I read this book a couple of months ago, and it really resonated for me.
I love books of essays. I have always been an enormous fan of books of short stories, and over the years, I have gravitated more and more towards nonfiction and especially creative nonfiction. (I really do like bite-sized reading.)
The turning point for me was when I was living in Bolivia. When I left Canada, I got on the plane with one half-finished English book: In the Skin of a Lion, by Michael Oondatje, which I enjoyed even less than The English Patient. (I don’t know why I just can’t love his books — I recognize they are beautifully written, but there is something about them that leaves me cold.)
It was especially disappointing because that was the only English book I had, and although I had thought that having only Spanish reading materials would encourage me to read in Spanish, as it turned out, living and working in two foreign languages (Castellano and Quechua) was completely mentally exhausting. At the time, the city where I lived, Cochabamba, had no accessible English library, and no place to buy English books at a reasonable price. I desperately wanted to read and relax into my native tongue, but had little spending money.
I traded with other expats and travelers, but no one else ever seemed to burn through books quite as quickly as I did. In a wonderfully happy accident, I stumbled across a library sale and found a few books with crumbing spines. They were between half a Boliviano and two Bolivianos each (about 8-32 cents) and I bought every single English one I could find. I read all sorts of old, unknown authors, delirious with the freedom of reading without a dictionary by my side. (I especially liked How Green was my Valley by Richard Llewellyn.)
The feast lasted about two weeks, and then I was back to re-reading and begging. Finally, on a weekend trip to Paraguay, I sought out a used book store in Asuncion. Thinking the prices were in local currency, I gleefully gathered a stack of books. At the cash register, I learned that the numbers actually referred to US dollars, so I had some hard choices to make. I settled on two books, one that I can’t recall, and another that sits on my shelf of favourites to this day: High Tide in Tucson, a book of essays by Barbara Kingsolver, whom I hadn’t heard of yet. I meant to savour each essay; instead, I finished the whole book in less than twenty-four hours. (Later, back in Canada and with a little more spending money for such things, I bought everything she had ever written.)
I didn’t finish Mama, Ph.D. in less than a day, but that’s only because I am a mama finishing a Ph.D. It was a similarly refreshing book for me.
Not all of it resonated. Outside of articles like these, I have never heard anyone actually refer to, ‘The Academy.’ (I call it, ‘academia,’ and I wonder if that reflects thinking of it as a system rather than as an institution?) I also found some of the pieces spoke to issues far outside my experience, approaches that I don’t think I would take, or problems that I hope are less prevalent now in Canada than they might have been in the US at the time of the events recounted.
Still, it was a really wonderful collection of personal essays, and although much of it tended toward discussions of difficulties, it was also inspiring and hopeful to read about women who managed to find a balance that worked for them between their academic and family ambitions. I continue to strive and stumble my way towards that.