Somebody's Always Hungry: Essays on Motherhood
By Juliet Johnson
Nell Books; $15.00
184 pp.; ISBN-13: 978-1932279870
Review by Julia Gibson
Becoming a mother turns a person inside out. Your heart’s in a lunchbox. Your body and time belong to someone you barely know, a parasitic thief, a rude gobbling shrieker who outwits and foils you at every turn. You forget to mind.
Juliet Johnson doesn’t say much about her pre-mom life, except that her idea of what it would be like to have two small children did not turn out to resemble the universe in which she now resides. Her household is messy and loud: the TV’s blaring, the kids are manhandling the pet tortoise, tearing up styrofoam cups and throwing the bits at each other, crying because they hate overalls. And she’s yelling. Long ago, she never thought she’d be a yeller, and she is, a loud one who finds herself bellowing ridiculous things (“Don’t hold the dog by the lips!”) Worse, nobody’s listening.
Johnson doesn’t spend a lot of time feeling bad about the yelling or the kids sleeping in the grownup bed for years on end or the detoured career. She’s not shopping for a revamp of her body, lifestyle, or parenting skills. She’s not chronicling motherhood in order to amuse, send up, analyze, or offer tips. Her aim is higher, deeper, truer. Certainly one could - if one was, for instance, the mother of small children – dip into these essays and be assured and comforted that other yellers exist in other sticky kitchens, and take no more away than that. It would be plenty. Every page is a vivid, funny, poignant scene of power struggles, lost teeth, dead pets, the high drama and humdrum grind of life with kids. Yet there’s more. Cleverly disguised as a collection of anecdotes by a harried new mother who might be just like someone you know, the book is a lighthearted but gutsy meditation on time, mortality and surrender.
Before the first one came along, Johnson had her preconceptions. Things would be orderly. She’d worked as a nanny, and knew what was what. She wouldn’t be the kind of mother who would let the children sleep with the grownups. Then she was. Not because the babies strongarmed her, exactly. She surrendered, but not to them. This mom is no Patton, no Poppins, but she’s not a pushover either. She gave in to joy. Sleeping in one big heap: joy. Spending a whole summer watching TV and swimming with the two little ones: joy. Because – guess what? They’re only three for as long as it takes for the earth to make one spin. Before you know it, the state wants you to get up at an ungodly hour so your kid can be taken from you and told to sit still all day.
This is no sermon. It’s a celebration, a praise song – not to kids per se, but to what they can bring to the willing disciple. Johnson’s children feed her as much as she feeds them, but not sandwiches. The bargain: she keeps them from starving, and her tiny live-in professors do no less than remind her of what we grown ones have forgotten. No, she doesn’t quote their zenlike utterings. She doesn’t need to. They’re too spiritually avanced to discuss it, anyway. They just go about their business, and anybody who bothers to observe can learn a thing or two. How to try and try until you get it right. How to make your meaning straight and clear. To get someone to stop being mean. Bury a loved one. Dress like the dancer you know you are. Unabashedly have fun. Could anything be more sustaining?
Nothing about this book is sentimental. Family life is chaotic. Someone’s always crying. Ketchup drips in the car. A toddler carries a dead rabbit to its grave. Death runs throughout the narrative, a counterpoint to the promise of the young. Old and sick ones go, new ones grow. A mother opens herself to life right here, this very moment, down in the blobs of red on the stained carpet, awash in tears and dishwater, surrendering down to the bare heart.
Julia Gibson is a mother, a grandmother and, these days, a writer. Previously she was a Hollywood movie maker, known for her collaboration as Visual Effects Producer for director James Cameron on such films as True Lies and The Abyss.
By Julie Cummins; illustrated by Cheryl Harness
Dutton Children's Books; $17.99
48 pp.; ISBN: 978-0525479482
Review by Amy Brozio-Andrews
Long before the drama and excitement of reality television, Julie Cummins' Women Daredevils points young readers to America's rich history of adventurers, barnstormers, and thrill-seekers, with women daredevils perhaps the most daring of all. About one hundred years ago, a small handful of women defied the expectations of society as well as human ability as they swung, flew, balanced, jumped, dived, and leapt into history.
During the unique period 1880 to 1929, Cummins spotlights more than a dozen performers, from teenagers to senior citizens, who entertained, amazed, and mesmerized crowds with their stunts and performances. She makes her case to readers well, drawing allusions between today's enthusiasm for extreme sports and yesterday's daredevils. Citing Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's well-known quote, that well-behaved women rarely make history, Cummins leads readers on a vicarious adventure of their own, highlighting activities as diverse as going over Niagara Falls in a barrel to getting shot out of a cannon.
Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to survive a trip over Niagara Falls in a barrel in 1901, was 63 years old when she performed the stunt. (Can you believe she couldn't swim?) Isabelle Butler and the LaRague Sisters were aerial auto somersaulters -- they drove their cars, a new and exciting invention in the early 1900s, off inclines, somersaulting through the air and landing perfectly. The women Cummins profiles were ordinary women who achieved extraordinary things just by doing what they loved and not letting anyone dissuade them from it.
The book's profiles include an overview of each performer's act, plus a brief biography woven into the vignette. Cummins' lively text conveys an enthusiastic and passionate look at these adventurers' lives. She uses many quotes from her subjects, giving these women even more life on the page, while Cheryl Harness' colorful and dynamic illustrations depict these female daredevils in action. Sonora Webster Carver is shown in the midst of a vertical high dive with her horse, the duo quite famous on the Jersey shore in the 1920s. Wingwalker Gladys Roy looks positively triumphant as she stands atop an airplane wing, arms raised with a red scarf in her hands, whipping in the wind.
Cummins' helpful chronology at the end of the book sets the events profiled in Women Daredevils within a broader context of women's history milestones from 1809 to 1933. Interesting and inspiring, Women Daredevils epitomizes Cummins' jacket quote: "Curiosity about the past can lead to amazing discoveries and sometimes the search is as exciting as the discovery itself!"
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