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In the boardroom and locker room, women are all the rage

Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World
By Linda R. Hirshman
Viking, 112 pp., $19.95

Blue Peninsula: Essential Words for a Life of Loss and Change
By Madge McKeithen
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 240 pp., $22

Locker Room Diaries: The Naked Truth About Women, Body Image, and Re-Imagining the ‘‘Perfect’’ Body
By Leslie Goldman
Da Capo, 239 pp., $23

These books are about women. Angry women.

In Linda Hirshman's ``Get to Work," the author's anger is reserved for those in the 52 percent who have given up pursuing a career to devote themselves to child-rearing and home making. This book is a clarion call to arms for stay-at-home moms. In this short and provocative work, Hirshman chides those who have dropped out of the rat race to raise their families. Why? Because she believes the real cost for women who have effectively mommy-tracked themselves will be political change, change that benefits men. Hirshman argues that our children's future will feature an all-male Supreme Court, and a return to 1950s values. She believes women should take a long, hard look at the choices they've made.

Hirshman's audience is women who were raised to consider themselves ``the best and the brightest." Smart, highly educated, and ambitious women who, she argues, have been taught to dream dangerous and subversive dreams. These dreams have undercut their ability to deal with the reality of the working world. Instead of accepting the limits of what work is, they are taught to embrace a fantasy, one that imagines work that is ``intellectual, prestigious, socially meaningful, politics-free" -- and of course ``worth the dreamer's incalculably valuable presence." It's hardly surprising that the women she interviews ``could not accept the inevitability that their talents were limited and their futures constrained."

When reality disappoints, staying at home becomes an appealing option. After all, home is where the heart is and there are real, unalloyed joys that come with raising children. Yet there is also mindless drudgery. We know it as the daily round of a homemaker's life: shopping, cleaning, cooking, and countless loads of laundry. This is work that is largely taken for granted by all who benefit from it. No wonder, as Hirshman points out, male counterparts have no ambivalence when it comes to making a similar choice. Stay at home and raise the kids? According to Hirshman, women owe it to themselves to be realists. Life, to paraphrase an old rock song, is a battlefield. And to win, you must be willing to fight. The one issue I have with this book is the writer's tendency to devalue the very real pleasure one gets from raising a child. Hirshman seems to purposely avoid dealing with this, as if doing so would undercut her argument. But much of what she says is sound. And thought-provoking. This book is a polemic, and a smart one at that.

Of course, anger is expressed in countless ways. In Madge McKeithen's ``Blue Peninsula, " the author's rage is directed at the fates. This memoir deals with a heartbreaking event: the loss of a healthy son to an aggressive illness. It also integrates poetry -- not as a balm, but as a life raft.

Each chapter of this painful book begins with a poem that resonates with McKeithen. She is brutally honest, especially when she acknowledges her powerlessness in the face of the unnamed illness, for `` none of us can change things with Ike [her son]. No friend. No husband. No parent. No sibling. Nothing I can say or do. No bargaining position. The pain of it is unspeakable. It has taken me forty years to admit emotions have no words. Utter pain."

McKeithen finds comfort in poetry, a discovery made as she waits for test results -- for an answer that will offer some measure of hope or at least understanding. During this vigil ``poems became almost all I could read. . . . I read and reread them in waiting rooms and exam rooms and sometimes hid in them when the world I could touch was too much. Poems spoke to me and sometimes for me." They will speak to you too, as will McKeithen in this finely written and exquisite volume.

Anger at women's choices. Anger at women's losses. Anger at what we do to ourselves when we feel powerless. That is the sort of anger ``Locker Room Diaries" addresses. I truly wanted to love this book; I am an avid gymgoer and I was taken with Leslie Goldman's descriptions of locker room culture and her analysis of women's obsession with their weight, breasts, and thighs; in this book, our bodies most definitely are our selves.

Goldman's writing style is breezy and humorous, which certainly adds to the reader's pleasure. Here is Goldman's description of a well-known implement of self-abuse, the scale. In her locker room it is ``gargantuan, hideously oversized, like something you'd find in Alice in Wonderland. It lurks in the far back corner of the locker room, a menacing, six-foot-tall beast of a Toledo. It's the kind of scale found at fairs; only a brave man would dare climb it as a challenge to the carnival barker to guess his weight." Women hop up and off routinely. Goldman calls them scale junkies, those who gauge their mental health that day by how thin they are. I was eager for Goldman to get into the meat of her theme. I wanted her to examine why women are so obsessed with body image. Unfortunately, this book never did get going, it's filled with reportage, yet there seems to be no clear or coherent point of view. Which is a shame -- what a terrific premise! Unfortunately, in the end this was an unsatisfying read.

Naomi Rand's latest Emma Price mystery is ``It's Raining Men."

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