Tag Archives: non-fiction

“Call the Midwife – A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times” by Jennifer Worth

This well written memoir was published in 2002, the first of three books about practicing as a midwife in the poverty stricken East End area of London (the Docklands) in the 1950s. The BBC produced a television series based on these books, broadcast beginning in 2012. Having seen just one episode, I was expecting Call the Midwife to be humorous and exciting. Instead I found it to be gritty and very sad. I actually skipped one chapter (about the workhouse), not feeling up to it.

The first surprise for me was how BAD conditions were in postwar London. Wartime damage to buildings had not been repaired. Housing was limited, so poor people lived in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. Not every apartment had a bathroom or hot water. Men readily found employment on the docks, but the work was hard and poorly paid. Women married young and had many children. If they worked, they were poorly paid.

Nonetheless, there were positive aspects to life in the Docklands. People knew their neighbors well, and extended families were very supportive. Nurses and doctors were so respected that they were safe even in violent neighborhoods, where the police worked in pairs. Worth also mentions in passing the richly expressive Cockney dialect, almost a distinct language. She understood it most of the time, but certainly never spoke it.

Having just read  Empty Planet – the Shock of Global Population Decline by Bricker and Ibbitson (see blog entry dated August 15, 2019), I found myself pondering the “demographic transition”, the shift of a community from high birthrate with high death rate to (eventually) low birthrate with low death rate. Sometimes countries at these two extremes are described as “third world” and “developed”.  East End London in the 1950s was in a transitional state, with high birthrate and low death rate. It was challenging and (inherently?) unstable. The conditions described were so bad, I had trouble remembering that I was NOT reading about, say, the year 1900.

The quality of obstetrical care provided in this teeming slum was amazingly high. Midwives and nurses were well trained. Doctors and hospitals could deal with a wide range of emergencies. Most babies were born at home, attended by a midwife. Follow up as extensive as three nursing visits PER DAY might continue for several weeks. Doctors also made home visits, and extreme emergencies were handled by an Obstetric Flying Squad which could transport mother and baby to a hospital quickly if necessary. The maternal and infant survival rates were high. Little was available by way of contraception, so families with more than 10 children were common.

Death rates also fell because antibiotics became available and communicable diseases were increasingly controlled.

In the introduction to Call the Midwife, Worth attributes the disappearance of the Docklands community to “the closure of the docks, slum clearance. and the Pill”. When oral contraception became available, women chose to have much smaller families. The midwifery practice in which Worth was employed saw births fall (over a few years) from 80-100 per month to four or five per month! One can only speculate about how things would have changed if this reproductive revolution had NOT been accompanied by job loss and the wholesale destruction of old (but potentially useful) housing.

This book should be read by urban planners. Some experts think that the most sustainable human future will arise from high density urbanization.

Constitution Day at Stockton University – Joan Biskupic lecture on Chief Justice John Roberts

This year, Stockton’s celebration of Constitution Day fell on the actual anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution in Philadelphia. This being one of my favorite holidays, I attended the plenary lecture which followed a day of activities with guest speaker Joan Biskupic.

Biskupic is a journalist (CNN), lawyer and biographer. Her talk focused on John Roberts, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Her biography entitled The Chief: The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts was released in March of this year, and already Roberts has served up more surprises, particularly blocking a citizenship question on the US census. His opinion was based not just on the question of whether the agency involved had the right to add a question, but also whether the reasons for making the change were “contrived”.

Biskupic emphasized the importance of the DC Circuit of the US Court of Appeals as a “pipeline” to the Supreme Court.

During his years of private legal practice (1992 to 2003) Roberts argued 39 cases before the Supreme Court.

Roberts is a conservative, placed on the Court in 2005 by GW Bush and, unusually, elevated directly to Chief Justice, rather than serving as Associate Justice first. Some of his opinions reflect his attitude that the Supreme Court is “not a legislature” and many matters must be left to the states.

What interests Biskupic most is judicial PROCESS – the “horse trading” and “sausage making” behind the decisions which often (as in gay marriage) have huge impacts on American life. Much of this is reflected in drafts that are circulated as justices develop their opinions. How does one justice influence another? Justice RBG warns observers “it’s not over ‘til it’s over”. The Supreme Court sometimes surprises even the most sophisticated analysts.

Biskupic says that in her next life, she wants to be an archivist. She loves pouring over documents. I consider this a very valuable contribution to society (and I never met anyone else who shared that aspiration).

I didn’t stay for the entire Q/A session, but it got off to a good start due to excellent moderation. The first question was about whom she interviewed for The Chief. Roberts is a persistent interviewer. She describes Roberts as “inscrutable”. He never permitted recording of their conversations. Other questions directed to Biskupic pertained to “sleeper decisions”, decisions of greatest consequence and “term limits” for the Supreme Court.

Biskupic published three other Supreme Court biographies and additional related books, some coauthored by Elder Witt (C-Span). I’m most interested in Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice (2014). I believe I read Biskupic’s 2006 biography of Sandra Day O’Connor, though my memory is uncertain, and perhaps I read a different author.

“Celestial Bodies – How to Look at Ballet” by Laura Jacob

Basic Books, 2018, 223 pages, with notes, bibliography and index.

When I was eight, I wanted ballet lessons, but my parents decided I should learn piano. I wasn’t very cooperative, but I kept at it for five years. Piano was supplemented by ten years in church and school choirs. I can’t imagine my life without that musical training!

Years later, I signed up for the beginning ballet class in an Adult Education program. Our teacher did us the wonderful favor of taking us seriously, teaching us carefully, and EXPLAINING ballet. Over time, our creaky stiffness gave way to increased strength, flexibility and body awareness. And we began to learn how to look at dance and dancers!

Celestial Bodies is a wonderful book! I found it quite by accident on the Library’s “recent arrivals” shelf, and I couldn’t put it down. Laura Jacobs is a dance critic who is in love with ballet at every level – musical, visual, historical… Early in the book, she discusses one of my fascinations, “pointe”, or dancing on the tips of the toes.  Pointe is just for women. How do they DO it?? Why is it so interesting and pleasing?

Laura Jacobs approaches ballet from many angles, even discussing yoga as she details how a dancer uses the foot and positions the body. She specifically mentions the yoga posture called Warrior III and its relationship to “arabesque”.

Jacobs many references to specific ballets make me glad to live in the age of U-Tube. I will be able to look at the works and artists she lovingly describes.

This book is highly accessible despite the use of French terminology and dance jargon. Read and enjoy!

“Used and Rare – Travels in the Book World” by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone

This cheerful little “book about books” was published in 1997. It’s a reminder how much has changed in 20 years. The Goldstones didn’t carry cell phones and rarely used the internet. Out of curiosity, I checked on their ages. Yes, just about my age…

I wonder if the Goldstones are undergoing the “stuff crisis” (aka DOWNSIZING) that has gripped me and so many of my friends. The “stuff” in question includes books. Many books! I feel that my relationship to the printed word has changed radically.

  • I use Kindle and recorded books
  • I patronize the public library
  • I’m trying very hard NOT to buy books
  • I’m trying to GET RID OF books constructively

So in some ways, its hard to sympathize with these somewhat compulsive book buyers.

A number of bookstores and dealers are mentioned by name in this book. I wonder how many are still alive, or still operating. I am pleased to say that Brattle Books in Boston (mentioned several times) is still going strong!

I was very interested in learning what books the Goldstones really loved to read. Maybe I need to take another look at Dickens. I seem to have missed John Dos Pasos entirely. Unfortunately, there’s no index in this book. I will have to skim through it again if I want to follow up on their literary tastes.

“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.

“Windfall – the Booming Business of Global Warming” by McKenzie Funk

This book (another grab from the “new arrivals” shelf) overwhelmed me. I am woefully ignorant about business and finance, and my ignorance increases with scale. Most of what Funk discusses is global in scope.

Funk is a journalist, and it is harder for me to evaluate his work than, for example, that of a scientist like Richard Primack (author of Walden Warming, see this blog, June 23, 2014). I feel like I need to enlist my local cast of experts about this book, and worry that in some subject areas, I don’t know anyone.

If you decide not to read this book, you should at least look at the seven-page epilogue, entitled “MAGICAL THINKING”. Towards the end, Funk states, “Climate change is often framed as a scientific or economic or environmental issue, not often enough as an issue of human justice.” Good point.

Funk divides climate impacts into three categories – melting (problems of the Arctic), drought and sea level rise. Four chapters are devoted to each of these subjects.

The warming of the arctic puts Canada in a position of incredible strategic importance. Canada will “benefit” in many ways (longer growing season, open Northwest Passage, etc) but I put “benefit” into quotes because so many complications can be foreseen. One is sovereignty. Will Canada become the 51st state of the US? What will happen if our perceived interests diverge? Will the US “let” Canada chart an independent course?

And what about Greenland? I was barely aware of it as a country. I thought I was doing well to have some acquaintance with Iceland! Will Greenland become an agricultural state? A major source of strategic minerals? A tourist Mecca? We can safely assume it will emerge from obscurity.

On the subject of drought, I found Funk’s chapter on the Sahara most interesting, because he considers both desertification and human migration. Are the Africans currently trying to get to Europe “climate refugees”? Under what circumstances will the countries of Europe decide to admit “climate refugees”, and how will they be integrated? Will the richer Northern countries help their poorer, more southerly neighbors (like, say, Malta) that often receive the largest number of undocumented refugees? Can workers from Africa fill important needs in the US or northern Europe?

Many questions, few answers…

In his chapters on “the deluge”, aka sea level rise, Funk considers some technological fixes that might allow adaptation to climate change. One is genetic engineering of insects (starting with the mosquito) to inhibit malaria and dengue, and keep the tropics livable. Most surprising (to me) and actually, maybe somewhat feasible is the introduction of sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere to mimic the cooling impact of volcanic eruptions. This is referred to as the “Mount Pinatubo” proposal, because of the cooling which followed Pinatubo’s 1991 eruption.

I recommend this book because most of us need to think and act “bigger” on climate change.

“The Path Between the Seas – The Creation of the Panama Canal 1879-1914” by David McCullough

I spent weeks reading this book (with a few fiction side trips) and it was well worth it. It took me a while to realize McCullough was the author of the wonderful book on the Brooklyn Bridge I read fifteen years ago. That was way before anyone talked about “creative non-fiction”, a genre I’m not clear about. Seems to mean non-fiction that is not serious enough for an academic journal. I read LOTS of it.

McCullough is at the head of the class in creative non-fiction. His mixes history, science and technology with wonderful clarity. In his book on the Brooklyn Bridge, he explained “the bends”, an illness that previously had me baffled. He included plenty of medical science in Path Between the Seas. 

I’ve put the Panama Canal on my bucket list. My father took our family to see the newly opened Saint Lawrence Seaway when I was nine. Fascination with “big engineering” is in my blood.

Takeaway messages:

  • Sometimes people and governments can get together on a big project that isn’t a war. Easy to forget in these troubled days. (I am talking about ISIS and Ebola.)
  • Even when people work together on something positive, bad things happen along the way. Racism and exploitation of labor were “business as usual” during the construction of the Canal.
  • You don’t always have to know where you are going in order to get there.
  • Yes, you get unexpected benefits from forcing technology.

McCullough is especially interesting when he writes about scientific facts that are known but not applied. Most of the “science” necessary to prevent “the bends” was available at the time the Brooklyn Bridge was built, but it wasn’t applied to what was then called “caisson sickness” and people suffered and died unnecessarily. Applying knowledge of mosquito biology, etc., to control malaria wasn’t easily accomplished.

Most interesting oddball fact? McCullough says that banks of the Culebra Cut, where the Canal passed through the highest mountain peak, had not found their “angle of repose” when he wrote the book in 1978. In other words, that part of the Canal still suffered from landslides! I wonder what has happened since.

Now that we are facing accelerated sea level rise (due to global warming), what engineering projects will we decide to undertake? In the developed world, we can pick and choose. The city of Boston (I learned at a recent conference) intends to sit right there in the path of disaster, hardening their infrastructure and maybe imposing minor zoning changes. They’ve got lots of engineering expertise (MIT? Harvard?) and lots of money. I expect Boston to survive, but what surprises may happen along the way?

What will happen to my other favorite sea level town, tiny Chincoteague, Virginia? They already withdrew once – some of the houses there were moved from Assateague Island, which was de-developed/depopulated after a major storm in the 1940s. What will it take to save Chincoteague? Stay tuned. I plan to visit there shortly.

What will happen in the developing world? What will be saved? We are already hearing of “climate refugees”. Some of them will not be able to return to their now unsafe flood ravaged communities. I read that India is reinforcing its border with Bangladesh to keep out illegal immigrants. For now, I’m categorizing this as a nasty rumor…

I ramble…

Who else writes creative non-fiction really well? Jon Krakauer comes to mind.

I recommend Path Between the Seas.