OCTOBER 22, 2011
The Maid’s Daughter: Living Inside and Outside the American Dream
NYU Press, September 2011. 288 pp.
Just as Ann Crittenden brought us deep into the economic realities of child-rearing in The Price of Motherhood, Mary Romero’s quiet, revolutionary book Maid in America forced readers to really look inside the lives of domestic workers in this country. In her new book, The Maid’s Daughter, Romero is again the perfect scholar — respectful, curious, honest about her own orientation. She’s a listener, allowing the women she talks with to guide the way in which their stories are revealed. In 1986, then a professor in Texas (she now teaches at Yale), Romero met Olivia Maria Gomez Salazar, a 23-year-old Chicana student who approached Romero after hearing her speak on a panel on domestic workers. Over the next several years, Olivia told Romero her story. Olivia’s mother was a maid in Los Angeles. Olivia and her mother lived in the maid’s quarters of the house, located in a gated community. Olivia’s mother cleaned the house and cared for the family’s four children. From the age of 3 to 18, Olivia heard the phrase “just like one of the family.” By the end of The Maid’s Daughter, a reader realizes just how hypocritical, divisive, and thoughtless this common phrase can be. Romero looks at Olivia’s upbringing from many angles: the self-esteem issues, the guilt, the economic disparities, the hard labor, the question of who raises the maid’s child when the maid is raising her employer’s children, the sense of homelessness created by a lifetime in someone else’s home. After decades, when Romero calls Olivia’s mother so that she can finally meet her, she is struck by the fact that she is known only by her first name. She is also struck by the sadness and guilt Olivia’s mother feels, in spite of the conviction that she did what she had to do to give her daughter a future. It’s very moving work; thoughtful, sensitive, the best possible use of scholarship to open our eyes.
Mary Clearman Blew
This Is Not the Ivy League: A Memoir
University of Nebraska Press, September 2011. 224 pp.
In so many ways, this is a memoir of a life lived on the knife-edge of feminism: between the rocks and the hard places that women have experienced forever, but particularly in the second half of the 20th century in America. Some doors opened, were squeezed through, then slammed shut, trapping women like Blew in lives filled with unprecedented challenges. Blew, who grew up on a ranch in Montana and has written for years about her life in the West, was pregnant at 18, married, and able to continue her education, eventually earning her PhD with a dissertation on the comedies of Ben Jonson, with money from her grandmother. After a few years, with two small children, she remembers the anxiety, the first feelings of not being good enough, never getting enough done. In 1969 she was offered an assistant professor position at Northern Montana College, where she taught until 1987. Meanwhile, her family life exploded around her: one marriage lost; another, to a man she fell wholly in love with, was destroyed by his pulmonary fibrosis ; a son who stopped speaking to her for 25 years; a daughter beset by depression; money worries that seemed to never end. Where is there room for a scholar in this life? Where is the quiet time to think? Like Grace Paley and Susan Straight, Blew writes directly and indirectly about writing, about the working class, about children, about caring for grandchildren, and about trade-offs.
Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, September 2011. 208 pp.
André Aciman is, quite simply, one of the finest essayists of the last hundred years — you’d have to go back much farther, perhaps a visit to Montaigne, to find the combination of elegance, restraint, and longing that Aciman so generously bestows upon his readers. Attention, desire, memory: the ingredients for engagement. His essays lower cortisol, I kid you not. You emerge with a perspective on life. You are reminded of the hard-won beauty of it all. You want to travel, to see things — they are a cure for agoraphobia. You feel that it might be safe to think of your life as a single, whole journey, and not just a series of mistakes. In these 16 essays, he explores everything: sight, smell, imagination, reality, numbness, decay, intimacy. He recalls favorite streets and streets he embellished in his memory, cities (Barcelona, Rome, New York), stories he told and stories he was told and where they met in the middle. He thinks about writing and how it alters experience. “Writing sees figures where life sees things: things we leave behind, figures we keep.” Aciman’s theorem: What you find when you go looking is almost always better than what you hoped for. Try it out. Assume it to be the case.
On the Origin of Tepees: The Evolution of Ideas (and Ourselves)
Free Press, August 2011. 320 pp.
In the immortal words of T.S. Eliot: “Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’ / Let us go and make our visit.” Do not ask, for On the Origin of Tepees is not your usual sort of book. Jonnie Hughes, a British TV and radio science guy, is like a carnival barker on serious weed. He is like Carl Sagan without segues, Jacques Cousteau without the hat, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdomwithout the kingdom … Wait, wait, I’ve got it: On the Origin of Tepees reminds me of a mind-blowing book I was given in first grade. It was called Animals Do the Strangest Things, and it called into question pretty much everything I’d been told so far (at 6) vis-à-vis evolution; namely that people were in charge of animals, people were smarter than animals, people were more inventive than animals and, of course, people were funnier and nicer than animals (none of which turned out to be true). Hughes wants us to understand the world differently; to understand the evolution of ideas and how those ideas shape the choices we make (individually and as a species) and our cultural evolution. He has chosen to do this in what he considers a surreal landscape — America. Now don’t get huffy: This is not Baudrillard exclaiming over the American materialist wasteland, or even de Tocqueville marveling in his paternal way over our fabulous optimism; this guy is totally comfortable (maybe too comfortable) with the idea that, grand theories aside, we are not in control of our evolution, any more than the hammerheaded fruit bat, the oarfish, or the naked mole rat. We need new goggles with which to see ourselves and through which to fully appreciate Darwin’s work. Hughes has got some.