As you might imagine, Mother's Day was on the mind of many reviewers this weekend. Which seems about right. A belated happy Mother's Day to all mothers. And just a general happy day to everyone reading out there.
In the spirit of Mother's Day, the cover of the Sunday Review features two books about motherhood. As you might suspect, if we're talking motherhood books there are bound to be references to French motherhood. Judith Warner writes in her review, "Just as everyone was getting ready to throw out the Baby Bjorns and start practicing detachment parenting à la française comes a new book, from the esteemed philosopher Elisabeth Badinter, warning that French motherhood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be." Published in Europe in 2010 (where it was a #1 best seller), The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women argues that French parents are growing too enamored with "naturalness," which tethers mothers to their babies, stealing away all but motherhood. Warner isn't sure she agrees with Badinter-- but on the other book in the review, The New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work, and Family by Madeleine Kunin (a former Clinton administration ambassador to Switzerland who served as the first woman governor of Vermont),she feels quite differently. "Kunin’s is not a book of literary value, like Badinter’s. The writing is unremarkable, and there are no big, interesting philosophical ideas. Yet whereas Badinter’s argument is beautiful and essentially wrong, Kunin — Pollyanna-ish faith in the family-friendly nature of female politicians aside — is almost unimpeachably right, as she diagnoses what we in America need, why we’ve never gotten it, and how we may have some hope of achieving change in the future."
Anne Enright is a favorite around these parts, so I started getting nervous as I read the opening of Judith Newman's review of Enright's new book, Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood. Newman tells us that "writing well about children is tough. You know why? They’re not that interesting. What is interesting is that despite the mind-numbing boredom that constitutes 95 percent of child rearing, we continue to have them." Uh oh. Luckily, I read on: "To write well in the mother-child arena, a person must understand that the essential condition of motherhood isn’t pleasure or wonderment or even terror — although there’s plenty of that. The essential condition is absurdity. Samuel Beckett could have come up with a great book on babies. Anne Enright has."
Jeanette Winterson reviews John Irving's newest novel In One Person, which she tells us is "a story about memory. Inevitably it is also a story about desire, the most unsettling of our memories. And it is a story about reading yourself through the stories of others." The novel is narrated by Billy Dean, who is thirteen and fatherless when we first meet him. Winterson tells us, "Desire and its unsettlements of the soul are as central to John Irving’s work as lost fathers." Billy is bisexual, which creates desires and unsettlements in his life, and Winterson summarizes the effect as follows: "Desire is democratic; we fall for the wrong people, across age, class, color, gender. Desire is difficult; it messes things up. Desire is defiant; our desires square off against our assumptions, our morality, our conscience and our notion of who we are. There is no doubt that Irving thinks this is a good thing. He is not simplistic, though, not ever. He understands that we don’t always act on or act out our desires. Sometimes we just suffer in silence. Yet he also realizes that the shock to our self-knowledge, or our lack of it, remains the same either way."
Ed. Note: Last week, John Irving posted about his new book on Omnivoracious. You can read the post here.