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Short Takes

‘Homeward Bound,’ ‘The Blind Man’s Garden,’ and ‘Parenting Without Borders’

Homeward Bound:

Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity

By Emily Matchar

Simon & Schuster, 272 pp., $26

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If the archetype of young female success a decade ago included fabulous shoes and a great job, many of today’s twenty- and thirty-somethings find themselves ogling other women’s blogs, yearningly “perusing pictures of rhubarb pies and wildflowers in Mason jars.” Artfully out-of-focus pictures of cloth-diapered babies and vintage aprons, recipes for make-from-scratch biscuits, and funny stories about the backyard chickens complete the picture. What Emily Matchar calls the “New Domesticity” encompasses everything from the revival of craftwork like knitting and needlepoint to the locavore movement to attachment parenting (although not every devotee embraces all three, a number do). And while the trend of “collective nostalgia and domesticity-mania speak[s] to deep cultural longings,” Matchar argues, it comes with negative (or at least troubling) side effects.

For one thing, those vegan cupcakes are not going to bake themselves. The labor-intensive nature of handwork tends to fall, as it always has, on women. Is opting out of a career in order to stay at home – even if you convince yourself it’s partly about reclaiming traditional women’s work, celebrating the authentic and handmade over the corporate and mass-produced — “sexist or liberating? Or somewhere in between?” Matchar captures the appeal of the new domesticity — from its “cozy vintage aesthetic” to its embrace of healthier foods and recycling. At the same time, she raises sharp and timely questions about whether the army of new-style happy homemakers aren’t “glossing over some of the harder realities of women, work, and equality.” Matchar points out that society’s admiration for upper-middle-class white mothers who stay home with their kids sits uncomfortably aside society’s disdain for poor women of color who do the same. Also, in turning inward to create perfectly curated hipster homesteads, do these women deprive their wider communities of their energy and ideas? “Focusing on the domestic realm,” Matchar concludes, “isn’t necessarily the best or the only way to change the world.”

The Blind Man’s Garden

By Nadeem Aslam

Knopf, 367 pp., $26.95

In the months following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the American invasion of Afghanistan, one Pakistani family tries to make its way through the chaos of a collapsing society. The patriarch, Rohan, whose vision of Islam encompasses its history of scholarship and hospitality, is slowly losing his sight. His children, two of whom set off for Peshawar to serve as emergency medical help, are sucked into a war that quickly escaped its borders, if it had any to begin with. Rohan muses that the American strategy assumes that “there are no innocent people in a guilty nation”; it’s also true that living in a war zone makes it nearly impossible to remain a civilian.

Nadeem Aslam’s beautiful novel is at once a complicated family saga — the interrelationships include two intertwined sets of siblings like an ancient rose bush, grafted from two plants – and a fable about guilt, innocence, and the possibility of forgiveness and understanding. As young fundamentalists take over the school Rohan founded, they slowly remake its motto, from “Education is the basis of law and order” to “Islam is the purpose of life and death.” In the midst of bitterness and hate, Rohan’s family clings to its hope that love is the purpose, after all.

Parenting Without Borders:

Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us

By Christine Gross-Loh

Avery, 308 pp., $26

To be an American parent these days is to feel inadequate. “Our joy in parenting is clouded by a drumbeat of worry,” is how Christine Gross-Loh puts it. Rather than attempt a unified theory of how better to raise children ­— a la the flawless French mothers or tough Chinese moms of recent bestsellers ­— Gross-Loh draws from her experience raising four children both here and in Japan, as well as extensive research with families and experts around the world. The result is this bracingly honest, straightforward, and thought-provoking survey that says, in essence, that while nobody raises kids perfectly, we could do it a lot better.

Gross-Loh talks with Japanese parents who say it’s important to “[b]elieve in your child’s strength,” both to solve problems and to mature socially — a contrast to many Americans, who say they value independence yet constantly swoop in to rescue or discipline their children. In nearly every country she visits, she sees children playing outside more, with less adult supervision, than in most American settings (Gross-Loh visits a German forest kindergarten, where kids play, work, and learn together nearly entirely outside). We still excel in raising “individualistic, confident children,” Gross-Loh says, but we could learn a lot from other cultures, where other strengths (empathy, cooperation, self-control) flourish.

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