Before I proceed with my little thoughts and feelings about the two (yes, two!) books I've read since my last entry, a couple of things about some other stuff I've been perusing lately...
Did you know that breasts are actually good for something other than selling beer? It's true! And no one was more shocked to learn this than I.
(Warning: This next bit may make you think about my boobs. If this makes you uncomfortable, then I recommend you skip this bit and spend a minute quietly reflecting on Anna Kournikova's boobs, or Pamela Anderson's boobs, or Drew Carey's boobs... whatever gets you back inside your mammary comfort zone.)
Being in the family way and all, I've been doing a little reading about this whole breastfeeding gig because, despite the fact that it's apparently "natural", I wasn't breastfed, I've never seen anyone breastfeed, and therefore I'm not counting on some atavistic part of my brain to automatically take over and kick in some kind of mythical breastfeeding instinct after this little alien pops out.
Someone over on the ChickLit discussion boards recommended a book called So That's What They're For! Breastfeeding Basics, and despite the book's somewhat fey tone (as you might guess from the title), it's pretty interesting. Even if you don't have breasts -- or if you do but are never planning to exploit their ability to supply fast, free and allegedly tasty beverages -- it still has some fairly fascinating information. Which I will now share with you.
Did you know that:
- Babies' brains are still quite primitive at birth? In fact, as an organ, they're only one-quarter developed.
- Almost the entire remaining three-quarters of brain development happens in the first year or so of a baby's life?
- People who were breastfed are -- on average -- 8.3 IQ points smarter than the rest of us? This is because breastmilk is, apparently, some kind of genius juice.
Let that information fester in your brain for a while. If you weren't breastfed, and if you're anything like me, at first you'll think that it doesn't bother you. But it's going to keep coming back to haunt you, just wait. 8.3 IQ points. You're going to fantasize about what you'd do with those points the same way you fantasize about what you'd do if you won the lottery. And if you're anything like me, you'll start rehearsing the cutting comments you're going to write in this year's Mother's Day card.
If you were breastfed, feel free to write gloating posts in the "Comments" section. Smartass.
On a somewhat related note, I just got the new issue of Granta in the mail and, coincidentally, the theme of the issue is "Mothers". I've only read a few pieces so far, one of them by Paul Theroux, called "Mother of the Year". Let me tell you, "facetious" doesn't even begin to describe that title. I, most likely, will eventually recover from the formula-induced angst I feel towards my mom, but dude absolutely loathes his mother and all the family counselling in the world (even if it were possible, which it's not, because she's dead) isn't going to change his mind.
We've all heard people bitterly rail against their parents before, but Theroux raises the I-hate-my-mother rant to elegaic levels. It's enormously compelling reading, and I definitely recommend it (as well as some other submissions in this issue, including those by Ian McEwan and Ryszard Kapuscinski), but it left me feeling very, very sad. Outright bad mothering is something you never seem to recover from. So thanks, Paul Theroux, for reminding me of that. Like I needed the pressure.
And now on to the ostensible purpose of this blog...
Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie (#5)
Have you ever read a book, and it was tough going, and despite knowing that it was empirically a good book, you had this gut feeling that the problem was that you chose the wrong time and place to read it? It's the feeling I had the first couple of times I tried to read One Hundred Years of Solitude, so I recognized it pretty early on with Midnight's Children. But it was a library book (and since I've already posted about my library struggles far too often, I'll leave it at that), so I felt compelled to finish it now. And I did. And for my own peace of mind, I accept the fact that I need to read it again at a later (and better) time, so that I can feel better about myself.
It doesn't help that the New York Review of Books called Midnight's Children "one of the most important books to come out of the English-speaking world in this generation." I already know I'm dumb. (See above.) Like I need to be deflated even more.
And now that I've wasted enough time dealing with my own petty morale issues, how's about a little background about the actual novel?
In a nutshell, it's the story of Saleem Sinai, born at midnight of August 15th, 1947, at the exact moment of India's celebration of independence from Britain. That's where the story starts, with Saleem in the role of first-person narrator. Part Tristram Shandy, part One Hundred Years of Solitude, it's a detailed chronicle of all the magic-realism-esque events that take place in Saleem's life... a life that he claims has fantastic parallels to India's own troubled history.
There's a lot going on in this novel. You're always left wondering how much of what Saleem says is true versus delusional ranting (because it's clear the dude has issues). It's an intentional parallel, I think, with the schizophrenic nature of India's politics and national identity post-independence. (One of my own weaknesses as a reader is that most of my understanding of world history and politics comes from novels rather than non-fiction, so as you can imagine, it's sketchy at best. And it has gaps. Oh my goodness me, yes, many gaps.)
The ending of Midnight's Children just sort of peters out in an exhausted way, so I guess it's only fitting that this mini-review does, too. Ahem. Moving right along...
Dropped Threads: What We Aren't Told edited by Carol Shields and Marjorie Anderson (#6)
From the editors' Foreword:
The focus for this anthology floated out one day amid soup and salad at one of those gatherings where Carol and I take the emotional pulse of our worlds -- or The World, it seems to us.Because this collection of pieces (I'm reluctant to call them "stories" because they're all true) is written by women about being a woman, this is one of those books that has probably been almost exclusively read by women. And that makes me sad. Men should read it. Everyone should read it. Then men should go out and publish its equivalent, because I'd read that, too. (Or maybe they already have, and it can all be found in this little thing called "the entire literary canon". Whoops! Pardon me... a little cynicism snuck through there.)
"The women's network let me down. Nothing I've heard or read prepared me for this!" This particular yelp resulted from the plummet of energy and purpose I experienced with menopause and quickly led us to wider, more lively musings on what else had caught us unprepared, where else we had experienced gaps between female experience and expression. We were surprised by the number of topics and by the ease with which they came to mind. The image of dropped threads from the fabric of women's talk occurred to us and the familiar, satisfying assumption that women could talk about anything unravelled as we spoke.
It feels like, between talk shows and self-help books and all the rest of the flotsam and jetsom of pop culture, the whole "men are like this and women are like that" meme has been discussed to death. Beyond death. To zombification. But hasn't it all seemed kind of unsatisfying? And inaccurate... as if, despite all the talk, we've somehow still managed to miss the point?
What I love about this collection is that, without claiming to be exhaustive or comprehensive (which it's most assuredly not; gay women, young women, poor women, women of colour -- they're not really represented here), it still gives me a sense of inclusiveness and openness, the feeling that the possibility for discourse has just begun. And that's the book's crowning achievement (and why it seemed like such a no-brainer that the editors followed it up with Dropped Threads 2 a few years later). That and the fact that it avoids sounding at all anti-male or victim-y or partisan feminist-y. Yay!
Another thing I love about this anthology is that reading Margaret Atwood's excellent piece about trying to write honestly as a woman without resorting to -isms, "If You Can't Say Something Nice, Don't Say Anything At All", made me realize how bugged I am by something Neal Pollack posted in his blog a couple of weeks back, which has since ricocheted around the internet and shown up in some other blogs that I otherwise respect:
...Ms. Atwood, who's made a nice career for herself writing one great book and a bunch of boring ones...Hohoho! Quel bon mot! Author! Author!
I'm guessing Pollack's talking about The Handmaid's Tale, which is a great book, but to airily dismiss every single other book Atwood's written as "boring"? Fuck you, Pollack. Cat's Eye is magnificent. Alias Grace is excellent. Even her earlier works, such as Surfacing (which is admittedly a little opaque for my taste), deserve credit as landmark novels in writing about the experience of being a post-lib woman. But what do all these books have in common? Gee whillickers... they're all about strong female characters, with nary a main male character in the lot. So sorry if that bores you, Mr. Pollack. On behalf of women everywhere, I apologize for being such dull subject matter. Maybe if my mother had breastfed me, I'd be more interesting.
Oh my. It looks like someone has rants in her pants!