Tuesday, October 1, 2013

What I read in September (2013)

This is my monthly recap of the books I've read and reviewed on my book blog. For full reviews of these books, click on the title to go to Marie's Book Garden.

It's been a productive reading month, with one novel and three nonfiction books--all strong recommendations!


The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike, #1)
The Cuckoo's Calling, by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

J. K. Rowling wrote this debut mystery under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. Cormoran Strike, a private investigator who lost his leg while a soldier in Afghanistan, is hired to figure out whether supermodel Lula Landry really killed herself, or if she was murdered. He, along with his temporary secretary Robin, dabble in the world of fashion designers, druggies, and movie producers, most wealthy and competitive. Editor David Shelley apparently first read the novel without knowing of its true author and expressed surprise that a woman had written the novel...she writes from a man's (and a soldier's) perspective that well. J.K. Rowling is a master, and she deftly handles this detective genre, just as she did middle grade/young adult fantasy and literature (The Casual Vacancy). I will definitely be reading her next Cormoran Strike novel!


The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, by A.J. Jacobs

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as PossibleA.J. Jacobs spent a year of his life trying to follow as many biblical tenets as possible. One of the first things I was delighted to discover was that A.J. Jacobs consulted Rev. Eldon Richards, a retired pastor who calls himself a "pastor out to pasture," and who happens to be the mentor and friend of my own Lutheran pastor. So that was very exciting! Jacobs focuses most of his year on the Old Testament, since it does have more rules, and only a few months on the New Testament. He cataloged a long list of archaic commandments and laws to follow. He stopped shaving his face and cutting his beard.

He and his poor, long-suffering wife were trying to get pregnant again during this biblical year, and the task of being fruitful and multiplying was made more difficult by the fact that he couldn't touch her for several days after her menstrual period. He carried a little stool around everywhere he went so he wouldn't have to occupy the space where a menstruating woman had previously sat. One of the best anecdotes in the book was when he returned home one day to be informed that his (menstruating) wife had sat on every single sitting space in his apartment, just to annoy him! 

Some laws, of course, were impossible to follow (such as sacrificing animals and offspring!), although he gets as close as he can to doing these things. He (sort of) stones an adulterer, dresses all in white, writes the Ten Commandments on his door frame, gets a slave intern, tries to discipline his son and honor his parents, does what he can to avoid lying, tries to stop coveting other people's things (a constant challenge), wears clothing without mixed fibers, changes his eating habits, circumcises his sons (not just because of the experiment, but mostly because of his Jewish heritage), tithes 1/10th of his income, visits the Holy Land, consults with many spiritual advisers, explores a wide variety of biblical rule-following traditions (Amish, hardcore creationists, polygamists, Orthodox Jews, Jehovah Witnesses, etc.), and prays and meditates. 

Throughout this experiment, Jacobs proves the point that you cannot really understand the true spirit of the Bible simply by following rules and laws. I felt that the focus on the New Testament was seriously lacking in this book...along with the words and actions of Jesus that instruct us to love our neighbors, practice radical compassion, care for the poor and downtrodden, and stand up for justice. Even though Jacobs recognizes that life is sacred in the end, he doesn't really seem to grasp the prophecy of Jesus through his little experiment. But maybe that is the point after all. The bible, taken at face value and literally, is worthless without the spirit and grace flowing throughout it. (More detail, and photos in the full review.)

Notes from a Small Island, by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson lived in England for 20 years after marrying a British woman, and before moving to the United States, he took a 6-week trip traveling around Britain and chronicling his trip. It's a love story to Britain--even though it was published in the mid-1990s, so much still applies. Here are some memorable thoughts from the book:
  • The charming way the British react to tea and a plate of biscuits: "ooh lovely!"
  • Bryson writes about how unfortunate it is that communism was left to the Russians instead of the British, who "clearly would have managed it so much better." He talks about their ability to go without, how they are great at pulling together in the face of adversity for a perceived common good...how they "queue patiently for indefinite periods and accept with rare fortitude the imposition of rationing, bland diets, and sudden inconvenient shortages." 
  • He says that the British are easy to please: "They have so little idea of their own virtues, and nowhere is this more true than with their own happiness. Easy to please...like their pleasures small...so many of their treats are cautiously flavorful...they are the only people in the world who think of jam and currants as thrilling constituents of a pudding or cake...offer them something genuinely tempting (a slice of gateau or a choice of chocolates), and they will nearly always hesitate and begin to worry that it's unwarranted and excessive, as if any pleasure beyond a very modest throshold is vaguely unseemly. 'Oh, I shouldn't really...'"
  • One of my favorite anecdotes was when he visited a pub in Glasgow and couldn't understand a thing the bartender was saying...such as "D'ye hae a hoo and a poo?" "D'ye nae hae in May? If ye dinna dock ma donny." "Doon in Troon they croon in June, wi' a spoon."
I actually enjoyed the anecdotes and thoughts about Britain and the British more than the traveling bits. Bryson gets a bit grumpy at times, but it's clear that he really loves Great Britain. 

The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times, by Jennifer Worth

The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard TimesI'm completely hooked on the BBC show "Call the Midwife.The Midwife is the first in the trilogy that inspired the series. It's much grittier and full of hard details than the show. In reality, the conditions were much starker and poorer than what is shown onscreen. The Midwife is about a young nurse-midwife working in Poplar (the East End of London) during the 1950s in Nonnatus House with Anglican nuns (who are also nurse-midwives). 

The characters I've come to love--the posh and clumsy Chummy (my favorite), sharp-tongued and beautiful Trixie, kind Cynthia, amazing Sister Julienne, aging and memory-lapsing Sister Monica Joan, ever-enterprising Fred, humble Jane, kind and compassionate doctor, and salty, down-to-earth Sister Evangelina--are all in the book in full color. 

Two stories in particular make me especially grateful for the many advancements in medical care since the 1950s:

  • In her initial training, Worth saw a young woman and baby die from eclampsia, and later at the Nonnatus Houe, she assists a woman suffering from pre-eclampsia. Even in this day and age, women die from full-blown eclampsia and toxemia. If pre-eclampsia is not halted before progressing into eclampsia, the mom dies and nothing can be done about it.
  • Conchita Warren is the Spanish wife and mother of 25 children. Her 25th is born at around 24 weeks (the same gestation as my oldest son), and against all advice, Conchita insists on keeping the baby with her instead of allowing him to go to the hospital, even if he dies. She cradles him between her breasts for the first several months and feeds him expressed milk every 1/2 hour. Later Worth ponders whether a mother's instinct and ability to care for own child might have been even more effective than high-tech hospital care, in which the baby would have been left alone all day and night in an isolette. 
Worth tells three stories of mixed-race babies...one in which the mom is terrified that her baby will be born black, another in which the baby is born black and the husband pitches a fit, and finally the one we saw in the show, in which the husband embraces the baby as his own and seems completely color blind.

We learn about Irish Mary, who fled sexual abuse in Dublin to arrive in London penniless and end up working as a prostitute in filthy, horrible Cable Street. She becomes pregnant and has to flee the brothel, and she ends up meeting Jenny, who tries to help her. Her story finishes tragically.

We learn the story of Mrs. Jenkins, who entered the workhouse with several young children. They were immediately separated, and she never saw her children again...they all died in the workhouse. She was never the same. When Worth first encounters Mrs. Jenkins, who always stands outside the building where a baby is born and pesters the midwives for news of the baby's and mother's health, she is disgusted by her. When she begins taking care of her and learns her story, her compassion and understanding increase.

At times, Worth's youth, impatience, and British snobbery are on full display, even though she is giving of herself to work in one of the poorest parts of London. One thing she wrote really aggravated me, but it's a reflection of her generation and upbringing, I suppose. In a chapter about how some women have affairs (discovered when they bear babies of a different color), she writes:
"I have often felt that the situation is loaded against men. Until recently, when genetic blood tests became possible, how could any man know that his wife was carrying his child? The poor man had no other assurance of paternity than his wife's word. Unless she is virtually locked up, he can have no control over her activities during the day while he is at work."
"Loaded against men"???? For a nurse who saw exactly what 1950s-era poor women had to bear (no way to maintain a family unless they get married or resort to prostitution, no birth control resulting in way too many births, no help in the house from their husbands who often ruled with an iron hand, no laws against domestic violence, etc., etc.), this is incomprehensible. "Unless she is virtually locked up?" It sounds like she is recommending such a recourse! 

Except for that sexist commentary, I loved the book and will continue reading the rest of the series (and of course, waiting for Season 3 of "Call the Midwife"!).

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