In an effort to keep the blog going (at least sporadically), I’m going to try something new. Rather than writing individual posts about each of the books I read, I am going to write condensed reviews of all the books I read in any given week (or perhaps month . . . we’ll see how much reading I’m actually doing once baby finally decides to arrive). Feel free to let me know your thoughts on the new format in the comments below!
This week features a very diverse selection: a book by one of my favorite Japanese authors, a nonfiction book on childbirth, and a bestseller of the standard-book-club-selection variety.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel
April 12, 2014
336 pages (paperback)
Why I read it: In short: because I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Haruki Murakami. I wrote a review of his weird and delightful novella The Strange Library last December, in which I talk about how great he is. You can read that here. My brother read and loaned this book to me, and I devoured it in a day and a half.
What it’s about: The title says it all. Tsukuru Tazaki is our 36-year-old protagonist. Years ago, in high school, he had a very tight-knit group of friends, all of whom happened to have very colorful names: “The two boys’ last names were Akamatsu—which means ‘red pine’—and Oumi—‘blue sea’; the girls’ family names were Shirane—‘white root’—and Kurono—‘black field.’ Tazaki was the only last name that did not have a color in its meaning.” From the beginning of their friendship, Tazaki’s colorless last name made him feel like a bit of an outsider. And then, one day, seemingly out of the blue, the group cast him out without explanation. They told him they never wanted to see or speak to him again. For months, Tazaki was devastated and confused and lost. He thought of nothing but death. Over time, he began to live life again without his friends. But he was never the same.
Now, years later, he has met a woman that he really likes. And, over drinks one evening, he tells her all about his closest friends and their strange “break-up.” She can tell immediately that the unanswered questions surrounding the dissolution of the friendships have had lasting effects on Tazaki . . . and will continue to do so until he seeks and finds answers. She tracks down all of his old friends and encourages Tazaki to find his answers. Until he does, she says, they cannot be together. So, Tazaki sets off to uncover why his friends abandoned him all those years ago.
Lots of Murakami’s work (like The Strange Library) has a very surreal feel. There are weird dudes dressed up in sheep costumes in many of his books. Crazy stuff happens that you just accept as standard. You are forced into a dreamlike state, where weird, inexplicable, extraordinary things are bound to happen. On the flip side, some of his stuff, like this book, is way more normal (granted, it’s on the darker, more depressing side of normal . . . but normal nevertheless). It focuses on loneliness and self-discovery (usually of middle-aged men, like Tazaki).
Both sides of his work share some common qualities: they are highly readable, unique, and well written. And this book is no exception. The story is actually fairly simple and straightforward. Nothing remarkable or particularly surprising occurs. But Murakami is a talented writer (with an equally talented translator) who can make a simple idea into something much, much more. He delves deeply into his protagonist, forcing you to question him, to analyze him, to empathize with him, and, ultimately, to root for him.
If you weren’t particularly interested in The Strange Library based on my review (i.e. it seemed a little too strange for you), but you’re interested in dipping your toe into the Murakami waters, this would be a good place to start.
Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth
Ina May Gaskin
Published March 4, 2003
368 pages (paperback)
Why I read it: I’m having my first baby any day now, and my plan (which may change in the moment) is to do so unmedicated. This book was recommended to me to provide information about the birthing process and helpful, practical tips to use during labor and delivery.
What it’s about: Ina May Gaskin is the best-known midwife in all the land. She is, in fact, the only midwife to have a medically-recognized procedure named for her (The Gaskin Maneuver, a technique used to resolve shoulder dystocia).
She’s also—and this should come as no surprise—a HUGE hippie. In the early-‘70s, Gaskin, her husband, and some friends started a commune in rural Tennessee called The Farm. The intentional community brought together non-violent, vegetarian, spiritual people bound by a “shared psychedelic vision.”
The Farm is now well known for its midwifery practice (one of the first out-of-hospital birthing centers in the U.S.). The Farm Midwifery Center’s statistics are pretty astounding. From 1970-2010, the midwives accepted 2,844 pregnant women for care. During that time, they experienced no maternal deaths. There were only 148 transports to the hospital and only 50 C-sections.
Gaskin’s book is presented in two parts (followed by a number of Appendices). The first part is a selection of birth stories, told in first person by mothers who delivered at The Farm. They are intended to combat the barrage of negativity that pregnant women hear so often (It’s so painful! You must get an epidural! Why not just schedule a C-section?!) by providing “practical wisdom, information, and inspiration.”
The second part of the book is written by Gaskin and provides practical advice (some opinion-based, some scientifically/medically-based) about labor and delivery. Gaskin condones unmedicated births (unless intervention is medically necessary), and her practices and advice strongly reflect that bent.
Rating: 2.5/5 (for the first half of the book, I would give it a 1.5/5; for the second, a 3.5/5)
For me, this read like two separate books. It was all I could do to get through the first part (the birth stories section). I tried my hardest not to be too judge-y . . . but it’s really difficult when reading passages like this:
On the afternoon before my son, Jon, was born, I was reading Ram Dass’s book Be Here Now and feeling very centered and high with it. I remember I fastened on a particular word and meaning: surrender. I began having contractions and feeling big waves of energy moving. I visualized my yoni as a big, open cave beneath the surface of the ocean, with huge, surging currents sweeping in an out. As the wave of water rushed into my cave, my contraction would grow and swell and fill, reach a full peak, then ebb smoothly back out. I surrendered over and over to the great, oceanic, engulfing waves. It was really delightful—very orgasmic and invigorating.
But wait! That’s not all. A few days after giving birth to Jon, this particular mother went to be with a friend who was “tired and afraid” during birth. Here’s her description:
I wanted to connect deeply with her and share my recent experience to help her relax and open. Pamela was naked, propped up on pillows on the bed, holding on to her knees. I took my clothes off (except for my underpants and pad since I was still bleeding from Jon’s birth) and crawled up on the bed with her. I laid next to her—head to head, breast to breast, womb to womb. I told her about my cave and ocean and the great rushing, swelling, and opening. I told her about surrendering over and over and letting go. We began experiencing her contractions together. We held each other and rushed and soared together. My womb, though empty, was swelling and contracting too. I could feel blood rushing out with the contractions, but not too much—I knew it was okay.
To each her own, I suppose . . . but this is a little much for me. The thought of one of my BFFs coming to be with me during labor, stripping down, and telling me about her oceanic “yoni” while I’m having contractions is, frankly, laughable. Call me unenlightened if you must.
I really could have skipped the first section of this book entirely. But the second section was much more helpful and practical (despite also having a strong hippie vibe). There are drawings (and some very graphic photographs) of birthing positions that use gravity and various other techniques to help get that baby out without the necessity of forceps or vacuum extractors (or c-section, for that matter). There is lots of discussion on “Sphincter Law,” the “set of basic assumptions about birth” that Gaskin and her partners follow: 1) sphincters (excretory, vaginal, and cervical) work best in private, 2) they can’t be opened at will and don’t respond well to commands (like “Push!!!”), 3) when a sphincter is in the process of opening, it may suddenly close if the person “becomes upset, frightened, humiliated, or self-concious,” and 4) if you relax your mouth/jaw, your cervix/vagina/anus are able to open to full capacity. There is an explanation of medical interventions and their pros and cons (mostly cons), as well as non-medical alternatives (like breast stimulation for induction of labor).
Gaskin definitely knows her stuff. And, although her perspective is a little more New Age-y than my own, she provides some good tips for people who are looking to avoid medications (and c-section) during birth. If you fall into that category, this book is worth at least a skim.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
October 2, 2012
287 pages (Kindle e-book)
Why I read it: This one has been on my TBR list for years. It was named an Amazon Best Book of the Month for October 2012 (Debut Spotlight) and has been compared to the light, fun page-turner Where’d You Go, Bernadette, which I loved.
What it’s about: Clay, a graphic-designer dude in San Francisco, is looking for a job after the start-up he worked for (New Bagel, which engineered perfect bagels) goes bust. He applies for the night shift at the titular 24-hour bookstore and gets hired. Soon, he realizes there’s more to this bookstore than he originally realized. First of all, the stock of normal books is sparse and random. There aren’t a lot of bestsellers or even well known classics. It’s a hodge-podge of randomness. Hidden behind those books are three stories of books that appear to be in code, accessible by rolling ladders around the store, which Mr. Penumbra has forbidden Clay from browsing, reading, or otherwise inspecting. Clay calls these the books on the Waybacklist. To make things weirder, there are very few normal customers. Instead, the bulk of the clientele (one per night on a busy night) are odd regulars with even stranger requests—requests for books on the Waybacklist called that are listed in the computer’s database according to their aisle and shelf numbers. These strange customers will borrow the books using a cryptic code (“6WNJHY”) and be on their way . . . always calling out “Festina lente!” as they go. As the night clerk, Clay must then record in the store’s logbook (by hand and in painstaking detail) everything he can recall about his interaction with the customer: the time, what the customer was wearing, his state of mind, how he acted, what he said, and, of course, the book he returned and the book he borrowed.
All of this naturally seems very strange to Clay, so he becomes more and more curious about these books in the Waybacklist. Who are the members of this bibliophile club? Why are they so excited about these coded books? What is the puzzle they are solving. Using some basic computer programming skills (and help from some friends), Clay stumbles upon some of the answers to his questions . . . but those answers only lead to an even bigger mystery.
Conceptually, this was extremely promising. A weird bookstore! A secret society of bibliophiles! Unbreakable codes! A centuries-old puzzle! Unfortunately, the book is not as deep and dark and mysterious as I had expected/hoped. In fact, it’s way more cute and twee than I had anticipated (a little too cute and twee for my taste, in fact). The ending is sappy and quaint. Everything progresses very simply (the few setbacks and challenges are very easily overcome).
Nevertheless, this is a cute, simple book. If you’re a book nerd (and, let’s face it: if you’re reading this blog, you probably are) and you like bookstore books like The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, then you’ll probably enjoy this book, too. It’s not going to change your life, but it could be good for a plane ride.