Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Rivka Galchen, _Little Labors_

This caught my eye last August at Elliott Bay Books, in large part because it is bright orange, but more because I admired Galchen's novel Atmospheric Disturbances. Little Labors is not fiction, however; it's....


Hard to say what it is. A journal? A collection of micro-essays? It's somewhat like Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book, if that  helps, but it may not, as Galchen herself describes The Pillow Book as "difficult to characterize." Well, then, it is a book of short-to-very-short prose pieces, most but not all of them about Galchen's very young daughter, from infancy to toddlerhood and a bit beyond.

A book of short-to-very-short pieces is exactly the kind of book the caretaker of a toddler/pre-school age child has some kind of hope of completing, so the form, whatever we wish to call it, is perfect to the subject. Little Labors belongs on the top-honors shelf of the New Writing about Parenthood right next to Chris Bachelder's Abbott Awaits, a book similarly composed of short, incisive takes on what one notices and what passes through one's mind while tending to a very young child.

Even writing this sort of patchwork quilt of a book, one suspects, was far from easy. Galchen's chapter "Notes on some twentieth century writers" is mainly a list of famous women writers who had no children. Another chapter, "Lots of writers have children," notes that many memoirs by the sons and daughters of writers express resentment at the time and space their parent had to fence off for writing.

A lot of the book is funny and charming (a chapter on the ubiquity of orange in contemporary baby merchandise, which perhaps explains the book's cover), but it is not particularly sentimental (the infant daughter is referred to as "the puma), and some of it gets close to the bone:

It's true what they say, that a baby gives you a reason to live. But also, a baby is a reason that it is not permissible to die. There are days when this does not feel good.

Drier and wryer than the usual writing about motherhood, but gentler (I would say) than Sei Shonagon, Little Labors would make a great gift for anyone who has recently become a parent. You can hold it in one hand, you can read it in very short bursts, and it is spot-on true about all sorts of things. And it's orange.

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