordinary life” sort of story– Alice deals with work details and raising a family and taking care of aging parents. I liked that and I liked Alice. She’s navigating through a lot of new things, but seems to remain down-to-earth and just… I dunno, seems like the kind of person I’d want to chat books or kids with. I like that Alice is thrown into the deep end with her new job and that she tries to make it work and is capable of doing work that is probably outside of her depth of experience when she comes in. There is some of the excitement of a new business venture in here and that is entertaining (until things take a dramatic turn that ruins the whole deal for Alice). I’m always down for stories about women finding themselves and making life work for them and this was no exception.

But there were three big things that bugged me about this story.  First, Alice’s husband’s drinking issue is never really tackled in a meaningful way.  He’s been getting black-out drunk in the afternoons for about a year and manages to turn this around just by wanting to quit?  To me, it sounded like he had addiction issues, which are unlikely to be solved by force of will.  I kind of feel this story would have worked without a drunk husband, so Egan needed to deal with this in a real way or leave it out.

Second, I’m a little uncertain how to take the ending of this story, where Alice figures out Scroll is not for her. It was the ending I was rooting for and absolutely appropriate for Alice’s situation, but I am kind of left hanging. I’m a working mom (granted in a more family-friendly environment) and it almost feels like a slap in the face to read a book about a working mom whose problems are all solved by her quitting her job and letting her husband’s business take the lead. I don’t know. Not every working mom has the luxury of quitting her well-paying job to “figure things out.” I think I’d have been more satisfied if this had ended with Alice finding a full-time job that gave her more flexibility to be present with her family, rather than having her return to part-time work and the vague possibility of a future business venture.  I just felt very uncomfortable about reading a book about “having it all” that settles firmly into the message that it can’t be done.  And sure, I think “having it all” is a problematic concept and that there is no realistic way to do everything you want in life (even without kids), but I think many mothers manage to find a balance they can live with, even with a full-time job.  It just really bugs me that Alice’s solution had to be exiting the traditional workforce, especially when all her children are in school full days.

Finally, I think a lot of my dislike about the ending of this book has to do with my discomfort with the socioeconomic background of the characters in this book. I just felt vaguely unsettled that money is never a REAL problem for Alice, that she can afford the babysitter, the house with the perfect location, the new work wardrobe, the lessons and activities for the kids, etc. without breaking a sweat. She lives in a rarefied world (one where she inherits money from her father’s death, even)– not the world most of us would find ourselves in if our partners lost their jobs and went into business for themselves.  I always feel a little uncomfortable with these stories of women for whom money is no big deal, particularly ones that strive for as much realism as this one did.

Anyways, despite the fact that had some rather major issues with this book, I did enjoy it quite a bit.  I think Alice’s character won me over and that that made this book a lot more charming than it would have been had these issues been present in the story of a flatter character.  I’d definitely be willing to try more from this author, should she write another novel.  As for a recommendation, if Jennifer Close is your kind of chick lit, then I think Elisabeth Egan would be, too.  This is definitely for fans of that higher brow sort of chick lit– the kind with heavier issues and East Coast, privileged characters, where the drama of daily life outweighs romance or comedy.

The DUFF- Kody Keplinger

Bianca loves her best friends, but isn’t interested in dancing at the under-21 dance club in their home town.  While watching her friends have fun on the dance floor, notorious womanizer, Wesley, comes over and informs Bianca that of her friend group, she is the DUFF: the designated, ugly, fat friend.  This gets under Bianca’s skin because, like any high school student, she is a little bit insecure.  Anyways, things kind of blow up in Bianca’s home life and somehow she finds that her only way to deal with it is to find some moments of escape in sex.  With Wesley.  Wesley, who is actually a better listener and friend that Bianca gave him credit for.  But Bianca doesn’t believe in love in high school and certainly not in love with the guy who gets around the most out of their whole class.  So where on earth can this “relationship” take them?

I’d heard a lot of good things about this book, which is why I picked it up in the first place, but I still kind of feel surprised by how much I liked it.  The story reminded me of being in high school more than any other YA books I’ve read.  Bianca’s life is not just her parents getting divorced or her fooling around with Wesley.  She’s got schoolwork and friends.  She isn’t popular, but she’s not an outcast, even though she feels that way some of the time.  Mostly, she’s happy and comfortable with herself, but sometimes she wonders if she isn’t the DUFF and worries about what other people think about her.  Basically, she’s a normal teenager.  And a pretty likeable, interesting one, at that.  She is cynical, but smart and funny and loyal to her friends.  She doesn’t exactly have the best coping skills when it comes to some of the problems in her life, but she’s 16 and human and that makes sense.

As for the romantic plot, it’s nothing new,  just an enemies become lovers plot, but the depth of the characters, particularly Bianca, made for a fun romance.  I liked Wesley, sort of in spite of myself, and as much as I agreed with Bianca that he was probably bad news, I couldn’t help rooting for them to work it out, for Wesley to settle down on just one girl.  There is also a point where Bianca gets caught in sort of a love triangle, as Toby, the sweet, nerdy boy she has crushed on for 3 years, suddenly notices her and as she tries to disentagle herself from whatever is going on with Wesley.  I found that I liked Toby, too, and was kind of sad that there was so little chemistry between him and Bianca.  Also refreshing, plot-wise, is that teenagers have casual sex in this book and nothing bad happens.  It’s really not even a big deal.

I only had one complaint with this book and that is that the home stuff wrapped up a bit too easily.  Bianca’s father is a recovering alcoholic who has a relapse and even shows a violent temper as a drunk.  But he seems to bounce back to recovery pretty easily.  Bianca’s mother has been traveling across the country for years doing speaking events, but after she files for divorce, she suddenly seems to want to connect to and be present for the daughter she’s been ignoring and absent from for so long.  And Bianca accepts that.  These are all big things and the solutions seem a little more simple and drama-free than they’d actually be in real life.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book and wish it had been around when I was a teenager.  There is something about the plot and characters that resonated strongly with me as an adult and would have had an even bigger impact on me as a teen.  I imagine this would have landed on my short stack of books that I reread for comfort from time to time.  As it stands, this was absolutely worth my time and I would recommend this as a YA book with appeal to both teens and adults.

 

Stiff- Mary Roach

I have been meaning to read this book since I started this blog and I finally got around to it, using it for the microhistory portion of the Read Harder challenge.  (Though, now that I think about it, this was only kind of history and more pop science, but whatever, I’m counting it for a category that seems kind of arbitrary to me anyways.)

So… Mary Roach is a journalist with a focus on science who decided to write a book about allll the various things that can happen to a dead human body.  She covers the role of cadavers in medical education and the history of anatomical dissection, as well as the role of cadavers in other science research/practice (criminal forensics, car safety, gun/explosive safety, organ donation).  While her focus is more on the extreme things done with human bodies, she does talk briefly about decomposition of dead bodies and funereal options for dead bodies– embalming, burial, cremation, and some of the newer, greener ideas such as body composting.  She also dabbles in the super extreme, spending some time talking about bodies used in religious experiments (trying to prove that the Shroud of Turin was authentic) and even goes so far as to spend way too much time talking about cannibalism.

This was an interesting subject, but if you know me you know that I have an academic background in the history of medicine and that I kinda dig reading books about death or history of medicine (see my reviews of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks).  I came into this excited to learn something new.  However, I spent the first several chapters rehashing or reviewing information that was not at all new to me.  For example, the history of medical dissection and body snatchers is not new to me because of stuff I read in grad school, body farms are not a new concept to me as I used to read/watch a lot of crime fiction/TV, and Doughty covers what happens to bodies in funeral homes in greater detail in Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.  The later chapters provided new information and I was interested in the use of bodies in scientific research, organ donation, and thought some of the ideas for new ways of disposing of dead bodies were pretty interesting, too.  But Roach lost me when she gets to the most extreme and rare examples of cadaver use– religious research and as food/medicine.  In particular, the cannibalism chapter seemed designed to push the reader to the limits of squeamishness (and dead bodies don’t really squick me out, so this was certainly a bit much) and just involved Roach investigating a bunch of bogus stories without finding any real actual evidence of people eating their dead in contemporary society.

I did enjoy learning some new things about what happens with dead bodies and I did enjoy that Roach really plugs for body donation and organ donation– options I am pretty firmly set on for my eventual dead body– and options which get some odd reactions from people.  (You know if you donate your body to science, people will see you naked, right?  Umm, yeah, they see you naked when they embalm/cremate you, too.)  I had always figured on cremation as my back-up option, but hearing it has such negative environmental effects has made me think on that a little more, too.

There were things that really bugged me about this book, though.  Namely, Roach’s tone and style.  Roach tries to inject humor into her analysis and it wasn’t very successful for me.  I kind of wondered if the narrator on the audiobook was just not delivering the punchlines successfully, but I think the jokes just weren’t that funny.  Also the tone of this book is very… pop-journalismy, if that makes sense.  I do prefer my non-fiction not be stuffy and dry and this wasn’t stuffy or dry, but it just bordered on too unserious and too casual for my tastes.  And perhaps this last complaint is related to the style of the book, but there were areas where I wanted Roach to push further and she just didn’t. She seemed far more interested in trotting out extreme or gross examples of what happens to dead bodies than in actually talking about anything in real depth.

Anyways, I’d recommend this to people who want more of a gross out, wow example of what happens to dead bodies, people without a whole lot of background knowledge of the subject. I guess I’m just not the average Joe when it comes to dead bodies.

A Field Guide to Burying Your Parents- Liza Palmer

I’m going to develop a reputation for not liking Liza Palmer’s books, but I swear that’s not true.  I really did enjoy the first two of her books that I tried.  (Proof 1 and Proof 2)  But I guess pushing that proof aside, I really did not like A Field Guide to Burying Your Parents.

Alright, so the premise of this story is Grace is from this super tight-knit family with four kids, an estranged father, and a really awesome mother.  Grace’s mother died five years prior to this story started and Grace hasn’t spoken to her siblings since her mother’s funeral.  She has isolated herself in this little bubble of numbness, hiding from the intensity of her grief.  Then, one day, Grace’s sister calls to tell Grace their father has had a stroke and has made their older brother his power of attorney.  Grace sucks it up and out of a feeling of obligation to be a good child like she thinks her mother would have wanted her to be, drives up to see her father and her siblings gathered at his bedside.  It soon becomes clear that Grace’s father is dying and there is a big scuff-up because a lady claiming to be his wife keeps turning up, making it incredibly puzzling why their father left his power of attorney to a son he hasn’t seen in 20 years.  Amid the legal issues this precipitates, Grace is left with trying to process her grief for her mother, resolve her feelings about her father who abandoned her, get back in the good graces of her siblings and nieces/nephew, and reconnect with the boyfriend (who is also older brother’s partner at their law firm) who she abandoned when she deserted her family five years earlier.

There were parts of this story that worked for me, particularly the sibling relationships.  It felt like a very real reunion between these four very close siblings, with some anger and resentment from her sister, total acceptance from her younger brother, and some tough love from her older brother.  In the face of some really trying circumstances, they band together to make sure their father’s dying wishes are complied with.  I also enjoyed the plot antics in terms of the second wife and legal rights and inheritance and all that.  It was an original and interesting plot for a chick lit book and was actually a cohesive plot (unlike that of Girl Before a Mirror).  Also, Palmer’s writing is very readable and this book was no exception.

But there were parts of this book that did remind me of my dissatisfaction with Girl Before a Mirror.  Mainly the romance and character development in this book felt forced, much like they did to me in GBAM.  Grace’s grief bubble dissolves in the blink of an eye.  That sort of sudden character change doesn’t feel authentic and is kind of confusing.  In addition, the romance in this book lacked the establishment of a real connection between John and Grace.  It’s mostly told in flashbacks, but the on-screen, real-time romance we get is no real discussion or resolution of the five years separating these two, but rather just some sex and quick forgiveness and I love yous and never ever leave agains.  And that was also much the same way that the resolution of relationships went for Grace between her and her siblings and between her and her father.  It was all quick and easy forgiveness, and while I was willing to buy that Grace and her siblings could put aside the past to work together on their father’s behalf (after all, that’s what families do), I had a hard time buying that her ex-boyfriend whom she abandoned and the father who abandoned her would result in such easy resolutions.

Also, I wasn’t particularly happy with the ending of this book.  The epilogue was gag-me-with-a-spoon cheesy (seriously, why do authors think the surprise pregnancy is a cute, romantic thing?  WHY?) and for a story with a lot of people in heartaching situations, everything ended up a bit too rosy.  A story about a father who abandons his children and then calls them to his deathbed 20 years later could have much more depth and emotion than this story managed to.  This was all a little more fluffy and happily ever after than you might imagine based on the plot description.

And I think that brings me to the big thing that has been bugging me in Palmer’s books– she chooses very big issues to discuss in her books (the death penalty, school shootings, the death of one’s parents, sexism in advertising) and instead of digging deep, still manages to turn out a story that is rather fluffy without any major examination of those big issues.  I think that’s why Seeing Me Naked and Nowhere But Home worked for me– they were mostly about the family and personal drama.  The death penalty could have been a big issue in the latter, but plot-wise it wasn’t necessary, so it didn’t work against the overall development of the characters.  And I think this is also is why A Field Guide for Burying Your Parents fell so flat for me– it promises to deal with the grief of losing both parents through death and abandonment, but ends up settling for an easy out with a father who always loved his kids and ex-wife, but could never ask for forgiveness and come back to them and made grieving a mother as simple as not talking about it for five years and then having a mini-breakdown in a parking lot.

I only have one of Liza Palmer’s books left to read and I’m honestly not sure if I will or not.  It is her debut and should be closer in tone to Seeing Me Naked.  But I have had such mixed results with her books, that I have a hard time imagining giving them another try with the failures so fresh in my memory (Girl Before a Mirror was such a major disappointment for me).  In any case, it has been interesting to be working on authors’ backlists this year (kind of unintentionally) and to see that sometimes an author who really works for me in one book doesn’t at all in another.  Has this ever happened to you?

Bottled Up- Suzanne Barston

This post is going to be very long and cross into some seriously personal territory and if you are not into reading about breastfeeding, I suggest you skip it.

Let me get the personal background out of the way first.  I have a two year old daughter and am expecting a second child (a boy) in January.  I had an incredibly difficult time breastfeeding my daughter due to low supply due to what the lactation consultant supposed was “insufficient glandular tissue.”  That is, my breasts apparently never developed enough of the glandular tissue required to produce an adequate supply of breastmilk to feed an infant.  I had never heard of this condition and still don’t even know how this is possible as I’ve never had issues with any of my reproductive health and development.  I just have small boobs that are kind of spaced far apart.  I never knew that was abnormal.  And with what little I read about breastfeeding before having a child, I thought that just about everyone could breastfeed, if they actually tried hard enough.  To find out that this was not actually true for me meant facing all kinds of disappointment and anger and guilt.

I’d had some issue towards the end of my pregnancy with my daughter with intrauterine growth restriction– meaning she wasn’t getting enough nutrition to grow on the inside.  I had mostly come to peace with that, I carried her to term, and I was somehow much more prepared for things to not go perfectly during pregnancy/childbirth than I was with things going wrong in breastfeeding.  It was pretty devastating to learn I could not feed my child the way I had planned to, the way I’d been told by well-meaning advocates was natural and healthy and BEST for my child.  It was pretty devastating to take my 5 day old to the ER because she was so dehydrated and jaundiced, I couldn’t wake her up.  It was pretty devastating to try everything that the lactation consultant told me to try (pumping after every feed, supplements, etc.) and everything other well-meaning advice-givers gave me (drink more water, eat more calories, pump, pump, pump) to have it make absolutely no difference in the amount of milk I was producing.  I cried a lot about it, felt so embarrassed taking bottles out in public, tried to avoid (still try to avoid) moms who talk about things like “freezer stashes” and the glories of breastfeeding because it was just too painful to admit and explain that I was a failure at those things that other women worked for, sure, but actually had the capacity to do that I didn’t.

Anyways.  All that to say, having another baby has brought so many of these feelings back to the surface.  I can definitely not go through the newborn phase in the emotional stage that I was with my daughter again.  I cannot sit attached to a pump while my baby is in the swing or held by his dad, all to get another third ounce of “liquid gold” to mix into the formula.  And I certainly do not want to go through having another newborn hospitalized.  I have to, for my own sanity, do something differently this time, which means I’ve been thinking very strongly about formula feeding from the start.  And this makes me feel all kinds of guilty.  How can I not even try, especially when I nursed my daughter using a Supplemental Nursing System (SNS) for an entire year?  What if they were wrong last time and my issues were due to something other than my own anatomy that is now fixed?  What kind of mother would I be if I didn’t even try to nurse?  What kind of flack will I get from the breastfeeding advocates in my life (in particular, my own mother)?

In the midst of all this angst over things I cannot change or cannot predict, I decided to read Suzanne Barston’s book, after reading an article about her choice to bottle feed her second child from the start.  She wrote this book with women like me in mind.  Women who believe in the benefits of breastfeeding, but, due to whatever personal factors/choices, formula feed their babies.

Bottled Up is a very accessible, very readable book about how harmful the moralism surrounding breastfeeding promotion can be. I am not sure it is as thorough or conclusive or even as hard-lined as I wanted it to be, but this was exactly the book I needed to read with all these latent feelings swirling around in my head. This book somehow made it feel ok to have tried and fail and reminded me that formula was really not a devil. Without it, my child would have died of dehydration or jaundice or starvation or something.

As for the book itself, the first 4 chapters had me glued to the page and nodding continuously. Sometimes breastfeeding is more dangerous to the mother/child than formula and it is ridiculous and uncompassionate to suggest that every individual mother can/wants/should breastfeed.  She mostly focuses on factors like post-partum depression, past rape or sexual trauma, or even a child’s allergy to its mother’s milk (one issue that Barston encountered personally), but does bring up low supply issues and provides a firm reminder that the low estimate of women who are unable to breastfeed is 5%.  That’s 1 in 20 people, which if you extrapolate to the number of the women in the US is in the hundreds of thousands.  That’s a lot of people being done a disservice by the dialog that “breast is best” and the really lackluster support systems in existence for women with breastfeeding issues.  Barston also points out how our society isn’t really the same as it was when breastfeeding was last in vogue. Many more mothers work outside the home and pumping is difficult even in the best of situations (I had a very supportive work environment, but pumping was the worst, it was so isolating and provided a constant visual reminder of how little I was pumping, especially when my bottles sat in the fridge next to those of other users of the lactation room).

The last two chapters were a little more scattered. Barston claims that of course breastfeeding is better, but her chapter on statistics doesn’t do much to show this. I remember coming across an article (I cannot find a link to the exact article that I remember reading, unfortunately) that analyzed breastfeeding studies in much more depth with a much sharper conclusion: breastfeeding can only conclusively be linked to prevention of a couple instances of diarrhea in infants. I expected a similar summary here, but got a much more lukewarm one. As in, Barston points out that most of these studies are impossible to really take seriously because of all the complicating factors at stake (i.e. you can’t control for who breastfeeds vs. who doesn’t and some of these differences may come down to class differences or parental involvement, etc.), but doesn’t bother to draw a larger conclusion that we don’t have many reliable studies, free of bias, to base claims of “breast is best” on.  She just kinda goes with “breast is best” as the inevitable conclusion, making the same mistake most of the researchers she faults do.

In the last chapter, Barston casts her net wider to encompass breastfeeding as an unrealistic choice not for medical, psychological, or health reasons, but for socioeconomic ones. This is a particularly important point, yes, but felt like too much for this little book. That, and Barston’s winding discussion about breastfeeding in the developing world, really draw her away from what made the first chapters so striking– her personal experiences and feelings and the white middle class angst about formula. I know she was trying to bring this around to a discussion of choice rather than a discussion of well, if you tried and failed, then it’s ok to use formula, but I left this book with a little less satisfaction than I felt after the first four chapters.

If you also had trouble breastfeeding (or couldn’t/didn’t want to for any number of reasons) and felt terribly judged and terribly guilty about having to/choosing to use formula, this book is definitely for you. There is something about realizing I am not alone in this experience, something about realizing that the hyped up talk about breastfeeding is, in fact, mostly talk, and something about remembering that feeding an infant is a deeply personal choice and experience that has helped me let go of some of my guilt. I am no further in knowing how I want to proceed with my next child, but I have some more food for thought.  I have some validation for putting my mental health at the forefront in making that decision. And maybe, just maybe, I can make that tough decision with far less guilt and tears than I did the last time around.

All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood- Jennifer Senior

 

I rarely ever read non-fiction and I even more rarely read parenting books because while it is nice to have ideas of what to try with your kids, parenting advice just feels like a giant minefield to step into.  Like the time I accidentally started reading an attachment parenting book and was like no, no, no, you will not make me feel guilty about not letting my child sleep in my bed.  So Senior’s book was appealing because it is not a “this is how to parent” book, but more of “this is how we parent and this is how it affects our lives” sort of book, which is fascinating stuff because becoming a parent really is a paradoxical thing, just like the title says.  It is joy and love and wonderful moments and simultaneously it is the most frustrating, mind-numbing, and puzzling journey I’ve ever embarked on.

All that to say, I really enjoyed this book and found it impossible to put down.  I was totally fascinated.  This is the type of non-fiction I enjoy– social science data combined with lots of anecdotes and history.  I am not sure that there is much practical that I learned from this, but it has made me think about what I get out of being a parent and about what my goals are in terms of parenting (a large portion of modern parenthood seems to be uncertainty about what exactly the goal is). The larger message is simply that being a parent is challenging, sometimes boring, frustrating hard work, but somehow, someway we find that in spite of that fact, it is a rewarding, enriching, joyous experience.

Senior divides the book into parental experiences at different times of childhood– early childhood (babies, toddlers, preschoolers), the elementary school years, and the adolescent and teenage years.  I very much related to the feelings of middle class mothers in the early childhood years- the feelings of needing to be present and actively involved if I’m with my child (which my husband doesn’t seem to share), struggling with feelings of perceived inequity in the division of domestic duties, and the intense frustration of interacting with someone who needs direction, yet only listens about 60% 33% of the time.  I haven’t yet reached the later years (my kid is only 2) to empathize with the parents of elementary school or adolescent children, but the areas she focused on were certainly familiar and things I think about when I think of the upcoming years– how many extracurricular activities are reasonable for a child? is it possible to escape the intense competition of upper middle class Texas suburbs like the ones Senior examines/I live in? should one monitor their adolescent’s online activity?  I particularly found the fact that living with adolescents has emotional effects on parents fascinating. Working with young adults, I could already see how being around young people making life choices makes one rethink their own life decisions and adolescences and I can only imagine the intensity of these feelings when it is one’s own kids in the hot seat.

What will stick with me longest, though, I think, is the statement that in the moment, parenting is not fun or enjoyable, but in the stories we tell/our memories it is the source of great joy and happiness. This reminded me a lot of Gretchen Rubin’s statement in The Happiness Project that the days are long and the years are short. This is something I feel every day, the drudgery and frustration of walking my toddler back to bed a million times every night is so rough in the moment, but once she finally surrenders to sleep, all I can think about is the cute thing she said to me in the bathtub and how nice it will be to see her in the morning (a feeling I do not experience when she walks into my room before the alarm goes off).

This was a thought-provoking read for sure, but I think mostly if you are a member of the demographic Senior focuses on. As a white, suburban, middle class, married mother who works full-time outside the home, this book was highly relevant. While Senior’s intention was to speak to parents like me, I don’t know that this review of the experience of parenting is widely applicable.  Also, because she relies heavily on anecdotes, it is hard to know if these are really accurate slices of the average parent’s life.  I learn really well from anecdotal evidence, but I know that is not the preference of social science and doesn’t really prove wider truths.  In any case, this is something I’d recommend if you are at all interested in thinking about what social science has to say about the experience of parenthood.  The conclusions might be fairly obvious (all joy, no fun), but it is interesting to see how other parents report similar experiences and to look ahead at the challenges I might face in later stages of childhood.