Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on The Decision Not To Have Kids edited by Meghan Daum

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on The Decision Not To Have KidsSelfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on The Decision Not To Have Kids edited by Meghan Daum
Published by Picador

From the publisher:

One of the main topics of cultural conversation during the last decade was the supposed “fertility crisis,” and whether modern women could figure out a way to way to have it all–a successful, demanding career and the required 2.3 children–before their biological clock stopped ticking. Now, however, conversation has turned to whether it’s necessary to have it all or, perhaps more controversial, whether children are really a requirement for a fulfilling life. The idea that some women and men prefer not to have children is often met with sharp criticism and incredulity by the public and mainstream media.

In this provocative and controversial collection of essays, curated by writer Meghan Daum, sixteen acclaimed writers explain why they have chosen to eschew parenthood. Contributors Lionel Shriver, Sigrid Nunez, Kate Christiensen, Elliott Holt, Geoff Dyer, and Tim Kreider, among others, offer a unique perspective on the overwhelming cultural pressure of parenthood.

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed makes a thoughtful and passionate case for why parenthood is not the only path in life, taking our parent-centric, kid-fixated, baby-bump-patrolling culture to task in the process. What emerges is a more nuanced, diverse view of what it means to live a full, satisfying life.

Before I talk about my thoughts on this essay collection, allow me to list the contributors: Kate Christensen, Tim Kreider, Paul Lisicky, M.G. Lord, Rosemary Mahoney, Sigrid Nunez, Jeanne Safer, Lionel Shriver, Geoff Dyer, Danielle Henderson, Courtney Hodell, Anna Holmes, Elliott Holt, Pam Houston, Michelle Huneven, and Laura Kipnis. I wanted to list them all because there are some big names here, and besides the fact that I was personally interested in the subject matter of these essays, I was really excited to read more from some authors I already loved.

If you know me well, you know that I am 99% sure that I don’t want children. My husband is 100% sure that he does not. The reason for my extra 1% is that I am thirty-two and well aware that there is a tiny possibility that I could change my mind. I HIGHLY doubt that, but I never want to say never. I hate hate hate that in my life, I constantly have to defend this choice. To friends, relatives, but most annoyingly – to strangers. I constantly get upset and sometimes angry that people have the audacity to ask me, on a regular basis, “why don’t you want kids?”, always accompanied with a look of disdain and judgment. As if I would go up to a pregnant person or a parent and say, “why do you want kids?” with that same terrible judgy face. I would never. That’s simply not appropriate, not something you do. Ever. But why people think they can do the opposite to me is infuriating, to be honest. I’m over it and I’m over having to answer for myself, to defend my choice, as though it’s a choice that even needs defending. Can you see I’m passionate about this topic? Anyway. That is the reason that I chose to read this book.

So I really enjoyed and appreciated all of the essays in this collection. Some I liked better than others, of course, but overall the quality of writing was top-notch and I loved learning each author’s personal story about why he/she chose to not become a parent. I read another review of the book that criticized the fact that several of the authors initially wanted children but sort of “fell into” not having any, which the review argued made the fact that they were childless not really their choice, but I disagree. At the end of the day, there are a lot of ways to become a parent, and if someone really wants a child, even after years of “falling into” childlessness, there is adoption, surrogacy, all kinds of options. If you end up not becoming a parent, I believe there was a choice made somewhere down the line to not become a parent.

My favorite essays dealt with the larger issues around not becoming a parent in today’s society, some of the stuff I said above was a common theme, and I connected to those essays more than some of the ones that were more focused on the author’s personal story. Danielle Henderson’s was my favorite, but there were several others that I deeply connected with.

I very highly recommend this book, not just to people who don’t want to become parents. If you have a family member or friend who has chosen not to be a parent and you feel perplexed by that decision, or judgy about it (it’s okay, I get it, we all judge), this would be an excellent choice. Not everyone who doesn’t have kids came to that decision for the same reasons, but this essay collection gives a nice variety on what those reasons might be. I loved it.

Mini-reviews (attempting to wrap up 2015 reading part 4)

Saga, Volume 1Saga, Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughan
Published by Image Comics

Publisher’s summary: When two soldiers from opposite sides of a never-ending galactic war fall in love, they risk everything to bring a fragile new life into a dangerous old universe.

I chose to read Saga because I have been wanting to try more comics and everyone raves about this one, so I thought it would be a good choice. I really loved it! I loved the angle of these star-crossed lovers – individuals from two different intergalactic species that happen to be at war who fall in love, have a child together, and have to try to make it despite the universe telling them they cannot be together. There is war, drama, love, ghosts – you name it, Saga has got it. And the illustrations are absolutely beautiful and SO creative. I am by no means an expert on comics but I found this one truly excellent and am looking forward to reading the rest.

Mambo in ChinatownMambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok
Published by Riverhead Books

Charlie Wong has spent almost no time throughout her twenty-two years of life outside of Chinatown, where she lives with her father and younger sister. Her job as a dishwasher makes her miserable, so when she lands a new job as a receptionist at a dance studio, she’s thrilled. As Charlie gets to know this new world of dance, her own talents begin to rise to the surface and her life quickly changes into something she had never dreamed for herself. At the same time, however, her sister is having trouble in school and seems to become almost chronically ill. Charlie has to figure out how to grow into her new identity in the American world while at the same time figuring out how to get her firmly Eastern world-minded father to help her sister.

Jean Kwok has a talent for bringing to life the experiences of people I don’t read much about – in her first novel, she detailed the life of Chinese immigrants, and in this one it’s all about American-born Chinese – those who were born here in America, but have lived their lives immersed in Chinese culture. I really enjoyed this novel and felt SO deeply for Charlie. She is the kind of character the reader connects to immediately and roots for throughout the novel. I read so anxiously and hopefully as Charlie discovered this new world, as she learned that she has true talent for something other than washing dishes, and as she stood up to her father and her uncle in regards to her sister’s care. I was proud of her, even! Kwok really showed the reader how difficult a balance children of immigrants must strike between their parents’ ways of thinking and living and the ways of the culture they’ve been immersed in here in the US. Mambo in Chinatown is a fantastic story with a lot to think about, a ton of heart, and great characters. Highly recommended.

Why Not Me?Why Not Me? By Mindy Kaling
Published by Crown Archetype

Mindy Kaling’s second collection of essays invites readers to see inside her brain as she talks about career, her quest to find happiness and excitement in life, falling in love, and looking different from just about every other person in Hollywood.

I’m a huge Mindy Kaling fan and I really enjoyed these essays. Kaling is smart, witty, extremely funny, and really has an eye for what’s going on in society. She pokes fun at people and ideas without being hurtful, while at the same time shows readers how tough it can be to be yourself in a world that wants you to be the same as everyone else. She is just great, I enjoy her tremendously, and if you like her humor you should definitely read both of her books.

Mini-Reviews: Recent Nonfiction Reads

Bad Feminist: EssaysBad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Published by Harper Perennial

I wish I had the energy or motivation to write an entire post about this incredibly smart, challenging, and at times witty book of essays but I’m struggling to find the right words to gush about it. I loved Gay’s style of writing – it’s intensely personal but in a way that made me feel like I was chatting with a girlfriend (a highly intelligent girlfriend who motivated me to think more deeply about things). The essays here are about all sorts of things, almost all relating in some way to feminism, but some more loosely than others, and many having to do with racism and sexism and how the two intersect in ways that most people don’t realize or even care to consider. My favorite essay in the book, hands down, is one where Gay lists rules for how women should be while in friendships with other women. It’s brilliant and so true that I want to share it with every woman I know. If you’re at all interested in feminism, read this book. If you think feminism is not necessary, read this book. If you think racism and sexism are not things that happen anymore, read this book. Or if you just happen to be interested in good writing, read this book. Bad Feminist is great and I’m looking forward to more from Roxane Gay.

Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity...and Why It MattersUnchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity … and Why It Matters by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons
Published by Baker Books

The authors of this book did an extensive study on young people’s attitudes and beliefs about Christians. Not about Christianity itself, but Christians as people. The implications for what they learned – mainly that young people perceive Christians to be judgmental, hypocritical, homophobic, obsessed with politics and politicians that reflect their conservative beliefs – can have huge implications for the future of Christianity. IF the right people read this book, learn from it, and make changes. I agree with a lot of what Kinnaman and Lyons said here, and although I am a Christian I personally see a lot of what was reflected in the book and it doesn’t always make me feel good about calling myself a Christian. While I enjoyed reading this book, mostly because it confirmed for me a lot of things I already felt, I don’t see how it will make a difference because I just don’t anticipate that the people who need to read the book will actually read it. Church leaders who want to actively change the way Christians are perceived in the world should be reading Unchristian and doing something with the knowledge gleaned from it, but I just don’t see that happening. That being said, I think it’s a valuable read for those of us who try to represent Christ in the world while holding tight to a church that isn’t perceived to consistently do a great job of being Christ-like in its actions.

I Suck at Relationships So You Don't Have To: 10 Rules for Not Screwing Up Your Happily Ever AfterI Suck at Relationships So You Don’t Have To: 10 Rules for Not Screwing Up Your Happily Ever After by Bethenny Frankel
Published by Touchstone

The ONLY reason I read this book is because Bethenny Frankel wrote it. I have a slight obsession with her – I think she’s hilarious and smart, witty and incredibly tough, a person who doesn’t take shit from anyone but isn’t afraid to be vulnerable and have her heart broken (on TV, no less), and ultimately is the most genuinely real reality TV star out there (and I watch too much reality TV, so I have formed quite an opinion). Honestly this book was really silly and nothing that I could ever use or need in real life. But I appreciated her snark throughout and her attitude always puts a smile on my face. I can’t imagine anyone that would actually use this advice, but she’s sold tons of copies already so obviously those people are out there. I can’t say I really liked this one, but if you are a fan of Bethenny you’ll probably want to pick it up.

(More) Mini-reviews

Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday LivesBetter Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin
Published by Crown
Review copy provided by Netgalley

I loved The Happiness Project so I knew I’d pick up this book as soon as I could get my hands on it. Overall, I really liked it and can see a of people getting something out of it. This is one of those kinds of books where people either like this kind of thing, and will therefore enjoy the book, or find discussing boring stuff like habits, well, boring, and will definitely not enjoy the book at ALL. I find myself in the former camp so it was endlessly fascinating to me to learn about all the different ways our personalities can be sorted and how that has an effect on how we best develop good habits and ditch bad ones. Better Than Before is, generally speaking, exactly what i was expecting and so – it was great, I enjoyed it and if you’re like me, you will too!

A Small PlaceA Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The publisher describes A Small Place as “A brilliant look at colonialism and its effects in Antigua”, which it is, but it’s so much more than that. It is Kincaid’s love letter to her home country, complete with lush descriptions of beautiful scenery and daily life on this island. It is a confronting essay about what colonialism and rich white people have done to this beautiful, formerly perfect and majestic place. It is something that should challenge the reader, make you take a hard look at yourself and what you do and say and experience when visiting another country or culture (it did for me). It should make you examine your innermost thoughts and ideas about race and other cultures and why and how people can live in poverty on the very soil millions of tourists pay a LOT of money to visit every single year (it did for me). A Small Place is powerful and should be read by everyone.

Hammer Head: The Making of a CarpenterHammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter by Nina MacLaughlin
Published by W. W. Norton & Company

After spending years working for a newspaper, MacLaughlin decided one day that she wanted to spend her days in a more physical, challenging and exhausting work environment, so she applied to be an apprentice to a female carpenter. Throughout this memoir, she describes the grueling and difficult work, complete with physical, emotional and mental rewards, and the lessons she learned along the way.

This is a book that I caught mention of scrolling through Twitter and thought it sounded really interesting and different. I was right – I really liked this book and it was totally an unexpected fun surprise for me. Becoming a carpenter is something I have absolutely zero interest in, but I am interested in reading about people making transformations in their lives and that’s exactly what the book entails. I found the carpentry work fascinating (which was a shock to me), but even more was the relationship MacLaughlin built with her new boss and the things she learned about herself throughout this process. I highly recommend Hammer Head to all kinds of readers!

Faith: Essays from Believers, Agnostics, and Athiests edited by Victoria Zackheim

Faith: Essays from Believers, Agnostics, and Athiests edited by Victoria Zackheim
Published by Beyond Words Publishing
Review copy provided by Netgalley

Twenty-four authors share their perspectives on faith in this diverse collection of essays. Zackheim chooses essays about having faith in God, losing faith, having faith that there is no God, and everything in the middle. Most people interested in the subject of faith will find something to take from this collection.

The writing in this essay collection is great. Zackheim clearly pulled out all the stops to get some authors who would contribute truly thoughtful, interesting, and beautifully written pieces. Of course I was more drawn to some of the essays than others (as is typical with any essay or even short story collection) but overall I found something to think about in each one, which is a success in my book.

Oddly enough, the essays that appealed to me the most were those from atheists and agnostics. I guess I never thought of atheism or agnosticism as a faith-based position, to me before reading this collection both those things mean the absence of faith. But I was surprised to find myself nodding along with a lot of what was explained in those essays – many of the authors have faith in their beliefs, too. Just because their belief is that my God doesn’t exist doesn’t make it any less valid of a belief. I think this would be a valuable read for any Christian who finds him/herself having difficulty understanding and/or dealing with atheists and agnostics in their lives. I personally learned a lot and found myself coming to a deeper understanding of what it really means to be atheist or agnostic.

I was most disappointed by the fact that there was nothing in here from people who believe in non-Western religions. I wanted to read not only about Christianity and Judaism, but about Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, anything other than my own religion. I didn’t find much of that, which was really disappointing in a book that was supposed to be about all kinds of faith (at least, that’s what I was expecting).

I liked this collection a lot but the absence of a lot of world religions made me ultimately not as excited about it as I wanted to be. It’s worth a read, though, and the essays really are very well thought-out and beautifully written.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

This is the Story of a Happy MarriageThis is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
Published by Harper

From the publisher:

The New York Times bestselling author of State of WonderRun, and Bel Canto creates a resonant portrait of a life in this collection of writings on love, friendship, work, and art.

“The tricky thing about being a writer, or about being any kind of artist, is that in addition to making art you also have to make a living.”

So begins This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, an examination of the things Ann Patchett is fully committed to—the art and craft of writing, the depths of friendship, an elderly dog, and one spectacular nun. Writing nonfiction, which started off as a means of keeping her insufficiently lucrative fiction afloat, evolved over time to be its own kind of art, the art of telling the truth as opposed to the art of making things up. Bringing her narrative gifts to bear on her own life, Patchett uses insight and compassion to turn very personal experiences into stories that will resonate with every reader.

These essays twine to create both a portrait of life and a philosophy of life. Obstacles that at first appear insurmountable—scaling a six-foot wall in order to join the Los Angeles Police Department, opening an independent bookstore, and sitting down to write a novel—are eventually mastered with quiet tenacity and a sheer force of will. The actual happy marriage, which was the one thing she felt she wasn’t capable of, ultimately proves to be a metaphor as well as a fact: Patchett has devoted her life to the people and ideals she loves the most.

I don’t even know what to say about this gorgeous book of essays. First, I will say that Patchett was already one of my favorite authors (Bel Canto being one of my favorite books ever), but having now experienced her nonfiction as well as her fiction, she cemented her place as one of my favorites. I also closed this book and immediately had the urge to buy her entire backlist, as I wanted to experience more of her beautiful words and, in the case of her nonfiction, more of her life experiences.

There’s so much to love in this collection. Her musings on so many aspects of life will speak to just about every reader out there. She has something for everyone here – she talks about building and owning a business, the love she has for her dog, the time she spent as a caregiver for her grandmother, the mistakes she’s made in her career and in her personal life, triumphs in both her career and personal life, and the craft of writing itself, plus more. Patchett is a wise person but also a very real person, someone I connected to and wanted to keep getting to know even after I finished the book.

If you are a fan of Ann Patchett’s, you MUST read this book. If you are not, read it and become a fan. 🙂

 

Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists edited by Courtney E. Martin and J. Courtney Sullivan

Click: When We Knew We Were FeministsClick: When We Knew We Were Feminists edited by Courtney E. Martin and J. Courtney Sullivan
Published by Seal Press

This collection of essays features many prominent young feminists explaining that “click” moment – that moment when the light bulb turned on, when they understood with absolute clarity that they were feminists.

Most people identify with some kind of ideology – a religion, a political belief, a specific stance on something – and there is almost always a pivotal moment in a person’s life that makes that belief cement itself, that brings it to the forefront of one’s mind with perfect clarify. I personally have several things that I believe that are absolutely critical to my identity and sense of who I am, feminism being just one of them. So I appreciated this book, a book about women (and one man) who, just like me, at some point in their lives, came to the realization that feminism is where it’s at.

I liked how varied these essays are – the many contributors come from different backgrounds, educationally, racially, socially, in pretty much every way. So many of these authors came to feminism in nontraditional ways. I personally had my “click” moment in a college women’s studies class – so predictable – but many of these writers had theirs in such interesting and unique situations.

And everyone who contributed to this collection is a GOOD writer! I was engaged and interested in every single one of these essays.

I highly recommend Click for those who enjoy thoughtful essays and/or get why feminism is still important and relevant (hint: it is). This is a great collection edited by two smart and talented women.