Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Nonfiction | How One Woman Saved 90,000 Babies

November’s book club selection was a little something old, a little something new. You see, our book club was originally founded to explore NYRB’s world lit catalog, and we returned to our roots this month with an NYRB selection. The new part is that it was a nonfiction title, something we haven’t often visited, and it was a nice change of pace.

The book in question is S. Josephine Baker’s memoir Fighting for Life. “Who is S. Josephine Baker?” you may ask. No, it is not the famous French dancer of the 1920s… this Josephine isn’t often known by name (at least in most communities) but you’ve certainly heard of the things she’s done. Seeing as how she is almost single-handedly responsible for revolutionizing infant healthcare into what we accept today as common sense… yeah, she’s a pretty important lady!

A bit of a history lesson: New York at the turn of the century was home to the most densely populated, most poverty-stricken neighborhood, the Lower East Side. This area was mostly populated by immigrant communities recently arrived, and folks were stuffed to the gills in old tenement housing. It was dirty and hot and stuffy and just a breeding ground for germs. It was no surprise the city, and this area in particular, had an extremely high infant mortality rate.

This is where our Dr. Baker comes in. Family tragedy forced her into a profession rather than a marriage like most women of the early twentieth century, and medicine was the route she chose. At a time when healthcare was provided at the time of an illness, Dr. Baker championed preventative care to prevent illness from happening in the first place. Name a norm of modern infant care, and she probably started the trend. From school nurses to milk stations to healthy infant attire, Dr. Baker approached medicine on a problem-solving basis.

If you want to look at a successful PR campaign, just look at all of her work. When I say she problem-solved, I mean she really approached an issue from every angle. She got everyone involved in preventative care on a level each group could understand—doctors, nurses, politicians, parents, even the children themselves. Much of Dr. Baker’s career was an uphill battle—just look at who she was and the times in which she lived. She fought for respect from her male colleagues, for resources and funding. I’m sure it wasn’t easy as she lived it, but my takeaway from her memoirs was that she was the right person in the right place at the right time. These memoirs are written as recollections by the author in the late 1930s, a good twenty plus years after the start of her health revolution. Perhaps this is the reason her experiences all sounded so easy, like things just fell into place. Certainly her day to day must’ve been more chaotic than it comes across in her writing!

As a narrator, she’s entirely unsympathetic. I don’t mean she sounds insensitive; she just never discusses her experiences on a personal level, rather as a puzzle that she had to solve. She was clearly a driven, effective woman that let her work speak for itself. Fighting for Life is a piece about her work, not about her personal life, and reading this, one would almost assume she didn’t have one. But surely that can’t be true–small anecdotes reveal a witty, outspoken woman. As we decided in book club, it sure would be interesting to read a biography on her that included more than just her professional life; I have a feeling she was a real character. Overall, her story is fascinating when you realize the influence she’s had. Like she says, it’s just common sense.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fiction | If Dogs Could Talk

On Goodreads, I rated Pete Nelson’s I Thought You Were Dead as a 5-star earner. That five star rating is rare, so I know you’re dying to read why I bestowed such an honor on this book.

But before we get into that, I’ll give you a brief summary. In the opening, we meet Pete Gustavson, a writer in the earliest part of being “middle aged.” (I’d say he’s in his early- to mid-40s?) He writes a version of those Dummies and Idiot Guide books—in this case, it’s the “For Morons” series. He lives alone, divorced from his wife; he has a sort of serious girlfriend, but they’ve kept the relationship open just to avoid getting hurt; his best friends are fellow patrons/regulars down at a local dive bar. Paul’s not a bad guy, and his life isn’t too terrible, but what we eventually come to see is that he doesn’t totally have it together. When his father has a stroke, Paul takes it as a wake up call, and he starts to shake up the life he has somehow settled into.

Oh, and the real bright spot in Paul’s life is his aging lab, Stella. And she can talk.

Yes, Paul has a talking dog. Stella is Paul’s one source of unending support, of advice without judgment, of unconditional love. And though the pages are filled with dialogue between dog and human, that’s not really the focus of this book. It’s not something you harp on—a talking dog???—it just kind of is.

Instead, our focus is on Paul, and herein lies why I boosted it from my usually 4-star “Enjoyed It.” Because I “Really Unexpectedly Enjoyed It.” The premise is so simple that it feels almost like a short story—we have a singular character in a singular setting; we’ve got this quirky component that immediately piques our interest. But you know how with short stories you’re drawn into the characters and then it just so disappointingly has to end? That doesn’t happen here! We get a full story, not just a brief glance, and it’s so satisfying. I really liked Paul, and I like having a good character to root for.

So this, friends, is why I Thought You Were Dead earned 5 stars from me. It snuck up on me and gave me something I wasn’t expecting—and that’s one of the many potential joys of reading.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Revisiting Potter, Part 3: The Prisoner of Azkaban

I’m going to be honest—I could blow through all these Harry Potter books in the next couple of weeks, because I am absolutely loving this re-read. I’m not going to do that, though, because I’m trying to spread them out so that maybe after this time around, I’ll remember one from another.

Prisoner of Azkaban is probably the one I know best, because my husband adores the movie, and until recently, it was the only one in our collection. (He’s a film nerd, and it’s partly because Alfonso Cuaron directed it.) During this re-read, this is the only one so far where I remembered exactly what was going to happen, and I could even picture the movie scenes as I read the words on the page.

Maybe it’s because of this familiarity or maybe it’s because it’s just that good, but so far, I definitely think this is the strongest in the series…and while I hesitate to say it’s the best overall, that may very well be true as well. This is when Harry Potter, to me, becomes Harry Potter. This is when it gets real, when we start down that road of what’s going to be a long adventure for Harry and his friends towards the big picture. And so much of what is introduced here carries through the rest of the series. Here is where we meet the Dementors and Professor Lupin and Sirius Black, and learn about Azkaban, and frequent Diagon Alley, and uncover the mystery about Harry’s parents’ deaths.

In the briefest of brief plot summaries, the new year at Hogwarts begins under the threat that one of Voldemort’s inner circle, a murderer named Sirius Black, has escaped from Azkaban. And no one ever escapes Azkaban. The wizarding world is under lock-down, and to make matters worse, Harry overhears a conversation that blames Black for his parents’ death and surely he’s out and looking for Harry to finish the job.

Everything in this book takes the Harry Potter world to a new level. History is revealed as it paves the path for the future. We’re learning to settle in for a long, nuanced story that takes time to reveal. These are no longer brief action-adventure books; there’s more to the stories than that, and we’ll learn as we go. Not only that, these characters are maturing, and their issues are getting more relatable to their adolescent audience. Hermione, for example, spends half the book snubbed by Ron and Harry. Throw on family stress, peer pressure, and academic anxiety, and this Harry Potter is essentially a guide to the life of a 15-year-old.

I feel with this one like we’re really into it now. Goblet of Fire is the first qualified chunkster of a novel, and it doesn’t get any simpler from here on out.

In closing, with the wise words of Albus Dumbledore:

“But you know, happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” 

(I cheated—this line is only in the movie and not the book. But it’s the best quote of “wise words” from either telling of Azkaban.)

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Reading Roundup: Mysteries, Of Sorts

The Potter’s Field by Andrea Camilleri is a fun book I picked up at a library conference last year. Since it has been sitting on my shelf, I’ve continuously forgotten it’s a mystery. It’s one in a series of mysteries, in fact—the Inspector Montalbano series, translated from Italian, of which there over a dozen titles. The Potter’s Field is #13 in the series, one of the newer ones published in 2011. I can’t even remember the last time I read a mystery, and I really think I should dig into this genre more often since I’ve always enjoyed it. (I distinctly remember back in the 8th grade, we had to read And Then There Were None for English class, and I sat in the back of Algebra class devouring the pages of Agatha Christie as my teacher rambled on about FOIL.)

Because I don’t really read mysteries that often, I’m not practiced at writing about them, either! Obviously, I can only share the briefest plot summary. In this Montalbano installment, an unidentified corpse is found in a clay-rich field known as Potter’s Field. In the midst of this, the Inspector is also tracking down what his deputy Mimi is up to as his behavior in the office has recently become insufferable. On top of that, there’s another piece when a young woman reports the disappearance of her husband who apparently had family ties to an infamous mobster.

I’ll stop there, but the writing is quick, straightforward, and witty. Montalbano is not afraid to throw a few expletives, and his procedures may not always be up to code. As I was reading, he struck me very much as that character who is sarcastic and a bit of a rogue, but entertaining enough to probably have his own BBC series. AND GUESS WHAT, HE DOES! It’s technically an Italian series, but the BBC does air it in the UK! Colin and I don’t agree on books (or movies or TV shows) very often, but I did pass this one along to him.

My second quasi-mystery is the well-known Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. I actually knew nothing about the plot of this prior to reading; it was only on my list because it’s seen a lot of buzz in the past year, so I thought it was worth picking up. To quickly set the stage for those of you who haven’t already read it, it’s about an eclectic family living in Seattle. Elgie the Father is a super-wiz at Microsoft, usually working, rarely at home; Bernadette the Mother is a one-time architecture great who once won a MacArthur Genius Grant but now doesn’t seem to do much but complain; their daughter Bee, short for Balakrishna (see, eccentric family), once suffered congenital heart defects but now is 15 and totally fine and sick of that attention. Bee is brilliant and thriving at her sort-of hippy dippy school. The issues come when Bernadette, all “misunderstood-genius-woe-is-me,” has to interact with anybody, because she is insufferable. There’s a fight with another parent, a Russian mafia who may be stealing her identity, and a looming trip to Antarctica. None of these things bode well for Bernadette, so she just up and disappears.

This book was entertaining enough. I really enjoyed the style and structure that used notes, letters, and other pieces of evidence to tell the story (with a bit of Bee’s narrative built in.). It was so madcap that I couldn’t really ground it in reality, though. First of all, the setting was odd. It constantly felt like it was 1995, but then there are lines thrown in about iPhones and you remember it’s supposed to be present day. There are references of Encyclopedia Brown and Friends reruns, but then we’re jumping to TED Talks and Bing. I never really made peace with when this story is supposed to be. My biggest trouble, though, was Bernadette. UGHHHHH. She represents everything that drives me crazy about people. She’s incredibly judgmental; she talks down to anyone she doesn’t agree with; she complains incessantly just to voice her opinion. She is basically everything I strive not to be in life. As a result, I couldn’t sympathize with anyone in this book. (I used to say, “I don’t have to like the character to like the book,” but now I think that is a lie; I do need to mostly like the characters.) Bee was the most interesting, but even though this story was from her perspective, I didn’t feel very close to her.

This is exactly that kind of book that is going to catch on with a large crowd because it’s quirky enough to make people think, “This is so quirky and I am so quirky for reading it so I love it,” and look at that, it made me utter words of judgment when that’s just the kind of thing I try not to do, so that is my point, UGH I’m done with this book. Great cover art, though!