East Enders: Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times

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This edition of Call the Midwife is kind of a cheat- it’s the television tie-in version. Still, I cannot think of a better review to post on Thanksgiving than this celebration of life.

Jennifer Worth’s full memoir is three volumes accounting her years as a midwife in post- WWII London’s working poor East End. The stories in this edition are all as she wrote them in the original text, but selected based on their use in the excellent BBC/PBS series. I went with this version for the new book club I formed so we could discuss the themes without intimidating members with three volumes.

Call the Midwife is nothing short of wonderful. Literally. Filled with wonder. Jenny’s experiences are full of so much joy, mixed with pain and loss. As a young, privileged woman from a middle class family, Jenny’s training has not prepared her for the reality of the East End. Jenny, and a few other midwives, work with the nuns of Nonnatus House serving the neighborhood. The religious base of her work heightens the spiritual sense running through her accounts. That is not to say this is a preachy, religious book, but Jenny goes through a lot transition with her experiences. There are also a lot of facts about current medical practices that she brings in to contrast the still limited options they had as midwives. Particularly interesting were Jenny’s reflections on the women they lost to preeclampsia- which was untreatable then- but can be managed now. Also, the astounding drop in births once birth control and family planning were available in the East End was almost unbelievable.

Jenny is joined on this journey by Trixie and Cynthia, both young midwives from similar backgrounds as herself. They are later joined by Chummy, a woman from a more affluent background who surprises many with her hard work and ability. Rounding out the crew of Nonnatus House are stern Sister Evangelina, Sister Julienne, and (my favorite of the whole group) Sister Monica Joan.

I did listen to the audiobook and have to give credit to Nicola Barber’s pitch perfect narration. She captured Jenny’s joy, awe, heartbreak, and frustration perfectly.

Call the Midwife is ultimately about life. Not every family has a happy ending. Jenny’s life itself does not go as planned. It is not a “downer” though. This memoir is the only book I have honestly ever felt the phrase “heart warming” could truly be applied. I am now seeking out the full three volumes to read the full range of her experience and spend more time with these amazing women.

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Haunting Reads: Silence for the Dead

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Did I mention I love spooky reads in autumn? After listening to An Inquiry Into Love and Death, I knew it was foolish to believe I wouldn’t listen to another book by Simone St. James before Halloween this year. One night while working on some data entry, I gave into the urge and downloaded Silence for the Dead to make it a little more interesting.

Like St. James’ other novels, Silence for the Dead takes place in post-WWI England. At the start I wasn’t sure what to think of the narration for this one. Mary Jane Wells narrates it with a rather “common” accent, which fits the main character, Kitty Weekes. It is a departure from the other narrations since they usually featured women with some higher education. In the end though, I think it came down to the fact I wasn’t really sure I liked Kitty.

From the start, Kitty presents herself (the book is first person narration) as a tough girl who has exhausted all her options for work in London and is now on her way to Portis House, a remote convalescence home, for an open nursing position. After a rough interview, she takes the job, but constantly seems rankled by everyone and everything. Despite the harrowing working conditions, her deep anger and distrust was so grating, I almost couldn’t feel sympathy for her.

The home is a private hospital for shell shocked soldiers of the Great War. They range from men with violent rages to seemingly normal guys who are just sensitive to noise and surprise. World War I has been the setting for quite a few books and TV shows in recent years, but it really cannot be stressed enough how little sympathy there was for the “cowards” who came back from war unable to fully deal with the horror they witnessed. The men of Portis House are sent there by their families for this reason. Most of them are trying very hard, no matter what the circumstance, to maintain a normal facade in front of the staff in the hopes they will be given a good review and allowed, maybe, the chance to go home again. It soon becomes obvious to Kitty though, that some very unnatural, supernatural even, things are happening that are not the product of her patients’ disturbed minds. She tries to get the men to open up, but with so much on the line they are reluctant. When she meets a former war hero hidden away in a ward who also seems to be affected by whatever is agitated in the house, Kitty knows she must get to the heart of it.

As the story allows you to meet more of the residents, Kitty doesn’t really soften, but she does fit in more with her surroundings. These are damaged men and she is a damaged woman. In the end it is the “cowards” and the unemployable nurse who face off against pure evil. St. James has done a much better job with character development here than previous novels. These are not just angsty, lonely people who bond over their outsider status, they are people who work to understand one another and build trust. All the elements worked well together and I have to say it is my favorite of her books. Sure, it is not a perfect novel, but it is a great, suspenseful read for a person like me who will take a ghost story over a gruesome horror any day.

Haunting Reads: An Inquiry Into Love and Death

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Autumn is my favorite season. While I miss the long days, I do love the excuse to curl up earlier in the evening with a good book. Summer here has lasted well into September in recent years and winter has started pretty early in November, making for a very short fall. This summer has been quite cool, so once the calendar rolled to September I jumped into seasonal reads with abandon.

Last year around this time, my book club read Simone St. James’ The Haunting of Maddy Clare. While I really liked the suspenseful ghost story featured, the main characters were really flat and not very appealing. Despite a lackluster first read, I decided to give St. James’ ghost stories another try with An Inquiry Into Love and Death. This time I was not disappointed.

Jillian Leigh is an usual woman for the 1920s- a dedicated female student at Oxford. One day she is called out of class and informed her estranged Uncle Toby, a professional ghost hunter, has died unexpectedly. Jillian is more put out than grief stricken when the solicitor explains she needs to go identify his body and collect his belongings from the small, coastal town of Rothewell.

Upon arrival, Jillian begins to suspect her uncle’s death might not have been an accidental fall and makes inquiries into what he was working on before he died. She is not the only one. Scotland Yard Inspector Drew Merriken is also in town with suspicions of his own about Toby’s death. Soon after her arrival, Jillian has reason to believe Walking John, the ghost her uncle was hunting, might be more than the imaginings of an eccentric man. Inspector Merriken most certainly thinks whatever is not right in Rothewell has a logical explanation. They both are about to be tested.

Lovecraft she is not, but St. James knows how to set a creepy scene and build suspense. More than a few times I stopped what I was doing and sat on edge waiting to find out what would happen next. The romance between Jillian and Drew had just the right amount of chemistry. It is part of the plot, but does not detract in any way from the eerie feeling of the tale. An Inquiry Into Love and Death is very much in the vein of dimestore novels, suspense movies, and radio programs (especially thanks to Rosalyn Landor’s narration) of the ’20s and ’30s- a ghost, buried secrets, and a budding romance. Pick this up for a fun, spooky read.

Summer Quickie: Stories I Only Tell My Friends

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It is rare for me to read an autobiography. I have nothing against them in theory, but they often strike me as self serving. Despite this sentiment, when Rob Lowe showed up as a suggested author during an audiobook sale I couldn’t resist. A friend had recommended it a few months ago and I thought I would give it a shot.

First let me say, this was fun! It really did feel like Rob Lowe was sitting in the room sharing an anecdote about JFK, Jr. while I was making dinner. He gives just the right emotion to every story as one does after years- sometimes he laughs a little, sometimes his voice drops to a somber tone- but he never oversells his memories. Not sure if it is good acting or good storytelling, but I really enjoyed it.

With stories about his film career, details about his sex tape, and his honesty about getting sober, Lowe shares some of the defining moments of his life. This is the perfect beach read for a fan or anyone looking for something light (but not shallow). If you can listen to Lowe read it himself, it is even better.

Any recommendations for another fun celebrity bio?

Totally ’80s: Ready Player One

ready player one

Though Ready Player One takes place in the not too distant future of 2044, it is very much a love letter to the 1980s. More specifically “geek” culture of the 1980s.

In Cline’s future, Americans live most of their lives in a virtual world called the OASIS. OASIS was created by James Halliday as an inexpensive, alternate reality for people to escape the world- now in the midst of an energy and, seemingly, quality jobs crisis. Ready Player One begins five years after Halliday’s death. In his will, he left his vast fortune and control of the OASIS to whoever can unlock the “Easter egg” (a hidden feature in a game, for non-gamers) in the world he created. A race to unlock Halliday’s clues has been underway ever since- pitting average users called “gunters” versus “Sixers”, players who have signed their avatars over to corporate behemoth IOI for kickbacks.

When 18 year old Parzival (Wade in the real world) unlocks the first gate in the hunt, an all out battle begins both in the OASIS and reality with very real consequences. Parzival is a loner who has formed a brotherhood of sorts with four other gunters- Aech, Art3mis, Daito and Shoto. But when he only knows people in the virtual world, who can he really trust with his life?

As noted, I listened to the audiobook read by love him or hate him geek icon, Wil Wheaton. Personally, I enjoyed his reading. He struggled a bit voicing females but that is not uncommon. Still, the story is told from Parzival’s first person perspective, so it does not really detract from the narration as the character’s tone is so central. Wheaton brought a geek’s enthusiasm to Parzival. If I had just read the book I am not sure I would have gotten as swept up in the story or felt the tension of what was meant to be a high stakes game.

Great literature this is not, but if you were a child or older in the 1980s I recommend this book as a fun read with pop culture references that will make you smile. Even if you were not a gamer or Dungeons and Dragons fan, the movie and musical references still made it relatable.

Series Binge: Agent Pendergast

Hello to anyone who is still checking in here! Lots has been happening (I’m even on a library board now!). There will be plenty of time to catch up in the near future. For now, let’s just say this will still be my reading echo chamber- though I hope more of you will join with comments and change that.

Now, let’s jump right back in.

My former roommate raved for years about Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Agent Pendergast series- specifically, the audiobooks. A couple months ago, I started listening and am now nearly through the series to date. Full disclose- some of the audiobooks were abridged.

The series follows the exploits of the eccentric, erudite Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast of the New Orleans FBI office. Few of his adventures take place in Crescent City though, as Agent Pendergast seems to have an arrangement with his employers as to what cases he chooses to investigate.

The Good:
Special Agent Pendergast. I am a fan of the PBS Mystery series Inspector Morse and at first read Pendergast reminded me of a young Morse- intelligent, diligent, but almost awkward in his interactions with others. There is something timeless about Pendergast, the only remaining heir to a wealthy family, and he seems at times to be a throw back to the genteel Southern gentleman. His sharp intellect and cold logic often negate it though and his justice can be swift and cruel.
Lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta Vinnie is the Watson to Agent Pendergast’s Sherlock in the truest sense. D’Agosta is the rough, reactionary counter to the smooth, cool Pendergast. At times he can be a little slow on the uptake, but Preston and Child (P&C) do a decent job making him a true partner when he shows up in the books.
The Cases The series starts with a truly supernatural mystery. All the cases are spooky and suspenseful, but no matter how creepy the case P&C are not afraid to show sometimes humans are frightening without any paranormal help. They also often feature some kind of historical thread with a creative mythology tying the past to whatever mysterious going-ons are occurring in the present.
René Auberjonois Auberjonois voices Pendergasts deep, mannered Southern drawl. Though he sometimes falters with women’s voices, he rises to the occasion with so many other voices- from D’Agosta’s Queens bark to dog howls. I almost never listen to abridged books, but Auberjonois only did them for the early part of the series so I broke my rule for his readings.

The Bad:
The Women P&C cannot write women characters competently. Reading this series with a year between each book it might not be as noticeable, but binging on them it becomes annoyingly so. Every female given any “screen time” in these only makes bad decisions, never learns from past experience, and is usually stubbornly questioning Pendergast’s plans. I like the character of Pendergast enough I tolerate this bad bit of writing, but it can be maddening.
Horror/Thriller The Agent Pendergast mysteries have not failed to have very original plots, but P&C can fall into the traps and tropes of genre as much as the next author(s).
The Trilogies There are two “trilogies” in the Pendergast series. One called the Diogenes Trilogy, which deals with Pendergast’s nemesis, his brother Diogenes. The other the Helen Trilogy, dealing with the mystery of his dead wife, Helen. The stories themselves are much better than I was led to believe, but they probably could have been two books each.

Where to Start:
The first in the series, Relic, does not feature Special Agent Pendergast very prominently (if you ever saw the movie, his character is not even in it). Same applies to the sequel, Reliquary. For this reason you can skip to the third book, Cabinet of Curiosities, where Agent Pendergast becomes the focal point of the series.

Final Judgement:
There are certainly some flaws in this series, but as a whole, these are overall clever, fun reads. With a lot of clever historical components involving famous figures like Arthur Conan Doyle and John James Audubon and suspenseful mysteries in the present, the annoyances can be ignored. The real appeal is Special Agent Pendergast himself, who P&C have kept a mystery, slowly revealing more about the enigmatic character as the series progresses. Surprisingly, I have not lost my patience with the slow reveal and look forward to more of his unusual exploits.

What do you think of the series? Have you read it? Added it to your “to read” list?

Sign of the Times: Gypsy Rose Lee and the 20th Century

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“If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing slowly . . . very slowly”
-Gypsy Rose Lee

I have written and rewritten this post, but having just returned from NYC (only a few hours ago) I was inspired to revisit it. My trouble is not the book was bad or too complex, but because Gypsy Rose Lee herself is so hard to pin down. My experience with American Rose was not what I expected.

Karen Abbott begins the book as Gypsy is about to headline the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, a crowning moment in her career in the city that made her a legend. As she is prepared to take the stage, the narration switches to the story of her birth. Details of her early years are sparse until her sister was born in 1913.

Upon her sister’s birth, her mother, Rose Hovick, renamed Gypsy Rose Louise and her sister was given Gypsy’s birth name, Ellen, as her mother thought it a pretty name and more fitting for her prettier new girl. This moment captures the first battle in a lifelong fight for her mother’s attention and affection.

Abbott jumps around Gypsy’s timeline shifting between Gypsy at the height of her career, early years dragged around the Vaudeville circuit with her mom and sister, and the time just before her death in 1970. These shifts are not always smooth and were especially confusing with an audiobook. That is not to say Bernadette Dunn fails with the narration. On the contrary, her reading is understated and allows Gypsy’s words and actions to provide the drama. Still, the way the book was written, as a listener, I had to pay attention and pick up on the people mentioned to piece together what time period Abbott was covering at that moment.

Gypsy’s life, as Abbott shows, was not solely about fame, scandalous images, or her who’s who of friends. What still haunts me about Gypsy was her mentally unstable mother and the damage she did to both Gypsy and June (who became the actress June Havoc). Rose Hovick’s horrible abuse of the girls without out interruption to start might have turned me off the book entirely. By jumping between Gypsy at her zenith and her nightmarish childhood, Abbott made the harder moments a bit easier to read.

Since Abbott is writing non-fiction she is left to piece together Gypsy’s life from the the knot of tales Gypsy herself told, the press reports of different eras, and documentation which, given her mother’s talent for fraud, are not even the most reliable sources. Abbott also accomplished what few who have set out to study Gypsy did- she actually interviewed her sister June, offering some of the most honest and emotional bits of the book. This look beyond the story told on the stage was an appreciated layer in the story.

As a whole, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in “old Hollywood” bios, the darker side of the entertainment industry, the 1930s-1950s, or fans of Gypsy the musical who would like to know the real story. While the Dunn’s narration is great, I would only recommend listening if you can devote yourself to paying attention. Otherwise, the physical book will make the time changes more easy to follow.