Tag Archives: elisa albert

AFTER BIRTH by Elisa Albert

After Birth by Elisa Albert is a biting, raw book about motherhood, childbirth and friendship. Ari is a new mom with a year-old son who has recently relocated from Brooklyn to upstate NY with her academic husband. After Birth is really two books – one that focuses on Ari’s son’s birth and one that traces the relationships in her life from her childhood to the present. (She’s pretty angry about all of it.)

On motherhood, Ari is ambivalent, to say the least. She loves her son Walker, but she is physically and emotionally scarred from his birth, which was an unexpected C-section. She blames her doctor for rushing her into a C-section and cannot seem to get over it. She feels that both she and her baby were damaged by the birth and talks about it in incredibly angry, visceral terms. She also describes the days and months of new motherhood (during which she was clearly suffering from post-partum depression) and the isolation and loneliness that often accompany that period.

I found Ari’s anger a little much. I had 2 C-sections and I am not angry about them in the least. Yes, motherhood is challenging, especially in the early months. Yes, breastfeeding is really painful. No, people aren’t always sympathetic about how hard it can be to be a new mom. Yes, motherhood takes a toll on one’s professional ambition. I get all of that. I just had a hard time with the intensity of her anger. No one told her any of this before she had her baby?

On the relationships in her life, Ari got much more interesting. Her (really awful) mother, who died when she was in middle school, her judgmental Bridezilla cousin, the girls with whom she shared intense friendships and flameouts – Ari’s analysis of these women was pretty entertaining. I understood her anger here better than in the motherhood part. There’s a current friendship in the book – probably the closest After Birth gets to a plot – with Mina, a feminist former musician-now-poet who is temporarily living in town and who just had a baby.  Ari and Mina become fast friends when Ari helps Mina cope with her own hellish introduction into motherhood (in part by nursing Mina’s baby when Mina’s baby isn’t latching well). But Mina moves away before the book ends, so there’s no promise of a really lasting, redemptive relationship here.

After Birth is short on plot, long on anger and a bit of a slog to get through. A lot of reviewers have hailed it as a feminist manifesto on motherhood that addresses issues that too many women don’t speak out about. Ok, fine – I get it – but I didn’t really enjoy reading this book very much and had a hard time relating to quite a bit of it.

THE BOOK OF DAHLIA by Elisa Albert and DERVISHES by Beth Helms

Marie Claire’s March issue had short reviews of two books that looked good to me.

The first is The Book of Dahlia by Elisa Albert. Marie Claire‘s description:

Albert_2The quarterlife crisis? We know it well. At 29, slacker Dahlia Finger hasn’t done much with her life — her hobby is watching the same DVDs over and over while stoned. Not the stuff of a future CEO. So when she is diagnosed with a brain tumor, Dahlia turns her film-lover’s eye on her own story – hitting rewind and revisiting those who wronged her, from her absent mother to her brother-turned-rabbi. But this is no tearjerker. Instead, Elisa Albert creates an antihero whose spunky candor reminds us that attitude – even a bad one – is everything.

[Note: I almost didn’t include this review because of its use of the word "spunky.’]

From the JBooks online Jewish book community:

Albert’s answer… is that only good comes of self-acceptance, but self-acceptance doesn’t mean salvation, nor should it. Death is absolute, trumping familial bonds, societal expectations, and fear. By coming to terms with the failures of her life, by embracing and then stripping away the anger, the humor, the self-loathing, and the sickness, Dahlia realizes she’s all that’s left…

Watching Dahlia arrive at this conclusion is not without its awkward moments, especially when she seems to be the black sheep in any given social situation—whether it’s family-, friend-, or cancer-based—but that is exactly the point Albert is trying to make. No wonder, as Dahlia spirals towards the inevitable and still surprising conclusion, she is seized by panic, the feeling of hesitation "like at the end of a phone call in which important things had been left unsaid." Death, as Albert reminds us, doesn’t offer finality; we’re lucky to be left with the lingering traces of unfinished movement

This is kind of cool: The Largehearted Boy music blog has an essay from Elisa Albert that includes a music playlist of songs that are somehow related to the book: she listened to the songs while she was writing it, they are songs she imagined Dahlia would like, etc.. The last song on the list is one that is very dear to me: "Orange Sky" by Alexei Murdoch. She says she’s never listened to the song without choking up – I hear you, Elisa.

The second book is Dervishes, by Beth Helms. From Marie Claire:

HelmsImagine you were a 12-year old girl forced to move to Turkey with your unhappily married parents. Your diplomat pop is never around, and your in-a-funk mom is as foreign to you as your new home. Canada and her mother, Grace, are in similar turmoil: Grace is forced to socialize with a bunch of wealthy expats, while Canada navigates tricky preteen friendships (leading to a betrayal). If only the two were there for each other. A lush novel with a climax that is both inevitable and full of surprises.

The Bookpage blog had this to say:

Dervishes is an excellent way to visit Turkey in the turbulent 1970s. Helms, who grew up abroad, writes with authority about what it’s like to be the daughter or wife of a man attached to the American embassy, a man who gets phone calls in the middle of the night, takes the suitcase he keeps packed for such times, and disappears for weeks at a time. His 12-year-old daughter Canada muses, "We must have trusted the government to return him to us when they were finished with him." Canada, who knows her parents are having problems, wonders if her mother is aware of "the changes, when he had gone, in the very texture of the atmosphere around us, in the molecules and the spaces between them, in even the temperature of the air."

Helms is a beautiful writer. Grace, Canada’s unhappy mother, describes the way her daughter smells: "her girlish, horsey, filched bath-salts odor"; she fantasizes about spending time with her Turkish lover "while long, gorgeous minutes slip by." Canada’s best friend’s looks fascinate Canada: "What would it be like in there—moored inside Catherine’s flawless self?"

This thought-provoking book is not a light, isn’t-it-interesting-growing-up-in-a-foreign-culture novel. Much of what Helms turns her intensely observant eye on is painful, ugly, embarrassing or grim. (This can be a particularly tough book for animal lovers.) Canada and Catherine pass time making recipes from The Officer’s Wife, a 30-year-old guide for women whose husbands are in the foreign service, a book whose attitudes only sound antique. And in the relationships between the Turkish characters and the American and Canadians who reside in their country as guests, there’s little that isn’t flinch-worthy, although there are faults on all sides. For those interested in the true complexity of the East-West divide, Dervishes is a trip worth taking.

These two books are pretty new – has anyone out there read them yet?