Our bookshelf overfloweth! Here is a sampling of the reproduction-related volumes that have crossed our desk in the last few months.
A Midwife’s Story (1986), by Penny Armstrong and Sheryl Feldman, relates how Armstrong, a nurse-midwife, comes to live near the Amish in Lancaster County, PA and provide care to them. It’s a very tender description of the families she comes to serve and love, as well as the change she herself undergoes in the process.
After Birth (2015), by Elisa Albert. Ari and Paul move to upstate New York from the city when she is six months pregnant. The book begins as Ari is just emerging from her first year postpartum after a traumatic birth. In a town of poverty-stricken fading grandeur (of a kind we’re all too familiar with here in the Rust Belt), Ari’s friendship with a newly-arrived poet/musician is the mirror in which she views her own recovery progress. The first person narrative showcases Ari’s powerful and intensely personal voice:
Adrienne Rich had it right. No one gives a crap about motherhood unless they can profit off it. Women are expendable and the work of childbearing, done fully, done consciously is all-consuming. So who’s gonna write about it if everyone doing it is lost forever within it? You want adventures, you want poetry and art, you want to salon it up over at Gertrude and Alice’s, you’d best leave the messy all-consuming baby stuff to someone else.
Terrible Virtue (2016), by Ellen Feldman, is a fictionalized biography of Margaret Sanger. It describes her humble origins, her relationships with her husband and her children, and – always – the Cause.
Sex is a Funny Word: A Book About Bodies, Feelings, and You (2015), by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth. This children’s book identifies the requisite body parts and touches very briefly on babymaking, but chiefly addresses feelings and relationships. It’s probably best suited to children ages 8-14, but readers outside that range will still find gold nuggets between the covers.
Its hallmark is the beautiful diversity of bodies. The challenge of displaying different skin tones is resolved by including skin colors from real life and technicolor faces. The faces shown display a variety of features; these people look like your friends – if you can imagine your friends with blue, green, and purple faces!
The book examines any number of emotionally complicated topics quite sensitively and sensibly. This is the book you wish you’d had when you started asking questions no one would answer.
Interestingly enough, the narrative voice that is progressive and inclusive enough to recognize the work of midwives and avoid giving health care providers sole credit for “delivering” the baby nevertheless fails to question a practice that is the epitome of doctor-patient power relationships:
When a baby is born, the doctor or midwife who helped it be born looks at its new naked body.
If they look down and see a penis, they say, “It’s a boy.”
If they look down and see a vulva, they say, “It’s a girl.”
Why is it necessary for a provider to pronounce the sex of the child? Under the midwife model of care, parents are empowered to make that discovery themselves. On reflection, the ultimate power of mainstream maternity care is that it provides parents with the sex of their child while it is still in utero. This realization, however, is more a critique of that power relationship than of this book.
Our library copy of this book included – charmingly – two to-do lists. One was clearly wedding-related (“gym/tanning” and “drop off wedding dress”). The other listed tasks connected with a camping trip. Perhaps the happy couple was planning for children on their honeymoon?
Bottomland (2016), by Michelle Hoover, follows a German-American family of Iowa farmers at the end of the first world war. One night, two of the family’s daughters disappear from the house. What can have happened to them? Their older brother seeks them in Chicago while the remaining family deals with the hostility of their community that thirsts for answers about the death of a generation of sons in the war. Beautifully written, and takes advantage of the historical context of the story.
How it was possible for us to miss one of our favorite author’s books from way back in 2013, we don’t know. Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson, explores the life of Ursala Todd, born in England in 1910, by means of a multiple chapters titled “Be Ye Men of Valor,” Snow,” “War,” “Armistice,” “Peace,” and “A Lovely Day Tomorrow,” among others. In some pattern that is difficult to discern, these chapters draw out a common event that leads to different endings, in the context of the era spanning two world wars. The point, of course, is the twin roles of chance and choice in our lives. This is a book that should be read multiple times, in order to tease out the intricacies of Atkinson’s plot(s)!
Sara Donati is another favorite author, for her Wilderness series, “six historical novels that follow the fortunes of a group of families living in upstate New York from about 1792-1825.” Her faithful readers rejoiced when Donati announced a new series, beginning with The Gilded Hour (2015), set in 1883 New York. Historical figures grace the pages of this novel, most notably Anthony Comstock, of the Comstock Laws that prohibited distribution of contraceptives, making The Gilded Hour a fine book to read alongside Terrible Virtue (see above). Like the Wilderness series, this newest novel portrays the work life and love life of one woman, within the context of her historical surroundings and fictional community. Readers can expect details on Dress Reform, midwifery and medicine, America’s melting pot/salad bowl, and the rights and restrictions women experience in making families for themselves.
We experienced Louise Penny’s The Long Way Home (2014) by way of audiobook, as read by the late Ralph Cosham. Her tenth novel featuring the Québécois sleuth, Inspector Armand Gamache, it concerns the disappearance from the village of Three Pines one half of an artist couple, Peter Morrow. Peter’s wife Clara journeys with Gamache into the far reaches of Canada to search for Peter. This novel features a quest, a mystery that turns on the artist’s identity, and, as usual, brie on every sandwich.
Happy reading to all! Remember to support your public library by borrowing often to boost circulation figures. Michigan residents with participating libraries should remember the Michigan ELibrary is able to quickly place interlibrary loans and put many top-grade collections within our reach.
Bookshelf graphic is in the public domain, from http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=162504&picture=bookshelf-with-books.