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Books

‘Making Babies,’ ‘Fear of Food,’ ‘Second Person Singular’

MAKING BABIES: Stumbling into Motherhood

By Anne Enright

Norton, 207 pp., $24.95

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Everyone is writing about motherhood these days, from the so-called mommy blogs to a parade of parenting memoirs (some focusing on advanced reproductive technology, others on raising children in a foreign land, or by the superior customs of another culture). Much of it is awful: pedantic, priggish, treacly, grandiose, dishonest. Amid the smothering cult of mom-lit, the Irish novelist Anne Enright’s “Making Babies’’ feels like a welcome shock of deprogramming. Keenly observed and gorgeously written, it is one of the best books ever on the experience of being a mother. Because it’s an experience so many of us share, Enright’s fearless and funny inquiry into why motherhood feels the way it does is not only entertaining, it’s deeply consoling. The book gathers precise, moving essays along with snapshot-sized observations; here, in its entirely, is one titled “Forgetting,’’ on the dizzying, endlessly changing nature of small children. “The baby is crawling and I have forgotten the girl who could not crawl. She keeps replacing herself.’’ Each page contains something that will make you gasp.

Appealingly, Enright’s no martyr to motherhood, though she recognizes the relentless pull of self-abnegation. “Sometimes it’s a lonely business,’’ she writes. “No, always. It is always a lonely business.’’ There is the gender struggle at play in most marriages (women “have to fight for every half-hour that a man will just assume’’), not to mention all the advice books (which lead her to wonder, “should women be allowed to have children at all?’’). Enright’s complaints, though quite serious, are often funny; it’s when she writes about the rewards of mothering that she can pierce the heart. Having a child, she says, can cause you to “become human in a different and perhaps more radical way.’’

SECOND PERSON SINGULAR

By Sayed Kashua

Translated from the Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg

Grove, 352 pp., $25

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“It’s so easy to differentiate between the Jewish and the Arab cars,’’ thinks the main character in Sayed Kashua’s new novel. The parking lot in the integrated Jewish-Arab school his daughter attends provides tangible evidence of how status and wealth work in modern Jerusalem; the Jewish families drive “modest, affordable’’ cars, while the Arab parents, anxious to prove their wealth and status, go for luxury German SUVs. The book’s first section, focusing on an unnamed lawyer, an Israeli Arab, is a portrait of delicate and ambivalent identity formation; an immigrant who has mostly shed the accent and habits of a poor village childhood, he sends his daughter to school with Jewish children to “soak up Western culture,’’ to acquire tools he only belatedly realized he was missing. To allay his own enduring “twinge of inferiority,’’ he reads every book reviewed in Ha’aretz, along with as much classic literature as he can; when he opens a used copy of Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata’’ he’s unsettled to find a love note that looks like it was written by his wife.

Part comedy of manners, part psychological mystery, Kashua’s novel unfolds in alternating sections: As the lawyer descends into paranoia at the thought of being cuckolded, a young Israeli Arab social worker meets his Jewish doppelganger and cautiously begins shedding his own former identity. Issues of nationalism, religion, and passing collide with quickly changing social and sexual mores - when the lawyer mentions marriage to his future wife shortly after they meet, she asks, “What do you think this is, the Stone Age?’’

FEAR OF FOOD: A History of Why We Worry About What We Eat

By Harvey Levenstein

University of Chicago, 218 pp., illustrated, $25

Why, when researchers mention chocolate or whipped cream, do French test subjects respond with positive feelings, while Americans routinely bring up concepts like “guilt’’ or “unhealthy’’? According to food historian Harvey Levenstein, Americans approach food and eating with fear and worry for a number of reasons, starting with the country’s Puritan roots. “A culture that for hundreds of years encouraged people to feel guilty about self-indulgence, one that saw the road to salvation as paved by individual self-denial,’’ set the stage for food fears, joined by modern scientific understanding of germs and nutrition, aided and abetted by the particularly American lust for fads and trends of all kinds.

Levenstein guides us through an entertaining series of obsessions - from the outsized fear of flies spreading germs (leading to the 1905 invention of the fly swatter) to a panic about germ-ridden cats infecting human food (which led to a 1912 Chicago public health warning that felines were “extremely dangerous to humanity’’). At times, food fears have targeted specific products - milk, for instance, was linked to “killer epidemics of infant diarrhea’’ at the turn of the 20th century, and although pasteurization helped reduce its microbe content, it wasn’t until after World War I when the US Department of Agriculture and the National Dairy Council launched a massive propaganda effort that it regained its good name. Other food trends came in the form of fads - for vitamins, yogurt, whole grain bread - which, nutritionally valid or not, came with outsized claims and exotic backstories (yogurt was said to bestow extreme longevity to Bulgarians, until researchers learned that Bulgarians didn’t live longer than anyone else). Although it would have been nice to learn whether the French or other cultures were ever prey to similar fantasies, Levenstein’s roster of American food nuttiness is entertaining and enlightening.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.

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