Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally, 4/5
Many books have been written about the inhumanity of Nazi Germany during WWII, but fewer portray the bureaucracy. Behind the scenes, the business of war gave Oskar Schindler an opportunity to leverage the “ordinary” vices of extraordinarily evil men in order to save Jewish lives. Almost all of the seven deadly sins make an appearance as Schindler schmoozes, name-drops, threatens, cajoles, bribes, wines and dines his way through the war. A man who, at the beginning of the story, could barely be described as “decent” transforms into a fanatic who risks everything to sabotage the German war effort and protect his Jewish workers. It is a fascinating tale, both from a historical and a psychological perspective, though the author’s writing style is a bit dry and idiosyncratic.
Why I read it: I’ve never been motivated to watch the film (way too depressing for movie night) so I was excited to come across the book instead.
What to Expect When You’re Expecting by Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel, 5/5
This ubiquitous book is well-deserving of its reputation as the bible of pregnancy. It contains a ton of helpful information but what makes it truly outstanding, in my opinion, is the comforting and positive tone with which the info is conveyed. Reading it feels more like having a conversation with your mom than referencing a textbook or encyclopedia. Pregnancy can be a scary experience and it’s such a relief to read that whatever bizarre symptom you are dealing with is perfectly normal. I do wish that the book ended on a happier note instead of a chapter on complications and pregnancy loss, though.
I also really like the What to Expect website’s week-to-week feature and forums.
Why I read it: I am pregnant and remember seeing this book on my parents’ shelf as a kid. I was lucky that a friend passed along this copy to me.
Expectant Motherhood by Nicholson J. Eastman, M.D., 3/5
In the last eight months, since I first found out that I was expecting a baby of my own, I have learned a lot about pregnancy and childbirth from a variety of sources. This vintage book from 1957 is the oldest of all, but I was delighted to discover that a surprisingly large amount of the information and advice it gives still survives, little changed, in our modern age. To me, this is encouraging proof that the process of growing and delivering a baby to the world is natural and something most women are innately empowered to accomplish.
Of course, much has changed in the field of medicine in the 60-plus years since the third edition of this book was published, leading to some fascinating insights into the past. For example, I had never thought to wonder how pregnancy tests worked before the modern “pee stick” was invented in the 1970s. I learned that the easiest and cheapest method was simply to wait until an expected menstrual cycle was at least ten days late, at which point chances were good that you were pregnant. The downside of this approach is obviously that you do not receive positive proof of pregnancy, just an ever-increasing likelihood of it. For those requiring more certainty, a much more expensive option was to wait two weeks past the missed menstrual cycle, inject a mouse or rabbit with the woman’s urine and, forty-eight to seventy-two hours later, dissect the unfortunate creature to check its ovaries for changes! The “frog test” also involved the injection of urine, but pregnancy was confirmed by the development of frog eggs in only eight to eighteen hours and the frog would happily survive. Needless to say, peeing on a stick seems much less gross and inconvenient after learning about these alternate methods of the past!
Why I read it: a gift from my sister.
Hawaii: A History; From Polynesian Kingdom to American Statehood, by Ralph S. Kuykendall and A. Grove Day, 1/5
Reading history books doesn’t usually outrage me; after all, there is nothing you can do to change the past. However, I soon became incensed by these authors’ relentless attempts to whitewash Hawaiian history and marginalize indigenous culture. Fourteen centuries of native history predating the arrival of the first European explorer in 1778 are relegated to one short chapter (fewer than 10 pages). After that, this book is a drooling panegyric to the wonderful white people who “civilized” Hawaii and eventually earned Hawaiians the ultimate prize of U.S. statehood.
It is insulting, embarrassing, and truly obnoxious, the way this book idolizes the cultural invasion perpetrated by Europeans and Americans as they exploited Hawaii for its resources during a relentless and mercenary takeover of the economy and government of what was once an independent island kingdom. At every turn, the authors use blatantly biased language to present foreign influences in the best possible light–even the infamous Captain Cook is portrayed as a Pretty Good Guy, quite at odds with the testimony of events.
I was particularly startled to learn that the multi-billion dollar Dole Food Company got its start during Sanford B. Dole’s 30-year involvement in Hawaiian politics (including serving as president and later territorial governor). You don’t have to be a crazy conspiracy theorist to think that this is all a bit sketchy, but the authors studiously avoid questioning Dole’s to-them-unimpeachable motives and ethics. In fact, if I hadn’t looked into the topic further, based on Dole’s last name and its connection with tropical fruit, I never would have known.
While it is tempting to let the outrage flow unchecked and there are certainly plenty of blatantly exploitative and unethical events for which to blame the “haoles,” I have to admit that the situation was messier and more ethically complex than it might seem at first. After all, it did not take long for the first outsiders to establish their own families, quickly resulting in multiple generations of Hawaiian-born, non-indigenous people (including Sanford B. Dole himself) who all had social rights and responsibilities to exercise. I can’t pretend to know what policies would have resulted in the most fair and beneficial outcomes in 19th- and 20th-century Hawaii, but I do know that the authors’ bias and agenda-driven interpretation of events is insulting, intellectually dishonest, and completely inappropriate for a book of history.
Why I read it: A thrift store find that reminded me how little I know about my own Hawaiian heritage.
Discovering Antique Maps by A.G. Hodgkiss, 4/5
This is more of a booklet than a proper book, but it still contains a satisfying amount of basic information on the characteristics of maps from ancient times through the 19th century. There are a decent number of black and white illustrations, but I longed for more and for colored ones as well. I think this book serves its purpose of whetting the reader’s appetite without overwhelming with too much dry information. After reading it, I feel a greater appreciation for antique maps and also that I might be able to look at them with a greater eye for detail than before.
Why I read it: I think I came across this in a Canadian used bookstore.
Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh, 5/5
My advice, do not read this in any place where laughing out loud would be inappropriate. Brosh’s bizarre take on life would be funny no matter the presentation medium, but there is something about her deranged drawings in particular that just becomes more hysterical the longer you look at them. Also, this book is huge! Like really substantial: the pages are thick and it weighs a ton. I still read it in basically one sitting, though.
Why I read it: I’ve been a fan ever since encountering her website years ago, but since she doesn’t update it very often, I found out about this newest book from my brother. I was somewhere around 50th in line at the library when I put it on hold, but it was worth the wait!
Annapurna: First Conquest of an 8000-meter Peak by Maurice Herzog, translated from the French by Nea Morin and Janet Adam Smith, 4/5
I’m not particularly interested in the topic of mountaineering, but have read a wide enough variety of books to realize that a good author can make any subject fascinating. My gamble paid off in this case; Herzog is a competent writer and his passion shines clearly in this intense tale of the 1950 French Annapurna expedition’s journey to the heart of the Himalayas, preliminary exploration, eventual summit, and harrowing return to civilization. The more dry, technical sections are supplemented by helpful maps and photos, including a large map of climbing routes printed on the inside of the dust cover. This is clearly a high-quality book that was prepared with great attention to detail.
I would recommend this book, along with Kon-Tiki, The Voyage of the Beagle, and Unsolved Mysteries of the Arctic as great for armchair adventuring and representative of a golden era when unthinkably brave men put their lives on the line in the name of exploration and were heroes to the general public. One can only assume that such people still exist, but they certainly aren’t making the front page of the news like they used to. While I appreciate living a life of safety and comfort, there is something about the concept of risking it all to find ultimate fulfillment, so well-expressed in Herzog’s foreword, that strikes a chord deep inside me.
In overstepping our limitations, in touching the extreme boundaries of man’s world, we have come to know something of its true splendor. In my worst moments of anguish, I seemed to discover the deep significance of existence of which till then I had been unaware. I saw that it was better to be true than to be strong. The marks of the ordeal are apparent on my body. I was saved and I had won my freedom. This freedom, which I shall never lose, has given me the assurance and serenity of a man who has fulfilled himself. It has given me the rare joy of loving that which I used to despise. A new and splendid life has opened out before me.”
-Maurice Herzog, foreword to Annapurna
And that language from a man who lost all of his toes and most of his fingers from frostbite!
Further research revealed quite a bit of controversy about the accuracy of Herzog’s account, but I’m willing to chalk any inconsistencies up to fallible memory, oxygen deprivation and extreme trauma.
Why I read it: A thrift store find, I think. The cover is very heroic, so I thought it might be worth a try.
Spiritual Midwifery by Ina May Gaskin, 4/5
Almost half of this book consists of childbirth stories told by members of The Farm, a counterculture community that peaked in the 1970s. It is both entertaining and educational to read about other people’s experiences, but there are a couple factors that affect the helpfulness of these personal accounts, in my opinion. Firstly, it is clear that most of the narrators are deeply invested in the particular form of spirituality and beliefs associated with The Farm. The way in which the shared experience of such a close community can affect an individual’s way of thinking and communicating is something an outsider must account for. For example, the words “psychedelic,” “trip,” and “aura” clearly have a deep and nuanced meaning to these people, but it’s a little unsettling to encounter such vocabulary in a book that also gives serious medical advice. All in all, while there was a lot of interesting and helpful info in this book, I found Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth to be less dated, more accessible and more trustworthy in tone.
Why I read it: a friend recommended it to me.
Ina May’s Guide to Breastfeeding by Ina May Gaskin, 5/5
This book’s introduction alone provides such an incredibly compelling argument for breastfeeding and against the use of formula that I started to feel quite fanatic about the topic. Then I remembered that, still pregnant with my first child, I should probably keep my opinions to myself until I’ve had some real-life experience. Since that experience is still a few months away, I appreciated all the helpful info in this book, presented with Gaskin’s trademark practicality and tone of encouragement. I now have a more educated optimism that my new baby and I will be able to join the billions of mothers and children who have participated in the tradition of breastfeeding throughout time.
Why I read it: I plan to breastfeed and really liked Gaskin’s other book: Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth.
The Family Bed by Tine Thevenin, 2/5
The author is a passionate advocate of communal family sleeping arrangements but writes in the simplistic style of a college research paper and relies too heavily on anecdotes. Before the topic of bed-sharing was even on my radar, I had already been warned against it by a friend whose eight-year-old was still not comfortable sleeping alone. Since opinions obviously vary, I wish this book had presented a more scholarly approach to the topic. Despite its shortcomings, it did provide an interesting point of view that encourages an open-minded approach to what should be a very personal and judgement-free lifestyle choice.
Why I read it: I’m expecting my first baby, so a friend gave it to me along with a couple books on childbirth.