Expecting?

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Babies love knitwear…

I’ve never been pregnant, never tried to conceive a child. I’m at the age when friends and colleagues are having babies left, right and centre, but the furthest I’ve got down the road to furthering the species is to get married and agree that my husband and I want them ‘at some point’. Although I feel a lot more ready for the thought of bringing a child into the world than I did ten years ago – when the thought was ‘shit, having a baby would be the worst thing that could happen to me right now’ – I’m now at the ‘if it happened, we could cope’, but not yet at ‘shit, NOT having a baby would be worst thing that could happen.’ I’m a godmother to a dear girl, the daughter of a friend from school, and an inveterate ‘knitting auntie’, knocking up hats, mittens, bootees and jackets for each new arrival. But actually a mum myself? No, not yet.

Part of the reason for my lack of enthusiasm for the baby project is a lack of understanding about how it might make me think and feel, anxiety about how it might change the very me-ness of me. Sure, there are also the massive practical considerations of work and lifestyle and cost (has anyone ever told you how shitty parental pay and leave are in the UK?) but at least there’s some support from the state, and we both have jobs and savings and four grandparents-in-waiting. We have friends who have done it and so can tell us ‘don’t worry, it’s perfectly normal’ and who wouldn’t mind being howled at down the phone at silly o’clock. The species needs to do it and, after all, all of us have already been through it, albeit on the other end of things.

But a big stumbling block to overcome before I take the plunge is to try and work out how this massive life-changing thing could affect me. Not just physically – though there is that too – but how I think and feel and cope with the world. I guess that, in part, this is futile; people always tell me that you can’t imagine what it’s like until it’s happening to you. But I still want to try and work it out, and it’s almost impossible to do because there’s barely a book on the subject that isn’t just a handbook advice on folic acid, maternity pads and pelvic girdle pain. Did those words make you shiver? If so, you’re not alone – they made my skin prickle, and that just shows how culturally conditioned we are to finding the whole pregnancy and motherhood thing a little bit disgusting, something that we just don’t talk about before we’re on that giddy journey ourselves, hurtling into the future with nary a clue about what’s to come. Preparing for this journey I don’t want a car manual, I want a story about the place that I’m going to which reassures and excites and makes me feel like I could cope with the brave new world ahead.

ExpectingThank God for Chitra Ramaswamy. Her brand new book Expecting: The Inner Life of Pregnancy (Saraband, April 2016) is a magical yet practical and beautifully written monologue on pregnancy, from the pre-conception jitters to the miraculous but traumatic moment of birth. Each chapter follows a month of her own pregnancy but against a background of cultural and literary references from Sylvia Plath to Tolstoy. In fact, those two sources are pretty important, because there simply aren’t that many books, poems, plays, films or works of art which actually depict this most awesome and fundamental of human processes. As Ramaswamy questions:

‘What, then, is the riddle of pregnancy? How are we even to begin to understand it? To find the right metaphors? Or perhaps even to abandon them: to crack open the jar and spill the contents?’

Ramaswamy’s a journalist and the training shows: her research is thorough and wide-reaching, turning up gems in places we wouldn’t have looked as well as those we thought we knew. Some of the works she cites are obviously about childbearing: Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Kate Clanchy’s Newborn and Sharon Old’s poem ‘The Language of the Brag’ all take the stage. But others are more unexpected: Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain (1977) isn’t a book about pregnancy at all, but in it Ramaswamy finds surprising parallels between Shepherd’s mountain explorations and her own journey to motherhood. Take Shepherd’s description of water on the hills:

‘I have seen its birth […] and the more I gaze at that sure and remitting surge of water at the very top of the mountain, the more I am baffled.’

Ramaswamy feels the same about the miniature miracle occurring in the very midst of herself.

After the uncertainty of the first chapter, those first few weeks before most women even know they are pregnant, the references to other people’s experiences come thick and fast: Sylvia Plath’s 1959 poem ‘Metaphors’ (‘I’m a riddle in nine syllables’), Marcel Proust, Susan Sontag’s 1978 Illness as Metaphor, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Alison Watt’s and Louise Bourgeois’ sculptures, Gustave Coubert’s 1866 painting The Origin of the World, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Hélène Cixous’ The Laugh of the Medusa, John Muir, Toni Morrison, Kathleen Jamie’s Jizzen, Voltaire, George Mackay Brown, Frida Kahlo, David Hume – it may be a daunting list, but Ramaswamy handles it with skillful lightness, marking each jolt of her journey with a fingerpost provided by someone else who has traversed humanity’s trail ahead of her. The very life-and-death-ness of her journey binds her to more than just other pregnant women, it also brings her into contact with people, places and narratives she hasn’t considered before.

There is also the quotidian normality, even familiarity, of this rarely-written-about subject. From the movements of the baby in her stomach to the contractions of birth, the feeling of joyous wellbeing in her sixth month to the protective nesting sensation she often experiences, the refrain is the same: ‘the most surprising part of all this was how unsurprising it felt’. For Ramaswamy discovers that her body is wiser and better prepared than her head, that this most primeval of functions is hard-wired into her very being. It doesn’t take her away from herself, it make her more herself, part of the humanity of humanity.

I cannot recommend Expecting highly enough. As someone who may take the path to motherhood in the coming years, it feels like a life-raft in a sea of uncertainty about pregnancy, helpful yet humorous, intimate yet universal. Not a car manual, but a true friend of a book, one that any person with the remotest to connection to the miracle of life could turn to again and again. I have no hesitation in placing on my personal ‘handbooks for life’ shelf, alongside Gwyneth Lewis’ Sunbathing in the Rain and Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book and Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie. All books to gladden my heart, steady my footsteps, and remind me to keep looking at the world with new eyes.

Book Blogger Appreciation Week

OK, so I’m slightly late to the party with this one, as it’s already the end of Book Blogger Appreciation Week, rather than the beginning! But I’ve been ill for a large part of the week and before that had a particularly daft few days at work, so this is the first time I’ve had the space and inclination to take part. As usual with all things blog related, it was my good friend Billy-Bob over Stuck-in-a-Book who alerted me to this lovely initiative within the book blogging community.

For those of you who haven’t heard about it, Book Blogger Appreciation Week is an annual celebration of, well, people who blog about books, started by My Friend Amy 2008. In 2012 Amy bowed out of #BBAW (of course it has its own hashtag) and it is now run by the good ladies (Ana, Jenny, Heather, and Andi) over at Estella Society.  Each day during #BBAW there is a different theme or question for Book Bloggers to respond to, and there are also virtual book parties to join in with.

This is the first year I’ve been involved, and because I’m starting so late I thought I’d just combine the elements of #BBAW into one mega-post, rather than five smaller ones. Here goes…

Task 1: Introduce yourself by telling us about five books that represent you as a person or your interests/lifestyle

The land which makes liqueur from lemons...

1) Helena Attlee’s The Land Where Lemons Grow (2015)

Food AND travel? Two of my greatest passions are mesmerically combined in Helena Attlee’s beautiful prose which tells the history of Italian lemons with particular reference to the part they play in Mediterraenean culture and cuisine. I read this book in Sardinia, the perfect setting for a narrative which is soaked in sunshine and citrus. I reviewed it here: https://discriminatingbrevity.wordpress.com/2015/10/03/where-lemons-

2) Hannah Hauxwell: The Complete Story (1991)

As readers of this blog know well, I love life-writing which tells the stories ordinary lives, particularly those in rural settings. This combined auto/biography, which includes verbatim extracts from interviews with Hannah as well as Barry Cockroft’s own prose, first seduced me from the shelf of a charity shop in Shropshire and introduced me to Hannah Hauxwell’s remarkable (by 21st century standards; less so by 18th century ones) life in a remote Yorkshire dale. You can read more about it here: https://discriminatingbrevity.wordpress.com/2015/08/11/hannah-hauxwell/

I love wool on a cover, so I do3) Names the for Sea, Sarah Moss (2013)

As readers of my other blog Nordic Narratives will know, I have a long-running love affair with all things Nordic. Sarah Moss’s Names for the Sea describes her family’s move from Britain to Iceland in 2009 – 2010, and fuels my fantasties for living in Scandinavia one day. You can find out more about my response to it here: https://discriminatingbrevity.wordpress.com/2015/04/15/longing-to-name-the-

4) The Hedgerow Handbook, Adele Nozedar (2012)

I love foraging but don’t often get the chance to do it now I live in the city. However, even here I’ve managed to make elderberry cordial, just one of many delicious, healthy and easy recipes included in Adele Nozedar’s modern classic. An absolute must-have for anyone who likes picking berries, gathering nuts (in May or any other more suitable month), and generally being outdoors. Find out more about it here: https://discriminatingbrevity.wordpress.com/2014/10/03/reading-on-the-hoof/

5) The Outrun by Amy Liptrot (2016)

2016-01-27 23.09.59Nature writing combined with a tale of recovery from breakdown – two of my very favourite genres combined into a truly beautiful memoir of life in and between Orkney and London. Liptrot has been lauded as a new voice in the nature writing tradition, and I think her work has striking similarities to both Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain and Gwyneth Lewis’ Sunbathing in the Rain. It’s only just come out (January 2016) so if you can lay your hands on a copy then do, you really won’t be disappointed. You can read my review of it here: https://discriminatingbrevity.wordpress.com/2016/01/28/the-outrun-return-to-orkney

Task 2: Interview a Book Blogger.

Well this is going to be somewhat tricky, as I have left it later-than-late, so you’ll have to make do with 5 questions that I’ve asked myself. Solipsistic, moi?

Question 1) Where does your blog name come from?

The expression ‘discriminating brevity’ comes Sidney Lee’s In Principles of Biography (1911): Discriminating brevity is a law of the right biographic method.” – I’m probably far too sentimental and/or verbose to be truly discriminating or very brief, but I still really like the phrase. Discriminatingbrevity is actually this blog’s second incarnation: at first it was called Learning to Love Literature and was supposed to be a series of introductions to classic literature. Then I realised I wasn’t reading enough classic literature to write much about any of it, but I was reading a lot of biography, autobiography and life-writing. And so this blog came into being.

Question 2) What do you like best about blogging?

Monty and Sarah Don, The Jewel Garden

Monty and Sarah Don, The Jewel Garden

There are three things: connecting with other people, giving myself a reason to write more and a structure through which to do this, and getting feedback on my writing. The first has been completely magical and has largely been facilitated through Twitter: I had a great exchange with Amy Liptrot once I’d reviewed her book, and even went to meet her in person to get by book signed by her (this is by far and away the most starstruck thing I’ve ever done). In summer 2015 I reviewed Monty Don’s The Jewel Garden and was amazed to find he’d retweeted the link to my post, resulting in a record 345 views of that particular page. We also had a little chat about whether or not he was ever in a punk band – he wasn’t. Getting feedback on my writing: that part has been completely unexpected, and most often takes the form of my mother rinding me up to debate some aspect of my childhood memories..!

Question 3) What would you like to change about your blog?

I’d like to blog more often (and experiment more with memes, competitions and different styles of posts), connect more with other literary bloggers, and get better at coding so I can make it look prettier and not have occassional gaps and oddities popping up in peculiar places.

Question 4) How did you become a voracious reader? Did somebody inspire you?

Farm Cottage as we knew it

Our family home

Not particularly – both my parents always encouraged us to read, and took us to the library every Saturday to get new books, but neither of them reads obsessively. In fact, my Dad has only read a handful of fiction books in his life – the only ficiton book I can ever remember him enthusing about was Walter by David Cook. He has, however, read plenty of magazines and motorbike handbooks! My mother is a pretty omnivorous reader and the house always had a fairly eclectic stock of books, from Alexander McCall Smith to Jane Eyre and Asterix to Little House on the Prairie, though it was a bit light on the classics. When I got to univeresity and realised that some of my friends actually owned yards and yards of bookshelves double-stacked with Dickens, Dostoyevsky and Defoe I realised I had some serious catching up to do.

Question 5) Do you abandon books if they don’t please you?

Absolutely – I really struggle to make myself read something if I’m not enjoying it. However, I’m quite good about returning to a book that I haven’t been able to ‘get in to’ and giving it another chance. Case in point: Harry Potter, James Robertson, Laurence Durrell…

Task 3 – Blame a Blogger

‘Have you ever read a book because of a book blogger? Be it a good book or bad, bloggers recommend books every day of the year. Tell us all about the book or books you’ve read because of a book blogger and be sure to sure to spread the blame around.’

Tove JanssonThe main culprit for this for me is Stuck-in-a-Book. Not only does he recommend me books, he also posts them to me (this is because he is a real-world as a well as a virtual friend, he also runs book-giveaway competitions so you could receive one of his parcels of literary love too!) Although he didn’t introduce me to Tove Jansson, he has been someone with whom I can share my love of her, and he also furnished me with this rather nice copy of her biography. He is currently trying to tempt me with Katherine Mansfield, having brought me a book about someone writing about KM, and some original KM to start the new year. I will read some, but I have to say I’ve not started yet…