A Whole Life
By Robert Seethaler, translated from the German by Charlotte Collins. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 151 pages, $23.)
This sparse, beautiful novel by Berlin author and actor Robert Seethaler was a bestseller in Germany when it was released in 2014, and the love is likely to spread with this month’s release of Charlotte Collins’ lovely English translation.
The story’s power lies in its raw simplicity. It tracks, from childhood to death, one Andreas Egger, a humble, impoverished, oft abused, barely literate laborer who, except for a harrowing stint as a German soldier and POW during World War II, is rooted for nearly eight decades in a remote mountain town. His life, which plays out in the shadow of great mountains, horrific human history and remarkable technological change, is utterly ordinary, and when he dies, few notice, much less mourn — but because of how reverently his story is rendered, readers will find him unforgettable.
Like most lives, Egger’s brings joy, despair, love, loss, success and failure. The novel’s respectful, concise accounting of its key moments illuminates its beauty and meaning, and reminds us that each life, no matter how long or brief, is a whole and rounded story, worthy of our attention and respect. A monumental book that can be read in a single sitting.
All on One Plate
By Solveig Brown. (Paragon House, 256 pages, $18.95.)
The title of Minneapolis anthropologist Solveig Brown’s book “All on One Plate” refers to its subject: the overwhelming expectations that are heaped upon 21st-century American mothers. But it could just as easily describe the book itself, a concise but comprehensive report on the scope of those pressures.
Brown shows how modern mothers, though widely criticized as meddling “helicopter parents” raising entitled and helpless kids, are meanwhile expected to monitor and optimize their children’s eating and exercise habits, their screen time, their schoolwork, their safety, their moral and emotional development and so on — all amid rapid technological and cultural change. Yes, maybe your own mom let you play outside unsupervised from breakfast until dinner, but then she didn’t have to worry that you were spending that time sexting.
The only issue I’d have liked to see Brown examine more deeply is the financial consequences for women. She discusses the well-documented wage gap between working mothers and other employees, especially fathers. But she devotes little attention to how the time and energy required to meet parenting demands prompt many mothers to reduce their paid-work hours or opt out of jobs altogether, thereby endangering their own long-term economic security.
“All on One Plate” will be an invaluable resource for mothers who have internalized societal messages of obligation and might not see the big picture. “When mothers routinely feel guilty, stressed out and overcommitted, it is likely that something in our culture is contributing to this,” Brown writes. “Yet many of the mothers I interviewed thought the problem was with them and that they were doing something wrong, or that it is easier for other mothers.”
Relax, Brown says. It’s not just you.