Book Review: Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born by Tina Cassidy

The main lesson I got from Tina Cassidy’s Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born (2006) is that in the history of people being born, attempts to make it easier and/or more “scientific” have in many cases exacerbated the mortality rates for both mother and child. At different times in history it was thought a good idea to rip children out with forceps, to drug up mothers to a point of insensibility and today’s fashion, cesarean births even when not necessary for medical reasons. The last one bothers me most because Cassidy describes in detail how women are sliced up, cutting important tissues for reasons that often have more to do with convenience than necessity.

Interesting too that until recent years men did not attend births not only because they were too macho to show up, but they were actually forbidden from the delivery room.

Okay, so it’s not easy to read this book without getting all squirmy and squeamish, but on the other hand it’s important to learn that there’s a history of experts stating what are the best ways to be born only to be contradicted and “proven wrong” by the next generation. I don’t think our times are exempt from this pattern.

Tina Cassidy is a blogger too and I’m expecting a lot of ongoing discussion of these issues at The Birth Book Blog.

New York Times opinion pieces by Tina Cassidy “Birth, Controlled” (March 26, 2006) and “Cut and Run” (January 28, 2007).


“Hard Labor,” Washington Post, (October 26, 2006)

Chris’s blog

Book Review: A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1958) is a short book about an extraordinary journey taken by author Eric Newby and his friend Hugh Carless.  With very little training and inadequate supplies they venture into a remote region of Afghanistan to climb Mir Samir, a nearly 20,000 foot mountain. It is surprising that they even survived much less made several attempts at crossing the peak and then writing about it.

The setting is fascinating in that Newby and Carless find themselves among nomadic peoples of Nuristan who were only forced to convert to Islam a generation earlier (as Newby points out, perhaps the last mass forced conversion in history).  At the time of their travels, the British Empire is crumbling but Afghanistan still has some last vestiges of the old Raj.  Sadly Newby reflects some of the old imperial ways and can be a bit ethnocentric in his descriptions of the locals.

Newby redeems himself by being hilariously funny reflecting both on his own colossal inadequacy as well as the quirks of the people he encounters.  He also makes me want to get out and travel, although I’ll take a pass on visiting remote areas of Afghanistan right now.

More about Nuristan: Nancy Hatch, Richard Strand.

More on the Hindu Kush: Iranica.

Book Review: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

So you have an aging, ruthless patriarch on the verge of madness deciding on a whim to divide up his property among his three daughters precipitating a descent into tragedy. The story of course is William Shakespeare’s King Lear, but also the basis of Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Thousand Acres (1991) set in Iowa in 1979. This book was the May selection of the William & Mary Boston Alumni Chapter book club, and once again I chose to listen to the audiobook.

Unlike Shakespeare’s tragedy which sympathizes with the noble youngest daughter Cordelia, Smiley tells the story sympathetically from the point of view of the “evil” eldest daughter Ginny. The middle daughter – the outspoken Rose – and their husbands Ty and Pete are central characters while the youngest daughter Caroline is distant both emotionally and physically from the narrative. Looking for similarities with King Lear is a fun game and caught myself saying things like “Oh yeah, the old man goes out wandering in a terrible storm” and “Oh yeah, that guy is blinded.” More King Lear parallels are available at this website.

Luckily, retelling Shakespeare is not the whole story. Smiley invests a lot of effort to make the reader feel and understand the meaning of the land to Iowa farmers. In Ginny she also creates a voice of the unreliable narrator. Ginny fills in a lot of detail with ruminations on the history of the land and the story of her family.

These details coincidentally are also a weak point of the novel because at times Ginny rambles on about some tangential detail shortly after a major plot point, and it really kills the narrative. I’m not sure if this is Smiley’s problem or if it is a deliberate device to show how Ginny deludes herself. Other weaknesses are a failure to really flesh out the motivations and characters of the other principles. The whole thing seems to be a tempest in a teapot and does not reach a satisfactory conclusion. Not to mention that it’s kind of a crazy joke to have a character named Pete married to a character named Rose.

So, I’ll rate this book as good but not great. An interesting read with some real insight into the lives of Iowan farmers a generation ago, but a bit too melodramatic and too long for its own good.

The Cutty Sark

I remember from my younger days a series of sugar packets with images of historic sailing ships.  I was always intrigued by these wooden ships and in my lifetime ended up visiting many of them … the Charles W. Morgan, the U.S.S. Constitution, and the one with the funny name, the Cutty Sark.

The news today is that the Cutty Sark has suffered a terrible fire and is now nothing but burnt planking.  This is another reminder of how those timeless things you think will never go away sometimes do.  On the other hand, restorers working on the ship think that despite the damage, the ship can be restored.

I visited Greenwich in 1998.  I saw the Cutty Sark and took this photo although it was too late in the day to board her.

Cutty Sark

Godspeed Cutty Sark, may you sail again!  Or at least be restored in drydock.

Mets Week in Review: 14-20 May

This week the Mets host two storied teams each with a devoted following of fans worldwide. First the Cubs, a team with a history of losing a lot, and then the Yankees, a team with a history of winning way too much.

I’m afraid I was too busy to make too many notes during the week, so let’s just say it was a satisfying home stand. The Mets went 5-2 against some talented teams. They had some dramatic come from behind victories (see 5/17), some ugly wins (see 5/19) and two very unpleasant losses. I guess I’m taking a glass-half-empty view when I say that this week could have very easily been a bad one for the Mets so I’m unable to fully exult in glee. That being said, the Mets are in first place and visiting the 2nd-place Braves and have a good chance to show who belongs in first.

14 May 2007
Cubs 4, Mets 5

  • Chavez .50
  • Delgado 2.5
  • Feliciano .50
  • Glavine .50
  • Heilman .50
  • LoDuca .50
  • Reyes 1.5
  • Smith .50
  • Wright 3

15 May 2007
Cubs 10, Mets 1

  • Beltran .50
  • Burgos .50
  • Delgado .50
  • Easley .50
  • Green 3
  • Maine 1
  • Newhan .50

16 May 2007
Cubs 1, Mets 8

  • Beltran .50
  • Easley 1.5
  • Delgado 1
  • Gomez 1.5
  • Gotay .50
  • LoDuca 1
  • Reyes .50
  • Sosa 2
  • Wright 1.5

17 May 2007
Cubs 5, Mets 6

  • Burgos 1
  • Beltran 1
  • Chavez 2
  • Delgado 1
  • Gotay 2.5
  • Newhan 1
  • Wright 1.5

18 May 2007
Yankees 2, Mets 3

  • Chavez 2.5
  • LoDuca 2
  • Perez 3.5
  • Reyes 1
  • Wagner 1

19 May 2007
Yankees 7, Mets 10

  • Beltran 1.5
  • Chavez 2
  • Delgado 1
  • Franco .50
  • Glavine .50
  • Heilman .50
  • Wright 4

20 May 2007
Yankees 6, Mets 2

  • Chavez .50
  • Easley 2
  • Feliciano 1
  • Greeen 1
  • Gotay 1
  • Heilman 1
  • Schoeneweis 1
  • Wright 1.50