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How to Be Childless: A History and Philosophy of Life Without Children,  by Rachel Chrastil.

December 5, 2019

How to Be ChildlessHow to Be Childless: A History and Philosophy of Life Without Children,  by Rachel Chrastil.

A thought-provoking book about the prevalence of childlessness in our past and why it is a valid choice today.

Rachel Chrastil is a European History Professor at Xavier University.  Her undergraduate degree is from Indiana University and her Ph.D. is from Yale University.  She also is Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Science at Xavier.  She has written two books focusing on civilian experiences of war and the rise of humanitarianism.   Her overall approach to scholarship looks beyond simplistic dichotomies to the complexity of issues, weaving together the presence of both choice and external circumstances in decision-making.  Such an approach is particularly useful in considering a topic like childlessness.  Her new book clearly displays adherence to high academic standards.  At the same time it is written gracefully and is easily accessible to more general readers.

The first section of Chrastil’s book refutes the common assumption that singleness is a relatively recent phenomenon, a choice available only after World War II and the Pill.   She summarizes both statistical and textural evidence of often overlooked singleness in the European past.  Chrastil has read widely in primary sources describing how ordinary people lived in Europe since about 1600.  She quotes from these to give readers a sense of how single individuals supported themselves or blended into the households of others.  Statistical sources give further evidence of how childless adults have lived and worked in households of others or found means of self-support in the past.

Next Chrastil refutes the contemporary assumptions that failure to have children is selfish or misguided in today’s world.  Many individuals who do not have children are confronted by those who continue to assume that having children is a necessity of a fulfilling life.  Chrastil does not attack the traditional nuclear family; instead she insists that bearing children is not a universal good which must be achieved by everyone. Having a child is not always a private option even for those wanting children.  Economic and social factors can be determining factors beyond personal choice.  As she points out, society in the present and future needs people to make a variety of contributions.  While some may bear and raise their own children, those without their own offspring are necessary to produce a world that is a decent place for children of the future.  For example, on the issue of leaving a legacy, she considers how flourishing people act for many other people rather than simply their own children.  Those who are, as single, living lives in which they feel responsibility for society at large are leaving a positive legacy.  Chrastil insists we consider a larger range of what it means to live a full life, to flourish and contribute to society beyond physical reproduction.  As she explains,

Continuing our species takes a lot more than having babies. It requires solving the biggest problems facing our time, creating the art that brings beauty to our existence, the philosophy that guides our actions—including how we raise our children.

Chrastil enumerates some of reasons given for pushing everyone to have children and then refutes each of them.  When stated clearly, traditional expectations for having children are clearly problematic.  I support much of what she says, but for me, some of her statements raise questions worth exploring.

One of the arguments against childlessness that Chrastil challenges is the claim that we need to have children in order to have someone to provide for us in our old age.  I am twice as old as Chrastil and have a different perspective.  Rather than approaching this question as one of whether I should have children in order to have someone to provide for me in the future, I can’t help but approach it as a question of what support I can count on right now.  From that perspective, my concern with aging is primarily with the specific ways society fails to offer support. We do not live in a society where the status quo is sufficient, regardless of whether someone has children.  For many, Social Security is the only “safety net,” and in the United States conservatives continue to try to end its assistance.  In addition, care for parents is not simply about affording to pay someone else to care for them.  Communities where people care for each other are hard to find or create, especially in a world where most of us move frequently. Parents need connections and continuity as they age.  If children are willing, their love and attention can be a critical factor.

In addition, I liked Chrastil’s decision to research and write about childlessness for both men and women.  This is not a topic of choice which women make alone.  Obviously men are involved in whether or not children are born. Not only are individual men fathers; they also play major roles in the laws and structures that shape what it means to have a child.  The fierce attempt to prohibit women from having abortions in the United States is a critical factor in who has children and who doesn’t. And if we are to consider what it means to have virtuous and flourishing lives we need to consider all people, not only women and men, but those who are moving outside traditional gender roles.

Chrastil does not claim that we should give up nuclear families.  She simply advocates that not all people be pushed into them.  Treating the nuclear family as the only way of organizing society has meant privatizing social concerns like education and elder care.  The assumption is that the upper classes can ignore all those in society who are not blood kin.  In other cultures, and in our culture in the past, some of these concerns were addressed in extended families or communities.  Today, the nuclear family is breaking down and other styles of family are emerging—including childlessness. Perhaps Chrastil’s new book can contribute to tolerance of a variety of families and a larger conversation about the need for rethinking how we care for each other.

How to Be Childless is an important book which should be read and discussed by academic and general readers.

Disclaimer:  My daughter, who gave me this book for Mother’s Day, is a friend and colleague of Chrastil.

Shiner, by Amy Jo Burns. 

November 29, 2019

Shiner, by Amy Jo Burns.  Riverhead/Penguin Books, 2020

Forthcoming May 2020.

4 stars

An unusual novel, set in the mountains of West Virginia about people who live there in isolation and pain –snake handlers, moonshiners, and silenced women.

Amy Jo Burns grew up a small town in western Pennsylvania. As child she lived in the center of the Rust Belt, when the region was caught in the center of decline and loss.  She left the area to study at and graduate from Cornell University. Currently she teaches creative writing and writes a regular column for Ploughshares.  Her first book was a memoir, Cinderland, published by Beacon, set in the rust belt, and related her own experience of being silenced about sexual harassment she had suffered.

In Shiner, Burns turns to another isolated and neglected region, the Appalachian Mountains. Her main character is Wren, the 15-year-old daughter of self-proclaimed preacher, famous for his ability to handle snakes.  With her parents Wren lives in almost total isolation from modern society, except for regular visits from her mother’s closest friend.  Despite her father’s intent to keep his wife and daughter away from outside contacts, tragedies intrude and force Wren to reconsider her place in the world.  In doing so, she faces new understanding of her parents and her mother’s best friend.

Burns’ novel is full of excitement and insight into the lives of people most of us ignore. Her portrayal of women silenced by men is poignant.  She is sensitive to difficult decisions individuals are forced into making.  At times, however, I wondered if Appalachians still live this way or if Burn has fallen into stereotyping them as so many previous authors have done. Yet I found the story compelling.

Shiner is a very good novel that I suggest for a variety of readers ready to move into unfamiliar territory.

A Trace of Deceit: A Novel, by Karen Odden. 

November 17, 2019

A Better Man
A Trace of Deceit: A Novel, by Karen Odden.  HarperCollins, 2019.

 Forthcoming: December 17, 2019

4 stars

An engaging mystery set in the art world of London in the 1870s and centering on a young woman who becomes involved in the search for the murderer of her estranged brother.

Karen Odden earned her Ph.D. at New York University writing her dissertation on Victorian England.  She explored how the depiction of nineteenth-century railroad disasters contributed to early conceptualizations of trauma.  She has taught at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, New York University and the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.  Her articles have appeared in books and journals focusing on Victorian life.  Before earning her Ph.D., Odden worked in the publishing industry.

Annabel was determined to help discover who killed her artist brother, a troubled young artist who was alienated from his family.  His death is complicated by valuable painting stolen from his apartment.  Alongside an inspector from Scotland yards, she searches out people from his past and comes to better understand him and herself.

A Trace of Deceit is a fine novel, rich in its depiction of its characters and their emotions.  Appropriately, it is also a very visual book, with individuals and landscapes drawn in sharp clear images.  Yet descriptions never weigh down the book which moves quickly through the puzzles of detecting.  Like all good historical fiction, Odden presents excellent historical research into which fictional appropriate imaginary characters are inserted.  This is also a humane mystery, full of good people reacting to shocking events.  As the characters grow and changes, forgiveness becomes possible.

For me, this is my favorite kind of mystery, one that focuses on people and how they behave.  It is deeper and more compelling than many cozy mysteries, but not full of death and destruction.

I recommend A Trace of Deceit to all readers who enjoy a good novel, whether or not they typically like mysteries.

A Better Man, by Louise Penny.

November 4, 2019

A Better Man
A Better Man, by Louise Penny.  Minotaur Books, 2019.

4 stars

A new mystery by a favorite writer set in Canada and featuring Armand Gamache, the sometime head of the Montreal homicide department, and the tiny, isolated village of Three Pines.

Louise Penny was born in Canada in 1958 and graduated from Ryerson University.   She worked at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for 18 years before marrying and beginning her writing career.  A Better Man is the fifteenth book in her series about Gamache, his family and his friends.  To say that she has a new book published is enough for her regular readers to rush out to buy it

Armand Gamache is the central figure in Penny’s series and sets the tone for them.  As part of the police department in Montreal and the surrounding area, he is anything but a stereotypical police officer.  He is a brave, sensitive, and wise man, always aware that everyone has both good and bad within, or as he says  the “malice and truth.”   He is a deeply moral man, never legalistic, but aware of the ambiguity of life and the risks we all face.   Perhaps the attraction of the Gamache  novels is the way in which they probe deeply into the characters at the same time they provide puzzles and dangers.

Other people and places also regularly appear in the series.  Gamache’s family and their shifting relations ground him outside his detective duties.  So does Three Pines, the idyllic village just outside Montreal, yet a world away, perhaps like the village where Penny lives.  The village is small but has a cluster of eccentric residents, all of them willing to tolerate each other.  Gamache and his wife have a home there as well as in Montrell. The village offers readers a refuge just as it does the book’s charcters.

In A Better Man,  Gamache has given his superior an excuse to humiliate and demote him.  He must share his directorship of homicide with his son-in-law.  Their joint search for a missing woman is complicated by a massive flood sweeping through the region.  Nothing is as it seems, and the case stalls, but creative thinking by Gamache and his team figure out who is guilty.

I strongly recommend A Better Man to a wide range of readers, including those who usually dislike mysteries. Although the Gamache books are part of a series, each can be enjoyed alone.

Willa’s Grove, by Laura Munson.

October 30, 2019

Frederick Douglass
Willa’s Grove by Laura Munson. Blackstone Publishing, 2020.

Forthcoming: March 3, 2020.

3 stars  

A novel set in a small Montana town where four women come together for a week to figure out what is next for themselves.

Laura Munson defines herself primarily as a writer, seeking to help other writers through difficult times. Her memoir, This Is Not The Story You Think It Is:  A Season of Unlikely Happiness has been widely read.   It traces her own response to her husband’s statement that he wanted a divorce. She has also published essays and stories in leading magazines and appeared in a variety of media.  Her basic message is that of much recent advice literature which focuses on women finding empowerment and  voice.  In addition, she offers Haven Writing Retreats on a ranch in Montana where she lives with her family.  Other than her own website, there is little about her on the web.

In Munson’s new book, Willa and her husband have lived for many years on land they own in a remote section of Montana.  They also own the small village that has grown up on their property.  When her husband suddenly dies, Willa in overwhelmed by the work of running their ranch alone and by the enormous debt that her husband left behind.  As she contemplates selling the town, she invites a friend and two friends of friends to join her for a week of intense conversation and activity. Each of the middle-aged women is at decision point in her life.  They help each other and are helped by the spacious Montana land.

Munson obviously draws on the women who have come to the retreats that she holds for those seeking space and fellowship for making decisions.  I deeply admire her for reaching out to others with her retreats. I would love to attend one.  But a wonderful process does not always translate into good book.  Munson could have been helped by better editing and polishing of her prose.  The characters are often flat representatives of types of women.  The plot line of ownership of the land and activities of the women are improbable.  The women’s conversations are repetitive and focused on them telling each to love themselves.  Despite all that is said about women empowering themselves, most of their solutions hinge on the decisions of others. But the women are all good people in a beautiful place. That will be enough for some readers.

Some readers will enjoy this rather light read.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, by David W. Blight

October 17, 2019

Frederick DouglassFrederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, by David W. Blight.  Simon & Schuster, 2018.

5 stars

The intellectual history of the escaped slave who became the greatest orator of his day and a leading abolitionist and writer of the era.  Winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in History.

David W. Blight is the Sterling Professor of History and Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University.  He has written and edited a dozen books, some specifically about Douglass and others about the context of Douglass’ life.  Many have won prizes. His new book has quickly become the definitive biography of Douglass’s life.  It has been widely read and discussed in all media.  I simply want to add my own words of praise and my personal response to it.

How do you write an intellectual history of man born and raised in an institution that specifically denied him the right to read and write?  Even if he became a man whose wisdom and speaking ability was among the greatest of our national history?  Blight has risen to the challenge using contemporary scholarships’ focus of Douglass’s use of words and language, first as a tool of survival for Douglass and later as the core of his oratory.  Never a theorist, Blight focuses closely what Douglass said and wrote and why he chose to express himself as he did.  The large narrative of Douglass’s life is always present for Blight, but the narrative focuses on how Douglass created power for himself and his people through words.

The narrative of Douglass’s childhood as slave is familiar to many of us partly because of the eloquence with which he told his own story in his amazing autobiographies.  Blight relies on Douglass’ own words while filling in details and exploring their context.  He looks at how words and language helped Douglass understand and survive the dehumanizing aspects of slave life.  Blight credits the attention that Douglass devoted to a book of oratory he studied as an adolescent, the same book that Lincoln was studying as a boy in Illinois.  It was a book with practical suggestions for would-be orators and included copies of various speeches supporting rights and full humanity for all.  Lots of quotes from Douglass and bits of information about the time and places he lived make this part of the book particularly fun to read.

As Douglass escaped slavery and moved into marriage and abolition, Blight widens his story.   Turning to a wider range of sources, Blight gives us a balanced picture of him, his followers and detractors.  The abolitionist movement, which formed the context for Douglass’ oratory, was a chaotic movement, not only attacked from the outside, but full of divisions and animosity.  The biggest spit was the debate over the means by which abolition was to be achieved; moral persuasion or politics and violence.  Douglass was an angry young black man, full of rhetoric rejecting his country and the Constitution.  As he moved from devotion to his mentor Garrison into the support of political liberation, he struck out at other abolitionists and his country itself. His famous “Fourth of July” Speech is an example of his anger.

The Douglass’ relationship with women was another divisive issue then and now. His friendship with white women scandalized his fellow workers and his enemies. Blight writes with great sensitivity about Douglass’s relationship to women while not sensationalizing it.  Douglass’s wife, Ann, was a capable but illiterate black woman who raised their five children with little involvement of her famous husband.  In addition, Douglass observed and admired the ways in women, white and black, contributed to the abolitionist movement.  He was so impressed that he became supportive of the early women’s rights, even attending Seneca Falls.  In the 1850s, an aristocratic English woman lived with the Douglass family working as a close assistant to him in the publication of his newspaper and his other abolitionist activities.   Blight thinks that explicitly sexual behavior between them was improbable, but they scandalized those within and without the abolitionist movement.  She became essential to the financial survival of Douglass’s family and paper and to the daily labor of publishing.  As Blight points out, the managing of a newspaper for a cause to which she was devoted was not a position she could have dreamed of having anywhere else.  Douglass would continue to be involved with white women and, after Anna’s death controversially married one.

I fully recommend Blight’s biography to all readers who want to understand a little known but major leader in American history and the stage on which he acted.  It will also be of interest to those interested in the use and value to words and language.  At 400 pages, it is a big book, worth sampling if not reading it all.

Little Gods: A Novel, by Meng Jin.

October 12, 2019

Little Gods
Little Gods: A Novel, by Meng Jin.  HarperCollins, 2019.

FORTHCOMING December 2019.

5 stars

A brilliant novel about a Chinese mother, her daughter, born during the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and the book’s characters’ attempts to reject their pasts.

Little information was available about Meng Jin.  She was born in Shanghai and now lives in Brooklyn. She attended Hunter College where she studied writing.  This is her debut novel.  In the only picture of her that I found, she appeared to be of European descent.  Perhaps she has achieved the rejection of her literal past and recreation of a new identity that some of her characters attempt.  Regardless, her book is excellent; indicating perhaps that a person need not be a hereditary member of a group to write about them well.

The central character of Little Gods is a talented woman physicist, whom readers come to know only through the narratives of others, including her husband and daughter, a nurse and a neighbor.  All these relationships are complex and ambiguous and we only learn gradually what has happened between those involved.  Despite the disparate voices and themes, the book is tightly unified, leaving no confusion of the time and place action is occurring.  Perhaps Jin avoids this common problem with the thick interweaving of characters in each other’s stories.  Perhaps she achieves unity with the ways in which she touches repeatedly and lightly on themes of time and rejection of the past.

While the physicist obsesses over the reversal of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, readers need not understand the science she explores. Yet we can recognize how it relates to the human attempts to erase personal pasts and start over that characters exhibit.  The book is less about resolving philosophical questions of time and reality and more about observing others’ attitudes toward them.  For example, when the physicist dies, her daughter is determine to explore her mother’s life and identify her own father.

Little Gods may raise questions for readers about how much our past determines our present and future.  It also explores the ambiguity of rejecting or accepting parental identity.  The book is also full of tension over what we simply don’t know as the book proceeds.  Attention to details of places and people add the book’s strength. The details of China after Tianamen Square are not well known for many readers.  But most of all it is extremely well written and a joy to read.

I enthusiastically recommend it to all readers.