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.

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Book Report: Tan on Tan

51fTaQ5dljL._SY346_It seems Amy Tan has been trying to write her story for years. The ghosts of her past inhabit all her novels and each one discloses a bit more of herself. Quite literally. In Where the Past Begins though, she gives readers the actual stories as she sifts through boxes of documents and photos—archives of her life and her parents’ emigration. Diplomas. Letters. Journals. A forbidden love story. The children and the cruel husband her mother left behind in China. The tragic deaths of her brother and father from brain tumors within six months of each other when Amy was a teenager.

Amy tries to understand the motives of her parents and where certain of her own personality traits originated—chief among them persistence and curiosity.

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Amy with her family in 1959.

The most enlightening chapter for me as a writer and longtime reader of her fiction is the one in which she shares emails exchanged with her editor as she was writing (and rewriting) The Valley of Amazement. She’d written a story that wasn’t holding together as it should.  That novel did contain a lot of detours and rabbit trails as I mentioned in this review a few years ago. Nevertheless, the fact that even Amy Tan needed help to turn this story into a novel made me feel better. Hopeful even.  Not to mention confirmation that writing is hard.

Here is a sampling of Amy’s eloquent and insightful prose.

On memory and the amygdala:

“Memory, in fact, gives you no choices over which moments you can erase, and it is annoyingly persistent in retaining the most painful ones. It is extraordinary faithful in recording the most hideous details, and it will recall them for you in the future with moments that are even only vaguely similar.”

“…without conscious choice on my part, my brain has let a lot of moments slide over the cliff.”

“I want to find those moments that my subconscious has hidden. I am more than curious—and it’s not because I’m a fiction writer who seeks a good story to write about. What’s in there is what made me a fiction writer, someone who has an insatiable need to know the reasons why things happened. In the amygdala are vast stores of disappointments and devastations, pain and wreckage. But I also want to know what the amygdala kept, because therein lies thousands of stories of how I became me.”

On the work of writing:

“But in writing fiction, the truth I seek is not a factual or scientific truth. It has to do with human nature. It is about those things that are not apparent on the surface. When I set out to write a story, I am feeling my way through a question, often a moral one, and attempting to find a way to capture all its facets and conundrums. I don’t want an absolute answer. When writing fiction, I am trying to put down what feels true.”

“The best metaphors appear unexpectedly out of the deep blue by means of intuition and my infatuation with nuance.”

“The actual writing will still be daunting. It gets harder with each novel. I will have to relearn my craft, overcome the same doubts, untangle the narrative from long detours, or take whichever detour is the story I should tell.”

On the fickleness of acclaim:

“Praise, I had learned, was temporary, what someone else controlled and doled out to you, and if you accepted it and depended on it for happiness, you would become an emotional beggar and suffer later when it was withdrawn.”

“The moon is more admired when it was full that when it was a sliver, and yet it is the same moon even when the perspective of others had changed.”

On her own fiction-writing mind:

“It is curious and open to anything. It is nonjudgmental and thus nothing it imagines is wrong. It is not bound to logic or facts. It is quick to follow any clues, but it can also be easily diverted to another direction, especially if it detects a secret or a contradiction.”

“If there is indeed a universal consciousness, it makes sense that mine would conjoin with it when the doors of imagination are flung wide open and all possibilities are allowed.”

Insight into the life and writing process of one of my favorite authors was enough to entice me to read this memoir. I’m more that glad I did and happily recommend it. Actually, I’d recommend anything written by Amy Tan. Probably even her shopping list.61qxtsbLAHL._UX250_