Books Are Pretty

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Good Kids, Bad Habits.

Before I write these reviews, I usually check out the author's website, if she has one, and other reviews and articles on the book, just to see what else is out there and if there's any overall vibe that should be addressed, or to get a different perspective that can better formulate what I'm thinking about.

That being said, I came across this review of Jennifer Trachtenberg's Good Kids, Bad Habits at Jenn's Journal and totally cracked up:

I liked it. The end.

Yes! That's it, exactly!

Truth is, I can't think of too much to add to that review. Good Kids, Bad Habits
is a comprehensive overview of the wide-ranging topics of childcare that is geared to help parents put their kids on the right track to a healthy adulthood. Good habits, when begun young, are more likely to be upheld when the children are adults, is the thinking here.

This is fairly true. My own mother didn't keep sweets, chips, or soda in the house, although she didn't forbid us from eating it. Now that I'm an adult, I don't keep junk food in my own house. (My husband did bring home a kit to make homemade popsicles out of fruit juice, because he said it was either that or file a restraining order against the ice cream truck. The kids seem to be somewhat wise to it, and aren't as greedy for popsicles as they used to be.) But as with any wisdom you try to impart to other people, some stuff they'll listen to, and some they won't. Trachtenberg hopes, I assume, that if good habits are instilled everywhere, in all things, at all times, enough good stuff will stick long enough to ensure a healthy adulthood. This is fine, in theory, but in actuality it's a little overwhelming.

It reminds me a little of the "Best Odds Diet" from What to Expect When You're Expecting, the diet which you can't possibly follow, even if you're Shamu, because nobody's stomach is big enough to eat all that food. It turns out, the authors of the book knew it was too much, and deliberately tried to get pregnant women to follow it, because they figured some of the diet was better than nothing. However, all it did was frustrate pregnant women (read: me) and cause them to give up, feel like a failure, and complain strenuously to their OB/GYNs, who told them to ignore that part of the book and take a prenatal vitamin.

Trachtenberg's advice, which covers hygiene to homework to exercise to self esteem is fine, but as with all of these comprehensive books, I wish they would do what Marilu Henner does in Total Health Makeover, and include a chart on how to introduce changes gradually. It helps to have a guide that can ease you into new habits and to stress not to try to do them all at once.

As a parent, I of course have read roughly three thousand books like this one, and Trachtenberg isn't really covering too much new ground, so I found it difficult to get too jazzed up about any particular part of it.

I liked it. The end.

There was, however, one part of the book, toward the end, that I thought was really weird, and seemed to have no connection with anything else, not even with the point of the book's conclusion. She relates this anecdote about going to a birthday party for the baby of a childhood friend.

Audrey was a childhood friend of my sister's, and this was her first baby's first birthday. I had known Audrey for years - she practically lived at our house growing up - and pretty much the whole family didn't think she'd ever choose to have kids. But here she was, the proud mom of a healthy 1-year-old boy.

My boys (my two sons and hubby) planned a guys-only day of hiking and bird spotting at the park; I brought my daughter, Emily, with the for the drive out to the country.

I gave my two sisters a sisters-only "look" when we arrived. Audrey was transformed. The quiet and serious girl I always remembered now had a circle of kids around her giggling uncontrollably as she and Tookie the Clown make crazy balloon animals - motherhood had brought out her silly side.

Then she goes on to talk about how she got into a conversation with the other mothers and had the epiphany that there are many ways to raise healthy children and that mothers know more than they think they do. I can't argue with that, but what was the point of the Audrey anecdote? Why was it necessary? And what's with the "pretty much the whole family didn't think she'd ever choose to have kids?" Why do we need to know this? Is it because she was "quiet and serious?" Do "quiet and serious" women generally eschew parenthood? And why do I get the feeling that there's a bit of negative judgment at the thought that a woman might want to remain childfree? And I wonder if Audrey read this part about herself and was okay with it, or did she give Trachtenberg the bird later on? Thanks, Trachtenbergs! Nice to know you all have been gossiping about my fitness as a mother behind my back! For years, apparently! No more party invitations for you!

Anyway, I only dwell on that bit of weirdness because there isn't much else to dwell on here.

I liked it. The end.

Good Kids, Bad Habits
by Jennifer Trachtenberg
2007, by HarperCollins
paperback, 299 pp.
ISBN: 978-0-06-112775-5

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

My Happy Life.

When I wasn't busy eating Lydia Millet's latest book alive, I spent some time musing over Anne Horowitz's cover art. The bottom of the book is a deep soft rose, the color of thin clouds at sunset, reflecting the day's last hurrah before nightfall. Gently it fades from pink to eggshell white at the top. In the bottom right quarter of the book, a baby, soft and also pink, is curled up sleepily. The title, My Happy Life, steps gently across the cover in thin, unobtrusive letters.

It looks like a Mommy book, another heartwarming memoir about sleepless nights and breastfeeding and discovering what Love Really Means.

There's a familiarity about the contrast between the inside of the book and the outside which reminds me of an old Amy Irving movie. Toward the end of the movie, Irving is walking down a street, flowers in her hand. She stops in front of the remains of an old house, smiles, and kneels. As her hand reaches down to plant the flowers in front of the house. Just as she does this, Carrie White's hand thrusts up out of the dirt and clutches Irving in a deathgrip, forcing her to join the dead little telekinetic in Hell.

Let this analogy be a lesson to you, O seeker of the Mommy book: offer My Happy Life no bouquet of flowers. Because it will kill you.

I think I pushed that metaphor too far. Anyway, the point is that after the gentle sweetness of the cover, the first chapter places the anonymous protagonist in the decaying bowels of an abandoned mental hospital, locked in a room, forgotten, and left to slowly starve to death. The shampoo and toothpaste long since eaten, she begins to write her life story on the walls around her. Astonishingly, her central message is one of gratitude and love, and a sense of good fortune for the life she had.

A life that was, by anyone's account, awful. The memoirist recounts an endless chain of horrific abuse, starting with her abandonment at birth, left in a shoebox on a random street, and continues with a string of wretched foster care and unspeakable torture by just about everyone she meets. She frames each situation in such a way that often it must be read twice to discern what is her dreamy perception and what is the terrible truth.

When she writes about her childhood as a ward of the state, she says, about her relationship with the other children:

Sometimes in the bed where I slept with the others, in the waiting place, they would press themselves close on both sides of me. They liked to kick out with their feet and fold my skin in pleats between their hard fingers and fingernails. They called this game the meat sandwich: they were always the bread and I was always the meat. My ribs were crushed in tight when I was the meat, as though my heart would burst....And after a while they would forget the sandwich and nestle, and there was the warmth of them and the salty skin and milky breath. I always have recalled these touches since they were among the first I knew. As for the bruises, shortness of breath and the pressing on me, I think they did not know their own strength.

Millet has created a painful story of the particular kind of despair born out of homelessness and mental illness, and the strength shown in waiting patiently, even when it is clear no help is coming. Desertion is a constant theme throughout the novel. So much is lost, and so very little is gained. The few things she has that are genuinely good, such as a brief friendship made with another little girl that brings her so much pleasure it aches when it, too, is lost. While the reader may assign positive or negative value to each of her experiences, she rarely does. And when she finally does recognize her own suffering, she must shut it down - if not for her sake, then for the readers. In an awesome touch, Millet breaks down the chapters in three parts: the present day, a memory in which something is gained, and a memory in which something is lost. One of the "gained" sections is called "Box," while the following "lost" section is called "Foot."

My Happy Life was enthralling, a Dorothy Allison story without Bone's sharp intelligence or righteous anger. I couldn't put it down, and when I'd finished, I went back and read it again.

My Happy Life
by Lydia Millet
2007 by Soft Skull Press
Soft cover, 149 pp.
ISBN: 978-1-933368-76-4

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