Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin, 5/5
Anecdotal evidence may not be the best kind of evidence, but it is definitely the most entertaining. I enjoyed reading about the natural childbirth experiences of the many women represented in this book and appreciated that, overall, the stories were comforting without sugarcoating the intensity of the birth experience. Entertaining or not, I wouldn’t have been able to take Gaskin very seriously if she did not also have vast practical experience and the approbation of many more traditionally-educated medical experts. Advocates of natural childbirth can seem a bit fanatical, but their passion is understandable in light of the unnecessary and often harmful medical interference that seemed to characterize obstetrics in the 1900s (in addition to the U.S.A.’s frankly appalling maternal mortality ratio). I am cautiously optimistic that medicine has by now advanced to include a more open-minded and respectful view of the female body’s innate capacity for birth.
Why I read it: a friend recommended the author’s book Spiritual Midwifery, which was not available as a hard copy at my library at the time, so I read this one instead.
Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Ingvild Burkey, 3/5
Reading this collection of short essays, mostly on such prosaic topics as “apples” and “plastic bags,” is a calming and grounding experience. Knausgaard combines the sensibilities of a sophisticated writer with the wide-eyed wonder of a child, rendering even the most commonplace subject somehow remarkable. The simple and honest manner in which the author’s thoughts and everyday life experiences permeate the text give one a sense of voyeurism without its intrinsic guilt; as if someone has left their curtains open solely to warm the hearts of passersby in the dark.
Why I read it: a recommendation by my sister, Anna.
Natural Childbirth the Bradley Way by Susan McCutcheon-Rosegg, with Peter Rosegg, 4/5
I read this book for a laugh, expecting that almost 40 years of advancements in the field of medicine would have rendered it largely useless by now. To my surprise, I found myself being won over by the commonsense advice it presents, emphasizing mindful relaxation, supportive coaching, patience and faith in the natural process. After all, the act of childbirth is as old as time and if, as so many experts assert, we still experience primitive influences on a biological level, why should we rush to intervene with little excuse?
Younger Next Year: Live Strong, Fit, and Sexy–Until You’re 80 and Beyond by Chris Crowley & Henry S. Lodge, M.D., 3/5
Clearly, the target audience for this book is aging guys who will appreciate the old-fashioned generalizations and cringey humor that make Younger Next Year pretty unrelatable to anyone else. Fortunately though, you don’t have to be an old man to be encouraged by the premise that consistent exercise, smart eating (but not “dieting”), and healthy relationships can make old age a less terrifying prospect. This book also confirms something I’ve suspected for a long time–that we often associate increasing age with loneliness, misery and a sedentary lifestyle because those are the most available and memorable role models (thanks, negativity bias). All the healthy, adventurous, active, passionate old people are too busy out doing things to stop and convince us that a post-prime life can be amazing.
On a sad side note, I learned that the younger co-author, Dr. Lodge, died at the age of only 58 from prostate cancer. I’m tempted to conclude that one shouldn’t sacrifice happiness for health, since the latter is never guaranteed.
Why I read it: my dad gave me a copy because he enjoyed it.
How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It by Patricia Love, Ed.D., and Steven Stosny, Ph.D., 2/5
Perhaps I’m just cynical, but I feel this book’s title may as well be How to Improve Your Marriage by Reading About It. Yes, the book presents some interesting psychological concepts, focusing mainly on how men’s vulnerability to feelings of shame and women’s vulnerability to fear can result in a sense of disconnection not reparable by verbal communication. Unfortunately, you have to take the authors’ word for even the most outlandish-sounding statements, since they provide no footnotes or references. This lack of academic documentation seriously undermines the book’s credibility, in my opinion, and gives a strangely pop-psych flavor to an unpopular message of resolute self-improvement and one-sided commitment to acts of connection. While I respect and agree with the authors’ encouragement to generally be an emotionally intelligent human being and not a shitty, selfish one, their “practical” advice seems laughably out of touch with reality. I honestly can’t see the “Power Love Formula” saving any relationships, but I guess what do I know since I’m lucky enough to be almost four years into a relationship with an amazing, sensitive man who is secure and loving enough to demand we talk things out even when I’d rather sulk in silence. In terms of practical relationship advice that resonates with what I’ve observed and experienced, I find The Five Love Languages to be much more relevant and helpful.
Why I read it: it resonated with my dad but not my mom, so I was curious.
Unsolved Mysteries of the Arctic by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, 4/5
Written by a bona fide Arctic explorer, this book reflects a bygone era of exploration, when sane men packed up and left on insane adventures into unexplored territory from which they well knew they might never return. Indeed, every one of the five stories in this book involves death or disappearance, often punctuated by the horrors of starvation, betrayal, cannibalism and pure ineptitude. The author is not shy in drawing his own conclusions for each scenario and though his writing style is not the most entertaining, his first-hand experience and rational approach to the information available at the time make for a fascinating read.
I learned a lot from this book, such as that the Arctic, which I once imagined to be an abandoned ice desert, is (or at least, was) actually livable land, teeming with life. Unintuitively, the Inuit would move north during winter due to the abundance of game in the frozen landscape, killing everything from seals to polar bears without the aid of guns (often in territory in which well-armed Europeans managed to starve to death). I also learned a lot about scurvy, its causes and surprising psychological effects. According to Stefansson, scurvy plagued those explorers who tried to maintain a European diet, even when supplemented by fruits and vegetables. It was the author’s strong opinion that a diet consisting solely of native, fatty meat was the best way to stay healthy in the Arctic. It’s strange to think that the ketogenic diet is still controversial after over 80 years of arguments and studies.
Why I read it: an impulse buy in a used book store; for $3, who could resist?
Everybody Always: Becoming Love in a World Full of Setbacks and Difficult People by Bob Goff, 3/5
After loving Love Does, I was very excited to read Goff’s next book, which I hoped would provide further illumination on the challenge of how to love people extravagantly without getting used up in the process. Unfortunately, I didn’t sense the same spirit in this book: the stories felt a little forced, the resulting morals were sometimes a stretch and the whole thing came off a bit preachy and canned. It’s actually a little funny because when I read Love Does, I literally thought to myself that it was the kind of inspired book you would live your whole life to write and never write another.
Why I read it: I wished Love Does was a longer book.
No Holds Barred: The Complete History of Mixed Martial Arts in America by Clyde Gentry III, 2/5
Relentlessly packed with names, dates, dry facts and endless acronyms, this book is about as appealing to read as the world’s longest Wikipedia article (a comparison that could be considered a compliment if you account for the fact that it was written before Wikipedia even existed). The author has performed an impressive amount of research, including a jaw-dropping 125 interviews, but unfortunately seems completely incapable of telling a story, even when equipped with firsthand knowledge of the dramatic events and larger-than-life personas associated with the history of MMA. His blow-by-blow descriptions of classic fights are excruciatingly boring and he somehow sucks all the life out of even the most amusing or astonishing anecdotes. Adding to the faults of the original edition is a half-assed update written 10 years later that sees the clumsy addition of multiple-page “sidebars” (literally marked with bars) that completely disrupt the text’s already inadequate narrative flow, two off-focus chapters tacked onto the end, and multiple references to himself awkwardly as “this author” that made me grind my teeth every time they assaulted my eyes. In the preface, the author mentions that this book was supposed to be the first in a series that “never happened” and, after reading it, there is no question why.
Why I read it: A gift from my dad, accompanied with the warning “it will probably be terrible.”
Love Does: Discover a Secretly Incredible Life in an Ordinary World by Bob Goff, 5/5
Bob Goff knows how to tell a story. His stories were almost too good; I devoured them like a kid devours a bowl of fruit loops and had to keep reminding myself to slow down and digest the bigger messages. When someone who has accumulated a lifetime’s worth of remarkable experiences takes the time to write down what they’ve learned from a broad perspective, it’s a gift–a sneak peek of a meaningful work of art when all you could see before was the close-up chaos of individual brushstrokes.
Formerly a lawyer and law professor, Goff was not a “professional Christian” when he wrote this book, so I didn’t get the uncomfortable feeling that he was trying to sell some pre-packaged, preachy, lifeless form of religion. He is very practical and realistic, using stories to transcend the cliched verbiage of encouraging people to fearlessly follow their hopes and dreams while living in God’s love.
I used to think following God required complicated formulas. I thought I needed a big stack of books, so I could figure out exactly where I was all the time. I thought if I constantly measured the distance between me and God, I’d get closer to Him. Early on, the religious people I knew explained to me all kinds of nuances for doing this sort of spiritual math. They suggested that I say certain things in my prayers, have quiet times, go to Bible studies, and memorize Bible verses. They said I needed to know how to explain to someone that God could be a person and a spirit at the same time. They urged me to know how God was going to come back someday but that some people would be here and other people would go missing because it would be a time of great tribulation. They said that for me to know God, there was a whole pile of things I’d need to know first. […] What I realized, though, is that all I really needed to know when it came down to it was the direction I was pointing and that I was somewhere inside the large circle of God’s love and forgiveness (156).
There are a lot of crazy stories and insightful life lessons packed into this easy-to-read book, but perhaps the thing that stuck with me the most a couple weeks later, was how fearlessly Goff loves other people and gets involved in their lives. If he was giving bits of himself away, he would soon be reduced to nothing, but instead his life seems immeasurably richer. It truly seems that he has an endless supply of supernatural love from which to draw. I still don’t fully understand how to live this way without getting used up by the “takers” in the world, but this book was a helpful piece of the puzzle for me and an amazing reminder that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).
Why I read it: My friend, Joy, recommended it to me.
How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems by Randall Munroe, 5/5
This book does not disappoint! It is filled with hilarious, ridiculous, scientifically strenuous “solutions” to problems ranging from “how to jump really high” to “how to change a light bulb.” As a piano teacher, I found the chapter on how to play the piano particularly hilarious and thought-provoking. I’ve never thought to ask questions like “how many keys would need to be added to the piano keyboard to make music for whales?” (spoiler: it’s not as many as you’d think!).