A periodic feature from The Independent Staff, showcasing brief book reviews.
Motherhood is a life-changing adventure. In Making Babies, novelist Anne Enright “turns her perceptive wit to the subject of motherhood in this memoir that describes her postpartum years.” Looking for excitement that doesn’t involve changing a diaper? Open up Simon Lewis’ Border Run and step into the jungles of Yunnan province in southern China near the Myanmar border. Our reviewer writes that this fast-paced adventure “left [her] breathless with the force of this meditation on the darkness of the human condition.” And for quiet relaxation and fascinating contemplation, you might try Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis.
Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood
by Anne Enright
W.W. Norton & Company
Novelist Anne Enright, winner of the 2007 Man Booker Prize, turns her perceptive wit to the subject of motherhood in this memoir that describes her first postpartum years. Written while her two young children napped, it is a collection of vignettes and ruminations that explore everything from the surprises of nursing to her own darkly hilarious theories of evolution (“Humans give birth in pain so that they can’t run away afterwards.”) Although the book’s subject matter will be recognizable to most parents, the details are grounded in the author’s own autobiography. Enright describes coming of age in Ireland as the country grappled with abortion, contraception and divorce, a time that she describes as “hideously misogynistic.” She also discusses her own battle with depression, which culminated in an attempted suicide in her 20s. But although Enright suggests that one’s history is the inescapable baggage carried into motherhood, the book’s focus is squarely on the panic, joys and befuddlement of that state. She has a disarming knack for verbalizing the fears and frustrations of new parents. Motherhood, she says, requires an “achieved simplicity” and the book’s meditations on getting there are both profound and refreshing.
~Courtney Angela Brkic
by Simon Lewis
In his fast-paced adventure novel, Border Run, Simon Lewis delivers a tactile sense of the jungles of Yunnan Province in southern China near the Myanmar border. Three weeks after leaving Hong Kong on a backpacking holiday, Jake and Will reach a small town known for its tea factory. There Jake meets Howard, a lithe, scrawny white man who “looks like a bum,” says he is setting up a tour business, and wants to take them on a Jeep ride along the border to a secret waterfall only the tribal Wa people, former headhunters, know about. Jake thinks this is fortuitous; it’s only a day and then they’ll be on their way to Laos and Thailand. Reluctantly, Will agrees to this detour only after learning the Wa are extremely photogenic.
Hours later Howard confesses he promised Jake an introduction to beautiful Wa girls and their culture of “walking marriage.” But by then it’s too late. Will stumbles onto Howard’s real intentions while out photographing the falls and the action never lets up. The jungle remains a living, breathing presence throughout, wearing you out as these two young men disintegrate. I would have liked a bit more history, culture, reflection and perspective, but this story’s business is the primitive killer instinct latent in all of us, lying ready and alert. Dodging Burmese customs patrol officials who are looking for jade, opium and refugees, Will and Jake sort out past rivalries over Will’s ex-girlfriend, naked ladies, Howard’s reasoned deceits and their own inner furies. Despite moments when I wanted to scream at their naivety, the book is as taut as the deadly crossbows they become glued to. Deftly, relentlessly, Lewis moved me so close to Jake and Will that — as their Western, dispassionate and reasonable, if sometimes childish, minds recede — I was left breathless with the force of this meditation on the darkness of the human condition.
~Katharine A. Lorr
Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis
by Alice Kaplan
University of Chicago Press
A junior year in Paris — only a dream for most — was a transformative experience for three extraordinary young women, one that heightened their sensibilities and expanded their intellectual horizons forever. In 1949, Jacqueline Bouvier’s France was still reeling from destructive German occupation and the blight of collaborators and camps. She famously became First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and, many years later, a successful book editor. In 1957, Susan Sontag witnessed a nation divided over the question of independence for Algeria; the Fourth Republic fell, and Charles de Gaulle returned to power. Sontag made her name as a controversial New York intellectual, a prolific essayist and an avant-garde novelist. In 1963, Angela Davis experienced the aftermath of the demoralizing loss of Algeria — a post-colonial, Gaullist France. Davis, a philosopher and activist, survived imprisonment and a murder trial, going on to become a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. An absorbing tale of three brilliant minds that were honed, in part, by their “French education,” and how it influenced their lives going forward.