Mid-week Wisdom

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Book Report: Motherhood is like playing with fire

51kgOTJWNXLLittle Fires Everywhere

Notions of motherhood and parenting play a central role in Celeste Ng’s second novel as they did in her first, Everything I Never Told You.  She explores this basic question: What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?” And what do we do for (and to) our children in our efforts to fulfill that duty. The book starts with a fire that destroys a home.

“The firemen said there were little fires everywhere. Multiple points of origin. Possible use of an accelerant. Not an accident.”

A sample of the author’s words about parenting:

“To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person: your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once. It was a place you could take refuge, if you knew how to get in. And each time you left it, each time your child passed out of your sight, you feared you might never be able to return to that place again.”
“All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches…. a breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and asps it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it like and eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never—could never—set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity. The key, she thought, was to avoid conflagration.”
“Rules existed for a reason: if you followed them, you would succeed: if you didn’t, you might burn the world to the ground.”
“Parents, she thought, learned to survive touching their children less and less…. It was like training yourself to live on the smell of an apple alone, when what you really wanted was to devour it, to sink your teeth into it and consume it, seeds, core, and all.”

Recommend.

Personal note: Although I have enjoyed talking about books with you, I will be taking a break from writing about every book I read. In the new year I want to focus my efforts on a major rewrite of my novel. <heavy sigh here> Ties That Bind needs my full attention if it’s ever going to get done. There may be an occasional blurb about something I’ve LOVED, but that’s it.

I wish you a merry Christmas and a happy, healthy, and productive New Year! XO

Book Report: Secrets can kill

515uxhpBakLEverything I Never Told You

This is easily the most powerful book I’ve read in a long time. The author chose an omniscient point of view–God’s eye view—and begins: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”

The suspense comes in finding out just how the teenage Lydia Lee died. Every member of this family has a theory and each has left things unsaid for years. Their unvoiced everyday desires and concerns resonated with me. I’ll offer Celeste Ng’s own words to give you a taste of this haunting novel.

 “How had it begun? Like everything: with mothers and fathers. Because of Lydia’s mother and father, because of her mothers’ and fathers’ mothers and fathers. Because long ago, her mother had gone missing, and her father had brought her home. Because more than anything, her mother had wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in. Because those things had been impossible.”

“At the time, Marilyn had laughed. What secrets could a daughter keep from her mother, anyway? Still, every year, she gave Lydia another diary. Now she thinks of all those crossed out phone numbers, that long list of girls who said they barely knew Lydia at all. Of boys from school. Of strange men who might lurch out of the shadows. With on finger, she tugs out the last diary: 1977. It will tell her, she thinks. Everything Lydia no longer can. Who she had been seeing. When she had lied to them. Why she went down to the lake.”

“Little bumps pocked the page all over, as if it had been out in the rain, and Lydia stroked them like Braille with her fingertip. She did not understand what they were until a tear splashed against the page. When she wiped it away, a tiny goose bump remained. Another formed, then another. Her mother must have cried over this page, too.”

“And Lydia herself—the reluctant center of their universe—every day, she held the world together. She absorbed her parents’ dreams, quieting the reluctance that bubbled up within. Years passed. …Lydia knew what they wanted so desperately, even when they didn’t ask. Every time, it seemed such a small thing to trade for their happiness. So she studied algebra in the summertime. She put on a dress and went to the freshman dance. She enrolled in biology at the college. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, all summer long. Yes. Yes. Yes.”

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Author, Celeste Ng

I’ve just begun reading Ng’s well-reviewed next novel, Little Fires Everywhere.

Were you raised in a barn? I was.

ranch before
See that barn behind the baby? The baby is me and the barn became my house.

My younger brother and I often laugh at the fact that we were indeed raised in a barn. Or what used to be a chicken shed at the edge of an orange grove and next to the railroad tracks. No brag. Just fact.

You see, in the late 1940s, my grandparents purchased the remnants of the Valencia Dale Ranch on East North Street in Anaheim, California. The ranch included a few orange trees, a rundown farmhouse, and a large, albeit even more rundown chicken shed. My Irish grandmother always noted, even when viewing the most derelict and dilapidated of buildings, “Well, it’s got possibilities.” And she was stubborn enough to set about proving her point.

When I was born in 1950, my dad joined the Marine Corps Reserves for the little extra monthly income it provided. Little did he know that a few months later, war would break out in Korea. He was called up to serve for a year, until the regulars arrived. In preparation for that year of separation, my mom and I moved into a recently finished little room beside the barn, just across the driveway from my grandparents’ farmhouse.

ranch 1
Mom and I lived in the room on the right while Dad was in Korea. When he returned, the conversion of the chicken shed began.

A year later, when my dad came home, my grandparents offered my parents what they could–that barn. And over the next decade, that sad shed became a warm and cozy home for me and my little brother, born nine months after Daddy’s return.

Both my parents and grandparents exhibited resourcefulness and inventiveness, converting what they had into what they wanted.

So, no. I don’t consider being raised in a barn an insult.

ranch 3
That’s me, at the front door a few years later. That bird on top of the porch lives in my kitchen now.
Christmas card 1953
One of many Christmas card photos taken at the Dutch door my dad and grandpa installed. The door later became a perfect stage for our puppet shows.

 

 

Book report: A kindness to those you leave behind

518O8BPzqEL._SY346_“A loved one wishes to inherit nice things from you. Not all things from you.”

This is a dear little book that has been making the rounds among my friends and acquaintances of a certain vintage. Many of us have begun downsizing, distributing, and divesting. My husband and I did so when we moved to a smaller house three years ago. Margareta Magnusson gives gentle tips for making the process easier and more pleasant. Her reasons are simple.

“I have death cleaned so many times for others, I’ll be damned if someone else has to death clean after me.”

“Do not ever imagine that anyone will wish—or be able—to schedule time off to take care of what you didn’t bother to take care of yourself. No matter how much they love you, don’t leave this burden to them.”

She recommends not starting with photographs or papers. Start with furniture and clothing. And invest in a shredder.

“In general, when death cleaning, size really matters. Start with large items in your home and finish with the small.”

“Now that I am the oldest person in my family, if I don’t know the names of the people in the photos, nobody else in the family is likely to. More work for the shredder.”

The best bit of advice is to ask yourself, “Will anyone I know be happier if I save this? If after a moment of reflection I can honestly answer no, then it goes into the hungry shredder, always waiting for paper to chew.”

This is not a sad book. Much of what Magnusson suggests reminds me of the common sense and generosity my family–including my half-Swedish mother–practiced. Share what you have with those who need it. Let your old things start new lives and form new memories with a new family.  It is a gentle, sometimes humorous reminder that someone will have to deal with all our stuff one day. If we love them, we should make it as easy as possible. Recommend.

 

Book Report: On the trail of those little shoes

41Bwc+dgsyL._SY346_First, let me just say that having Reno author Pamela Everett, an attorney with the Innocence Project and a UNR professor of criminal justice, meet with our book club was a wonderful privilege. She told us about the very personal journey that ended with the publication of Little Shoes.

In 1937–long before most of us were born–in Inglewood, California three little girls were raped and murdered. Albert Dyer, a mentally challenged crossing guard, was arrested and confessed. He was quickly tried and executed. End of story.

Years later, teenaged Everett learns of her family’s connection to the story. Two of the three victims were her father’s younger sisters. Her aunts.

“Maybe that’s why he was so terribly strict. Maybe he saw his parents assume the best about people and he would spend his life assuming the worst, never for a minute risking his children to dangers, hidden or otherwise.”

“Thinking of their forgotten lives, something changed for me, something in my relationship to these girls who were my aunts, my dad’s little sisters. It was just so tragic, to have died as they did and then to be buried away—literally—as if they never lived at all. They’d been alone so long.”

Those little girls stayed with Everett and she began asking questions of surviving relatives and former neighbors of her grandparents. As if nudged by something unseen, she dug into court records, newspaper accounts, state archives. With each little piece of information, something kept pricking her conscience. Could they have gotten the wrong man?

We learn that reporters in 1937 were just as invasive and aggressive as today’s tabloid and cable reporters. The horror of the killer crossing guard soon became front-page news across the country. And although eyewitnesses were plentiful, they were and are quite unreliable.

“Eyewitness misidentifications have led to 75 percent of the wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence in our country, and many of those mistakes happen early in the process when police are desperately seeking a suspect…”

These were the days before Miranda rights and police interrogated Dyer for ten hours—without an attorney present. Dyer alternately confessed and denied his guilt. His confessions—while inconsistent– weighed more heavily and the police stopped pursuing any other suspects, even as witnesses came forward to say that Dyer was not who they saw with the girls.

During Albert Dyer’s incarceration it was determined he had an IQ of 60. He was essentially a nine-year-old boy, which goes a long way to explain why his confession might not really have been a confession.

“Confessions are the most powerful evidence in any courtroom, and jurors—indeed, most of us—cannot comprehend how someone can confess to something they didn’t do… In some cases, confessions will overcome overwhelming evidence of innocence such as eyewitness identification and forensic evidence, even DNA… Yet more than a quarter of the documented wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence in the United States have involved false confessions…”

In this case, the transcripts of the session reveal the interrogator telling the story of what happened and Dyer merely agreeing, “Yes, sir.” And with a riotous mob outside the jail and the pressure on police to bring a killer to justice, it wouldn’t be hard for police to convince their mentally challenged suspect that he was going to die—sooner or later.

Everett found holes in the prosecution’s case. She “couldn’t find testimony about the physical evidence that should have been admitted in this case… There was nothing? …no testimony whatsoever about the fingerprints or blood from Dyer’s clothing, nothing connecting Dyer to the knife or the ropes the prosecution introduced.” Furthermore, what forensic evidence was available was contaminated almost from the beginning. “…one of the more unbelievable case photos shows several investigators handling barehanded the tiny nooses and the girls’ clothes, with one of them even smoking a cigar over the pile of evidence.”

Everett manages to balance the horrific nature of the crime, the investigation by police, and the trial of Albert Dyer with the long-lasting impact it had on her family. So yes, there is some really bad stuff here, but just enough. And for someone like me, who never reads True Crime, I appreciated not spending any more time on the brutality than necessary. I was also grateful that the photos of the girls were ones while they were alive.

Certainly, suspects have more rights today and police procedures have improved. While Everett continues to question wrongful convictions, she recognizes the dangers.

“… we open old wounds, forcing victims and families to relive everything, and in many cases to fear the release of someone they believe is guilty… No matter how painful, we should share these histories so victims are not lost and so future generations can know all that came before them and what molded their parents, grandparents and others.”

Little Shoes offers much to contemplate the next time a crime is sensationalized in the headlines and we all jump to judgment. Recommend.

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Reno author, Pamela Everett

Book Report: Another political wife who stood by her man

51tPdMoM89L._AC_US218_My Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton

Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie

For months the Hamilton soundtrack quickened my step on long walks in the neighborhood. Then there were the months I slowly slogged through Ron Chernow’s tome. Still, I was left wanting to know more about Alexander Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth. Living until she was ninety-seven years old, she made it her life’s mission not only to ensure that her husband’s many contributions to the United States be remembered, but also to provide for the care of hundreds of orphans. After all, Alexander Hamilton had been one.

“I was struck by the powerful conviction that God put us here to make a better world. And it is a conviction that has informed the rest of my life.”

hamilton_elizabeth-wife-feature.jpg__400x412_q85_crop_subsampling-2_upscaleThe Eliza we encounter in this well-researched historical fiction, is a reminiscent one. This mature Eliza (called Betsy by her family) already knows the betrayal and tragedy that is to come, as do most readers. But the authors work some sort of magic that both informs and compels us. Eliza’s loyalties and her longstanding mistrust or both Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr are perfectly clear, as is her intellect and diplomacy. Early on she adopted a “policy for the dinners that took place at my table: no man’s politics should be held against him, and all were welcome.”

 “Silence is often the only weapon available to ladies. And I wield mine expertly.”

The Revolution

My Dear Hamilton provides insight into the monumental struggles of the Revolutionary War. Eliza and other officers’ wives, including Martha Washington, aided the troops by knitting socks and serving as nurses. After all, their lives were at risk as well.

“Inside the church, officers lay upon church pews, but the rank and file rested on naught but piles of straw. Nurses moved amongst the groaning mass of patients, combing hair for lice, and dousing everything with vinegar as a purifier.”

“Win, and nothing would ever be the same. Lose and, well, my husband, my father, my family, my friends—we stood to lose everything.”

The battles continued

Even winning the war didn’t bring peace. Yes, there were battles over the writing of the Constitution, but imagine rubbing elbows and doing business with those who had been on the other side.

“No royalists should not be suffered to live amongst patriots…. how easily any man could lay claim to the title Son of Liberty now that the war, and the danger of being hanged for it, had passed.”

“…angry, unpaid soldiers seized the city arsenals and held my husband, Jemmy Madison, and the rest of Congress at bayonet point in a standoff. After that Congress became a runaway government, fleeing to Pennsylvania, to New Jersey, then Annapolis.”

And then there were the personal battles

A woman whose husband is unfaithful is often judged more harshly than the man himself. Eliza and her contemporaries expected a wife to make her husband happy and to give him children. She knew  “…how society looked upon a wife who wasn’t enough to satisfy her husband. Not enough. Not enough. Not enough.”

 “For I was a wife who’d failed to inspire fidelity. And yet, my fidelity to him was now also to be counted against my virtue. I could neither leave my husband nor love him without offending someone.”

Modern, political, and very public infidelities remind us that not much has changed.  For the most part it seems, Eliza followed her father’s advice when she discovered Hamilton’s affair.

“And, as you will find is so often the case in life, …the only prudent thing to do was frown, make them humble, and forgive.”

imagesEliza Schuyler Hamilton’s intelligence and contributions to her husband’s career–as well as her pain and prejudices–come alive brilliantly in this retelling. It also serves as a reminder of just how brutal American politics has always been, even at its inception. The founding fathers and mothers were all too human.

 

 

Book report: The “good old days” weren’t all that great for women

51Ja3naWT8L._SY346_Frequently we hear folks of a certain age bemoaning progress and the passage of time. They wish for bygone days when life was simpler. Not me. Especially after reading  Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times  by Jennifer Worth.

The author first gives us a little history of maternal healthcare before 1948 and the advent of Britain’s National Health Service.

“It is hard to imagine today that until the last century no woman had any specialist obstetric care during pregnancy. The first time a woman would see a doctor or midwife was when she went into labour. Therefore, death and disaster, either for mother or child, or both, were commonplace. Such tragedies were looked upon as the will of God, whereas, in fact, they were the inevitable result of neglect and ignorance.”

“In the mid-nineteenth century, maternal mortality amongst the poorest classes was around 35-40 percent, and infant mortality was around 60 percent. Anything like eclampsia, hemorrhage, or mal-presentation, would mean the inevitable death of the mother.”

Worth graphically describes— in sometimes intimate and cringe-worthy detail—the conditions and very real life and death struggles of the residents of the London Docklands just after WWII.

“Children were everywhere, and the streets were their playgrounds. In the 1950s there were no cars in the back streets, because no one had a car.”

Many of those children were born into two-room tenements without a toilet–or even running water–where four or more other children were already present. Some lived in ruined buildings left standing after the Blitz. Domestic violence and mental illness were common and mostly untreated. A girl “in trouble” was ostracized and–after surrendering her child for adoption–was many times forced into a life of prostitution. And while races bumped into one another frequently and companionably in the streets and at work, a mixed-race baby was unthinkable.

Those were the “good old days.”

What difference did reliable birth control make?

“The Pill was introduced in the early 1960s and modern woman was born. Women were no longer to be tied to the cycle of endless babies… Women could, for the first time in history, be like men, and enjoy sex for its own sake. In the late 1950s, we had eighty to a hundred deliveries a month on our books. In 1963 the number had dropped to four or five a month. Now that is some social change!”

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Fans of the television series, Call the Midwife, will enjoy becoming acquainted with the real-life Jenny, Trixie, Chummy, and Cynthia, as well as Sisters Julienne, Monica Joan, Evangelina, Bernadette. Dr. Turner and Fred are here as well.

But mostly this book is a reminder that things have gotten better. We know that access to affordable healthcare—especially birth control—matters. And to the most vulnerable women and children among us–the poor and the sick–it is a matter of survival.