Stiff- Mary Roach

I have been meaning to read this book since I started this blog and I finally got around to it, using it for the microhistory portion of the Read Harder challenge.  (Though, now that I think about it, this was only kind of history and more pop science, but whatever, I’m counting it for a category that seems kind of arbitrary to me anyways.)

So… Mary Roach is a journalist with a focus on science who decided to write a book about allll the various things that can happen to a dead human body.  She covers the role of cadavers in medical education and the history of anatomical dissection, as well as the role of cadavers in other science research/practice (criminal forensics, car safety, gun/explosive safety, organ donation).  While her focus is more on the extreme things done with human bodies, she does talk briefly about decomposition of dead bodies and funereal options for dead bodies– embalming, burial, cremation, and some of the newer, greener ideas such as body composting.  She also dabbles in the super extreme, spending some time talking about bodies used in religious experiments (trying to prove that the Shroud of Turin was authentic) and even goes so far as to spend way too much time talking about cannibalism.

This was an interesting subject, but if you know me you know that I have an academic background in the history of medicine and that I kinda dig reading books about death or history of medicine (see my reviews of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks).  I came into this excited to learn something new.  However, I spent the first several chapters rehashing or reviewing information that was not at all new to me.  For example, the history of medical dissection and body snatchers is not new to me because of stuff I read in grad school, body farms are not a new concept to me as I used to read/watch a lot of crime fiction/TV, and Doughty covers what happens to bodies in funeral homes in greater detail in Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.  The later chapters provided new information and I was interested in the use of bodies in scientific research, organ donation, and thought some of the ideas for new ways of disposing of dead bodies were pretty interesting, too.  But Roach lost me when she gets to the most extreme and rare examples of cadaver use– religious research and as food/medicine.  In particular, the cannibalism chapter seemed designed to push the reader to the limits of squeamishness (and dead bodies don’t really squick me out, so this was certainly a bit much) and just involved Roach investigating a bunch of bogus stories without finding any real actual evidence of people eating their dead in contemporary society.

I did enjoy learning some new things about what happens with dead bodies and I did enjoy that Roach really plugs for body donation and organ donation– options I am pretty firmly set on for my eventual dead body– and options which get some odd reactions from people.  (You know if you donate your body to science, people will see you naked, right?  Umm, yeah, they see you naked when they embalm/cremate you, too.)  I had always figured on cremation as my back-up option, but hearing it has such negative environmental effects has made me think on that a little more, too.

There were things that really bugged me about this book, though.  Namely, Roach’s tone and style.  Roach tries to inject humor into her analysis and it wasn’t very successful for me.  I kind of wondered if the narrator on the audiobook was just not delivering the punchlines successfully, but I think the jokes just weren’t that funny.  Also the tone of this book is very… pop-journalismy, if that makes sense.  I do prefer my non-fiction not be stuffy and dry and this wasn’t stuffy or dry, but it just bordered on too unserious and too casual for my tastes.  And perhaps this last complaint is related to the style of the book, but there were areas where I wanted Roach to push further and she just didn’t. She seemed far more interested in trotting out extreme or gross examples of what happens to dead bodies than in actually talking about anything in real depth.

Anyways, I’d recommend this to people who want more of a gross out, wow example of what happens to dead bodies, people without a whole lot of background knowledge of the subject. I guess I’m just not the average Joe when it comes to dead bodies.

Bottled Up- Suzanne Barston

This post is going to be very long and cross into some seriously personal territory and if you are not into reading about breastfeeding, I suggest you skip it.

Let me get the personal background out of the way first.  I have a two year old daughter and am expecting a second child (a boy) in January.  I had an incredibly difficult time breastfeeding my daughter due to low supply due to what the lactation consultant supposed was “insufficient glandular tissue.”  That is, my breasts apparently never developed enough of the glandular tissue required to produce an adequate supply of breastmilk to feed an infant.  I had never heard of this condition and still don’t even know how this is possible as I’ve never had issues with any of my reproductive health and development.  I just have small boobs that are kind of spaced far apart.  I never knew that was abnormal.  And with what little I read about breastfeeding before having a child, I thought that just about everyone could breastfeed, if they actually tried hard enough.  To find out that this was not actually true for me meant facing all kinds of disappointment and anger and guilt.

I’d had some issue towards the end of my pregnancy with my daughter with intrauterine growth restriction– meaning she wasn’t getting enough nutrition to grow on the inside.  I had mostly come to peace with that, I carried her to term, and I was somehow much more prepared for things to not go perfectly during pregnancy/childbirth than I was with things going wrong in breastfeeding.  It was pretty devastating to learn I could not feed my child the way I had planned to, the way I’d been told by well-meaning advocates was natural and healthy and BEST for my child.  It was pretty devastating to take my 5 day old to the ER because she was so dehydrated and jaundiced, I couldn’t wake her up.  It was pretty devastating to try everything that the lactation consultant told me to try (pumping after every feed, supplements, etc.) and everything other well-meaning advice-givers gave me (drink more water, eat more calories, pump, pump, pump) to have it make absolutely no difference in the amount of milk I was producing.  I cried a lot about it, felt so embarrassed taking bottles out in public, tried to avoid (still try to avoid) moms who talk about things like “freezer stashes” and the glories of breastfeeding because it was just too painful to admit and explain that I was a failure at those things that other women worked for, sure, but actually had the capacity to do that I didn’t.

Anyways.  All that to say, having another baby has brought so many of these feelings back to the surface.  I can definitely not go through the newborn phase in the emotional stage that I was with my daughter again.  I cannot sit attached to a pump while my baby is in the swing or held by his dad, all to get another third ounce of “liquid gold” to mix into the formula.  And I certainly do not want to go through having another newborn hospitalized.  I have to, for my own sanity, do something differently this time, which means I’ve been thinking very strongly about formula feeding from the start.  And this makes me feel all kinds of guilty.  How can I not even try, especially when I nursed my daughter using a Supplemental Nursing System (SNS) for an entire year?  What if they were wrong last time and my issues were due to something other than my own anatomy that is now fixed?  What kind of mother would I be if I didn’t even try to nurse?  What kind of flack will I get from the breastfeeding advocates in my life (in particular, my own mother)?

In the midst of all this angst over things I cannot change or cannot predict, I decided to read Suzanne Barston’s book, after reading an article about her choice to bottle feed her second child from the start.  She wrote this book with women like me in mind.  Women who believe in the benefits of breastfeeding, but, due to whatever personal factors/choices, formula feed their babies.

Bottled Up is a very accessible, very readable book about how harmful the moralism surrounding breastfeeding promotion can be. I am not sure it is as thorough or conclusive or even as hard-lined as I wanted it to be, but this was exactly the book I needed to read with all these latent feelings swirling around in my head. This book somehow made it feel ok to have tried and fail and reminded me that formula was really not a devil. Without it, my child would have died of dehydration or jaundice or starvation or something.

As for the book itself, the first 4 chapters had me glued to the page and nodding continuously. Sometimes breastfeeding is more dangerous to the mother/child than formula and it is ridiculous and uncompassionate to suggest that every individual mother can/wants/should breastfeed.  She mostly focuses on factors like post-partum depression, past rape or sexual trauma, or even a child’s allergy to its mother’s milk (one issue that Barston encountered personally), but does bring up low supply issues and provides a firm reminder that the low estimate of women who are unable to breastfeed is 5%.  That’s 1 in 20 people, which if you extrapolate to the number of the women in the US is in the hundreds of thousands.  That’s a lot of people being done a disservice by the dialog that “breast is best” and the really lackluster support systems in existence for women with breastfeeding issues.  Barston also points out how our society isn’t really the same as it was when breastfeeding was last in vogue. Many more mothers work outside the home and pumping is difficult even in the best of situations (I had a very supportive work environment, but pumping was the worst, it was so isolating and provided a constant visual reminder of how little I was pumping, especially when my bottles sat in the fridge next to those of other users of the lactation room).

The last two chapters were a little more scattered. Barston claims that of course breastfeeding is better, but her chapter on statistics doesn’t do much to show this. I remember coming across an article (I cannot find a link to the exact article that I remember reading, unfortunately) that analyzed breastfeeding studies in much more depth with a much sharper conclusion: breastfeeding can only conclusively be linked to prevention of a couple instances of diarrhea in infants. I expected a similar summary here, but got a much more lukewarm one. As in, Barston points out that most of these studies are impossible to really take seriously because of all the complicating factors at stake (i.e. you can’t control for who breastfeeds vs. who doesn’t and some of these differences may come down to class differences or parental involvement, etc.), but doesn’t bother to draw a larger conclusion that we don’t have many reliable studies, free of bias, to base claims of “breast is best” on.  She just kinda goes with “breast is best” as the inevitable conclusion, making the same mistake most of the researchers she faults do.

In the last chapter, Barston casts her net wider to encompass breastfeeding as an unrealistic choice not for medical, psychological, or health reasons, but for socioeconomic ones. This is a particularly important point, yes, but felt like too much for this little book. That, and Barston’s winding discussion about breastfeeding in the developing world, really draw her away from what made the first chapters so striking– her personal experiences and feelings and the white middle class angst about formula. I know she was trying to bring this around to a discussion of choice rather than a discussion of well, if you tried and failed, then it’s ok to use formula, but I left this book with a little less satisfaction than I felt after the first four chapters.

If you also had trouble breastfeeding (or couldn’t/didn’t want to for any number of reasons) and felt terribly judged and terribly guilty about having to/choosing to use formula, this book is definitely for you. There is something about realizing I am not alone in this experience, something about realizing that the hyped up talk about breastfeeding is, in fact, mostly talk, and something about remembering that feeding an infant is a deeply personal choice and experience that has helped me let go of some of my guilt. I am no further in knowing how I want to proceed with my next child, but I have some more food for thought.  I have some validation for putting my mental health at the forefront in making that decision. And maybe, just maybe, I can make that tough decision with far less guilt and tears than I did the last time around.

All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood- Jennifer Senior


I rarely ever read non-fiction and I even more rarely read parenting books because while it is nice to have ideas of what to try with your kids, parenting advice just feels like a giant minefield to step into.  Like the time I accidentally started reading an attachment parenting book and was like no, no, no, you will not make me feel guilty about not letting my child sleep in my bed.  So Senior’s book was appealing because it is not a “this is how to parent” book, but more of “this is how we parent and this is how it affects our lives” sort of book, which is fascinating stuff because becoming a parent really is a paradoxical thing, just like the title says.  It is joy and love and wonderful moments and simultaneously it is the most frustrating, mind-numbing, and puzzling journey I’ve ever embarked on.

All that to say, I really enjoyed this book and found it impossible to put down.  I was totally fascinated.  This is the type of non-fiction I enjoy– social science data combined with lots of anecdotes and history.  I am not sure that there is much practical that I learned from this, but it has made me think about what I get out of being a parent and about what my goals are in terms of parenting (a large portion of modern parenthood seems to be uncertainty about what exactly the goal is). The larger message is simply that being a parent is challenging, sometimes boring, frustrating hard work, but somehow, someway we find that in spite of that fact, it is a rewarding, enriching, joyous experience.

Senior divides the book into parental experiences at different times of childhood– early childhood (babies, toddlers, preschoolers), the elementary school years, and the adolescent and teenage years.  I very much related to the feelings of middle class mothers in the early childhood years- the feelings of needing to be present and actively involved if I’m with my child (which my husband doesn’t seem to share), struggling with feelings of perceived inequity in the division of domestic duties, and the intense frustration of interacting with someone who needs direction, yet only listens about 60% 33% of the time.  I haven’t yet reached the later years (my kid is only 2) to empathize with the parents of elementary school or adolescent children, but the areas she focused on were certainly familiar and things I think about when I think of the upcoming years– how many extracurricular activities are reasonable for a child? is it possible to escape the intense competition of upper middle class Texas suburbs like the ones Senior examines/I live in? should one monitor their adolescent’s online activity?  I particularly found the fact that living with adolescents has emotional effects on parents fascinating. Working with young adults, I could already see how being around young people making life choices makes one rethink their own life decisions and adolescences and I can only imagine the intensity of these feelings when it is one’s own kids in the hot seat.

What will stick with me longest, though, I think, is the statement that in the moment, parenting is not fun or enjoyable, but in the stories we tell/our memories it is the source of great joy and happiness. This reminded me a lot of Gretchen Rubin’s statement in The Happiness Project that the days are long and the years are short. This is something I feel every day, the drudgery and frustration of walking my toddler back to bed a million times every night is so rough in the moment, but once she finally surrenders to sleep, all I can think about is the cute thing she said to me in the bathtub and how nice it will be to see her in the morning (a feeling I do not experience when she walks into my room before the alarm goes off).

This was a thought-provoking read for sure, but I think mostly if you are a member of the demographic Senior focuses on. As a white, suburban, middle class, married mother who works full-time outside the home, this book was highly relevant. While Senior’s intention was to speak to parents like me, I don’t know that this review of the experience of parenting is widely applicable.  Also, because she relies heavily on anecdotes, it is hard to know if these are really accurate slices of the average parent’s life.  I learn really well from anecdotal evidence, but I know that is not the preference of social science and doesn’t really prove wider truths.  In any case, this is something I’d recommend if you are at all interested in thinking about what social science has to say about the experience of parenthood.  The conclusions might be fairly obvious (all joy, no fun), but it is interesting to see how other parents report similar experiences and to look ahead at the challenges I might face in later stages of childhood.


Spring Mini-Reviews: Read Harder Challenge Books

So.  Every now and then I get supppppper behind on reviews (ok, so it’s more like I’m ALWAYS behind) and in order to catch up I like to throw up these mini-reviews.  This post focuses on books that I picked for the 2015 Read Harder Challenge.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Read for Task 3: A Collection of Short Stories

The Things They Carried is a book of interrelated short stories featuring a unit of soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War.  I bought it years ago after reading about it in one of my graduate classes.  I then proceeded to not read it, but I am so so glad I finally remedied that.

What I liked: The writing in this book is absolutely beautiful.  I have never been to war and probably never will, but this book felt like it carried a truth about war– there’s death, fear, grief, muck, boredom, love, humor, hijinks, drugs, friendship, loneliness.  These men (boys, really) are thrown into an unimaginable situation and their lives are forever changed by Vietnam, whether they die there or whether they come home and can’t move on or come home and never stop writing about it.
What I felt meh about: I don’t really have any complaints about this book.  It was a tough subject matter, which sometimes made it difficult for me to pick up, but I kind of think that’s the point.
All in all: This has become a classic for a reason.  The writing is amazing, the stories are meaningful and presented war to me in the most real/truthful way I think I’ve ever read.  I pushed this on my husband to read (and he reads fiction almost never) because it’s that sort of book that will appeal widely.  I hope to reread it again someday.


Mortal Heart by Robin LaFevers
Read for Task 11: A YA Novel

Mortal Heart is the conclusion of the His Fair Assassin series, a historical fantasy series that I’ve enjoyed.  Mortal Heart is Annith’s story.  Annith has been stuck at the convent, eagerly awaiting her turn to go out into the field and practice as Death’s handmaiden.  But opportunities keep passing by and the abbess seems intent on keeping Annith under her thumb forever, as the seeress for the convent.  Annith knows that is not the life she wants or is meant to live, so she strikes out, hoping to uncover the abbess’s motives and to set her own destiny.

What I liked: I generally enjoy the world that LaFevers has created in this series and the things I liked about it continued on into this book– there is plenty of political intrigue and a strong spiritual element to the story.  I especially love the old religion and gods in the book and Mortal Heart offers us a look at another aspect of Mortain, as well as the goddess Arduinna.  I also loved getting to see Annith back with Sybella and Ismae, as their camaraderie from the first book was something that was missing in the second one.  I was also really satisfied to see a conclusion to the political crisis in Brittany, as that historical element of the books has always piqued my interest.
What I felt meh about: This was probably my least favorite of the series, mostly because it got off to the world’s slowest start.  It took me over 200 pages to get into to it.  I also didn’t buy into the romance as hard, as it felt a bit shallow to me… something that I did not feel about the romances in the previous two books.
All in all: This was mostly a satisfying conclusion to the series and I’m happy I finished it out.  This is high on my list of YA fantasy to recommend, even though I feel like these books don’t stick with me for very long.  The research and writing are impeccable.


Curly Girl: The Handbook by Lorraine Massey
Read for Task 24: A Self-Improvement Book

Perhaps I’m silly to choose a book about hair for self-improvement, but it became a recent goal of mine to start wearing my hair more natural (that is, curly) and I needed some advice on how to get started.  Curly Girl is mostly a handbook on how to cleanse, style, and care for curly hair from products to coloring to up-dos, but it is also interspersed with personal anecdotes (“curlfessions”) from the author and other curly girls who have come to love and accept their curls.

What I liked:  I liked the cleansing and styling tips and they have really gone a long way in improving the look of my hair.  I’ve been using the curly girl method and my curls seem more defined, less frizzy, and more manageable.  Some of the steps (shampooing and drying) take longer than what I was doing before, but the styling part is SO EASY and takes a fraction of the time that blow drying ever did (not that I dried my hair much, mostly brushed it into a ponytail).  I also enjoyed the little “curlfessions” and related to these women who have been fighting their hair their whole lives.  I have wavy hair and because it straightens fairly easy if I take the time to do so, I have pretty much always felt (and been given the impressions by hairdressers/the world) that my hair should be straightened.  Previous attempts to go wavy have always left me feeling like I couldn’t pass as curly, either, with too much frizz and volume and not much uniformity in my curls.  It’s nice to see that I’m not alone in feeling like my hair was uncooperative and not worth messing with.  It’s also nice to see that there is some light on the other side– curly hair can be easy, fun, and beautiful, too!
What I felt meh about: Large chunks of this book did not apply to me.  I don’t color my hair and don’t have any desire to try cutting my own hair or making my own products.  Also, the skeptic in me is a little uncomfortable with the fact that the author has her own product line and salon/stylist academy.  She never outright tells you to go buy DevaCurl products, but still I wondered about the potential commercial motivations behind the book.
All in all: This was a nice, easy intro to hair care and styling for those of us with curly hair.  I don’t think it’s essential to read the book if all you want is instructional information, but the anecdotes and pictures were helpful/interesting for me, so I’m glad I grabbed it from the library.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory- Caitlin Doughty

This book caught my attention in a Goodreads newsletter, which is weird since I rarely ever actually open those.  But I saw this, read the sample, got hooked and pre-ordered it immediately.

Caitlin Doughty is a mortician.  Mostly this book is Doughty’s memoir of getting into the funeral industry.  Her first job out of college was working in a crematory she calls Westwind.  Her anecdotes from Westwind were my favorite part of the book.  You can tell she learned a lot from that experience and that her coworkers at Westwind were people she really respected, even though they are a bit quirky (I mean, they are funeral industry people, after all).  She also interweaves into the story some of her personal experiences with death, as well as anthropological and historical tidbits about death culture to argue that as a culture we fear and ignore death and dead bodies so much that we don’t have a healthy (or any?) relationship with human mortality.  And we don’t really do death in a way that makes a whole lot of sense- environmentally, emotionally, financially, spiritually.

This book totally sucked me in.  Doughty’s writing is great… I never expected to have a hard time putting down a non-fiction book about death and dead bodies, but I did.  It did get a little preachy at the end, which didn’t fit much with the tone of the rest of the book, but that was my only complaint.  I left this book thinking about what I want done with my body when I die, how I really have no clue how my family members want their bodies treated when they die (except my mom who made a point to tell me a long time ago), and feeling a little more accepting of death as an inevitability.  My husband rolled his eyes when I initiated conversations about what we wanted done with our bodies when we die and I have sent some super awkward (and possibly creepy) texts to my mom while writing this review, but hey, this is stuff we will have to deal with some day, whether we like it or not, and I’d like to do it in a way that isn’t so fear-based and at a time that isn’t so emotionally-charged.

Anyways, I would definitely recommend this book, though I know that the topic probably turns a lot of people off (or makes them morbidly curious).  That said, if the whole idea of a book about death and funerals makes you squicky, then you probably need to read this book the most.

Audiobook Mini-Reviews

I’m not the best at reviewing audiobooks.  They are always harder for me to remember details about and that makes it hard to write reviews.  But I’ve been REALLY good about posting reviews for what I’ve read this year, so I’m going to post some mini-reviews.  Both these books were ones I downloaded as part of the SYNC summer audiobooks.  I love that program, it exposes me to books I’d never read otherwise!

Code Name Verity  by Elizabeth Wein

This book was everywhere in the book blog world a couple years ago.  A female British pilot ferrying a female Scottish spy across the English Channel crash-lands in the Nazi-occupied French countryside.  The spy, Verity, is picked up by the Gestapo and interrogated and tortured.  Verity cooperates with the Gestapo, spinning out a tale of her friendship with Maddie, the pilot who crash-landed with her.  What follows is a story of friendship set against the horrors of war.

What I liked: the writing, the narrators, the fact this had no romantic subplot (so rare in YA), smart female characters putting their lives on the line for their country
What I felt meh about: the narrative structure was such that you don’t really see Maddie and Verity interact, instead it is all stories about their relationship, which put their friendship at a distance, also some parts dragged a bit for me
All in all: I liked it, but not my favorite book ever.  I guess there’s a sequel?  I don’t know that I will seek it out, but if I came across it, I’d read it.

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose

This is the story of Claudette Colvin, an African-American teenager who, 9 months before Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat on a segregated Montgomery bus.  Claudette was arrested and her arrest and mistreatment by the police set the wheels in motion for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, as well as the federal district court case Browder v. Gayle, which ruled that segregation on the city buses was unconstitutional.

What I liked: This was a really inspiring, interesting, and timely story (I read this about a month ago when Ferguson was big in the news).  I liked that oral interviews with Claudette Colvin underpinned the story.  Hoose also does a great job of placing Claudette’s story within the historical context of the Civil Rights movement.  It was very short, which I appreciated!
What I was meh on: I felt the analysis was a lacking a bit, but I admit my expectations as a reader might be a little high given that I come from an academic history background and am not really the target age/education level for this book.
All in all: Great non-fiction that kept me thinking about social movements for weeks after finishing.


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks- Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who died in Baltimore in 1951 after battling cervical cancer.  Doctors took a biopsy of her tumor (unbeknownst to her or her family until decades later) and her unique and aggressive cancer cells became the first immortal cell line used in tissue culture, known to scientists as HeLa.  HeLa cells have been commercialized and have been used for all kinds of medical advances, including the development of the polio vaccine, and continue to remain important in cancer and genetic research to this day.  The author, Rebecca Skloot, who first learned about HeLa cells in biology class as a teenager, always wondered about the story of the woman behind these important cells and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is Skloot’s attempt to tell the personal, human side of the story of HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks.  Skloot brings Henrietta– and her family– to life through interviews and sets this personal story alongside the history and ethics of tissue culture.

If I were to write a book, I like to think I would end up with something similar to this one.  My academic interest is in the history of medicine, so I really enjoyed the science-y parts of this book and learned a whole lot about an aspect of medical research that I knew nothing about.  I also really like to read about the real people involved in and affected by science and medicine, so I was also interested in the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family.  This book was a great reminder that we can’t really separate real people and culture from science.  Another thing I loved about this book was that Skloot puts herself into the narrative and some of this book is about the process of writing and researching her book.  I know it is not everybody’s thing, but I respond really well to first-person accounts in non-fiction, as well as more creative non-fiction.

My only quibble with this book was that the story is so far-reaching and complicated that it was kind of hard for me to keep track of the story at times, especially because I was listening on audiobook so couldn’t flip back to see what year a particular chapter was set in.  It is told mostly chronologically, which is useful from an organizational standpoint, but sort of undermines the premise of the story.  A book that is supposed to put Henrietta as the focus, starts off being very focused on Henrietta, but ends up focusing more on her children and also the ethics of tissue research by the end of the book.  As motherhood seemed to be a very important part of Henrietta’s identity and the consequences of research on her cells has mostly fallen on her children, it is absolutely appropriate to talk about her children and I think, in a way, her story is their story.  But my problem is that, by the end of the book, I felt like I had lost sight of Henrietta a bit and I know that was not the author’s intention.  I’m not sure how one could have structured this differently and keep the clarity of the story, but I wish Skloot would have brought us back to a story about Henrietta at the end of the book.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a fascinating look at the woman behind one of the biggest medical research tools of the 20th century and will appeal to those with an interest in the human side of the history of science and medicine, as well as those interested in issues of ethics, race, and gender in medical research.  I think this is a great non-fiction read for those accustomed to reading fiction (like me), as it had very accessible language and more personal and emotional elements.

Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth- Ina May Gaskin

I am hoping to have a natural childbirth and this book came highly recommended from my doula and from a friend of mine who has given birth naturally.  If you are curious at all about natural childbirth, this is a good place to start.  Ina May Gaskin is probably the most famous midwife in the US and she has attended tons and tons of births at The Farm, an intentional community in Tennessee.

The first section of the book is dozens of birth stories of women who have given birth on The Farm or who have some other connection to Ina May.  The idea is that these stories show what childbirth can be when it is done naturally and to show that many of the common complications resulting in medical interventions can be handled by less invasive techniques (changing position in the case of shoulder dystocia, for example).  If all these ordinary women from a variety of circumstances can give birth without medical interventions, then surely you (and most other women) can.  The stories get to be kind of much after a while– there are A LOT of them, but they are interesting and contrast pretty strongly with the stories I’ve heard from many of my friends, who’ve been induced or who have had multiple c-sections.  I really envy the freedom that the women on The Farm get during labor.  They get to walk in the woods during labor or take baths and feel comfortable enough to assume whatever positions might work or to make noise while in labor.  It’s quite a different scenario than being hooked up to a fetal monitor in the hospital with strangers (nurses) coming and going throughout your labor.  That said, it was REALLY important to my husband that we have a hospital childbirth, so we are going to make the best of the situation.

The second section of the book is the actual childbirth guide and there are lots of helpful and interesting tidbits here.  I particularly enjoyed the chapter about “sphincter law” in which Ina May compares the cervix to other sphincters… it is difficult to urinate or defecate when you are feeling anxious or “watched” so it makes sense that similar conditions could slow or reverse the dilation of the cervix.  I also liked her response to the question “how does something that big fit through such a small opening?”  Ina May reminds readers that the penis expands and contracts without causing irreversible damage… and so can vaginal tissue!  (This post is going to attract all sorts of spam, but it’s hard to talk about childbirth without using the word “vagina” so I guess that’s unavoidable.)  What I wasn’t all that impressed with was the section on orgasmic childbirth.  I’m sure that exists, but I am skeptical that it is even remotely common and well, I’ll admit that I’m not perfectly comfortable with Ina May’s argument that childbirth is a sexual experience.  I think I am very much a product of the culture that has erased the connection between sex and childbirth, so it was hard for me to think outside of that.  I also had some quibbles with some of her data– there is some out of date medical info in here (mercury is not being used as a preservative in most vaccines any more and I’m pretty sure no one is using Cytotec to induce labor either ETA: I was wrong, apparently Cytotec is still being used by some docs to ripen the cervix and induce labor.) and there is a whole chapter talking about maternal mortality statistics.  She criticizes the US statistics for being incomplete, while also using them to support her argument that maternal mortality has stayed at the same rate for 30 years, indicating that the US is failing mothers in comparison to other developed countries where rates have improved.  My husband pointed out to me that she can’t have it both ways– if the data is inaccurate and incomplete, then it isn’t really responsible to use that data to support your argument.

What I find most personally troublesome is the antagonistic tone that we see here (and in most all literature about natural childbirth).  Being that natural childbirth and midwifery are the not the norms in the US, there is a lot of negativity towards doctors, hospitals, and the medicalization of childbirth.  While I fall much more into the natural childbirth camp, I really don’t like the tension between the two systems.  We need both doctors and midwives, both c-sections and unmedicated vaginal births.  There shouldn’t be opposing systems, there should be complementary systems.  Unfortunately, there’s historically been tough competition between midwives and doctors in this country and doctors pretty much ran midwives out of business by the 1950s.  Things are getting a little better, with there being midwives in doctors’ offices, but still I don’t think the antagonism between more extreme sides helps us move in the cooperative direction, though.

Ok, off my soapbox.  I think this is a book worth reading if you are curious at all about natural childbirth or even just childbirth… there’s a lot to learn from someone who has witnessed hundreds of natural births.  Take it with a grain of salt and supplement this with more up-to-date readings, of course, but overall this was a worthwhile read.

P.S. If you want to read a great birth story about a natural birth in a hospital, read Michelle’s story here!

Pregnancy Book Mini-Reviews

Whether you are looking for a gift for a pregnant friend or for yourself, here is my brief take on the few pregnancy books I’ve read lately:

Great with Child by Beth Ann Fennelly

This book is a series of letters that Fennelly, then the mother of a 3-year-old, wrote to her pregnant friend.  This is complete opposite of all those medical pregnancy books.  This book is about the joys of pregnancy and motherhood.  Fennelly talks about how motherhood made her feel more connected to a community and reengaged her ability to play and her deep love of music and singing.  My favorite letter, though, talked about a study done determining how children become lifelong readers… one of the top contributors was having parents who were readers.  So I know I can keep up with some of my reading because it’s going to make Baby Girl appreciate it more.  This book was mostly warm fuzzies for me and is great for reading when you are feeling a little anxious about impending motherhood.  I also think it would make a good gift for the pregnant readers and writers in your life, as it is written by a poet and focuses a lot on language and reading in children.

Belly Laughs by Jenny McCarthy

Belly Laughs is a short, humorous read about the various changes and indignities the pregnant body undergoes.  It’s not masterpiece of writing, but it was funny and relatable and a nice fit for the times when pregnancy starts making you feel sorry for yourself.  It’s nice to know you aren’t the only one who gets cravings based on whatever food is on television or that you aren’t the only one who doesn’t fall into the “pregnant and wants to have sex all the time” category (which every other pregnancy book insists is a real thing that happens to everyone).  I got this as a gift and think it would be a fun gift for any pregnant lady… even those who aren’t big on reading.  I finished this off in a couple hours.

Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott

Operating Instructions actually is a journal of the first year of Lamott’s son’s life, so it only deals with the very tail end of pregnancy, but I still found it an interesting read for this time.  Lamott is an addict in recovery who has become pregnant accidentally and is rearing her son as a single woman in her mid-thirties.  The fact that none of that fits my own situation and the fact that most of the journal deals with life with her son made this book hard for me to relate to.  It was still interesting to see her move from the dark, sleepless nights with a colicky newborn to a more hopeful and rested state with an older baby.  It didn’t really ease my fears of living with a newborn, but I think this book is more on realistic side of things– newborns aren’t easy, dealing with your own issues and those of baby is tough, etc.  I’d recommend it for those who enjoy the memoir/journal type of story.  I also think this book would be appropriate for mothers in alternate situations… most of the pregnancy books I read deal with married women and don’t address any of the shortcomings a mother might feel because her past and present mental health issues.

And finally, a brief word on that tome, What to Expect When You’re Expecting.  I skimmed through a little bit of the book early in my pregnancy, but ended up returning it to the library pretty quickly.  It was a bit preachy and I felt like it was talking down to me, especially in the nutrition section.  I have spent the last 5 years losing weight and putting it back on, trying to manage my diet and trying to maintain an exercise program.  I know what I should be eating, but that does not make it easy for me to eat healthy, especially when pregnancy has me hungry like a teenage boy and craving things like chocolate pop-tarts or french fries with ketchup or fast food fish sandwiches.  Trying to guilt me into eating healthy “for the baby” just makes me angry.  I have a real problem with anyone who wants to make me feel guilty about my choices for my body and my baby, so this was not the book for me, though I know many women have found it helpful.  Anyways, I’m not sure I’ll sway anyone away from reading this book during their pregnancy, but approach it with caution.  And I don’t think I’d buy this as a gift for anyone… give them something fun and sweet to read, not something telling them how to be the perfect pregnant lady!

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I’d Save from Alien Abduction

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature/meme brought to you by the folks over at The Broke and the Bookish (the pic also belongs to them).  This week’s theme is the Top Ten Books I’d Quickly Save If My House Was Going To Be Abducted By Aliens (or similar natural disaster).

For some reason I have interpreted the prompt to mean books I would save in case of my survival into a post-apocalyptic world… (the world was destroyed by aliens, I guess)

1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – This is a book I could (and do) read over and over again.  Can’t survive an apocalypse without this one!

2. Wheelock’s Latin – I figure if I am alone on the mostly deserted remnants of planet Earth, I will need a project.  My project will be to relearn Latin.  Who knows?  Maybe I can turn it back into a living language…

3. Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis by J.K. Rowling and Peter Needham – While I am relearning Latin, I will practice my mad skillz by translating Harry Potter from Latin into English.  Also, this book is sort of the jewel in the crown of my nerdiness… I belonged to a Harry Potter Latin translation group in college.  It was a blast.

4. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling – I’d probably want the English companion as a back-up for my Latin translation.

5. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling – The best of the HP books and in all the free time I’d have living a subsistence-based life in a post-apocalyptic world I’d try to recreate the rest of the series.  (I’m really trying to not cheat by counting my box set as one book!)

6. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – I need at least one book about how not to rebuild society.

7. Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner – A chick lit book for those times in which I need a feel-good, funny, easy read.

8. The Gospel of Germs by Nancy Tomes –  I could probably use a little more non-fiction than just a textbook.  This was probably the book that influenced me the most in my short career as a historian.  If you are curious, it is about how germ theory (that is, the notion that germs caused disease) influenced American culture, from doing away with the public drinking cup to decorating bathrooms in white tile to the consumption of products like Kleenex and Listerine.  It was also delightfully readable.  I’d take it with me.

9. The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson – I will round out the collection by including some short stories.  Also, I feel I must preserve SJack for the next world.  She’s good.

10. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – I have started this book two or three times and gotten a good way through it, but have never actually finished it.  I don’t hate the book, but can’t seem to keep interested in it… perhaps if it is one of my ten, I will actually finish it!

What are your top ten must-save books?