The more I read them, the more I love old myths and legends. They’re more than stories, more than magic and gods and the fantastic, they’re part of the history of a people group. They give insight into what mattered to a culture, what a people believed about themselves and life.
My husband is half Norwegian. His father’s parents emigrated to the United States after their first child was born. They are all very proud of their heritage, which shows itself in recipes, jokes, and heirlooms and even a regularly repeated rumor of lineage to Odin. *wrinkles nose dubiously* So when one of my favorite authors announced that he was releasing a book of Norse Myths, I was extra excited to read it.
I often describe Neil Gaiman’s writing voice as beautiful to the point of dangerous. His tone is fluid, poetic, and enchanting. Once he begins to tell a story, I don’t want to stop listening, and if my 9 month old baby wasn’t trying to nibble the book every time it appeared, I would easily have finished this book in two days. In the end, it took me two weeks and the dust jacket, which frequently sacrificed itself as bate to her grabby, curious hands, barely escaped with its life.
The myths inside are not written as a bare timeline of incidents the way I remember Hamilton’s Mythology, (which, while informative, I will always refer to as “the cure for insomnia”). Norse Mythology read like a novel, each episode one step closer to the inevitable doomsday of the gods, Ragnarök. The cast of characters includes fiendish dwarves, clever giants, and many flawed, yet powerful gods. Gaiman tells each tale with his usual flourish and touch of humor. It was perfectly executed.
Basically this book is beautiful and everyone should read it.
With Little Baby constantly reminding me of her imminent arrival by hearty kicks and punches, it makes sense that I’d devote a portion of my summer reading list to books on parenting and childbirth.
The first book I tried was one I’d been encouraged to read by several sources. I was even handed a free copy of it on my first visit to the midwives, but ended up giving it back because I already had a copy sitting on my bedside table at home. It was Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin.
I actually purchased my copy of this book before I even got pregnant. As someone who was terrified of the process of pregnancy and labor, I’d seen and read many places that it was important to fill my mind with positive birth stories to combat my negative notions. This book was recommended so consistently that I bought myself a copy and eagerly began to read, hoping it would allay my fears when I finally got my positive pregnancy test.
The first half of the book is all personal birth stories from women that gave birth on “the Farm” which is the birthing center that Gaskin set up. They are meant to encourage and inspire women towards the beauty and bliss of natural home births with a midwife. But for me, these “positive birth stories” were completely ineffectual. It seemed like many of these women had some kind of complication, some nearly emergent complication, going on during their labor. They all ended up giving birth to happy healthy babies without medical intervention. That, I believe, was the point of them telling their stories. Look what I did without a doctor. I mean, it was touch and go for a while, but it was all fine! Yes. Right. Lovely! But instead of reassuring me, these stories just set me on edge and gave me a longer list of “what ifs” for my still unknown labor and delivery story. *shakes head* I call that a fail at positive birth stories.
Gaskin’s book read to me like a three hundred page advertisement for why you must have a home birth with a midwife and avoid hospitals and doctors. I skipped over the chapters at the end that warned me about the probably hidden mortality statistics for pregnant women giving birth in hospitals. I needed encouragement, not more reasons to fear. And while I highly respect Gaskin for the trail she blazed promoting better childbirth options in this country, I really could have done without reading her book. Especially when taken in conjunction with another book I read, The Positive Birth Book written by Milli Hill.
This book, seriously, was an absolute sleep-saver for me! It opened up with the author explaining how desperately she wanted to be pregnant, but how utterly terrified she was once she saw the positive pregnancy test. Everything about her emotional state echoed mine. She compared it to sky diving. You’re in the airplane, looking down over the distant ground, and you know you have to jump eventually; it’s too late to turn back. You feel guilty for telling people you’re terrified now that you’re actually pregnant. You’re supposed to be happy. Meanwhile, everyone is laughing themselves silly for the look on your face after they’ve told you about all the horrors that await you through pregnancy into parenthood.
This inspired Hill to start The Positive Birth Movement out of which grew her book. It walks through all the stages of labor, the most common complications, the ins and outs of cesareans, and tips on adjusting to the early days postpartum. All of it was told with an upbeat candor that truly brought peace to my thudding heart. This could happen, but this is why it will still be okay.
Another aspect of the book that I loved was how she shied away from the common idea of 3 stages in labor. She described it in 14 stages to make it all as clear as possible, a method I found a lot more beneficial than how Gaskin addressed it in the second half of her book. She also mathematically broke down the average percentage of time that most women are actually in terrible pain during natural childbirth. The average woman is in labor 8 hours and only 23% of that time is spent having contractions. Even if I don’t turn out to be average, just reading that lessened my fear of labor by leaps and bounds.
The whole of that book had that effect on me. I loved it, and if I could recommend any one birth book to a new mother, it would absofrigginlutely be this one.
Even if that topic is of no interest to you, the historical sections were fascinating. One of them went deep into the roots of Liverpool, England to discuss its key role in the slave trade, as well as more current issues of race within the community. The other was about Charleston, South Carolina and the life of District Judge J. Waties Waring. Both of these sections were completely new history to me, and Phillip’s way of telling them was both refreshing and honest.
Another part of the narrative that I found refreshing and honest, was the immigration story of Phillips’ guide in Ghana during Panafest. Phillips almost tells the story twice, and by this challenges the classic stereotypical narrative people often hear or imagine once you discover someone has been deported from a country or denied a visa.
Many of my classmates found Phillips’ tone overly negative. What I saw in him was a skepticism of the idea that the entirety of who we are is to be found in our ancestral roots. But this doesn’t mean he’s completely anti the idea of seeking out your historical origins. He describes things very cynically at times, but he also places against that cynicism the actions of some of the members of the diaspora that he encounters. If you’re paying attention you can see him tracing the community among them. Even if you don’t agree with his ultimate analysis of global community, his book is a fascinating study of the results of the transatlantic slave trade on the black diaspora.
Phillips’ writing is lovely, but I wouldn’t necessarily call this book an easy read. It was dense, though not heavy, and as much as I adored it, the reading itself was slow going. The most rewarding part was the last chapter and the epilogue. Something changed with his writing style and it became like poetry. It happened slowly and subtly. I looked back and couldn’t tell where it even started. By the time I got to the very last paragraph of the book I just didn’t want it to end, the writing was just so beautiful.
I will definitely be reading more of Phillips’ work in the future. He appealed to me with the way his writing was both beautiful and intellectually stimulating.