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Books

in brief | nonFiction

‘All Joy and No Fun,’ ‘Without Mercy,’ ‘Marketplace of the Marvelous,’ ‘Mermaid’

ALL JOY AND NO FUN: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood

By Jennifer Senior

Ecco, 308 pp., $26.99

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If being a parent is the most rewarding job there is, as many of us have been led to believe, why does caring for our kids rank below housework on an index of pleasurable activities? Partly, Jennifer Senior suggests, it’s because raising children is uniquely difficult, isolating, and aggravating — not to mention exhausting (in the literature on sleep deprivation, experts write of “ego depletion” and cite the parallels between inadequate sleep and drunkenness). Today’s parents mostly have children later and plan for them; today’s kids are a choice, rather than extra hands in the field. But as children stopped working, Senior argues, “parents worked twice as hard. Children went from being our employees to our bosses.” In sentences like this, Senior announces herself as a teller of uncomfortable truths.

Senior reports from the front lines — a Cheerios-strewn kitchen, a sunny soccer practice field and seems equally comfortable quoting a silly four-year-old as a venerable septegenarian social scientist. She finds parents, especially mothers, who pour so much into their children they are staggering with guilt and resentment. Worried and competitive, today’s parents race to provide everything their kids might need; this so-called “hyperparenting reflects a new sense of confusion and anxiety about the future,” Senior writes, but in the end all that attention and homework help winds up “diminishing [children’s] capacity for resourcefulness.” Still, Senior argues, there is joy in parenting, both in the tiny moments of deep connection and in the long lifespan of parental love. Although she takes pains to clarify that this isn’t an advice book, Senior’s wise compassion provides guidance that’s both necessary and inspiring.

WITHOUT MERCY: The Stunning True Story of Race, Crime, and Corruption in the Deep South

By David Beasely

St. Martin’s, 288 pp., $26.99

Six men died in the electric chair in one day — Dec. 9, 1938 — at Georgia’s Tattnall Prison. The executions took less than an hour and a half. All those killed were black; four of the six were “arrested, tried, convicted, executed, and claimed as medical school cadavers” inside a period of just two months. Despite the rampant wrongs at work — from all-white juries to inadequate defense counsel to the commuted sentences of equally violent white criminals — even this outcome was hailed by some as progress: At least the men were not lynched.

Beasley is a former editor at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and “Without Mercy” is very much a newspaperman’s book. He sketches terse, plainspoken stories, long on names and ages, shorter on character development or colorful details. As a sweeping history of Southern injustice, it doesn’t quite hang together. Still, Beasley’s catalogue of inequities accrues to a kind of tragic narrative, a tale in which progress is too slow to save those whom tradition would rather let die.

MARKETPLACE OF THE MARVELOUS: The Strange Origins of Modern Medicine

By Erika Janik

Beacon, 352 pp., $28.95

Nineteenth-century doctors didn’t know about germs or bacteria; when confronted with illness they “bled, blistered, and purged to draw disease from the patient.” By contrast, healers working outside the medical mainstream, their therapies disparaged as “irregular,” proposed the then-unorthodox preventive measures of drinking fresh water, regular bathing, and physical exercise. Erika Janik’s survey of alternative therapies hums with strange ideas and even odder characters, like the pioneering herbalist moved to write poetry about his favorite vomit-inducing plant.

While “regular” medicine often inspired mistrust, whether for its use of Latin or its complicity in grave-robbing, a country mistrustful of experts, not to mention enthralled by theatrics and advertising, embraced alternative therapies from hydropathy to mesmerism to phrenology. Although many have fallen permanently out of favor, Janik examines the intertwined nature of the establishment and the outsiders; in the 19th century, “the boundary between regular and irregular medicine was hazy at best,” and today’s medical landscape retains echoes of both.

MERMAID :A Memoir of Resilience

By Eileen Cronin

Norton, 336 pp., $26.95

Midway through “Mermaid,” Eileen Cronin recalls an older sister’s story of the day their father introduced the newborn Eileen to her older siblings (she was the seventh in a family that eventually included 11 children). Unwrapping the blanket and seeing that their new sister had no lower legs, they told him to “[t]ake it back.”

“Mermaid” is studded with searing moments like this. But it also contains stories of the family’s love and humor, its boasting and teasing and confidences. While the book’s painful central drama concerns Eileen’s suspicion that her mother took thalidomide while pregnant (and her hyper-religious, mentally-ill mother’s unwillingness to honestly face the issue), “Mermaid’’ is also a gritty, gorgeous coming of age story. From a childhood enduring painful prosthetics and the misguided pieties of the nuns at school to her adult battles with alcohol and loss, Cronin chronicles her life with courage and grace.

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

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