Friday, January 31, 2014

The Midwife of Hope River by Patricia Harman

Reviewed by Kristin

Patience Murphy has a difficult but very important job in Depression era West Virginia:  delivering babies.  She often takes care of the deliveries that the doctor won’t bother with, and those that are least likely to pay.  The book opens with a crying woman that Patience has just had to tell that her baby is dead.  With limited instruments and limited training, Patience is often the only person these coal mining families can go to for help.  Being called out in the middle of the night is not uncommon, and sometimes the families simply have nothing to give her for payment.  (Happily accepted payments might be a ham, a side of bacon, or a promise of a cord of wood for the winter.)

Patience is soon persuaded to take on Bitsy, a young African American girl, as a helper.  With Bitsy, Patience’s practice expands as more of the African American community is willing to call the midwife for assistance.  Bitsy becomes a true companion to Patience, in a time when social mixing of the races was much less accepted.

As the book progresses, Patience’s past is revealed.  Growing up in an orphanage, a lost love, and great heartbreak have brought her to the gentle mountains where she helps women and their babies.  Of course a little touch of romance is thrown in, as she meets veterinarian Daniel Hester.

I was interested in the book as it was set in an Appalachian mining town in the 1930’s, and one branch of my family lived in a Kentucky coal mining town in that time period and beyond.  Whenever I read stories of the difficulty of life in that kind of community, I connect with them as I think that my great-grandparents must have been very familiar with those hardships.  Even though life was hard, my grandma told me this about the Depression in a coal mining town:  “We were poor, but we didn’t know we were poor--because everyone we knew lived the same way.”  Even so, knowing that my great-grandparents lost babies to malnutrition or a failure to thrive, reading this type of story gives me a fuller understanding of the life conditions people endured not so long ago.

I found this to be a hopeful book, with characters looking for the small joys of life in a time when life was not easy.  Patience is a unique character who is willing to go out of her way, even to put herself at risk, for others.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Nevermore: Just Babies, Educating Students in Poverty, Home and Home

Just Babies:  The Origin of Good and Evil by Paul Bloom was the most talked book at Nevermore, partly because several members had read it.  From the excellent cover to the readable style, Bloom makes a strong argument for his premise that even the youngest humans have a sense of morality.  This goes against some traditional arguments that humans are “blank slates,” and morality is determined only by society and culture.  However, he does believe that the innate morality is limited, and that some of our sense of “good” and “evil” is shaped by our society and culture.  Bloom cites studies of infants’ reactions to examples of helping behavior and hurting behavior, showing they favor helping; but that they also favor their own family or those who appear similar to those who are different.  He also draws a distinction between “empathy” and “compassion”—in the former, a person reacts to someone feeling pain but may not offer aid, while in the latter the person attempts to offer some sort of help or comfort. One reader praised Bloom’s ability to present opposing opinions in a fair manner, and letting the reader decide what to believe. The book was picked up by another Nevermore member, so the discussion will no doubt continue next week.

Just Babies led to a discussion about a recent library book signing with two local authors.  Mark Lineburg and Rex Gearheart are both area educators who co-wrote Educating Students in Poverty, a book which offers practical suggestions for teachers who work with disadvantaged children.  This isn’t a simple fix.  Poverty affects every aspect of a child’s life in and out of school.  Hungry children can’t learn; children who have no hope don’t see the purpose of learning.  Nevermore comments included noting that the arts, including music, dance, reading, trips to the library, and other such activities can give children the ability to look at the future in a hopeful way.  The book is drawing some national attention, with its emphasis on school and family to provide support and structure for students.

Finally, Jud was reading two novels with the same title.  He described them as being very different and yet with themes in common, because the word “home” itself is loaded with so many meanings.  Home by Toni Morrison is an allegorical tale about Frank Money, a returning Korean War veteran.  Frank has been in a mental ward after an “incident.” Traumatized and apathetic, he is forced into action when he receives a letter telling him he needs to find his sister before it’s too late.  Together they start back for Lotus, Georgia—the town where they grew up, and a town Frank detests—but it may be the only way he can save Cee.

The second Home is by Marilynne Robinson.  Set the same place and time as her award-winning book Gilead, though the focus is on a different family.  Jack Boughton left Iowa twenty years earlier under a number of black clouds.  He returns to find his dying father in the care of Glory, Jack’s youngest sister, who was only 16 when he left. The reunion produces mixed emotions as the family tries to reconnect and rebuild a relationship when so many of them are broken.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Litter of the Law by Rita Mae Brown & Sneaky Pie Brow

Reviewed by Kristin

Sneaky Pie Brown is at the typewriter again, with only a little help from her human, and perhaps from that pesky gray fluff-ball, Pewter.  Fans of the series must suspend their disbelief about talking animals, and jump right into the central Virginia world where the animals are much more observant than the humans.  While the plots are moved along by hints from tiger cat Mrs. Murphy, plus-sized Pewter, and corgi Tucker, the humans actually do play a big part in figuring out “whodunit” in this mystery series.  Starting with Wish You Were Here in 1990, the Mrs. Murphy series has grown to twenty-two volumes, with the twenty-third (Nine Lives to Die) due out in June 2014.

Halloween is approaching and members of the Crozet community are preparing for the Halloween Hayride to raise money for the local library.  Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen and her veterinarian husband Fair stop by a local vegetable and fruit stand and promptly discover a scarecrow covered in crows.  A human scarecrow, that is.  This disturbing discovery happens in the first chapter, so I’m not giving too much away.  Unfortunately, more crimes are committed in the course of this book.  Fortunately, the animals are on the case as well as the humans.  Birds, foxes, mice, and even the local opossum gladly chat with Mrs. Murphy, Pewter and Tucker, giving them a heads-up on what other animals and humans are doing.

Brown (Rita Mae, that is) lives and writes in central Virginia.  Her political views do show through in her writing, on such matters as Native American tribal recognition, government subsidized crop insurance, and organic farming.  While not too terribly preachy, characters in her books definitely have opinions on those matters and are not afraid to share them in conversations.  Brown writes many strong female characters, but includes their faithful and honest male counterparts as well.  The recurring characters are obviously part of a community whose members take care of each other.  A cast of characters is provided at the beginning of each book, which can be helpful in setting the scene for the newest adventure.

The animals (or “The Really Important Characters”) do have dialogue with each other, indicated by italics in the text.  Some reviewers have found this slightly annoying, but I think that it’s done gently enough to be believable.  I believe my own cats communicate with each other, although I doubt they stoop so low as to think in human language.  Another odd thing--I’m still puzzling over why this book was entitled The Litter of the Law.  Obviously “litter” is related to animal litters, but I think perhaps the author or publisher has simply reached a little too far for a pun-filled title.  Puns aside, I still enjoy this series and will look forward to seeing Mrs. Murphy, Pewter and Tucker in future adventures.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Love Potion Number 10 by Betsy Woodman

When I was in grade school—never mind how long ago that was—I was fascinated by books set in other countries.  I was especially drawn to tales of life in the East: China, Japan, Korea, and India. I read all the books I could get my hands on by authors like Pearl S. Buck and Elizabeth Foreman Lewis.  (The latter caused some confusion.  I was reading along the shelf and the next book was something called Babbitt.   I kept waiting to for a character to head East but none ever did and I finally gave up on it.) I even  ventured into the non-fiction section to try I Married a Korean, Fifth Chinese Daughter, and—soberingly—John Hersey’s Hiroshima.

Anyway, several months ago I picked up Jana Bibi’s Excellent Fortunes.  Set in India in 1961, it tells the story of Janet Laird, a Scotswoman by blood but Indian by preference, who has just found out she has inherited some property in the village of Hamara Nagar.  The full review is here, but suffice it to say that I enjoyed the book very much indeed and was very pleased to hear that another was in the works.

That sequel is Love Potion Number 10, and while the reviews I saw were lukewarm, I found the book to be almost as delightful as the first. We pick up nearly where the previous book left off.  Janet, called Jana Bibi by the locals, is making ends meet with her fortune-telling business, aided by the parrot Mr. Ganguly who selects tarot cards for customers.  While the house could do with some repairs both major and minor, things seem to be going well.  The recent publicity has generated interest in the village as a tourist destination, which is bringing in more outsiders—some of whom seem intent on changing just the things that give the place its charm.  To Jana’s surprise, some of these newcomers are old friends of hers from Bombay.  They’re sophisticated and wealthy, and are anxious to reconnect with Jana.  Since she has many happy memories of their time together, she’s only too pleased that they’re coming.  Their presence causes her to question whether she’s satisfied with her life as it is or if she should consider some changes—and perhaps even a new love.  Meanwhile, the local apothecary has whipped up a concoction he’s calling Love Potion #10 after the current popular song, and swears that it will cure almost anything, not to mention  bring love and happiness.  Also, the boy Tilku is apprenticed to the newspaper publisher, someone seems interested in parrot-napping Mr. Ganguly, and a devoted married couple is experiencing some family problems.

As with the first book, it was the warmth of the characters that drew me in.  The books have a large and colorful cast but not so much as to be too confusing.  Eccentricities abound but aren’t treated as silly.  Woodman spent some of her formative years in India, and it’s obvious that she  knows the local terrain and customs.  The descriptions are lovely, and evoke that particular era as well as the place. The books are sweet without being treacly.  I kept finding myself smiling at this or that, and becoming quite involved in the lives of the various characters.   At the end, I was left wanting more, which is a sign of a good book.  I’ll be looking forward to another visit with Jana Bibi and friends. I did miss hearing more about some of the characters from the first book, but I have no doubt they’ll turn up again.

 If it’s fast-paced adventure you crave, this is definitely NOT the book for you.  If, on the other hand, you like warm and amusing slice of life stories with likeable characters in an unusual setting, this is definitely a book you should try.  I would suggest that the books be read in order for a better appreciation of some events.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Nevermore: Happy City, Sunshine on Scotland Street, Anthill, Just Babies, & Execution of Noa P. Singleton

Summary by Kristin

Jud kicked off the Nevermore discussion with Happy City: Transforming Our Lives through Urban Design by Charles Montgomery.  This book examines the elements in city design that bring people closer together, or keep them further apart.  The proliferation of automobiles has changed the way people live, in spread-out suburbia as opposed to denser urban areas, although this may be changing as crime patterns change and the cost of commuting continues upwards.  The group consensus was that for a “Happy City” people just want to live where they can trust other people and feel safe.

Next, Jud introduced Sunshine on Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith, an installation in the 44 Scotland Street series.  He commented that even though the story is serialized, the author provides a lot of back story in each volume, so they can be read alone, but it is best to get the full story by starting at the beginning.  As usual on the fictional Scotland Street, people are taking care of each other.  Young Bertie is caring for a neighbor’s dog and becomes convinced that the dog is sad.  Thus, it’s time for a visit to a psychiatrist (for the dog).

Another reader brought one of her Christmas gifts—Anthill by E.O. Wilson.  This is the only fiction book written by a prominent biologist.  Wilson has often been the center of controversy as he introduces new ideas about biodiversity and what he calls the "myth" of evolution.  Wilson is also considered the world authority on myrmecology, the study of ants.  Our reader said that this was a nice fiction story, but that the author definitely placed a dissertation on ants right in the middle.

Next, a couple of readers discussed Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil by Paul Bloom.  A discussion of nature versus nurture, this book proposed that much of human morality is inborn, with very young children tending to be empathetic and helpful.  On the negative side of good and evil, one suggestion is that what we call evil today may be the remnants of the violent urges that were required for survival in earlier hunter-gatherer cultures.

Back to fiction, another reader talked about The Execution of Noa P. Singleton: A Novel by Elizabeth L. Silver.  Noa is a woman on death row, convicted of first degree murder, but never spoke in her own defense.  A well-known attorney with a personal connection to the case visits Noa just a few months before her scheduled execution, and attempts to persuade Noa to tell her full story in exchange for a possible lessening of the sentence to life in prison.  Our reader commented that this book shows how coincidences in your past may lead you to something that you can’t escape.