Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Colette: the anecdote of the day

This is the best thing I learned today by far. It's from Colette's Sido (1929) by way of a scholarly book I'm reading for review. (The quote is the book's summation, not Colette's, btw.)

It seems that Colette's father "passed his retirement in his study writing his memoirs and binding the volumes himself. While her father was alive, neither Colette nor any other member of the family was ever tempted to open one of the books, because of their unprepossessing titles: My Campaigns, the Lessons of '70, Marshal Mahon Seen by a Fellow-Soldier, and so forth. After her father died, however the library was converted into a bedroom and Colette's elder brother made a discovery:....Except for a dedicaition, the books contained all blank pages." (Victoria Rosner, Modernism and the Architecture of Private Life, Columbia UP, 2005, 91.)

Amazing. As Victoria Rosner goes on to discuss, it's amazing, funny and sad how little, in the end, one has to do to set oneself up as a writer. Think of the solitary hours he passed, unmolested because he was writing. I wonder if they were spend in tortured writer's block or, instead, as I prefer to think, blissful dozing, confident in the knowledge that none would disturb l'auteur du famille.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Passing Glances at Virginia Woolf

Recently, I wrote about an old feature of the International Virginia Woolf Society Bibliography: Passing Glances. My friend Sally Greene began collecting allusions and references to Woolf in popular novels and pop culture. At Ana Maria’s urging (and thanks to Google which now provides me with categories for free and daily email alerts, too), I’m going to try to keep track of mentions of Woolf in the blogosphere.

I’ve already linked several times to the dicussion of “Kew Gardens” at A Curious Singularity. You can also find some information about a Woolf wiki here. I’m a bit skeptical of wikis these days: they seem to me destined to go the way of hypertext and choose your own adventure. Still, I’d be grateful to be proven wrong.

Both Mark Thwaite and Susan Hill are steadily reading their way through Woolf. Mark has posted entries on To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, and, most recently, this enthusiastic and insightful entry on The Waves. Susan is conducting an ongoing reading project, Woolf for Dummies, which seems to be geared to those who really are afraid of Woolf. The most recent entry I can find is just a query to see who’s read Night and Day yet. That book, Woolf’s second novel, is not one that generally inspires readers to continue. Still, her posts seem to have encouraged book-buying of at Equiano’s and Kate’s, too.

Someone called Anne (not me) posted a long Woolfish comment to the query “Do men ever write in women’s voices?” (which seems a silly question) and the more interesting follow-up, what are the best female protagonists created by men?

A romance novelist considers the spark of inspiration ignited by her teacher assigning some Woolf. I’ll be curious to see where this leads…

Woolf still doesn’t have the web presence of the Bronte blog but it’s fun to find her cropping up here and there.

Monday, November 27, 2006

More Poetry

I don’t get a lot of comments on this blog so it was a delightful surprise to find 3 awaiting my long-weekend post on Byatt and John Donne. Clearly there’s a hunger for poetry our there. If you’re still not sated, you should hop over to the Poetry Foundation website. This week, Mark Thwaite of ReadySteadyBook (and who may be the Dan Wickett of the UK) is contributing a journal—five longish blog entries beginning with, he tells me, one on Bishop.

Before you read Mark’s though, do read the previous one, by my friend and colleague Rachel Zucker. She’s a great poet: her book The Last Clear Narrative is intellectual and unsentimental and passionate and funny about marriage, motherhood, pregnancy, and all their attendant losses and gains. In this journal, she writes movingly about a miscarriage and the decision to write about it.

If all of that leaves you hungry to chime in, Cam has created a poetry meme. You can find it here.

And with that, I must go re-read “Lycidas” for a guest lecture I’m giving this afternoon!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Inside the TLS: John Donne edition

The September 22, 2006 edition of the TLS has been sitting around the house for a while. Donne is on the cover. He is a writer whose poems I don’t know well, a great writer about whom I’m not all that curious. I feel a little sheepish about this. And, feeling this way, it’s long interested (and artificially confirmed) me that Woolf’s essay on John Donne—a lead essay for the TLS as it happens—seems so dutiful.

In any case, I’m glad I hung on to the issue. A. S. Byatt’s essay on Donne, “Observe the Neurones,” is a revelation: smart and crazy. I’ve gotten obsessed by it in the couple weeks since I read it. Byatt opens by “trying to work out why [Donne] is so exciting” and she finds the answer in neurology. (I am embarrassed to confessed how slowed I was by not realizing “neurones” is simply the British spelling of “neurons.”)

Thought really is physical, Byatt reminds us, and each thought lights up a neural pathway. Building on this, Byatt seizes on another’s hypothesis---that perhaps “we delight in puns because the neuron connections become very excited by the double input.” That is, a pun lights up two paths at once, giving our brain an extra jolt of electricity. In short, there may be a physical pleasure to some kinds of thinking.

For the rest of the essay, Byatt develops this neurological hypothesis with regards to Donne and another “exciting” poet, Wallace Stevens, using neurology and the work of Harvard literary critic Elaine Scarry. (Scarry’s most famous for The Body in Pain but Byatt is working with Dreaming by the Book.) If puns bring pleasure, might metaphysical poetry, too, be “exciting” for similar physiological reasons? I think that’s a good guess.

In graduate school, we each had moments of great enthusiasm for our own projects. It comes to seem, at a certain moment, that you are writing the argument, the key ot all mythologies. Of this, my friend would say, “Oh, she’s at the phase where everything is everything.”

That phrase became a kind of limit and warning to me: anytime I felt on fire with the sense that everything fit, that “everything is everything,” I would pause, check my pulse, and back down.

Byatt describes a Donne poem, “The Cross,” that suffers from the enthusiasm of the everything is everything moment: having compared his own body to a cross (and thus, to Christ on the cross), he moves to what she calls “a mad bravura demonstration of the brain’s power to detect—or confer—abstract forms.” As she notes, after listing the many crosses in Donne’s poem, “this is nonsense at any level of logic except the brain’s pleasure in noticing, or making, analogies.” Ultimately it seems that the pleasure of reading Donn is like that of the pun: Donne ignites a spark. Reading this gives me a way to enter his poems again.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Ha Jin at Fordham

I’m loving Waiting which I’m reading on the strength of Ha Jin’s talk about his writing last Thursday at Fordham. The event was in conjunction with his upcoming opera at the Met. (More opera, I know!) He’s collaborating with composer Tan Dun and film director Zhang Yimou on “The First Emperor.”

Ha Jin was amazingly impressive. The event—a staged interview—suited him well. It was informal (conducted by my colleague, Professor Chris GoGwilt and then opened up to questions from the audience) and Chris’ well-researched questions taught me a lot about him.

He talked about himself as having been a “half-hearted” writer for many years. Even after he published his first book of poetry in English, he was still half-hearted. He came to English by an accidental route. When the universities were closed during the Cultural Revolution, he followed along with a radio program on learning English—a half hour a day. A year later, the universities now open, he put this small progress in English onto his college application and was assigned to be an English major. Then, he came to the U.S. in 1985 to get a Ph.D. in comparative poetics at Brandeis. That dissertation was written for the Chinese job market.

But, when the Tiananmen massacre happened in 1989 and, in the chaos his son was suddenly permitted to leave China and join him in the States, his life changed forever. Ha is the son of an army officer and a former officer himself. And, he said, seeing the People’s Army turn on the people was traumatic. That trauma combined with his son’s fierce desire to emigrate. Suddenly, out of his trauma and for his son, he, too, decided to stay in the United States.

Now, he said, he had a big problem: what to do with his life? Having some friends who taught creative writing, he thought that, perhaps, with lots of hard work, he could, in ten years, maybe get a decent job teaching poetry.

Throughout the conversation, he was genuinely humble. He spoke of himself as a writer who was still learning, still experimenting, still trying, with each new book, to deserve the name of novelist. All of this struck me as a very ancient Chinese scholarly stance. Ha seems to take the long view of time and to have little interest in acclaim. When asked what it was like to work with Tan Dun and Zhang Yimou on the opera, he laughingly explained that he has to remember that he is one of many artists, that opera is new to him, that he is collaborating on a project not of his own invention but one that he was commissioned to do. Under the laugh, you could imagine many, many moments in which things did not go his way. Still, he took it lightly and with easy maturity.

In short, I was mightily impressed. I am eager to see the opera and the book is a delight.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Free books! Free books! Free books!

There’s quite a tempest in a teapot over at Reading Matters and MetaxuCafe over free books and bloggers’ reviews. Kim suggests that reviews should include the provenance of a book—particularly whether the book was sent for free or paid for. (Bud’s post has links to her posts and the great comment threads as well as Matt’s contrarian response.)

I’m going to join the many, including Matt, who say that these ethical compunctions are so much nonsense.

It seems to me that there are lots of ways of supporting the arts. One is to make a lot of money and become a patron. The ethical problem of that is that it’s hard to make a lot of money and remain ethical. Riches are often ill-gotten in this world. Another is to work in the trenches of editing, publishing, writing, blogging, and even academe and benefit from a barter economy.

One of the great material benefits of having chosen a bookish life is free books. And I don’t mind contests, getting paid, or other baloney either. Good reviewers can’t be bought.

That said, all of us are caught up in the web of who knows whom. In the even smaller world of reviews of academic books, it’s often possible to trace alliances and rivalries within a review. Still, as Ron says rather pointedly:
if you can't tell the difference between somebody who's genuinely passionate about a book and somebody who's repurposing press releases, then frankly you're probably not the most attentive of readers to begin with.

I used to be more worried about these ethical knots until Woolf schooled me to think about writing and reviewing as a profession, not a hobby. For her, it’s a feminist point: we are not mere scribblers and hobbyists and part of taking ourselves seriously as professionals means spending some time thinking about how to make money from this pursuit. In my case, my money mainly comes from my teaching but I am happy to get a little here and there for a guest lecture, an inside review (going back to the editors, that is) of a new text book; I am equally happy to get paid in kind (books) for my writing here at Fernham. We run a tight economic ship here in my family and the free books have become an amazing valve, letting off some of the accumulated pressure from constant budgeting.

Here’s the Woolf wrangle that taught me to get over myself. It’s from a 1925 letter to her friend Jacques Raverat:
I’ve been engaged in a great wrangle with an old American called [Logan] Pearsall Smith on the ethics of writing articles at high rates for fashion papers like Vogue. He says it demeans one. He says one must write only for the Lit. Supplement and the Nation and Robert Bridges and prestige and posterity and to set a high example. I say Bunkum. Ladies’ clothes and aristocrats playing golf don’t affect my style; and they would do his a world of good. Oh these Americans! How they always muddle everything up! What he wants is prestige: what I want, money.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Perhaps Tellingly

After writing about book-buying sprees recently (over at the LBC), I got to go on one yesterday. I was surprised at how much I’ve been influenced by litblogs and podcasts in what I chose:
  • John Banville, The Sea because Mark Sarvas enthused about it
  • Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss because of the Booker
  • Nell Freudenberger, The Dissident because she gave an amazing interview on WNYC and then Lauren Cerand hosted her reading
  • Laird Hunt, The Exquisite because Bud Parr is so enthusiastic about it
  • Tayari Jones, The Untelling because I like her blog
  • Julie Powell, Julie & Julia, somewhat skeptically, but she is a cook and a blogger and I do expect to find it funny, and
  • Lauren Slater’s Best American Essays, 2006
    but not
  • Mark Danielewski’s Only Revolutions even though I’m tempted and it’s clearly a triumph of book design. Have you seen it? It’s like a really gorgeous issue of McSweeney’s. But I listened to Michael Silverblatt’s interview with him on WKRC’s bookworm, after hearing and reading lots of buzz on the book and he was so incredibly pretentious I could not bear it. (I haven’t listened to the Bat Segundo version yet—I’ll have to do that.)
I’m intrigued by the conceit—a love story from two perspectives, one running from front to back, one from back to front, meeting in the middle. Each page has the same number of lines, half from the woman’s perspective, half from the man’s, and then marginalia that puts this time-bending story into historical context. It is, in short, way too complicated to describe in full.

And Danielewski is clearly really, really smart. Am I jealous? Maybe. But when I heard him describe all the rules he’d set for himself and say, “…perhaps tellingly, the word home is never used…” I threw in the towel for now.

Perhaps tellingly? As a thing to say about your own crazy work? That struck me as beyond pretension. It’s not “telling” when it’s your own deliberate choice and there is no “perhaps” about it. How about “Because they’re drifters, I decided to banish the word home from my vocabulary for this book.”

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Gina Ochsner’s People I Wanted to Be

This is Gina Ochsner’s second collection of stories but she’s new to me. Although she comes with glowing praise from Chang-rae Lee (an author I admire greatly and one who shares East Coast/West Coast history with me), lives in Western Oregon (not so far from my native Seattle), and has been mentioned on Moorish Girl, I learned about her book from my friend in London.

London or Oregon, what does it matter? These stories are amazing! I have been living in this world for a couple weeks now and I am sorry to leave it behind.

It is some consolation to think that, perhaps, I can sway a few people to dip into this haunting, moving world of fog, affection, and longing.

The stories are set in Russia or Prague or Oregon. Wherever, they are, the background is gray, foggy, and a little bleak. The color in the stories comes from the characters whose ordinary lives are full of the intense emotions of ordinary lives: longing for children, longing for love, hoping for a satisfying job, fantasizing about an elsewhere, an alternative, and weighing the real costs of making a change or resigning oneself to one’s lot.

There is realism here. There is magic. There is a lot that I recognize from other contemporary writers but this doesn’t feel tired or familiar or derivative. I’ve been trying to figure out why and I have some thoughts about it: Ochsner really seems to like her characters, so when they see ghosts or become ghosts, she’s more interested in the drama than in showing us the dazzle of her own craft. It’s not “hey, look, I made you believe in a ghost,” but “this ghost is really coming at a bad time in the narrator’s marriage.”

She also writes really well about work. I was reminded of Hopkins’ line, “And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim,” from “Pied Beauty” several times: Ochsner loves describing the equipment of different jobs: the tackle boxes, the pencil cases, the knives and scalpels, the brushes.

Finally, her women are wonderful. I’ve read lots of women writers with great male characters lately (Edie Meidav comes to mind), and Ochsner’s men are great: tender and strong, vulnerable and courageous. But her women are really, really terrific. And she is great on the longing for children or the hilarious, comic fierceness of women trying to keep from getting pregnant or trying to get pregnant. I may have more to say about individual stories down the line. Overall, though, there is not a clunker in the lot. A really, really moving and wonderful collection. I’m thrilled that it came my way.

There’s not a lot of Ochsner in the blogosphere, but you can find a rave from The Stranger and another from I Read A Short Story Today.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Dan Zanes at Carnegie Hall

This was a benefit for Carnegie Hall’s children’s music series so you could pay $150 or $300 or a mere $8. We paid eight. Great. We had pretty bad seats, but it was a great hootenanny. Dan Zanes came out in a very, very bright red suit and sang “The Wonder Wheel,” his new old song about riding the Coney Island Ferris Wheel with all his friends.

I love Dan Zanes and I love his music—the new stuff that sounds old and the old stuff that he reminds you of: hearing him and Natalie Merchant sing “You take the high road and I’ll take the low road” was moving and fun and beautiful all at once. And when Barbara Brousal—who has every bit as much star power as Natalie Merchant—came out to sing her gorgeous “Malti,” she brought the house down.

This was the third time my older daughter and I have seen Dan Zanes; the second for my husband, too. The formula is so winning and great: lots of homespun special guests come out in quick succession to sing a mix of new and old folk songs on old-time instruments. We were sitting with a bunch of eleven year-old boys who whooped and hollered when their friend made his Carnegie Hall debut, playing trumpet alongside his father and Anna Zanes. Father Goose comes out toward the end and leads everyone in his Jamaican dub-style medley of nursery rhymes and the band slowly marches off-stage in a waltz through the crowd.

I’m not a good singer but I love to sing. When I was little, the other kids at summer camp let me sing only because I learned all the lyrics. So, out of tune, I could carry the other campers through the tougher verses. Dan Zanes’ happy open attitude about music—everybody sing along, everybody dance—helps keep me singing with my girls now. We sing all the time.

This morning, my daughter said she wished she could go back and be a baby again but this time she would try to remember it. She is jealous of the infant and feels like things would be better if she could remember how I used to tend to her as I now tend to the baby. So we talked about how no one remembers being a baby.

“Except you, Mama.”

No, I don’t remember being a baby.

“But you remember all the songs, Mama. All of them.”

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Opera for All

I was interested & excited to learn about recent efforts by the Metropolitan Opera and CityOpera to bring younger audiences to the opera. I like opera—love it—but am not an aficionado. Friends and I used to pile into a Honda and make the drive from New Haven to the Met a couple times a year for $25 nosebleed seats. I dragged my husband to Eugene Onegin in Indianapolis and an amazing production of Dialogue of the Carmelites at Glimmerglass.

Still, I was shocked and thrilled to catch the ad in the Times for CityOpera’s Opera For All performance of Carmen. All seats in the house $25. I got on-line. We got two seats in row D for $50. (Not even $59.95 with "handling fees.") Row D. Amazing. And for Carmen--not just any opera but the opera—happy and sad, dancing and singing, lots of red satin. No elephants, I know, but still, what’s not to like?

In any case, I have two recordings of Carmen on my iPod and listened to them constantly. Then, last Friday, we went to Carmen. Even with the lasting, constant exhaustion of mothering two children under four, the first two acts just flew by. I loved it. My fatigue caught up with me in act three, but still, the sparkles! the fluttering petals! the singing children! Toreadore! En garde!

For all the operas I have attended, for all the Sundays of my girlhood spent with “Sunday Afternoon at the Met” playing in the background on the radio, for the “Bravo Opera!” sticker on my little red wagon, for all the times I saw my father poring over a libretto, this is the very first time I remember just truly loving it, not mostly loving it while sometimes wondering if I had the sophistication to muscle through the performance.

Opera for all indeed. Bravo opera.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

More on Sideshow

Largehearted Boy has a great Sidney Thompson post: a soundtrack--one song per story in Sideshow. It's a fun idea and a nice way to look again at that LBC-nominated collection.

Election Day Shorts

The day began at 6:00. I got all my ducks in a row--formula mixed, some of it stirred into rice cereal flakes, coffee made, yogurt smoothie poured into sippy cup, showered. So, when the girls awoke at 7 (bless them for sleeping!), I was ready to go.

By 8:30, one was at preschool, the other, at daycare, and I was voting. #82 in my little precinct which, I was told was a lot for so early in the morning. Good. I want lots and lots of people to vote. Good.

I promptly turned my ankle-badly--on the uneven walk, nervously remembering previous election days. Not good.

CNN had some crazy "Democracy Bus" out in front of the TimeWarner building: cameras, a grafitti board, etc. Goofy but festive, even at 9:30 in the morning. It was very festive indeed when I was limping home at 3:30. Strange.

Then, in Starbucks, there was Leslie Stahl, getting her mochachino or whatever she drinks and a Ray Charles cd. Full make-up, black ballerina flats, and New York Times. Seeing her always cheers me somehow: it's nice to think that these television journalists spend at least some time sitting in Starbucks reading the paper and thinking about their stories. That seemed good and exciting. As I stood next to her, I wanted so badly to say something, but what? That seemed good, too.

So here I sit, exhausted and watching the results.

I am amused and occasionally engrossed by politics but I pray for peace. I hope for peace.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Firmin week at the LBC

This quarter’s Read This! pick from the LitBlog Co-op is Firmin by Sam Savage. I really can recommend that you read it: if you’re reading this, if you like reading enough that you read lit-blogs, you’ll likely be charmed, as I was, by this fable about a rat whose born into a Boston bookstore and learns to read.


The book is beautiful and full of charming little pen-and-ink illustrations. Hungry, Firmin gnaws on paper and then surprises himself by learning to read. As he works himself through the books by the great ones, the gap between his life and the glamour of the lives he reads about grows ever more painful and poignant.

There is some discussion at the site about whether or not Firmin is really a rat—eavesdrop or chime in as you wish. (I think he’s a rat…).

I was inspired to contribute my own reminiscence of Boston area bookstores.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Blogging Woolf

I’m back to working on Woolf—the break of a month or so really feels longer than it has been because, well, the book is done. Woolf has been on my mind 24/7 for years and years and now, even as I return to her, I can go for hours at a time without the nagging buzz of "must finish Woolf manuscript" in the background. Someone described this as a Woolfish blog and that seems about right to me. It’s not a Woolf blog and it won’t be. Still, I find myself wishing for more Woolf in the blogosphere, wishing for something like the Bronte Blog for Woolf.

When I took over as the bibliographer for the International Virginia Woolf Society, I had hoped to really expand the “Passing Glances” which my predecessor Sally Greene began. (If you search around on the IVWS website, you can find the page. Click on bibliography, then click on one of the earlier years and scroll down….barely worth it, I know…) She asked readers to submit mentions of, allusions to, and debts to Woolf in contemporary culture. Instead of expanding the idea, it died on my watch. Sorry! This idea, I see now, of course, would be ideal blog fodder. Any takers?

Still, there’s been some great Woolf stuff around the blogosphere this month and it feeds my enthusiasm for the return to Woolf. I even found, amazingly, an entry on Woolf and Hakluyt (the subject of one of my chapters) by my old friend Sally! After reading To the Lighthouse, Mark Thwaite has turned to Mrs. Dalloway which he seems to have liked a lot. Ana Maria uses her knowledge of Woolf to help her through Robbe-Grillet: it’s always such a pleasure to read her thinking through her readings and this is a really mart entry about how we approach experimental writing and what it feels like to have a brain abuzz with tons of reading. And, as I mentioned before, A Curious Singularity continues to blog Woolf’s amazing short story “Kew Gardens.” There are lots of bloggers, lots of opinions over there—including a very funny entry from someone who couldn’t even bring him or herself to finish the (very short) story.

My next project will be pretty tightly focused on Mrs. Dalloway. So, as a warm-up, I’m going through David Bradshaw’s notes to the Oxford edition of Mrs. Dalloway. What have I learned? Lots. Among the tidbits, this favorite: early in the novel, Mrs. Dalloway thinks about houses she has visited, about all the parties she’s been to. She lists two famous houses and then “the house with the china cockatoo.” This refers apparently, to the “home of Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts, Baronness Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906), an indefatigable philanthropist, friend of Charles Dickens, the Duke of Wellington, and a host of other Victorian notables…[At her London home,].a white china cockatoo ‘hung “on a level with the top of a passing omnibus” on a circular perch in the big bay window…Like the Royal Standard at Buckingham Palace, the bird’s purpose was to indicate that its owner was in residence’” (Bradshaw, quoting Diana Orton, Made of Gold).

Now, that is rich. “Like the Royal Standard.” Imagine thinking that about yourself! “What I really need is something like the Royal Standard!” And then, that degree of vanity reached, coming to the next thought, “I know, we’ll put the white china cockatoo in the bay window upstairs!”

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Birth and Marriage

I’ve just finished a book on birth (for pleasure) and marriage (for work). Neither book is great, but both are interesting for the way they treat subjects about which we are all “experts.” Everyone has lots of ideas about birth, it seems, how it should best be done, who should be present, what it ought to mean (or not) for mother and child. So, Tina Cassidy’s engaging (and surprisingly not-too-political) book, Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born excites all kinds of thoughts, reminiscences, and opinions.

Birth and marriage are interesting. I remember how I used to blush when my mom would say that sex is interesting—usually as a cue, I think, to keep me from running away from an embarrassing conversation. But, of course, sex is. All of these big things are. What makes Cassidy’s book effective is that it’s simply a journalistic history of how we get born: there’s a chapter on C-sections, a discussion of forceps, etc. (She tells the same sorry story that Atul Gawande told in The New Yorker recently of the history of forceps: the inventors kept their tool secret for generations—profiting mightily from their monopoly.) What makes the scholarly book on marriage less successful is that it attempts to put forth an argument about how marriage has or has not changed with reference to a very small handful of novels.

Marriage has changed, I have no doubt, but charting that change needs large samples punctuated by salient in-depth examinations. Novels are obsessed with marriage. In fact, you could argue that the genre flourished through its dependence on a modern idea of romantic, companionate heterosexual coupling. But novels are idiosyncratic, strange, amazing, and individual. This makes them a bad foundation for a sweeping generational argument.

Birth has changed in a different sense, but it has changed nonetheless. The Times review found Cassidy's book gory. I love medical writing and I found it pretty tame. It is, however, overlong and plagued by an irritating tic: each chapter ends with a little scene involving that chapter's topic (say, c-sections) and a coy anticipation of the next (say, the role of the father). So, we get a little perky uptalk along the lines of [I'm making this up--it's not a quotation] "Prepped for her c-section and strapped to a table, the modern mother turns to her husband, who may be green at the gills at the sight of his flayed wife. Who let the husband into the room in the first place?..."

Reading along in both books, my mind continuously wandered off to other birth stories—especially my own—and marriage stories—especially my own. I imagine many, many other readers of these books will have the same response, all of which leads me to feel rather cynical about the books. They gain so much of their interest from anticipating our own interest and expertise in the topic.

I’m having trouble getting at the nub of what I’m trying to say here—what interested and bothered me in both of these books—but it seems like neither one fully got to their point, either. The one, too broad, the other, too narrow, both relying too much on the way that these two huge words, so applicable to all of us (even in our non-participation in the latter), neither sufficiently acknowledging that it's in the wholly personal version, the unique and crazy individual story of one little family's life, that these words take on their weight.