“The Mountain Midwife” by L. Eakes and “The Secrets of Midwives” by S. Hepworth

How did I end up reading two books about midwives in the same month? Better not to speculate…

The first of these books was not worth the time it took to read it. Eakes is described (by Wikipedia) as a “romance author”. She does not do well by the genre. Her characters are relatively one dimensional. She’s got some kind of Christian/family values “agenda” going on which I found annoying.

The Secrets of Midwives was better. There are two main themes:

  • The joy and wonder of birth
  • The power of secrets, both to protect and to injure

Carrying these threads through three generations, Hepworth writes a gripping tale. Some of the romance was a bit trite, but overall this was a good read.

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“Green Mars” by Kim Stanley Robinson

After swearing off Robinson’s Mars trilogy because the books are too long, I jumped only 6 weeks later into Green Mars. Red Mars ended with a failed attempt by the Martian colony to “liberate” itself from earth.

Green Mars takes place roughly a generation later with many of the same characters. Mars has been altered drastically, and it’s exploitation as a source of strategic minerals is galloping along. But there’s an underground of rebels, including Mars born children and non-conformists of all ages. The books end with a deus ex machine plot twist which isn’t worthy of good literature.

Once again, Robinson spends an inordinate amount of time describing the geography of Mars. It’s interesting to me that he can picture the planet in so much detail, but he writes on for paragraph after paragraph, page after page.

I thought about other authors who put lots of descriptive geography into their books. One is Arthur Upfield, who wrote the Inspector Napoleon Bonoparte Mystery series, which is located in Australia and ran to 20 books. His stories, taking place at varied locations, are greatly enhanced by his descriptions of terrain. Upfield makes me want to get to Australia as soon as possible. His books are not long. The geographic descriptions are tucked in quite succinctly.

“Chasing Heisenberg – The Race for the Atomic Bomb” by Michael Joseloff

Chasing Heisenberg: The Race for the Atom Bomb (Kindle Single)

This book appeals to two audiences:

  • World War II buffs
  • Readers interested in the history of science and technology

I studied chemistry, so I’m familiar with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, published in 1927. When dealing with subatomic particles, you can’t know both the location and the wavelength. (I think that’s it.) I even studied quantum mechanics. Heavy going… Heisenberg’s research contributed to the “atomic age” in which we live.

Theoretical physics might have remained an obscure scientific obsession, but as World War II proceeded, it became a vital matter of Allied security to find out if Hitler might deploy an atomic weapon. Heisenberg, a loyal German, was at the head of the German atomic effort. Hence, the Alsos Mission, a military attempt to capture certain German scientists (before the Russians) and learn how far their research had progressed.

Equally interesting were descriptions of the Manhattan Project (America’s first nuclear reactor) and Los Alamos (where our nuclear weapons were developed.)

This narration reminds us that, when it was happening, the outcome of World War II seemed uncertain.

“Spider Woman’s Daughter” and “Rock With Wings” by Anne Hillerman

Spider Woman's Daughter (A Leaphorn and Chee Novel)Rock with Wings (A Leaphorn, Chee & Manuelito Novel)

I’m very happy to say that Anne Hillerman lives up to the standard set by her much-published father, Tony Hillerman. Ms Hillerman adopted her father’s characters (Leaphorn, Chee and Manuelito) to write more mysteries set in the Navaho Nation located around the Four Corners area of the American Southwest.

Tony Hillman, who died in 2008, was exceptional because he wrote about Navaho life from an insider’s perspective, though he had no native blood. He also left behind a wonderful autobiography, Seldom Disappointed.

Spider Woman’s Daughter focused on tribal police officer Bernadette Manuelito, wife of Jim Chee. Chee had been forced to chose between Navaho life and “mainstream” America. Still finding their way, the couple has come down close to traditional Navaho life.

Anne Hillman’s first two novels are brisk and appealing, and she has published two more since Rock with Wings came out in 2015. Her writing background is in journalism, and she doesn’t waste words. I hope she keeps writing. I visited the Southwest many years ago, and hope to get back there before too long.

“The King’s Speech” by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi

This book has TWO subtitles. On the cover it says BASED ON THE RECENTLY DISCOVERED DIARIES OF LIONEL LOGUE, but the title page reads HOW ONE MAN SAVED THE BRITISH MONARCHY. I find the second of these more interesting. Was the British monarchy really in that much trouble? Hard to imagine as we watch Queen Elizabeth II, ruler since 1952, move serenely through her seventh decade on the throne.

Perhaps you have heard the expression referring to the British royal family: “the heir and the spare”. Prince Albert (later King George VI) was born and raised to be the “spare”. His handsome, outgoing older brother came to the throne as King Edward VIII when their father died in 1936.

However, Edward VIII abdicated (resigned!) to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson.

The English and the rest of the Commonwealth could have decided the monarchy was a luxury they couldn’t afford. If  “the spare” was an unpopular King, the monarchy might have been trimmed back to match what we see today in, say, Netherlands or Scandinavia.

The “man” of the title was Lionel Logue, and the monarch he served was King George VI, who ascended to the throne in 1936 after the “abdication crisis”. Prince Albert suffered from a severe stammer. Some people mistook his hesitance for unintelligence. He never expected or wanted to be King.

How did Logue and the future King get together? In 1926, young Prince Albert had suffered terrible public embarrassment when, in the middle of a live radio broadcast, he stammered and paused repeatedly. Humiliated, he consulted another in his long string of “experts”.

Unlike the previous disappointments, the Prince was told his problem could and would be resolved. The profession of speech therapy did not exist at that time. Australian specialist Lionel Logue had elevated the teaching of elocution into a medical type specialty, and greatly improved the speech of many stutterers. After intensive work with the Prince, his role became that of coach and friend, and Logue supported King George through many milestone speeches, especially during World War II. The King’s speech was never perfect, but with hard work it was excellent.

This reminds me of a young woman with lilting, elegant speech whom I met at a workshop. As we were getting acquainted, someone asked the origin of her “accent”. She explained that she had a speech impediment. It had been beautifully “corrected”.

This book helped me understand how the British subjects feel about their royalty. Logue was a “commoner” from Australia. British subjects want a leader to admire, and they want to know that their leader CARES about them. What better way to convey that than by radio? Broadcast radio was just coming into it’s own. As a head of state, King George VI could not avoid addressing his people publicly.

Interestingly, no one can explain how Logue improved the King’s speech. Much of the change was undoubtedly psychological. Confidence can overcome a great deal.

This book is also the account of a unlikely friendship. Crossing class lines and the client/expert barrier, the warm relationship between King George VI and Lionel Logue lasted until the King’s death in 1952.

This is an excellent book, especially for people who like to watch royalty.

Sign of the Times

I was idling in the Library parking lot, waiting for a meeting to begin, when I saw a bird flying over the tree line a few hundred feet away. I seemed to be flying in an unusually straight and steady line. I reached for binoculars.

Then I saw it flash a light! I did a quick mental search for birds with lights… Nothing…

It was a DRONE, of course!

I watched it turn and fly towards me. There was an event underway at the Police Station nearby. Squad cars were lining up. Officers appeared to be in dress uniforms. Perhaps there was a funeral?

The drone came closer and circled. I realized it was being used to photograph the assembly of police. After a few passes, it landed. The person controlling it was right beside the police station.

A drone really is the ultimate toy. Everybody wants one.

I guess this is something bird watchers and others will have to get used to. The first time a drone sets a package on my doorstep, I may freak out. Or check out, drifting into some altered state that will get me out of this decade where I sometimes feel like I don’t belong.

“Catch 22” by Joseph Heller – the book and the play

Picture

I saw Catch 22 last night at the Curio Theatre in Philadelphia. I read the book 50 years ago. This should explain any incoherence in my comments.

The setting is the European theatre of World War II. The characters are members of the Allied military stationed in Italy, and local residents they meet.

Joseph Heller, a WWII Air Force bombardier, published the book in 1962 and the theatrical adaptation in 1971. Catch 22 (either way) is black satire – funny but tragic. It deals with war as hell without actually showing the battlefield, while vividly showing the human toll.

The program note reads “This theatrical adaptation distills a non-linear 450-page book with over 60 characters…down to a mere 89 pages” with 35 characters. And it was performed with SIX actors! Character changes were signaled in many ways, not just through costume but through accents, posture, etc. All the skills of an accomplished actor. Casting ran across gender lines. (Is this becoming a norm?)

Catch 22 struck a chord with my generation as we wrestled with the Vietnam “conflict”, the first of our undeclared wars. World War II was fought by a military that relied on draftees, as was Vietnam. The difference is that we won World War II and lost in Vietnam, after which the United States shifted to an “all volunteer” military.

World War II is widely featured in fiction. I’ve read some post-Vietnam fiction, but only non-fiction from the more recent wars fought in the Middle East. Every war finds its way into literature.

Enough history for now! I was excited and impressed by the Curio Theatre Company. They perform in a renovated church in West Philadelphia, part of a localist movement that goes right down to the street level. (“Localism” is a word. I checked.) The Baltimore Avenue Business Association is a sponsor. The performance space is small and the audience sits on three sides of the stage. Lighting, sets and costumes are entirely professional. It’s an amazing accomplishment!

Catch 22 runs until May 19. You can see it! Tickets are available on line.