Sunday, February 06, 2005

BOOKS: I've Got Rants in My Pants!

Holy crap. Between work and 28th-week-of-pregnancy-related medical fooferaw (nothing exciting and E.R.-y to report, I'm afraid -- just routine blood tests and doctor appointments), the past week has been crazy busy. But you've heard all the excuses before, and from people who are much more creative excuse-ifiers than me, so let's move on now, shall we?

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.
As an adult, I've always congratulated myself for being all mature-like and not playing the blame game with my parents about my upbringing (and I say "parents" because, of course, everyone knows that dads can breastfeed, too), but now I'm pissed. 8.3 IQ points. I could've used those. Fuuuuck. I'd probably have passed chemistry. My entire life could have been different. A life in which I understood chemistry. I'd probably be cruising toward my second or third Nobel Prize by now. Fuuuuuuck. And I'd probably have a broader vocabulary... one less reliant on the word "fuck", to start.

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.

"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.
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.)

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!


Tammy said...

Yeah, I started *One Hundred Years of Solitude* a couple of times, and my running joke was calling it *One Hundred Years of Reading This Bloody Book* (okay, so it's not that funny a running joke). I couldn't keep the characters straight, because they all seem to have the same name, and I kept losing track of the timeline, so I had to keep flipping to the family tree diagram that's at the front of my edition. It was b-r-u-t-a-l.

But then last spring, the mister and I went to Cuba for two weeks, and I took along *One Hundred Years* and I positively breezed through it in two or three days, without ever once resorting to the family tree. I don't know if it was because I was in a tropical setting that kind of mirrored the novel's setting, or if it was because I found it fascinating that Castro was good buddies with Marquez, or if it was just because I had hours of uninterrupted reading time each day, but whatever it was, it totally inspired my reading. And *One Hundred Years* ended up being awesome. I loved it. And the ending blew me away.

So I'm a firm believer in my (mostly self-serving) theory that there are no bad classics, just bad contexts for reading them.

On a similar note, I tried to read the *Lord of the Rings* trilogy several times, and I was only able to finally do it (and love it) when I went to Thailand for a month and a half. Clearly, I need to take more tropical vacations. I highly recommend them.

Rachel said...

I think everyone has That One Book that just refuses to be read. Mine is "Atlas Shrugged." I bought a copy because my mom refused to give me hers. Its one of those books that I felt like I 'should' read. So I tried. And I tried again. Then I tried a third time. Then I threw it across the room. Now it sits on my bookshelf, silently accusing me of... something.

Anonymous said...

On the breastfeeding and brain development track, another book you might find interesting is *What's Going On In There?*, by Lise Eliot. Despite the title, it is not at all fey in tone, and it's got a lot of fascinating (and sometimes fairly science-y) information on infant and childhood brain development. It's a really great book for the gestating and other interested parties.

--Kate (aka cat from Chicklit)

Anonymous said...

(That was me.)

-- Wing Chun

Tammy said...

Rachel, you should never, ever feel badly about not reading Ayn Rand. I read *Atlas Shrugged* (which should be subtitled "Hours and Hours of My Life I'll Never Get Back") a few years ago, and it was meh. Rand has some interesting ideas, but as a storyteller she's crap.

I *wish* I just had one of That One Book, but alas, I have many. Moby Dick. Crime and Punishment. Sister Carrie. And those are just the ones I can think of without looking at the Shelf of Shame on my bookshelves.

Kate/cat, thanks for the recommendation. I'll check that book out. I'm definitely 100% gung-ho about the whole breastfeeding thing, but I'm still having a hard time getting beyond the theoretical aspect of it to the actual physical reality. But I imagine that that'll just impose itself all on its own.

And Wing... ouch, dude. But the truth always hurts. Frankly, I'm just gratified that you think you're ONLY 8.3 points smarter than me. Haha! I fooled you good! Also, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and magical realism want me to tell you that you've hurt their feelings. They're sulking in their room if you want to apologize.

Tammy said...

P.S. Don't tell my boss I'm posting so much today. Shhhh...

Dave said...

I wasn't breastfed but I'm closer to 16.6 IQ points lower then everyone else. Suspect I might also have been raised by monkeys--I'll have to look into that.

My unconquerable book right now is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Dust jacket wisdom tells me it's a cross between Harry Potter and Jane Austen, but once you get past that revelation the book just ain't that interesting. And the fact that the damn thing weighs forty-seven pounds really isn't helping matters.

Anonymous said...

Doppelganger - from a recent mother. Read all the books you want on breastfeeding, but what you really need is a person on hand to show you the ropes. Since my mom wasn't around, I found a breastfeeding consultant to come show me how to do it for an hour about 36 hours after I had the tadpole (just when things were getting sore). It was the best $100 I've ever spent.

Keris Stainton said...

I agree with the last post - I read every pregnancy book going, couldn't get on with the breastfeeding. It may well be 'natural' but it's really difficult!

The book that taunts me is Catch 22 - started it about five times. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is good but I'm not sure it was worth the time invested ...

Really enjoying this site.

Veronica said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Veronica said...

This was a hilarious entry! I plan on linking to it when I finally finish The Ground Beneath Her Feet because, man, that book is going to take me the entire month of February to read!

Oh, and I was breastfed too and I skipped two grades and graduated college when I was twenty. I'm just sayin'. Of course, I currently work retail, so I'm not sure where any of that has gotten me...

(First post deleted due to egregious misspellings. Where's the dang edit button?)

Keris Stainton said...

I was so disappointed with The Ground Beneath Her Feet. I thought it was sort of embarrassing, bit like watching your dad dance.

Anonymous said...

I just started reading Midnight's children, prepared for the worst on the base of your comment ;)
...and to my surprise, I love it! The style of writing reminds me so much of One hundred years of solitude, which I find kind of funny, since you mentioned you had trouble reading that, too.
But then I absolutely loved almost all Marquez, so I guess I am ok with this kind of books.

Tammy said...

Don't get me wrong -- Midnight's Children is obviously an excellent book. Like I said, it was just the wrong time and place for me to read it. I have every intention of returning to the trough. And I did end up loooooving One Hundred Years of Solitude... so much so that I went out immediately after and read Love in the Time of Cholera and Marquez's short story collection No One Writes to the Colonel.

I'm glad I got over the hump with Marquez, because I think I'm rooting for him for this new Booker Prize that's causing all the hubbub. But I plan to write more on that in a future entry, so I'll stop there.

Tammy said...

And Keris? "I thought it was sort of embarrassing, bit like watching your dad dance" is one of the funniest things I've heard in a while. I am so totally going to steal that.

Anonymous said...

No, I didn't expect it to be a "bad" book. I just understood it may not be the easiest book to read so I was prepared not to be disappointed if it turned out to be bad timing for me, too. Luckily, the time seems to be right. The book also.