Mothers who read

Reading is the one thing worth staying up all night for -- but only if you find the right book.

Topics: Laura Miller, Readers and Reading,

Oh lord, I love to read. I love to read and I love hardback books. While
I’m reading a book I really like, I copy interesting words that I know I
should remember the definitions of but don’t (due to advanced
maternal-onset senility) onto the empty back pages. I also make little
carat marks, in pen, around felicitous phrases and passages and write the
page numbers in the back of the book so that I can look them up later. (And
I do, in fact, look up those phrases later for a momentary thrill before
they sink like stones to the black, lightless bottom of my mind.) Sometimes
late at night I wake up in a compulsive sweat, wondering what happened to
my annotated copy of “Anna Karenina” or Cormac McCarthy’s “All the Pretty
Horses” or Giono’s “Joy of Man’s Desiring” — did I lend it out and forget
about it? Did someone steal it? Will I ever see it again? I keep an
accusatory list of “lost” books in my purse, where I also have an
assortment of postcard-cum-bookmarks, Post-its and the latest printout of
my ongoing bookstore shopping list.

I love to read, but I find it increasingly hard to sniff out the books
that won’t waste my time, thanks to the increasingly slick and shrewd and
hyperbolic publishing publicity machine. The marketers of lousy stories and
self-deceived diarists have caught on to the clues I used to rely on to
separate the titles that I was likely to appreciate from the ones that
obviously wouldn’t do. “Literary,” which used to be considered a book’s
kiss of death for all but a lonely clutch of eggheads, is now applied with
hopeful ubiquity, just as enterprising souls appropriate the term “art
gallery” for every cat-painting tourist trap in America.

It used to be pretty easy to assume that any book that got a lot of
publicity had to be bad. That’s no longer a useful rule to follow, as
Arundhati Roy’s spectacular “God of Small Things,” Michael Ondaatje’s
“The English Patient” (both Booker Prize winners) and David Foster Wallace’s
“Infinite Jest” serve to attest. Neither does it follow any longer that
books with no publicity budget are dogs. Maybe you never heard of Tim
Pears’ first novel, “In the Place of Falling Leaves,” but it’s no less
artful than Roy’s critically hailed book, though it faded quietly into
relative oblivion, as did poet Denise Levertov’s gemlike memoir,
“Tesserae.”



Choosing a book that will make you glad you stayed awake is more of a
leap of faith than ever before. And since it’s probably true that there’s
no accounting for taste, why should you take our word for anything?
Nevertheless, we offer a few recommendations. Just don’t expect to borrow a
copy from me.

- – - – - – - – - -

“All Around Atlantis” by Deborah Eisenberg

FARRAR, STRAUS & GIROUX, 244 PAGES

BY LAURA MILLER | If you ordinarily shy away from contemporary short stories because they’re
so often no more than allusive, melt-away wafers of fiction that leave you
unsatisfied and/or scratching your head, take heart and take up a copy of
Deborah Eisenberg’s “All Around Atlantis.” Each of the seven stories
collected here is remarkably meaty, with characters and situations so
richly developed you feel like you’ve read a whole novel each time you
finish one. The best of them concern little girls or young women soldiering
through the often absurd trials life throws at them with a winning mixture
of naiveté and gimlet-eyed irony. A shy former drug addict observes that
“Why did you start taking drugs?” isn’t “a real question; it’s just a
sticky juicy treat. Pornography … The real question: Why did you stop?
… high, she was as strong as wire, she needed nothing and she never had to
pretend a thing.” A daughter of a Holocaust survivor responds testily to
her husband’s pop-psych analysis of her “personal problems” thus: “I
suppose I’ve had my share of ‘personal problems.’ But what other kind of
problem can a person have?” This is a writer with ideas, wit and a
fathomless, loving curiosity about the strange project of being human.

Read a review of this book in Salon’s Sneak Peeks.

- – - – - – - – - -

“The Body Project” by Joan Jacobs Brumberg

RANDOM HOUSE, 267 PAGES

BY LORI LEIBOVICH | As much as we’d like to forget parts of our adolescence — the zits, the
blood-stained white pants, the leg gashes carved with pink Daisy razors –
Joan Jacobs Brumberg makes us remember. In her revealing new book, “The
Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls,” Brumberg explores the
phenomenon of American girlhood and asks why, at the dawn of a new century,
American girls are more obsessed with their physical selves then ever
before. Brumberg answers this question by looking backward — at the
social, medical and sexual currents that have contributed to the
fetishization of the adolescent female. Increasingly, girls view their
bodies as the enemy, Brumberg says, entities to be molded and controlled.
And more and more, they are appealing to consumer culture for panaceas.

Brumberg’s thesis is nothing new — feminists have decried the
consumerization of femininity ad nauseam. It’s the way Brumberg presents her
findings that is refreshing. In an even (at times overly professorial)
tone, Brumberg documents the “body projects” that girls undertake –
slimming their figures, clearing their skin, controlling menstruation with
an array of products — by citing advertisements and magazine articles and,
most effectively, by peppering her text with the journal entries of young
women. Brumberg stresses the need for intergenerational dialogue among
women and laments that girls often learn about major life events like
their first “period” from pamphlets. With “The Body Project,” Brumberg provides a
point of reference for mothers and daughters (and sisters and nieces and
aunts and girlfriends) to advance this dialogue, to talk about the rigors of
being female, about the bodies we all inhabit.

Read a review of this book in Salon’s Sneak Peeks.

- – - – - – - – - -

“The Innocent Eye” by Jonathan Fineberg

PRINCETON UNIV. PRESS, 248 PAGES

BY KAREN TEMPLER | Jonathan Fineberg had a great idea: Place the works of
many of the most popular painters of the century (Miró, Kandinsky, Picasso,
et al.) alongside the children’s works that inspired them. He has compiled
an attractive and thought-provoking book. Unfortunately, he wants it to be
more than a great idea. He wants it to be Groundbreaking.

Fineberg, a professor and winner of the Pulitzer Fellowship in
Critical Writing, spends the first few chapters of “The Innocent Eye”
patting himself on the back for his “discovery” that the artists in
question 1) knew how children drew, 2) had seen and collected the works
of children and 3) had deliberately emulated their style. The problem is,
it doesn’t take a Pulitzer Fellow to know that much modern art was heavily
influenced by children’s art: It has been a common point of discussion
among art enthusiasts for years. Even while Fineberg is hailing his own
insights, he acknowledges that “Klee’s interest in child art was well known
at the time.” He quotes Gauguin saying, “In
order to produce something new, one must return to the original source, to
the childhood of mankind,” and Picasso saying, “When I was the age of these
children I could draw like Raphael. It took me many years to learn how to
draw like these children.” He offers details of documented exhibits of
children’s work curated by these artists. And yet, he still
seems convinced that he is breaking new ground.

Despite his efforts at academic transcendence, “The Innocent Eye” is basically a big,
beautiful coffee-table book. Visually, it is both unique and stunning. Most successful are the chapters in which Fineberg compares the specific
works of the artists to those of their own and other children, as well as
their own childhood drawings (though there
are none of those Raphaelite drawings Picasso claims to have made).
What “The Innocent Eye” does successfully is reproduce a wealth of
wonderful art by some of the masters accompanied by impressive
children’s works that they had shown and/or collected. It is fascinating to
look at these inspired children’s drawings and see them manifested in the
artists’ work.

Fineberg neither condones nor
condemns what is essentially (in many cases) plagiarism of children’s
work. He does, however, criticize museum-goers who say
things like, “That looks like a kid did it” as hypocrites. Since
we all revere the child’s wide-eyed, innocent presentation of the world, he
argues, why should we disdain the same thing from a grown-up? Yet when a
mature artist with a fully developed sense of form and shadow and
perspective chooses to draw like a child, surely questions can be asked.
After all, what child who could draw “better” would choose not to?

Kate Moses is the author of "Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath" (St. Martin's.) She was the co-founder, with Camille Peri, of Salon's "Mothers Who Think" site, and she and Peri also co-edited the award-winning book "Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenting." She lives in San Francisco.

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