Since I started using the internet as a teen, I’ve enjoyed recklessly treating it as a diary. But blogs are dead, and while I’ve used WordPress for a dozen years, it gets worse and worse with every passing year.
So I’ve started a Substack. Subscribe for occasional life updates, book reviews, skincare recommendations, child-rearing musings, and home-renovation screeds.
I read about 70 books about birth and babies while pregnant, even though everyone told me not to read anything.
These people, clearly, did not know me well. Telling me not to read something is a surefire way to move a book to the top of my reading list. Furthermore, what a wild season of life to tell me not to read things. Why would I not read about one of the most significant undertakings of my moderately young life?
Having done this all of this reading and heeded none of these warnings, I now understand the intent behind this caution: There is a TON of fear-mongering around pregnancy and birth, and I am glad I stayed away from that (as best I could). In sum, womenfolk: Don’t let people scare you about pregnancy and birth. (Also, don’t let health care providers patronize you.)
With that caveat, having read about 60 books, here are the 33 that are worth your time and unlikely to cause paroxysms of fear and stress, if there is a wee babe on the horizon.
Best 8 books on birth and pregnancy
Active Birth, Janet Balaskas. Clearly explained advice on how to move well while laboring. It is an older book from the UK, and not as widely read or mentioned in these parts, but I’m so glad I found a used copy. Excellent advice, with helpful images and descriptions.
Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, Ina May Gaskin. Read it for the happy birth stories! Even if you don’t go the hippie/drug-free route, it’s just lovely to read about births that are joyful occasions—and to discover all of the manifold, various, and beautiful ways that babies come into the world. Ina May will help you relax. This is the main thing that I wanted someone to do for me, as a first-timer contemplating birth: Someone help me relax. Ina May is that saintly someone.
Expecting Better, Emily Oster. This rational book was one of the only things that helped me calm down during my anxiety-ridden first trimester. Highly recommended.
Real Food for Pregnancy, Lily Nichols. Comprehensive and somewhat urgent; I wish I had read it at the start of my pregnancy instead of toward the end! Nichols presents an evidence-based approach to nutrition for pregnant women, avoiding much of the tired fear-mongering that’s present in so much common advice for American women (e.g., paranoia over raw eggs, soft cheese, seafood, etc.) and instead prioritizing health through whole, natural foods (with some interesting additions, at least for American eaters, like her high praise for organ meats, bone broth, eggs, and seaweed).
Nurture, Erica Chidi Cohen. Read this instead of the dreadful What to Expect. This is the calming, clear, modern overview of all pregnancy and birth-related matters that you want to leaf through and use as a reference throughout your nine months.
Birth Matters, Ina May Gaskin. More of a manifesto, and likely a contributing factor into why I decided to have home births (in 2019 and 2021), but it’s a holistic, woman-and-baby-centric text, decrying much of the institutional, overly medicalized trends in American obstetrics.
Pregnancy, Childbirth and the Newborn, Penny Simkin. Another great, clear, non-hysterical guide to these nine months and the bleary newborn months that follow.
Mindful Birthing, Nancy Bardacke. Admittedly, I don’t think I used any of these meditative practices while giving birth, but they sounded so nice! A more mentally strong woman may derive more active benefit from these practices. Still, I enjoyed knowing about the power of the brain over sensations of pain.
Best 8 books on motherhood/postpartum life
The First Forty Days, Heng Ou. A beautiful book that encourages women to follow the Chinese tradition of resting and staying in for 40 days after birth: eating rich, nourishing foods; resting; snuggling with your baby; and being pampered. A much wiser and better approach to the postpartum period than the typical American Instagram mom, who likes to brag about how she ran a bunch of errands immediately after giving birth.
Ina May’s Guide to Breastfeeding, Ina May Gaskin. I found this to be so much better and less judgmental than the La Leche League’s Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, which assumes that all women are stay-at-home moms who wouldn’t dare leave their baby alone for even a moment.
Operating Instructions, Anne Lamott. Wry, sarcastic, and heartwarming memoir of raising a baby boy as a single mom.
The Little Virtues, Natalia Ginzburg. Beautiful little essays from the Italian-Jewish writer Natalia Ginzburg, who is wise and elegant and comforting all at once.
Little Labors, Rivka Galchen. A perfect little book to read in those bleary postpartum days, because it’s charming and episodic. You can easily pick it up between feeds. Galchen’s observations of motherhood are the perfect blend of sweet without being sentimental.
Daybook, Anne Truitt. The diary of a talented American sculptor, who finds time to care for her children while also creating art. Encouraging to those of us who have other interests outside of child-rearing.
Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich. A strident series of essays from my favorite second-wave feminist.
And Now We Have Everything, Meaghan O’Connell. Another humorous memoir that would be a fun, lighthearted book after having a baby of your own.
*There may be some great books about fatherhood, but I didn’t read any! Dads, feel free to chime in.
Best 7 books on the history and culture of parenting
Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, Steven Mintz. Reading this history of how Americans have defined childhood was so helpful and orienting, especially when I contemplated where many of my deeply held beliefs about parenting came from.
Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting, Jennifer Traig. Delightful. Jennifer Traig presents a lighthearted—and yet thoroughly researched—account of parenting through the ages. Smart and sarcastic and informative.
The Parents We Mean to Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development, Richard Weissbourd. A Harvard psychology professor’s perspective on how American parents are messing up their kids by trying to be their friends.
Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Brigid Schulte. Not uplifting! Brigid Schulte tackles the consuming problem of living in a society that does not support mothers and leaves them feeling overwhelmed, all day, every day.
All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, Jennifer Senior. The most compelling argument, which Senior cites from an American historian: We have no parenting folkways, and so we are always muddling around, trying every trend and suggestion, when it comes to childrearing.
To the End of June, Cris Beam. A chastening account of the dire straits of the U.S. foster care system.
The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley. A quick and thought-provoking book that looks closely at South Korea and Finland’s public schools and considers why U.S. schools lag so far behind.
Best 10 books on baby raising
Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids, Kim John Payne. Sage, calm, and inspiring. We still have so much to learn about raising little people, but this book has served as a beacon. I plan to return to it over and over again, like a liturgy, in the hopes that it will continue to inform my parenting.
Good Night, Sleep Tight: The Sleep Lady’s Gentle Guide to Helping Your Child Go to Sleep, Stay Asleep, and Wake Up Happy, Kim West. The title says it all. (Given to us by our life-changing doula!)
Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool, Emily Oster. Calming and reassuring, much like Expecting Better. Emily Oster puts many early parenting fears to rest with her clear-headed analysis. (I also love her Substack ParentData, which I read religiously.)
Grow Wild: The Whole-Child, Whole-Family, Nature-Rich Guide to Moving More, Katy Bowman. Our movement goals for our family in a nutshell! Also introduced to Katy Bowman by our aforementioned doula. Very inspiring and important.
Bringing Up Bebe, Pamela Druckerman. People have lots of opinions on this book, but I think it’s just great parenting advice, from start to finish. Non, je ne regrette rien!
Montessori from the Start, Paula Polk Lillard. I really appreciated this book in the early days of babyhood, and it encouraged me to make many different decisions about how we interacted with our firstborn and set up our home for him. There’s also a lot of overlap with the Montessori baby-rearing philosophy and the natural movement ideas from Bowman, as mentioned above. Our second-born also gets the benefit of being looked after in a bonafide Montessori classroom, which is so lovely.
Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv. Terrifying and extremely motivating book that urges you to get your kids outside.
The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction, Meghan Cox Gurdon. I mean, of course I was going to read aloud to my babies, but this book made me even more firm in my dedication to the practice.
Brain Rules for Baby, John Medina. Helpful, readable survey of what we know about how children’s brains develop and how we can help them flourish. Medina confirms research I’ve encountered elsewhere (e.g., have conversations with your infant; don’t tell your kid that she’s smart but rather that she worked hard; the best parenting style combines clear boundaries with gentle, consistent discipline, etc.) The book is broader than the title suggests and also offers practical, compassionate advice on how to fortify your marriage, your sex life, and your general sanity as you embark on parenthood.
Baby-Led Weaning, Tracey Murkett and Gil Rapley. Instead of pureed baby food and rice cereal, we followed this method of giving babies real, whole food to start with—and honestly, it’s not really a “method,” because it’s what parents always did until companies invented baby food. It worked so well with Moses, and he’s a great eater at 2.5. Fingers crossed that this method will also work with Felix.
What am I missing? What have you read and loved on the subject of bringing babies into the world?
As I’ve mentioned previously, my study of interior design has been narrowed to the Brits.
There is much I admire about their homes, which I hope to enumerate here (especially in contrast to some of the more popular American ways of setting up interiors).
I feel justified in this focus for four reasons:
I discovered, to my mild disappointment, that I am ethnically 75% English (and 25% Dutch). My admiration for English design perhaps has some genetic roots. (Disappointing because I was hoping for something more exciting. Even being mostly Irish is more exciting.)
We live in Charlottesville, Virginia, which boasts some of the most English-looking countryside in the U.S. The landed gentry who settled here clearly agreed and fashioned for themselves estates much in the English manner of estate-making.
My admiration bloomed after visiting rambling English homes during the time that we lived in London and I was able to see the homes in the wild, in their natural contexts.
I am devoted to several very English pursuits—namely, gardens, tea, long walks, and dogs—and so it seems fitting that my home should also be very English.
When we first bought our home, eight years ago, I thought I would make a modern Scandinavian home, as I mentioned before, which is much in vogue among my generation. This was entirely wrong for many reasons, foremost of which was that our house was neither modern nor Scandinavian. But we also didn’t live like austere Scandinavians. I can’t have white floors or white furniture. They are utterly incompatible with dogs or small children, and they make me nervous. I also don’t really like the look of very modern rooms. My favorite pieces in our home are antiques, mostly from Guion’s maternal grandparents, who had splendid Southern taste.
This realization, among others, has led me to study English rooms, through books, magazines, and websites, and I feel ready to make a few generalizations.
Prioritizes coziness and hospitality over minimalism and cleanliness
Celebrates a riot of colors and patterns
Emphasizes upholstery and a variety of textiles in every room
Insists on vintage furniture and rugs in every room; rejects the shiny and mass-produced
Veers toward gold, bronze, and unlacquered brass, with select uses of polished chrome
Invests in window treatments
Features art, framed prints, and mirrors on nearly every wall
Always picks the frilly lampshade over the plain white one
There is a boldness and playfulness to English design that seems difficult to get right. This is why I find myself studying it so closely. And it’s perhaps why I thought I was a Swedish minimalist at first; that looked easier to accomplish. English rooms, however, demand an eye for composition that I’m not sure I have.
I also sense that English design stands in contrast to a good deal of modern American interior design, as I understand it, which is heavily influenced by Joanna Gaines: “farmhouse” style for homes that are definitely not farmhouses; cutesy signage; a faux vintage/excessively curated atmosphere; gray or white walls everywhere. I was amused to read an interview with a British designer who said that American designers were “perfectionists” — a characterization that makes sense to me. In most of the rooms by celebrated HGTV designers, there is a fussy attention to detail within a pristine environment that strikes me as unrealistic and fake.
In any event, it is comforting for me to articulate English design principles here, in the hopes that I can replicate them, in some way, in our refreshed midcentury American cottage.
In the early 1990s, bloodshed was commonplace in South Africa. The tumultuous period of negotiations to end apartheid was marked by almost daily violence. At the many public funeral services for victims of massacres, a bespectacled, impish man was often found behind the pulpit: Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
In 1992, after the Boipatong massacre that killed 45 people, Tutu was able to defuse the outrage of the thousands of mourners in a township soccer stadium. Instead of whipping the audience into a justifiable fury, he led the crowd in songs, singing with the people as they declared their love of God and themselves as a community.
Tutu, who died this past Sunday, became known for his gracious, effective leadership in the face of agonizing horrors and injustices.
When Nelson Mandela became president, he appointed Tutu to lead the truth commission that sought to create racial reconciliation in the bitterly divided nation. While listening to testimony after testimony of the numerous murders and tortures, the archbishop often wept. And yet, as the commission published its findings and held many accountable for human rights violations, Tutu said, “Without forgiveness, there is no future.”
Despite the terrors that his people had suffered for decades, Tutu knew that the only way for his nation to heal was to forgive. He later expanded on this difficult concept, saying:
“Forgiving is not forgetting; it’s actually remembering—remembering and not using your right to hit back. It’s a second chance for a new beginning. And the remembering part is particularly important. Especially if you don’t want to repeat what happened.”
Tutu lived what he believed, and his life leaves us with a powerful reminder: Forgiveness is not weakness or passivity. It’s our only way forward.
These two boys had a very merry Christmas. All of the trappings of Christmas—the lights, the trees, the stockings, the songs—are much more fun to me now that I have these little dudes. It is clichéd, but their wonder at the little things of the season makes my heart continually glad.
So much good nonfiction consumed this year. I learned so much! I will talk your ear off about all of it!
1. Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, Patrick Radden Keefe
An American tragedy and capitalist parable of how worshiping money will turn you—and your entire family, if you’re the Sacklers—into monsters. In Patrick Radden Keefe’s capable hands, this book reads like a thriller, and yet it’s admirably researched and brilliantly told. Highly recommended.
2. How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, Alan Jacobs
“To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable. Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said. And when people commend someone for ‘thinking for herself’ they usually mean ‘ceasing to sound like people I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of.’”
A slim, humbling book with the much-needed call for us to be people adept at the art of thinking (especially the kind of slow System 2 thinking that Daniel Kahneman describes in his landmark book Thinking, Fast and Slow). This is not the kind of thinking that humans are particularly skilled at, preferring to dwell on the instinctual System 1 brain, but slow thinking is a facility needed now more than ever. Alan Jacobs, a professor at Baylor University, writes with compelling clarity, and I picked this up with a great desire to be refreshed by his own clear thinking after enjoying his most recent book, Breaking Bread With the Dead (review of that below). Mission accomplished. I feel humbled and challenged by his wisdom.
3. Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, Robert Kolker
Riveting, gut-wrenching account of a family unusually afflicted by mental illness. Robert Kolker shares the Galvin family’s story with restraint and skill, blending their personal histories with the history of schizophrenia. Two takeaways I had while finishing the book: (1) There is still so much we don’t know about the human brain, and accordingly, the treatment of schizophrenia has changed very little since the 1960s, and (2) women bear the enormous load of a family’s emotional and physical needs, time and time again.
4. The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution, Yuri Slezkine
An unreal and singularly compelling history of Soviet Russia. Yuri Slezkine unites the rare capabilities of a scholar and a storyteller in this appropriately epic-length history, which pivots around the House of Government, the massive housing complex for the socialist/communist faithful. It is a massive book, but incredibly readable from start to finish.
Slezkine is particularly adept at zooming in and out on his subjects. At one moment, he relates the intimate thoughts, letters, and diary entries of individual people; at the next, he pans out and assesses human history, religion, and culture in broad strokes. Along with direct quotations and painstaking research, he spends a great deal of time analyzing Soviet literature, showing us what it reveals about ascendant revolutionary beliefs.
Throughout this history, Slezkine argues that Soviet socialism and its attendant fantasies of true communism were the latest in a long line of millennarian sects (mimicking many features of Christian apocalyptic cults, among other religions). This was a revelatory lens for me through which to better understand Russian communism. The Russian insistence on the coming utopia and the abolishment of the family and private property as the path to social enlightenment can be found in every chapter of the revolution. Slezkine makes it easy to understand how such a charming-sounding fundamentalist vision could result in the brutality, inhumanity, and absolute disregard for human life that characterized the Russian revolution.
Recommended especially to young progressives who think Marx is a cool avatar and that socialism is super-rad, bleating it’ll be different this time…
5. In the Land of the Cyclops: Essays, Karl Ove Knausgaard
“What if we got rid of television? The Internet? It would give us back our sense of place, but also our pain, and for that reason it’s a nonstarter, absence of pain being what we strive for and have always striven for, this is the essence of modern life. It’s why we live in the image of the world rather than in the world itself.”
In a series of essays focused primarily on art, Karl Ove Knausgaard reflects on artists and moments that have affected him profoundly, including a number of provocative American women photographers, Knut Hamsun (always), Ingmar Bergman, short stories from the Old Testament, Kierkegaard, and Emma Bovary. Knausgaard writes with his characteristic openness, an honesty that often veers into uncomfortable realms, and this is perhaps why I enjoy him as much as I do. I know he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but his style and self-deprecating wisdom is refreshing to me, time and time again. My only small quibble is that the format of the book—square with heavy glossy pages, so as to display the photographs well—makes for an awkward reading experience for a book with so much text. I am happy, however, that I bought it, as I hope to return it in time.
6. Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind, Alan Jacobs
“Reading old books is an education in reckoning with otherness; its hope is to make the other not identical with me but rather, in a sense, my neighbor. I happen to think that this kind of training is useful in helping me learn to deal with my actual on-the-ground neighbors, though that claim is not central to my argument here, and in any case there’s nothing inevitable about this transfer: I know people who are exquisitely sensitive readers of texts who are also habitually rude to the people who serve them at restaurants. But surely to encounter texts from the past is a relatively nonthreatening, and yet potentially enormously rewarding, way to practice encountering difference.”
An impressively slim book that packs a powerful argument for attending to books of ages past. Why? So that we may have character, grace, and foresight; so that we may resist the high informational density of our time in favor of greater personal density for ourselves. Alan Jacobs, a professor of humanities at Baylor, writes with tremendous sensitivity and wisdom, and I was struck by how deftly he weaves together a whole host of quotations and references, spanning from the Aeneid to Frederick Douglass to feminist literary theory. An incredibly worthwhile and challenging book and one that I hope will stay with me for a long time, keeping the temptations of screens at bay and pulling me deeper into the words of men and women who are no longer with us.
7. At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, Sarah Bakewell
“Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so.”
I am not smart enough to read straight philosophy, but I am glad that Sarah Bakewell is, because she explains ideas so well, with such fluidity, poise, and mastery. In this book, Bakewell gives us a tour of the existentialist movement in Europe, principally through the biographies of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and gives us a brilliant primer on the philosophy itself, as expressed through some of its other luminaries (such as Husserl, Heidegger, Jaspers, and Merleau-Ponty). I feel more educated, having finished it, and also more thoughtful. Warmly recommended.
8. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life, George Saunders
In this charming collection, Saunders shares his favorite Russian short stories and reflections on why and how these stories work, much in the form of his lectures at Syracuse. He is personable, funny, and thoughtful, and I felt like I got to take a mini-MFA class with him. I’d already read most of these stories before, but it was such a pleasure to revisit them again with Saunders, benefiting from his careful attention and instruction. It is perhaps neither here nor there, but Saunders also strikes me as incredibly kind and wise, as a human being, and there’s good life advice buried in here, alongside his sage counsel about writing better stories as we learn from the masters. Recommended for all writers.
9. Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America, Eliza Grisworld
Impeccably, patiently researched. Eliza Griswold writes in that detached, traditional style of third-person journalism that I miss so much these days (it is a rarity). Griswold is barely in the book at all, admirably; she writes so that she can get out of the way and tell the tragic story of the Haney family, whose lives and livelihoods were ruined when fracking came to their tiny Pennsylvania farm. Through much suffering, sickness, and lawsuits, Griswold tells the larger narrative of what fracking threatens to do to similar families and towns across Appalachia.
10. What Are We Doing Here?: Essays, Marilynne Robinson
“So, beauty disciplines. It recommends a best word in a best place and makes the difference palpable between aesthetic right and wrong. And it does this freely, within the limits it finds—cultural, material, genetic. Another paradox, perhaps, a discipline that is itself free, and free to make variations on such limits as it does choose to embrace. Beauty is like language in this. It can push at the borders of intelligibility and create new eloquence as it does so.” — “Grace and Beauty”
If I trust anyone to tell us what we are doing here, it may be Marilynne Robinson. Her wise, far-ranging mind considers American history, Christian theology, redemption of the Puritans, and a smattering of politics in this heady collection of essays. (Her tribute to President Obama and their sweet friendship was a particular delight.) It was a pleasure to read someone with her depth of thought, wit, and high vocabulary on topics that are dismissible at first glance as dry and unappealing. In her talented hands, everything becomes a subject of wonder.
Quick reviews of the best fiction I read (for the first time) this year. I re-read a handful of all-time favorites (Lolita, Madame Bovary, The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, and Ada, or Ardor) in 2021, which felt like a comforting choice during a never-ending pandemic, but I have not included them in this list, as they are all #1 picks. Without further ado!
1. No One Is Talking About This, Patricia Lockwood
“Why were we all writing like this now? Because a new kind of connection had to be made, and blink, synapse, little space-between was the only way to make it. Or because, and this was more frightening, it was the way the portal wrote.”
Patricia Lockwood descends into “the portal,” the life we all live online, and emerges with flashes of brilliant insight, humor, and pathos. The novel is structured in a very piecemeal, Lydia Davis-y style, which also seems appropriate for the subject matter, and it takes a surprisingly emotional turn in the second half, which I felt unprepared for. (I actually cried toward the end of the book, which I rarely do with any novels, and which I surely did not expect this book to make me do, given the jovial, self-deprecating tenor and content of its first half.) I wanted to read more from her after becoming obsessed with her essay in the London Review of Books about Elena Ferrante, and this curiously moving little book did not disappoint my high expectations.
It’s uncool to like Jonathan Franzen, but gosh, guys, he is really great. This novel is a perfect example of his skill at interpersonal insights and all the drama that goes on in the minds of family members. Here, toward the waning years of the Vietnam War, an American pastor’s family is coming apart at the seams. Franzen, while not claiming Christianity for himself, writes with sensitivity and clarity about the Jesus Movement and how people of faith might have navigated it during this tumultuous decade. Riveting and heart-wrenching at times.
The clean plainness of John Williams’s prose befits his protagonist: William Stoner, a featureless farm boy who slides into a role as an English professor at the University of Missouri. We follow his quiet, largely uneventful life as a teacher in the early half of the 20th century, and Williams presents to us a character we come to admire and yet expect nothing from. It is a fascinatingly quiet novel and yet it accomplishes a great deal. As a whole, it brings to mind the beautiful closing paragraph of Middlemarch, thinking of people, like Stoner, “who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
Having recently finished Diarmaid MacCulloch’s enormous history The Reformation, I felt well-prepared for this thorough novel about the risks of being an intellectual dissident during the Reformation. The great Marguerite Yourcenar never disappoints. Her far-ranging imagination and depth of historical insight is astonishing, and her prose (here translated by Grace Frick, her lifelong partner, who also translated the peerless Memoirs of Hadrian) is gorgeous without being stuffy. The Abyss is a novel about Zeno, a physician and alchemist making his way through the heady, deadly period of the Reformation in and around Flanders. For his atheism and for his scientific practice, he is perpetually under suspicion of heresy wherever he lives, and he meets and saves many different people (mostly men) throughout the course of the book. His philosophical dialogues with the Prior are particularly enjoyable; Yourcenar renders the contrast between the former’s great doubt and the latter’s great faith with sensitivity and warmth. (For what it’s worth, Zeno is also a very archetypal, classic portrait of an iconoclastic 5, for those who ascribe to the enneagram.) It’s a dense, impressive work of historical fiction; a welcome escape during pandemic winter.
An episodic, humane, unusual novel, set in East Prussia in 1945, as the Red Army is advancing and forcing the migration of thousands of refugees. In a ramshackle estate, a woman lives with her 12-year-old son and a number of attendants, and they all play host to an array of wandering strangers, including a drifting painter, a Nazi violinist, and a Jewish refugee, before they themselves have to take to the road, and the horrors of war become increasingly personal. Walter Kempowski published this, his last novel, in 2006, and in it, reveals a sensitive and yet unflinching portrayal of Germans at home, the ones trying to determine whether they had enough ration coupons, if their husbands and sons were still alive at the front, what their neighbors were doing, and what the point of living was, after all. Kempowski writes plainly, with skill, and does not embellish or romanticize. His characters all have rather flat affect, which creates an unusual effect when they are faced with such horrors. Remarkable novel; a memorable achievement in historical fiction.
Oh, Karl Ove! Look at you, writing about people who aren’t yourself (although I suspect there are a few strong resemblances here)! Through a chorus of characters, this unexpectedly creepy novel meditates on death and how we might all reckon with a quiet, spooky apocalypse. I did not expect to be so riveted. I wanted it to end with a bang, not a whimper, however, and the conclusion left me feeling a bit disappointed.
Gloomy introspective novel by Rachel Cusk; unmistakably by Rachel Cusk. Who else could write such a deeply sad, deeply conscious, deeply strange novel? I’m still not entirely convinced that I really love her, but I keep coming slowly back to her writing, often failing to resist her witchy magnetism. Some segments of this felt very Woolfian to me, which is perhaps why I kept going even when the first 40 pages failed to capture much of my interest. I picked up enthusiasm as the novel wore on (once L and Brett arrived).
Penelope Lively is so good at what she does, and I get the sense that she is sadly under-read. In Heat Wave, a middle-aged copy editor named Pauline takes up a summer residence in a ramshackle cottage with her daughter, Teresa, and her daughter’s family: husband, Maurice, a writer, and infant son, Luke. In Lively’s skillful hands, a story in which little happens becomes rich with internal drama, past reflections on former lives (and lives that could have been), and a fair dose of heartache. Thrillingly quick and a pleasure from start to finish.
It’s such an unpopular, unfashionable opinion, but wow, I love these old white male novelists, with their casual, upper-class sexism and narrow field of vision. They’re so charming, and Salter is a real stylist. This collection bears some resemblance to Cheever stories, but the stories lack Cheever’s characteristic depth. The last story (the titular story) is the best one, I think.
This is the question that has been haunting me as I continue my year-long study of English interior design.
I am not an artist or a designer. I identify as a scholar. I approach aesthetic pursuits with this detached dichotomy firmly planted in my brain. I love artists and yet their instincts mystify me entirely. I am instead comfortable in the realm of cold, hard facts and logical decision-making patterns. I cannot SEE that this chintz will contrast marvelously with that stripe, even though I appreciate the final result. Aesthetes, to me, are as mysterious as prophets.
So I turn to books instead. Or study fashionable friends’ homes with a voyeur’s eye. Or listen to my mother, who is a native-born interior designer, even though she never pursued the profession officially. The hope is that if I study enough naturally gifted designers, my analysis of their good choices will translate into good choices of my own.
The problem is that I’m not convinced that this is the case. Can design instincts be taught? Will assessing the 500th home tour from House & Garden actually result in better choices for our home renovation? Will my feverish pinning of all relevant English design inspiration result in a refreshed and beautiful home?
I think the answer is maybe. Will I ever have an EYE for interior design like many of my gifted friends and colleagues? Probably not. But can I be taught to make better selections? To fight against some of my initial (bad) instincts? I suspect so.
Pinpointing and naming my design aesthetic has at least been helpful. I am solidly enamored with English homes, despite some of my initial desires, and I plan to say more about this, in a notebook-y sort of way, soon.
In the meantime, you can find me nervously taking notes on all the interior design advice I can get my hands on. I’ve been particularly guided by Beata Heuman’s beautiful, thoughtful book, Every Room Should Sing. While I don’t think I’ll ever be gutsy enough to mimic her wild rooms, I am inspired by her counsel. More in this vein soon.
You were not a brave dog. You carried your trauma with you all your life. We rescued you from an abusive situation in Goldsboro, North Carolina, and in retrospect, we should have chosen an easier dog. You needed so much.
When the foster dropped you off, you were terrified and drugged. You had just been spayed, and you looked out of your mind. You were so afraid. I gated off our tiny kitchen and sat on the dirty linoleum floor next to you for several hours, speaking quietly to you while you came out of your narcotized state. You trembled with fear when I touched you and could not look me in the eye.
I walked out of the room for a few moments. When I returned to the kitchen, I was astonished to see you standing on top of the kitchen table. Somehow, noiselessly, you had leapt up there to look out the window. Like a cat, you didn’t knock over the chairs or any of the glasses on the table. I shrieked: It is a surprising thing to see a full-grown German shepherd standing on your kitchen table. This terrified you further, and you jumped off the table and clattered to the floor, running back into a corner where I could not reach you, more scared of me than ever.
I started to wonder if we had made a grave mistake. This was not the faithful, friendly companion Guion and I had dreamed of. This was a damaged dog. But I wasn’t willing to admit I’d made a hasty mistake. I was committed to your success—and to not looking like an idiot, after pining for years for a dog of my very own.
I devoted myself to turning you into a semi-normal dog. I continued to read dog behavior books voraciously. I took you to three different obedience school classes. I chose a vet far from our house because they were known for their gentle, compassionate care for nervous rescue dogs. I organized carefully choreographed dog play-dates. I walked you every morning for an hour before work while we worked on your leash reactivity. I decided we would take in a rotating door of foster dogs, because other dogs were the only thing that made you happy and relaxed.
After half a year of this routine, I came home from work one evening and you wagged your tail when you saw me—the first time you’d ever wagged your tail. I saw the first glimmer of promise.
Guion supported me in these endeavors wholeheartedly and was nothing but gentle to you for a decade. You responded, however, by avoiding him at all costs. He was a prime suspect in the household. I was regarded as your guardian angel. You wouldn’t eat if I left the room and Guion was still in the kitchen. He could barely pet you.
The two of you developed a truce around food, however, and one of our trainers said you could be allowed to beg from the table, but only from Guion, so that your bond could strengthen. This just turned into you being very bold about demanding snacks during dinner and staying dangerously underfoot whenever he was cooking bacon. He did not love you, but he did tolerate you with admirable patience for a very long time.
. . .
You adored other dogs. Some of the happiest years of your life were the years we had foster dogs in the house.
Brando was your particular favorite: a huge, hulking black German shepherd who was as gentle as a lamb. You followed him around like a love-struck teen.
After Brando came six more shepherds, including a feisty puppy, Laszlo, and an incredibly gentle shepherd, Draco, rescued from a hoarding situation in West Virginia, where an insane woman had 41 dogs in her home.
Our riskiest foster was a dodgy reddish male we called Rainer. He was a stray with serious dog aggression issues but thankfully saw you as a friend. You and Rainer scuffled a few times, but nothing serious.
Even though you were still touchy and anxious, we began to see glimmers of improvement.
. . .
And then there was Eden, our final foster.
She’d come from a family in Northern Virginia who had underestimated her charisma and surrendered her to the rescue. She landed on our doorstep after failing the K-9 evaluation exam given by a Virginia police force, being considered “too excitable” for police work. Again, this should have been a red flag. But we fell in love with her and decided to keep her.
I thought that adopting another dog would help you chill out, but Eden was definitely not the right kind of dog. Eden’s particular brand of crazy only made you more anxious. Your leash reactivity got worse. You got jumpier around strangers. You started barking all the time in the yard. It took me a while to recognize and admit this. You two were cute but absolutely terrible together.
Eden lived with us for four years, and we failed her too, as we also “underestimated her charisma.” We loved her, and she wore us out. She worshiped Guion and became a gifted Frisbee dog. You loved to play “murder” in the backyard every afternoon, a game that consisted of growling at each other and tearing at one another’s throats in mock rage. But before we got pregnant, Eden found a new home.
We thought you would be sad when Eden left, that you’d look around the house for her forlornly, like she did when Brando was adopted. But no. You have always been concerned for your own welfare first. Callously, you just stretched out on the back deck and acted like nothing had changed, like you hadn’t just lost your sister of several years.
. . .
When I got pregnant, you were my constant walking companion. Our movement-minded doula insisted that I walk at least three to five miles every day, and so I did, with you at my side. We’d take long, silent walks all over town, through most of the city parks and in and out of almost every downtown neighborhood. Late in the pregnancy, I took you on some trails at Pen Park and had to pee every hour. There were no bathrooms in sight, so I’d squat in the brush and tell you to stand guard. You did, coming up to sniff me at first and then you’d wait patiently until I finished.
You were always my favorite creature to walk with. You never pulled on the leash. You always strolled at the perfect pace (even if you stopped a little too often to smell every tuft of grass or every fallen branch). You were calm and gentle and just the right level of energy on an hour-long walk. In your prime years, you were happiest out on a very long stroll with me.
. . .
You were attached to me in a crippling way. You couldn’t relax if I wasn’t around. You never fully trusted other people. Guion said you sometimes wouldn’t eat when I was out of town. At home, I couldn’t so much as shift in my chair or exhale deeply without you coming over to stare at me. It sounds charming, to have an animal so devoted to you, but it’s easy to recognize it as a handicap. I was never sure how to teach you to care about me less.
. . .
When our first baby was born, you were distressed. You’d been separated from me for two days, and our baby was born at home, which meant you’d been confined to the basement for a day and a half, with your least-favorite person, Guion, coming down to feed you and let you out. I was not accessible and was suddenly attached to a strange, mewling creature.
In those dramatic first weeks, I thought we would have to surrender you. You could not relax when the baby was in the room. We’d let you sniff him, but then you’d continue whining and pacing, circling him with rising anxiety. I felt incredibly nervous and upset whenever you and the baby were in the same room, and I’m sure you sensed it. We were trapped in a negative feedback loop.
But in time, slowly, you adapted. For all of your deep-seated anxieties, you’ve always been an incredibly gentle dog. I’ve known so many anxious dogs who resorted to aggression, but you never did.
You’ve even had a few Lassie-like moments. On one occasion, I was vacuuming and Moses was down the hall, crying in his room after a nap. I couldn’t hear him. But you went down the hall, nosed the doorknob, and then came back to me and stared at me pointedly, and then walked back to his door, as if to say, Lady, do something. That creature needs you.
Because we respected you, we were always very careful to give you space from the children, and you took it when you needed it. But more often than not, you chose to be very close to the babies, especially during meal time. I’m not sure you ever loved them, but you were unfailingly gentle. You’d greet them every morning, often with a quick lick to the head or hand, and then go curl up on your rug in the hall and sigh and watch the family chaos unfold.
You became a third-class citizen when the kids arrived, and yet you never complained. You accepted your lowly status gracefully. You were the easiest dog in the world, and even still, you didn’t get as much attention as you deserved. The walks grew less frequent. The individual attention nearly vanished. And yet you remained as sweet and calm as ever.
. . .
You were always a beautiful dog. I always felt like I could take credit for it, as if my genes somehow played a role in your attractiveness. People often commented on your beauty when we walked. You were always slinking around like a panther. You looked scared most of the time, but regal. Like a queen who had lost her bearing through some unspeakable tragedy.
Your coloring is the classic shepherd black and tan, but you grew lighter with age—and not just at your muzzle. Your entire coat has lightened; the black saddle was flecked with gray, the tan on your legs was nearly white. It’s as if you were fading slowly, making yourself softer.
Pyrrha, you were not the easygoing, faithful companion my husband wanted. You were not the bold obedience star I had hoped for. You were not the fun-loving family dog ready for rough-housing.
But you were better than we deserved. You will always be in our hearts, and in mine especially.
In January, we move into a two-bedroom apartment for the forseeable future.
We’ve been told our renovation project may take 6 to 8 months. I’ve been told by every home owner to add several months to that estimate, so I am telling myself we may be out for a year, so that I don’t freak out when it actually takes that long. Or longer.
The stress of the season is getting to me, leaving aside the fact that we’re both working full time, have two tiny children, are putting our dog down soon, and need to pack up our entire house and move out immediately after the winter holidays. I have a hard time falling asleep at night because my mind won’t stop racing (and because the 4-month sleep regression is really taking sweet Felix for a spin).
Deep breath. Leaving all that aside, I am looking for pockets of gratitude.
As I take down the artwork on our walls and pack up toys and kitchen gadgets, I feel like we have been given this amazing gift to reset. We’re reviving our house, for sure, in some significant ways, but we also have the chance to rethink old ways of doing things. In Marie-Kondo parlance, I feel like I get to assess the whole house, as a holistic unit, and ask what really sparks joy.
I get to have a do-over!
There are many design choices I made eight years ago that I still like, but there are also many that I want to reconsider. For example, I thought I could have a cool Scandinavian-modern house if I painted all the walls white. I did not consider the fact that these rooms look so cool because the architecture is so cool. I do not live in a cool Scandinavian-modern house. I live in a very plain midcentury cottage, churned out by the thousands to suit the needs of ordinary working Americans. Painting all the walls white just makes my plain house look even plainer. This is something to reconsider in a big way.
Most recently, I have become enamored with eclectic English cottage design, which I may reflect on in a separate post. This style seems to be in vogue lately among my set and is often called the “grand-millennial” look, which I vaguely object to. But I am increasingly very interested in antiques, patterned textiles, upholstery, wallpaper, and frilly lampshades. Who knew? It’s a far cry from what I admired a decade ago, which was all stark white floors and gray textures. Turns out that’s not how we live or decorate, given our penchant for owning too many books, heavy curtains, and acquiring silly art. I suspect our family tastes are much more in line with the ramshackle English aesthetic.
Meanwhile, please enjoy this photo, in which I take Guion and Felix by surprise while Felix was getting a baby manicure.
I have been losing my hearing for the past few years, but when pregnant with Felix, my hearing loss became acute. A few weeks after he was born, I finally got the diagnosis I had been suspecting, that I had otosclerosis, a progressive hearing loss disorder that is accelerated by pregnancy. (Just one of the many super-strange things that pregnancy can do to a body!) It’s a genetic condition, and my maternal uncle also has it, so I’d suspected this was the reason for losing my hearing at a relatively young age. The good news is that I’m a candidate for surgery to correct this loss (by getting some new faux tiny ear bones, how chic), and I hope to schedule that sooner rather than later.
Overall, the experience of gradually going deaf has created space for all kinds of new observations.
Masking has been a real trial for my new handicap. The pandemic is inconvenient to many of us in many different ways, but the constant need to mask in social situations has been a real drag for me. I have to ask everyone to repeat themselves multiple times. I can’t watch their mouths to guess at the words they might be making. It’s incredibly frustrating.
Related to this frustration is an increased social anxiety. I’ve always been introverted, but losing my hearing has made me want to avoid casual interactions with people. With masks and my gradual hearing loss, I miss so much in conversation, and I feel ashamed and irritated. I try to disclose my deafness, but people often don’t turn the volume up vocally. It’s terrible to admit, but I feel happy when a cashier doesn’t try to make small talk, for instance, but bags my groceries in silence. It’s more peaceful that way.
Accordingly, I pretend a lot of the time now. I pretend like I heard the punchline to a joke. I pretend like I understood the question. It’s not efficient—I should just ask people to repeat themselves. But I hate having to always do that. So I just look at them vacantly and nod and try to mirror whatever facial expression they’re making. Ah, she’s grimacing; I should express concern. OK, he is smiling; I should smile and nod too.
I have a harder time hearing men, because of the lower tones of their voice (especially men speaking quietly). Guion jokes that this is just an expression of my feminism: refusing to ever listen to the patriarchy.
I suppose this is a small PSA more than anything. If I seem ruder to you than normal, know that it’s not intentional. I probably just didn’t hear you. I hope I will be able to hear you again soon. In the meantime, feel free to shout.