Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Reading Baby Love

Hey, that's right, this blog is supposed to be about books and writing. So I suppose I should talk about books once in a while, hmm?

It wouldn't exactly be a foreign topic. In the past two months I've read ten books I can think of, although a few others probably have fallen out of memory already. Five military history, one novel, one short-story anthology, three contemporary political; these last three were selected as a set, to get "triametrically" opposed perspectives on a highly controversial subject, and I'll have more to write about them later. But the last book in the troika was so blasted heavy and depressing that I needed something light and funny as counterbalance, and Sunday afternoon, as I was cleaning my office, I had the good luck to stumble across the half-read copy of Baby Love by Rebecca Walker that I'd been reading in early June. I really hadn't meant to give up on this book halfway through. I'd just, as so often happens to me, marked my page, put it aside, and then been interrupted by something of greater urgency and never gotten back to it.

This happens to me a lot. I lead an interrupt-driven life.

Baby Love, if the title doesn't seem familiar, is the pregnancy journal of Rebecca Walker, the daughter of famous feminist literary icon Alice Walker. The full title is, Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence, and back in early June, when I was exactly halfway through it, I wrote a semi-review. I was interrupted at literally the halfway point; at the beginning of chapter 5, at almost the exact mid-point in the page count, and midway through Walker's second trimester. Picking it up again Sunday, I had no trouble at all slipping back into the narrative flow, and in two days I finished it off.

This book is very engaging, thoughtful, and well-written. It is one of the most amazingly positive and life-affirming books that I have had the pleasure of reading in a long time. It is also laugh-out-loud funny, and in places read-the-good-bits-out-loud funny, although I'm not always sure it was intended to be. Perhaps this is the sort of book that is somewhat mildly amusing to women, but absolutely hilarious to a man who has suffered — and I do mean suffered — through his wife's pregnancy. For example, it is just hugely entertaining to watch as Rebecca evolves in nine short months from a militant macrobiotic Northern California vegan type, who in April can spend pages agonizing over the ecological impact of the typically overfed American diet, to someone who in late September can write:
Just back from a speaking engagement at Carnegie Mellon. Someone asked if I am experiencing pregnancy as the ultimate in Womanhood. It was an interesting question. I said that I feel more in touch with the animal qualities of the species, rather than the gendered ones. My sense of smell is heightened, I am ferociously protective of my developing offspring, my body is going through changes beyond my control in the service of species survival.

I told her that I really feel like an animal when I am hungry. In those moments, when I am on the hunt for my next meal, I feel out of control, led entirely by instinct. When I get to the food, I can barely observe basic etiquette. I want to tear at the food, to wolf it down. And it's not all eco-friendly, either. I want big, thick, juicy steaks, and whole chickens. I want four scrambled eggs and six pieces of bacon. And then when I finish all that, I want a box of chocolate-covered donuts.
And a month later:
All I can think about, besides being bored to death, is food. What can I eat next? In the last two hours I have had two bowls of chicken soup, three pieces of toast with chicken, two soy ice cream sandwiches, two huge glasses of organic lemonade, an apple, a pomegranate, and as I write this, I've got designs on a steak, a few pieces of sliced turkey, some brown rice, and an orange.
Until at last, on the very day she goes into labor, she evolves into her final form:
...at five o'clock I was so hungry I felt I could eat the headboard off my new bed. Glen brought me what I craved: quick, greasy take-out that I ate with abandon. A huge hamburger with onions, bacon, and cheddar cheese, a Greek salad and two orders of French fries disappeared within minutes.
All of which is just a run-up for the big labor and delivery scene, of course, which after months of carefully planning the perfect wholistic birthing scenario, complete with music, massage, birthing coaches, and aromatherapy, turns out to be a real scream. As in, "I WANT AN EPIDURAL!"

Followed by the sobering realization that, if she'd had that perfectly natural organic Third World sort of childbirth she'd thought she wanted when this whole adventure began, her son would have died from meconium aspiration shortly after birth.

In sum, now that I've finished the whole thing, I still give Baby Love a strong recommendation. It's an engaging, funny, at times deeply ironic, and at times utterly heart-grabbing narrative. Rebecca Walker is an interesting voice — definitely not for everyone, for reasons listed in my original semi-review, but interesting nonetheless — and in the end, she even manages to work in some good advice for aspiring writers. It involves developing a relaxed attitude about wearing strained carrots.

Rating: FOUR STARS. My original semi-review follows.

Original post: 6/04/08

As writers, we're supposed to be engaged in a relentless pursuit of the truth — if not the literal truth, then at least our own personal emotional truth. Regardless of where it leads, whose toes get stepped on, or how much it hurts, it's all (we're told) about finding and expressing something we can call a truth.

The problem with doing this is, of course, is that if you're lucky, your children might someday read all those dangerous emotional truths you gave vent to when you were much younger, more intense, and less cautious, and worse, they might then turn around and write their truth about you.

Case in point, Rebecca Walker: writer, activist, feminist, daughter of literary lioness Alice Walker and New York attorney Mel Leventhal, and author of Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence.

Ms Walker first came to my attention when someone sent me a link to this interview with her in the U.K. Daily Mail: How My Mother's Fanatical Feminist Views Tore Us Apart. If you haven't yet read it, it's good stuff. In it, Ms Walker makes a strong, positive, life-affirming, pro-woman case for motherhood, and closes with:
Even now, I meet women in their 30s who are ambivalent about having a family. They say things like: 'I'd like a child. If it happens, it happens.' I tell them: 'Go home and get on with it because your window of opportunity is very small.' As I know only too well.

Then I meet women in their 40s who are devastated because they spent two decades working on a PhD or becoming a partner in a law firm, and they missed out on having a family. Thanks to the feminist movement, they discounted their biological clocks. They've missed the opportunity and they're bereft.

Feminism has betrayed an entire generation of women into childlessness. It is devastating.

But far from taking responsibility for any of this, the leaders of the women's movement close ranks against anyone who dares to question them...
When I showed this interview to Karen, however, she pointed out to me that we already had a review copy of Ms Walker's latest book, Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence, on the shelf, and it'd been sitting there, unread and unreviewed, for some time.


Okay, uh — actually, I'm about halfway through Baby Love now, and as difficult as it may be to believe, I'm really enjoying it. Technically, it's well-written, engaging, and a fast read. Structurally, it's Ms Walker's pregnancy journal, and it's deadly funny. If you're a woman and you've been through a pregnancy, you may relate; if you're a man and you've suffered (and I do mean suffered) through your wife's pregnancy, you'll definitely relate. There is an absolutely hilarious sit-com tucked inside this book, and it's simply screaming to get out.

I mean, think of it this way: here's Rebecca, this extremely intelligent, highly educated, very accomplished, and stunningly self-absorbed career woman, who at age thirty-something suddenly finds herself deliriously happy to be pregnant, forced to consider the remote possibility that she perhaps is not the center of the universe, and instantly flying off in a hundred directions all at once. She's living in a house in Mendocino that seems to be in a constant state of unfinished remodeling, courtesy of Carl the aging hippie handyman; battling bouts of morning sickness between fly-in assaults by her mother (if this is a sit-com, then Alice Walker comes off as Endora, only without Agnes Moorehead's charm, intelligence, or sense of humor); and her life is just one dizzying round after another of utterly droll interactions with your standard battery of Northern California therapists, herbalists, publicists, Buddhists, Xanax, ob/gyns, photographers, editors, and organic homeopathic consultants. She slips effortlessly from prattling on about Big Issues in Third World Women-of-Color EmpowermentSpeak to jetting off to attend the gala Hollywood premiere of this movie, have lunch with that New York editor, or be the keynote speaker at some other Terribly Meaningful conference in Seattle. On one page she can be simply agonizing over the horrendous impact that just one American baby has on the global environment (as opposed to the much more sensible carbon-load of, say, a Third World baby), and then a page later she can be bemoaning the fact that Prada doesn't have a maternity line and exulting over her discovery of this wonderful little Japanese boutique where she found just the perfect pair of maternity slacks, because there is just no way she'd be caught dead looking like some pregnant women at a strip-mall "wearing beige chinos and an oversized T-shirt with a company logo on it."

And through it all, her life partner and the baby's father, Glen, is just this solid rock of calm rationality in the turbulent overflowing tidal pool of Rebecca's hormones, emotions, and temporary insanities.

Is this book for everyone? Hardly. For one thing it's simply dripping with black humor and irony, and such reading is not to everyone's taste. For another there's the matter of how Rebecca's mother, legendary author Alice Walker, is depicted: give her a pointed black hat and a flying broom and the caricature would be complete. Then again Rebecca can probably be forgiven for seeing Alice this way, as discovering as a teenager that your mother once wrote and published a famous poem comparing your birth to a disastrous and tragic illness can't be anything good.

Finally, there is the matter of Rebecca's bisexuality, which will no doubt put some people off this book. As I get further into the story, though, I can't help but read this aspect of her complex and conflicted personality as being not so much lesbianism as Lesbitarianism, and the predictable reaction of a top-of-her-class Yale-educated young feminist to her horrifying discovery, at age 20, that what she really wants to do with her life is drop out of college, marry the handsome young man she's met while on a trip to Africa, and become his wife and the mother of a whole lot of babies.

Still, if you are, like I am, a person who's struggled for years to understand what's really going on inside the minds of modern American college-educated feminists, this book is definitely worth checking out. Four Stars.