Review: After Birth by Elisa Albert
Looking for a heartwarming story about new motherhood? You won’t find it here. The narrator of Elisa Albert’s second novel, Ari, gave birth to Walker a year ago but still hasn’t gotten over the disruption to her life: the constant demands on her time and affection, the decay of her postgraduate thesis, and post-traumatic flashbacks to her caesarean section. Birth wasn’t the blissful, Earth Mother experience she wanted it to be; it was more like butchery: “nightmare blur of newborn stitches tears antibiotic awake constipation tears wound tears awake awake awake limping tears screaming tears screaming shit piss puke tears.” Now don’t get her wrong; she loves Walker: “He’s an awesome baby, a swell little guy. Still a baby, though, of which even the best are oppressive fascist bastard dictator narcissists.”
So even though Ari is reasonably happy and settled in her upstate New York home with her husband Paul (a professor 15 years her senior) and Walker, putting in the occasional shift at the local co-op and sending half-hearted ideas to her advisor, she can’t escape the thought that life isn’t as it should be. That is, until Mina Morris, bassist from a late-eighties girl band, moves to town to sublet her friends’ place while they’re on sabbatical in Rome. Ari had a girl crush on Mina before she ever met her, but when she realizes Mina is nine months’ pregnant, she sees a chance to put her new mommy expertise to good use. She’ll give Mina all the advice and support she wished she’d had. When the need arises, she’ll even breastfeed Mina’s newborn son, Zev. (Albert had a similar experience when her son was failing to thrive from breastfeeding and a friend fed him for her; see her Guardian article.)
There isn’t a whole lot of plot to After Birth. Mina comes into Ari’s life for just two months and then moves on. Ari temporarily indulges her fantasy of a feminist collective where women help each other give birth and raise each other’s children; it is enough of a healing experience that she can conceive of resuming her thesis or even – ha! – having another baby. Still, she acknowledges that “the work of childbearing, done fully, done consciously, is all-consuming. So who’s gonna write about it if everyone doing it is lost forever within it? You want adventures, you want poetry and art, you want to salon it up over at Gertrude and Alice’s, you’d best leave the messy all-consuming baby stuff to someone else.”
It can be hard to warm to Ari’s sarcastic voice and jarringly short or disorientingly run-on phrases. Albert’s choice to exclude speech marks means that the whole book reads like a sort of fever dream, with past and present and different voices melding. My favorite passage is a monologue by an Oprah-like black nurse who encourages Ari in her early attempts at breastfeeding. There are also frequent flashbacks to Ari’s childhood: Jewish summer camp and the aftermath of her mother Janice’s untimely death. The memories of her mother’s illness (DES treatment leading to breast cancer) and the touches of magic realism as the dead Janice occasionally pops up alongside Ari, usually kvetching about her choices, make this uncannily similar to The Year My Mother Came Back by Alice Eve Cohen.
After Birth might not prove to be a classic of ambivalent motherhood, but if you’re in the right mood for it I reckon you’ll find it to be a striking novella.
How Many Books Is Too Many? (to be reading at once)
You can never have too many books. But it’s entirely possible to have too many on the go at one time, or too many on the physical to-read pile (as opposed to the virtual to-read list; mine currently numbers in the thousands over at Goodreads). I was prompted to think about this at the end of 2014, when I went around our flat and counted all my owned but unread books that I still wanted to read. At that point I counted 155.
One of my reading goals for 2015 was born: I would attempt to read more of the books I actually own – at least enough to keep pace with my secondhand book buying habit. So yesterday afternoon, expecting to be heartened by my progress, I did a recount. Result? 180.
WHAT?! The number went up! Gah!
It must be that all-paperbacks-for-£1 shopping spree we did at the bookshop in Henley-on-Thames…and then I brought some books back in my suitcase on our last trip to America…plus a few more review copies have arrived.
There are books all over the flat: in the spare room, on the bedroom bookcase, on the bedside tables, on the hallway bookcase, on a big four-shelf case in the lounge, on desk shelves, even in an overflow area on the shelving unit of board games, jigsaw puzzles, CDs and DVDs.
And that’s not counting the dozens of approved e-books awaiting download on NetGalley and Edelweiss, and the others already on my Nook and Kindle e-readers. It’s nigh on impossible to say no to free books, after all.
Okay, so I’ve established that I have a book hoarding obsession that extends into both the print and electronic realms. (It’s no surprise I worked for a website called Bookkaholic for two years, is it?) But is this really such a problem? It’s somehow comforting to know that I’ll never run out of reading material.
A related concern, though, is this: Am I reading too many books at once? I have 13 on the go at the moment (8 print and 5 electronic). Especially since I got my Nook, I find that I’ve developed a kind of ADHD when it comes to books. It’s so easy to click from one book to another that I sometimes don’t stick with one for more than a chapter at a time. Sometimes, if I’m in a rut, I’ll read the first few pages of 10 or more books before I manage to settle on one.
Up until college, I was the kind of person who faithfully read just one book at a time. Since then, though, I’ve become convinced of the merit of having two or more on the go at a time: at least one novel and at least one work of nonfiction, maybe with some poetry thrown in. If you have nonfiction from very different genres – for instance, a spiritual autobiography and a nature book; or a travel book and a foodie memoir – you could read multiple nonfiction books at the same time.
The benefits are multiple.
- If you’re bored with one book, spend time with another one. You can always go back.
- Sometimes a pairing is fortuitous – what you’re learning in one book will have bearing on another, or the same historical figure will turn up in both.
- The psychological burden of having a tall stack of books staring you down may encourage you to read more.
Yet there are disadvantages.
- With novels and short story collections, you may get characters and storylines mixed up if you have too many in your head at once.
- You’ll make progress in all the books more slowly.
- If you get gripped by one, you might abandon the others temporarily.
How many books do you read at once?
What do you think is an ideal number?
How do you manage your (physical or virtual) to-read shelf?