Mixed Emotions About a Book

I’ve been conflicted about whether I should even mention a book I recently listened to. But I finally decided that others might appreciate being forewarned, as I wish I had been.

I have not watched the Call the Midwife series on PBS. I like period pieces, but I had the impression this would be something like a “birth story of the week.” Each birth is its own miracle—or tragedy if things go wrong. But I didn’t necessarily want to watch a show about births in the 1950s.

But when I saw the audiobook by the same name was in a “two books for one credit” sale for Audible, I decided to check it out.

As it turns out, the book is a memoir about the life of a midwife in the 1950s in London’s East End, based on Jennifer Worth’s experiences.

Jenny Lee, as she is known in the book, became a nurse and then a midwife in the 1950s. She worked with other midwives out of a convent though they were not Catholic. The East End of London was a poor area, with most of the men working at the docks. Though crime was common, the midwives were respected and untouched though they rode their bikes alone day and night.

In past millennia, women were helped in giving birth by neighbors or a woman who was a midwife by means of experience gained in helping with deliveries and not through formal training. Normally, such help was fine, unless there was a problem.

Infant and mothers’ deaths finally led to midwifery becoming more of a science. Births still took place at home most of the time. But midwives in the 1950s had more training and tools to handle problem situations.

Though all of Jenny’s clients were poor, they varied greatly. Some homes were cheerful and neat though bare; others were in terrible condition.

As you might expect with a book like this, a number of birth stories are shared, both the happy and the tragic ones. Jenny shares what happened in graphic clinical detail, so if such things make you squeamish, you might not enjoy this book. Or you might skip through portions.

But the book is not all birth stories. Jenny tells about the different nuns at the convent, one of whom was brilliant but whose mind was failing. She tells about some of her coworkers and friends.

In one lengthy section, Jenny tells of a teenager named Mary who ran away from an abusive stepfather in Ireland and ended up roaming the streets of London. Mary was fourteen and evidently either didn’t know about places like the YWCA, where she could find temporary shelter, or didn’t know how to find them.

One day while Mary was looking longingly in a bakery window, a handsome young man saw her and offered to buy her breakfast. He was very kind, and soon Mary’s story came out. The man told Mary his uncle owned a cafe where they had “the best entertainment in London.” Perhaps his uncle would give her a job running the coffee machine.

In her naivete, Mary thought this man was romantically interested in her. She went with him to his uncle’s cafe—which turned out to be a brothel.

I don’t have a problem with this story being part of the book, because these kinds of things happened—and still do today. Young people, particularly runaways or orphans who have no one to call for help, are either lured with promise of food and shelter or outright kidnapped. Then they are trapped in a system they can’t get out of.

What I did object to, however, was a graphic description of the “show” one of the dancers put on at the brothel. I was navigating across busy lanes of traffic when this part of the story came on the audiobook, so I couldn’t stop and fast forward. I didn’t have the presence of mind while watching several directions for oncoming cars to just turn the sound off.

The dancer’s act wasn’t told in an approving or tantalizing manner. It was meant to be shocking and disgusting (and it was). But it wasn’t needed. We already had a good idea what kind of place Mary was being taken to. Even if Worth felt the need to share what went on, she didn’t have to tell as much as she did as graphically as she did. I regret having those images planted in my mind.

I almost laid the book aside at that point. But then I figured that scene was probably the worst, and the rest would be better. And that turned out to be the case.

There were a few other smaller problems–a few bad words, a couple of bawdy crude references, mention of a mixed group swimming nude.

Jennifer wrote the book some fifty years after her experiences when she read an article by Terri Coates wishing that some midwife would “do for midwifery what James Herriot did for vets.” I think Jennifer could have achieved what Herriot did, but I think she missed the mark by including scenes like the one I mentioned. What was otherwise a great book was marred by these negatives.

But Jennifer’s book became a bestseller when it was reissued in 2007 after having been originally published in 2002. She wrote three more, and the Call the Midwife series began in 2012.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Nicola Barber. The narrator did a great job with the dialects. But she spoke almost in a whisper much of the time, making it hard to hear.

Always, Only Good: A Journey of Faith Through Mental Illness

Ron and Shelly Hamilton’s oldest son, Jonathan, began experiencing strange symptoms after taking a medicine prescribed by a dermatologist for acne. Shelly called the doctor’s office to ask about the medication, but the nurse said the medication was not responsible for Jonathan’s symptoms. When Shelly took Jonathan back in to see the dermatologist and explained how Jonathan was acting, the doctor told her to take Jonathan off the medication immediately. He said it would take a couple of weeks for the medicine to get out of Jonathan’s system, and then he would return to normal.

But Jonathan did not return to normal. He began a downward spiral of mental illness which was eventually diagnosed as schizophrenia. After fifteen years with his illness, Jonathan took his own life on Mother’s Day.

Shelly wrote Always, Only Good: A Journey of Faith Through Mental Illness for several reasons. She wanted to share her son’s story, give an idea what life is like for someone suffering from mental illness, and encourage those with mental illness and their caregivers that they are not alone and there is hope. She also wanted to help remove the stigma of mental illness, especially among Christians, so sufferers would feel more freedom to get help.

Sadly, many well-meaning people feel that mental illness is a only spiritual problem.One friend’s college professor called psychiatrists “quacks” and belittled taking drugs for mental problems.

Shelly differentiates between “the brain, which is an organ, and the mind, consisting of spirit, will, and emotions” (p. 207). Like any other organ, the brain can have physical problems which then affect the mind and body. A person with a mental illness can’t just “reason his way back” to right thinking.

Unfortunately, it can take a doctors a lot of tries to find the right medications or combination of medications which help each individual. And sometimes it takes weeks of trying medications to see if they work. Then, many have unpleasant side effects. When they are thinking right, most patients agree that being able to function is worth the side effects. But then many go through a cycle of becoming stable, thinking they don’t need their medicines any more, stopping them, feeling great for a couple of weeks until the medicine gets out of their system, and then crashing.

The title Always, Only Good comes from two sources.One was Shelly’s struggle at the beginning of Jonathan’s illness with how a good God could allow someone who loved Him and wanted to serve Him to have such an illness. Through struggle, counsel, and Bible study, she reaffirmed her belief that God is always, only good.

The other inspiration for the title was a song written to the last music Jonathan composed. Shelly gave the music and some verses and thoughts to Chris Anderson (pastor and author of “His Robes for Mine,” “My Jesus Fair,” and other hymns at Church Works Media). Chris put together this beautiful song as a testimony of Jonathan’s life. Here it is sung by Shelly, her youngest son, Jason, her daughter Tara and son-in-law Ben Farrell, and her daughter Megan and son-in-law Adam Morgan.

Shelly shares about her book here:

My family and I have listened to the Hamilton’s Majesty Music and Patch the Pirate recordings for decades. I knew some of the family’s story, particularly Ron’s testimony of trusting God through losing his eye to cancer. I didn’t know Jonathan’s troubles until his suicide. I am grateful Shelly was willing to be transparent in order to help and give hope to others. This book is a good resource for those suffering from mental illness and their families and those who want to be a help to them. It’s also a testimony of faith, of God’s grace and help through the hardest circumstances.

(I often link up with some of these bloggers.)

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Normally I wouldn’t have looked twice at a book like Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. I’ve read a number of books on time management, achieving goals, etc., so I wasn’t looking for one more.

But I listened to an interview with the author as part of one writer’s group’s attempts to draw in new members. And though I decided not to join the writer’s group, I appreciated much that Greg had to say.

These days, we’re all beset by having more opportunities and responsibilities than we can keep up with. Plus other people can pile their agendas on to us. We spend much of our time “busy but not productive.”

The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage. In other words, Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless (p. 7).

Lest that sound cold and heartless, one of our essentials is our loved ones. One of the catalysts to McKeown’s journey towards essentialism was when he was pressured to be at a meeting with a client just hours after his daughter was born. He was told the client would respect him for his sacrifice of being there. But the client didn’t, and the meeting in the end turned out to be pretty worthless.

Trade-offs are going to happen as we learn we can’t do everything. It’s better to decide ahead of time what’s really most important and spend our energy there, even when that means saying no to other things, even good things.

Part 1 of McKeown’s book focuses on essence: to do what’s essential, we first have to figure out what’s essential according to our goals and values. We have to determine what’s non-negotiable and what’s a trade-off.

Part 2 is Explore: the “perks of being unavailable,” the necessity of sleep and even play.

Part 3 is Eliminate: to say yes to some things, we have to say no to others. Part 3 explores principles and methods for eliminating the nonessential.

Part 4 is Execute: protecting our essential goals by implementing buffer zones, starting small and celebrating small wins, the helpfulness of routines to eliminate unnecessary decisions, flow and focus.

Sprinkled throughout the book are simple but very effective illustrations. This one, for example, shows “the unfulfilling experience of making a millimeter of progress in a million directions” vs. “investing in fewer things” to “have the satisfying experience of making significant progress in the things that matter most” (pp. 6-7).

Here are a few of the other quotes that stood out to me:

For capable people who are already working hard, are there limits to the value of hard work? Is there a point at which doing more does not produce more? Is there a point at which doing less (but thinking more) will actually produce better outcomes? (p. 42).

We need to be as strategic with ourselves as we are with our careers and our businesses. We need to pace ourselves, nurture ourselves, and give ourselves fuel to explore, thrive, and perform (p. 94).

An essential intent, on the other hand, is both inspirational and concrete, both meaningful and measurable. Done right, an essential intent is one decision that settles one thousand later decisions. It’s like deciding you’re going to become a doctor instead of a lawyer. One strategic choice eliminates a universe of other options and maps a course for the next five, ten, or even twenty years of your life. Once the big decision is made, all subsequent decisions come into better focus (p. 126).

The way of the Essentialist isn’t just about success; it’s about living a life of meaning and purpose. When we look back on our careers and our lives, would we rather see a long laundry list of “accomplishments” that don’t really matter or just a few major accomplishments that have real meaning and significance? (p. 230).

McKeown includes multiple examples from businesses and institutions. Just about the time I wished he brought some of his illustrations and principles down to a person level, he did.

One problem that he didn’t discuss, though, is when you can’t say no to obligations that seem meaningless. He says several times that saying no to the unnecessary meeting or obligation actually garners respect instead of resentment. But that’s not always the case. And you can’t always say no if your boss requires something that you think is a waste of time.

And you have to be careful that your time-savers don’t become an imposition on someone else. For instance, he mentions someone who skipped a regular hour-long meeting at work to get his own work done, then got a ten-minute summary from a coworker, thus saving himself forty minutes. But he doesn’t note that this guy was putting an unnecessary drain on his coworker’s time. If I had been the coworker, I would have been tempted to say, “If you want to know what happens at the meetings, you need to be there. I have too much to do to recap them for you every week.”

But those instances are minor. Most of what the author had to say was very good.

This isn’t a Christian book, and the author recommends a wide range of resources that I wouldn’t always agree with.

But overall, McKeown gave me much to chew on.

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey

You don’t have to be a fan of Downton Abbey to enjoy Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle. If you enjoy British manor houses and history, especially the Edwardian era, you’ll like the book whether you’ve seen the series or not. But if you are a Downton Abbey aficionado, you’ll probably enjoy some of the behind-the-scenes information about the setting for the series.

The fictional Downton Abbey is set in a real castle called Highclere, home to the current eighth Earl of Carnarvon and his wife, the author of this book, the Countess of Carnarvon.

An able historian, the Countess draws from diaries, letters, and other information to tell of one of her predecessors, Lady Almina, who married the fifth Earl of Carnavon in 1895.

Almina was the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild, a wealthy banker. Though she had been presented at court, “she had not been invited to the highly exclusive, carefully policed social occasions that followed. Almina’s paternity was the subject of a great deal of rumour, and no amount of fine clothes or immaculate manners could gain her access to the salons of the grand ladies who quietly ruled Society. So Almina had not attended all the crucial balls of her debut season, occasions that were designed to allow a young lady to attract the attentions of an eligible gentleman” (p. 4). But somehow she drew the attention of George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert. Apparently her beauty and large dowry overcame the circumstances of her birth. But from all accounts, Almina and George were fortunate to have a genuine marriage where they truly loved each other.

One of Almina’s main functions was to plan and host dinners and gatherings, even for the Prince of Wales, her husband’s friend. She was a master of organization and a charming hostess.

Unlike many women, she traveled with her husband, a man of many and varying interests.

But life changed during WWI. Almina had found a knack for nursing during one of her husband’s illnesses. During the war, she converted part of the castle into a hospital. She wanted the soldiers to feel like guests at a country estate. She knew they needed respite for the mind and soul as well as the body. But she wasn’t just a distant financier: she donned a nurse’s uniform, made rounds with the doctor every morning, and helped in various ways, even bathing gangrenous feet.

After the war, when travel could resume again, Almina and George traveled to Egypt. George had been to Egypt many times, because of his love for travel and the area, but also for his heath. The damp winters of England were unhealthy for him, so he often spent winters in Egypt. He had financed several excavations over the years without finding much for his efforts. He was going to give up, but then his partner in the work, Howard Carter, wanted to go one more time. George agreed, and this time, to their amazement, they found the tomb of Tutankhamun (not a spoiler as this is mentioned early in the book).

Between these major events, the book tells various details about George and Almina’s family, upstairs vs. downstairs life, the progression of the war and its aftermath, details around the Earl’s discovery of King Tut’s tomb, and Almina’s long-term legacy.

Almina grasped early on “that she was only one part of a machine that would long survive her. Part of her initial task on arrival was to understand the history and community that she was becoming a part of” (p. 15). “Everyone at Highclere, whether they worked above or below stairs, on the farm or in the kitchen, had a role to fulfil, and Almina was no different,” (p. 11).

In shows and films about this era, we often see lords of the manor not doing much besides hosting lavish dinner parties and going hunting. But, in fact, they had a lot of responsibility. Before the war, the Earl had an idea where things were going, and took a large sum of money out of the bank. “Considering that he was morally responsible for the welfare of the entire household, as well as the tenants, he refused the offer [of selling some of his land to the government] and set about adding to his flocks and herds. He also bought one and a half tons of cheese and an immense amount of tea. . . Once he had deposited the gold in his bank in Newbury, he was in a position to provide 243 men women and children with all essentials for at least three months” (pp. 125-126).

The current countess adds in the epilogue that even now, “The challenge for Highclere is to ensure that the Castle and its estate businesses remain strong enough to preserve their rich heritage. It is the same need to balance business and conservation that confronted Almina” (p. 292). “It was the economic fallout of the Second World War, combined with new tax structures, that made it impossible to maintain the opulence of previous generations at Highclere Castle,” (p. 301). When Almina’s son became the sixth earl, he had a reduced staff. WWII took a further toll on the whole country in many ways. The current earl and countess live at the castle part of the time and in a cottage at other times. They offer the house for various gatherings and other purposes (like settings for films) not only as a means of upkeep, but to preserve the house’s legacy.

The countess says in the prologue this book “is not a history, although it is set against the exuberance of the Edwardian period, the sombre gravity of the Great War and the early years of recovery after the conflict. It is neither a biography nor a work of fiction, but places characters in historical settings, as identified from letters, diaries, visitor books and household accounts written at the time.”

It took me a little while to get into this book. The first part was largely informational. But by the time the book got to the war and the castle becoming a hospital, my attention was more engaged. Overall, I really enjoyed it.

I got the Kindle version of this book a while back during a sale, but got the audiobook recently during another sale. Wanda McCaddon is a wonderful narrator for the book: I had previously heard her narration of several other classics.

There is a sequel to this book which I don’t have yet but would like to read some day: Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey. Lady Catherine was Almina’s daughter-in-law, an American who was not an heiress and wasn’t raised in anything like the society she married into. Her husband inherited the estate at a fairly young age, so they were both thrust into big responsibilities sooner than expected. Then they had to manage during WWII and the subsequent changes to the country and their lives.

If you’re interested in the castle, the countess has an Instagram account for it here: https://www.instagram.com/highclere_castle/. She shares some of the hidden nooks and crannies as well as the gatherings they currently host and other interesting details.

This book could fit in the Celebrity category of the the Nonfiction Reader Challenge. George and Almina were celebrities in their day, Downton Abbey has brought a new celebrity to the castle, and the current The Earl and Countess are celebrities now.

Ten Time Management Choices

My husband has no idea how much he owes Sandra Felton.

I did not come to marriage very organized in either my time or my stuff. In college, I wasn’t lazy, but I was always running behind. Many of my grades suffered from late deductions. And I can’t tell you how many times I got frustrated over not being able to find an item or paper I needed.

Sometime during early marriage, I came across Sandra Felton’s book, The Messies Manual. Then I subscribed to her newsletter for years until I knew by heart what each one was going to say.

I put a lot of Sandra’s principles into practice. I can’t say I became a paragon of organizational virtue, but I definitely improved from where I was.

But I learned something else about organization on my own. We can’t make up a workable schedule and put everything in its rightful place and then be done organizing. We have to maintain our systems and adapt them to new demands on our time and new items in our home.

So I have decided organization is not a destination. It’s a journey. And, therefore, I continue to occasionally reads books or articles about organization.

When I saw that Sandra had coauthored a fairly new book with Marsha Sims, and it was on sale for the Kindle app, I got it. That book is titled Ten Time Management Choices that Can Change Your Life.

The authors state that “One of the goals of this book is to help you accomplish easily and quickly those necessary but uninspiring activities that comprise much of our daily lives so you can turn your attention to the significant things you want to do” (p. 9).

They point out how the advent of modern technology eased life in some ways but created a lot more things to do, some necessary and some distracting.

They say some authors “downplay organizing systems and indicate that if you have enough focus and self-control, you’ll be okay. Not so. You need good skills as well” (p 21.) So they point out overarching principles but also offer practical tips.

They remind us often that “time management is not the art of getting everything done. It is the art of getting the most important things done. To put it another way, it is priority management.” (p. 63).

The authors offer a variety of ways to determine priorities, make schedules, etc. I love that. Some time management books promote a very rigid system. I don’t usually like everything about other people’s systems, so I appreciate the variety of methods to experiment with to find one that works best.

They also tackle multitasking, interruptions, procrastinating, delegation, time wasters, schedules, developing good habits.

They apply principles to home and business.

Each chapter has several vignettes of people with organizing problems and the solutions they found.

The end of each chapter and the end of the book contain questions and activities to help implement the principles. The sessions at the end of the book could be done alone or with a group.

Here are a few more quotes that stood out to me:

Creative people have more ideas and interests than any one person can do in a lifetime, and we accumulate the paraphernalia to prove it. (p. 54.)

A word of explanation is necessary to those who fear setting up a schedule because it feels rigid and stifling. Scheduling is not an inflexible list that is written in stone. It is a statement of what regular tasks are important to accomplish each day and when you plan to do them during the day. As you become experienced in using and tweaking your schedule, you will find it meets your needs more and more successfully and will become your friend. (pp. 163-164).

When you create a schedule for routine tasks, you open a tap through which good time management can flow. A schedule is absolutely necessary because 1. It keeps you from forgetting what needs to be done. 2. It protects you from the unsuccessful “What do I feel like doing today?” approach (p. 164).

Although I would not classify this as a Christian book overall, the authors do employ some biblical principles.

There was only one place I strongly disagreed with the authors.

Organized people work dispassionately. That frees them from a lot of stress. Disorganized people wear themselves out by investing emotion in the things they have to do. They work while saying, “I hate making the bed every day” or “Unloading the dishwasher is such a drag.” The way to take the emotion out of doing what you need to do regularly is to make the activity into a habit (p. 196).

I can’t say that making activities into habits takes the emotion out of them. I still chafe at a lot of things that have to be done. However, making them a habit gets them over with rather than pushing them to the background. And I look forward to the satisfaction of getting them done.

I don’t think I learned much that was totally new to me from the book. But many of the principles I had formerly learned were applied in new ways, and all of the book was a much-needed reminder.

If you need to organize your time better or need to brush up on organizing principles, this book would benefit you.

(I often link up with some of these bloggers.)

I Must Decrease: Devotional Book for Dieters

I Must Decrease: Biblical Inspiration and Encouragement for Dieters by Janice Thompson is pretty much just what the title says. Janice had lost over 100 lbs. over fourteen months. But she didn’t want to write a “how-to” manual or promote a specific plan. She wanted to share some tips and encouragement with a light-hearted approach.

The book is divided into three 21-day sections in which she compares the dieting (or healthy eating) journey to a horse race: the beginning, with eager anticipation; the middle, where we’re tired and need encouragement to keep going; and the end, when we realize the race isn’t really over, that healthy eating needs to be a lifestyle.

Each day’s devotional is divided into twelve sections, usually with a particular theme or emphasis for the day:

  • Ticklers: A humorous quote.
  • Tidbits: A bit of information.
  • Traps: e.g., quick snacks which are usually unhealthy, using food as a reward, etc.
  • Tricks: Little helps.
  • Treats: Healthy food ideas.
  • Testimonies from Janice and others: a paragraph of some aspect of healthy eating or a problem they faced.
  • Treasures: A Scripture reference.
  • Tips: Devotional thoughts on the Scripture for the day.
  • Trusting Him: A prayer about the day’s devotional.
  • Turning Your Focus: Ideas for ways to reach out to others.
  • Today’s Food Choices: A reminder to write down what you ate.
  • Thoughts on Paper: A reminder to journal about your experiences.

There are four recipes at the end.

Almost every “tidbit” section had a link in the ebook version I read, but of the half-dozen or so I tried to click on, none went to an active link.

Personally, I’m sorry to say that I didn’t get much from this book. I don’t think I came across a lot that was new to me. Humor is a subjective thing, and the humor here just didn’t jibe with me. The twelve sections every day seemed a little fragmented. I think I would have gotten more from a verse with some thoughts and a prayer each day and then tips and such all together at the back.

The book had mostly positive reviews on Amazon, so many people did benefit from it. You might like the humor and formatting. And if you’re new to dieting or would like reminders of truths you know, this book might be more helpful to you. At the moment, it’s only 99 cents for the Kindle app, not much to lose to give it a try.

Christopher Robin Milne

As you’re probably aware, A. A. Milne’s children’s books about Pooh and Christopher Robin and the Enchanted Forest were based on his son, his son’s toys, and the family farm, Cotchford, which edged the Five Hundred Acre Wood (which became the Hundred Acre Wood in the Pooh stories).

Though Christopher Robin was Milne’s son’s name, young Christopher wasn’t called that. He went by Billy Moon, or just Moon (which came from his early attempts to say “Milne”).

A. A. Milne was known for plays and other works when he wrote a few poems and then a couple of books based on Christopher and his real childhood toys. He was dismayed that those books overshadowed all else he wrote. He stopped writing related children’s books because he didn’t feel the extensive fame was good for Christopher.

A few months ago, my husband and I watched Goodbye Christopher Robin, about the Milnes and the fame of Pooh and Christopher Robin. My children had grown up with Pooh (mostly the Disney version) and the Milne characters will always have a soft spot in my heart.

I wanted to learn more about how Christopher (as he was known as an adult) really felt, so I decided to read his book, The Enchanted Places: A Childhood Memoir. I learned shortly thereafter that Christopher had written a sequel titled The Path Through the Trees, so I read that as well, and decided to review them together.

Though there’s a bit of overlap, the first book covers Christopher’s life until he went into the army, and the second covers that time forward. (For convenience sake, I am going to refer to the first as EP and the second as PTT.)

In The Enchanted Places, Christopher tells about his family, his nanny, and growing-up years.

Though the Pooh books were inspired by Christopher Robin’s toys, they also contained his father’s nostalgia about his own childhood.

The Christopher Robin who appears in so many of the poems is not always me. For this was where my name, so totally useless to me personally, came into its own: it was a wonderful name for writing poetry round. So sometimes my father is using it to describe something I did, and sometimes he is borrowing it to describe something he did as a child, and sometimes he is using it to describe something that any child might have done (EP, p. 19).

In the second book, Christopher says that part of his writing the first book had to do with his feelings upon his father’s death. He learned that his mother had destroyed almost everything of his father’s, and at first he was quite angry. Later he came to believe she was right to do so. But he knew that at some point someone would come around wanting to write a biography of A. A., and EP was a place to sort through his remembrances and present “not a full-length study, but just a collection of snapshots” of his father (EP, p. 91). His father “doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve as [his brothers] do. Alan’s heart is firmly buttoned up inside his jacket and only the merriest hint of it can be seen dancing in is eyes, flickering in the corners of his mouth” (EP, p. 91).

Christopher “quite liked being Christopher Robin and being famous” (EP, p. 81). But in boarding school, “it was now that began the love-hate relationship with my fictional namesake that has continued to this day” (EP, p. 86). The Goodbye Christopher Robin film shows his being bullied at this point, as do a couple of articles I read. He doesn’t specifically say he was in either of these books, but he said the poem “Vespers” “brought me over the years more toe-curling, fist-clenching, lip-biting embarrassment than any other” (p. 23).

Christopher’s lowest point seemed to come after the war when he was looking for a job. He didn’t seem to have any qualifications for anything, a least none that anyone needed. He was a little jealous of his father’s success at his expense then:

But were they entirely his own efforts? Hadn’t I come into it somewhere? In pessimistic moments, when I was trudging London in search of an employer wanting to make use of such talents as I could offer, it seemed to me, almost, that my father had got to where he was by climbing upon my infant shoulders, that he had filched from me my good name and had left me with nothing but the empty fame of being his son.

This was the worst period for me. It was a period when, suitably encouraged, my bitterness would overflow. On one or two occasions it overflowed more publicly that it should have done, so that there seemed to be only one thing to do: to escape from it all, to keep out of the limelight. Sorry, I don’t give interviews. Sorry, I don’t answer letters. It is better to say nothing than to say something I might regret (EP, p. 146).

Christopher says in both books that he was fiercely independent.

However much I wanted to succeed as a bookseller on my own merits, people would inevitably conclude that I was succeeding partly at least on my father’s reputation. They might even think (wrongly) that my father’s money was subsidizing the venture and that–unlike other less fortunate booksellers–I did not really need to make ends meet (EP, p. 148).

In The Path Through the Trees, (sometimes this title is prefaced with Beyond the World of Pooh, Part 2), Christopher tells of his life from the time he began to make his own choices: his five-year stent in the Army, his finishing college, search for a job, marriage, life as a book-seller.

He’s oddly selective about what he writes, which, of course, he has every right to be. He does say this book is “a personal memoir, not a biography” (PTT, Location 3889) and presents “a disjointed story—but a happy life” (Location 31).

In this second book, he tells a great deal about his first love, a woman named Hedda whom he met in Italy. But he tells us very little about his wife, Lesley, except things they did together. She was his cousin, so he had known her for years. But he doesn’t describe her as a person or how they went from cousins to romance. Likewise, he tells us his daughter, Clare, was born with cerebral palsy, couldn’t walk, had limited use of her arms. But he doesn’t describe her personality or appearance. I don’t know if this quietness was for their protection, a result of his own struggles with fame and too much of his life made public, or what.

He spends a lot of time on how they came to be booksellers, how things progressed with the shop, choices they made, things that affected the market, etc. He defends book-selling as a profession—there appears to have been some who regarded book-selling as a “trade” (which was somehow lower in rank than other professions) or as somewhat mercenary.

He has a chapter on animals they took care of (including a vole and owl in their home). In other circumstances, he might have been a naturalist.

He talks a great deal about Dartmouth, the town where he and Lesley settled and had their bookshop.

When Clare was done going to school and came home to stay, she needed full-time care. Christopher stayed home with her while Lesley continued part-time at the bookshop. This seems to have been one of the happiest times of his life, taking Clare out into nature and devising and making various helps for her needs. He had often said that he had inherited his mother’s hands and his father’s brains, and these devices for Clare employed both. His thoughts about equipment for the disabled was interesting:

It is a sad fact that much of the equipment designed for the disabled is inefficient and nearly all of it is ugly. To some extent the one follows from the other. An efficient design has a natural elegance which needs little embellishment to make it attractive. Whereas the wheel chair issued to Clare was such a mechanical disaster that nothing could have redeemed it. How unfair it is that a person who most needs a chair should so often have just the one–and one so very far from beautiful–while the rest of us, who need chairs only now and again, possess so many (PTT, Location 3233).

But of course the greatest pleasure of all was to see Clare sitting comfortably where before she had been uncomfortable, doing something she had not previously been able to do. And it was a pleasant thought that this was, in a sense, a legacy from her grandparents whom she had never known–a product of the fusion of my father’s fondness for mathematics with my mother’s competent hands. If she had inherited neither, she could at least benefit from the fact that I had inherited both (PTT, Location 3243).

Christopher’s independence caused him to refuse accepting money from the Pooh book sales until Clare came home.

Christopher seems to have been a kind and gentle man, though fiercely opinionated on some topics. He was a classic introvert, a thinker. He describes one scene in the second book where he’s walking home and comes upon a couple searching for elephant hawk caterpillars, which they hoped to take back to their area so the bugs would hatch and breed there. Christopher got home and told Lesley about the encounter. Lesley left a few minutes later and came across the same couple. She commented that her husband had just spoken with them. The man replied, shyly, “I thought he looked like the sort of person who would be interested in my caterpillar,” which Christopher took as “a nice compliment” (PTT, Location 3721). I can somewhat picture him ambling around Dartmouth, as he describes it, enjoying his bookshop, stopping to observe and contemplate nature, willing to talk about moths with strangers.

Though Christopher had some rough spots with both parents, and didn’t see his mother the last fifteen years of her life, he loved them and spoke fondly of them in these books.

Sadly, to me, Christopher “converted to humanism” when he was 24, believing that man invented God rather than the other way around. He states this in the first book, but apparently felt he came across a little too strongly. So in the second book he says that though he does not believe in God, someone else can, and they can both be right (which does not make sense, but apparently he means something like “believe whatever works for you and helps you through life”). A. A. was also an atheist but did not push his beliefs on his son until he shared an atheistic book with Christopher in his twenties.

This article tells some of the differences between the film and reality. There are some things in the films that were not in these books but may have come from other sources (A. A. also wrote a biography, It’s Too Late Now, and both Milnes wrote other books as well). Or, as always happens in movies, the makers may have taken a bit of license. One difference this article doesn’t mention is that though A.A. Milne wrote an anti-war book after WWI, he felt war was justified against Hitler and wrote another book telling why. “Hitler was different: different from anything he had imagined possible; that, terrible though war was, peace under Hitler would have been even more terrible” (PTT, Location 140). The film shows A. A.’s battle with PTSD (though it was not called that then). Christopher doesn’t mention his dad having flashbacks or problems adjusting, but he knew he’d had “sad times” in his life and felt they came out through Eeyore.

Another scene in the film comes when young Christopher asks his father, “Are you writing a book? I thought we were just having fun.” Alan responds that he’s writing book and having fun. I think that was accurate: I don’t think A. A. observed his child’s activities with a mercenary air, pulling from them what he thought would “sell.” Perhaps as happens with many parents, having children brings up memories of one’s own childhood, and A. A. recognized what would resonate not only with other children, but other parents.

I read the Kindle version of both books, but then discovered the second was included in my Audible subscription. So the audio and ebook were synced to where I could go back and forth between them. One advantage to listening was hearing the words in an English accent. I knew, of course, Christopher was English, but I don’t think in accents when reading. The audiobook has a lovely postscript not in the books by Peter Dennis, the narrator of this and the Pooh books and a personal friend of the family. I also checked both books out of the library to see if there were any pictures or other material in them. The first book had pictures of Christopher as a child as well as pictures of some of the places in the books side-by-side with the book’s illustrations of those places.

There’s a scene at the end of the film where Christopher tells his father he had more or less made peace with his childhood namesake. In the army, especially, he came across people whose fond childhood memories included Pooh and were a comfort to them. I didn’t read any sentiments like that in these books, but I hope Christopher did come to something like that realization in real life. Though he didn’t want to be mistaken for his fictional namesake, and though he understandably wanted to be permitted to grow up and away from him, the fictional boy and his toys and their innocence and imagination have touched the hearts of children and parents for decades.

(These books fit within the Nonfiction Reading Challenge celebrity category).

The Writer’s Desk

I saw The Writer’s Desk by Jill Krementz mentioned by literary agent Wendy Lawton at the Books and Such blog. I was able to find a used copy at Amazon for around $6. I’ve enjoyed leafing through it the past few days.

The book is made up of large black and white photos of over 50 writers at their desks. Alongside each photo is a paragraph or two from the writer about his or her workspace, style, routine, etc.

It’s interesting to see the wide variety of styles, routines, and even dress. Some of the men came to their desks with sports jackets and ties. James Michener preferred very loose tee shirts and shorts so he was unimpeded as he worked.

The work space for some was clean and sparse. Many had very cluttered desks and offices.

Some had a routine; others were more free form in style.

Some needed absolute quiet and solitude; some were able to concentrate in the midst of everyday family life.

Some wrote longhand, some used a typewriter, others a computer. The book was published in 1996, and some of the pictures are much older. I don’t know how many chose pencils or typewriters instead of computers or just because that’s what was available in their day.

I loved many of the insights:

John Updike writes “by hand, when the fragility of the project—a poem, the start of a novel—demands that I sneak up on it with that humblest and quietest of weapons, a pencil” (p. xi).

Archibald MacLeish: “I am sure—I mean I am not sure at all but I believe—the master poets must come at their poems as a hawk on a pigeon in one dive. I can’t. I chip away like a stonemason who has got it into his head that there is a pigeon in that block of marble. But there’s a delight in the chipping” (p. 77).

Joseph Heller said many of his ideas come when he’s doing things like walking the dog or brushing his teeth. “I don’t get my best ideas while actually writing” (p. 85).

Isaac Bashevis Singer: “Some writers say that they can only write if they go to a far island. They would go to the moon to write not to be disturbed. I think that being disturbed is a part of human life and sometimes it’s useful to be disturbed because you interrupt your writing and while you rest, while you are busy with something else, your perspective changes or the horizon widens. All I can say about myself is that I have never really written in peace” (p. 91). That’s encouragement for people like me who are easily disturbed.

Saul Bellow: “I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction” (p. 99).

Jill Krementz is the wife of Kurt Vonnegut and the author of several other books. She says in her acknowledgements that many of these excerpts came from George Plimpton’s “Writers at Work” series in his magazine.

Of the 56 authors mentioned here, I had only heard of nineteen and read about six of them. So I took a little bit of time to look up the desks of other favorite authors. I had looked up Louisa May Alcott’s desk after reading the novel The Orchard House, taken from the name of the house Louisa lived in while writing Little Women. It’s hard for me to imagine writing much on such a small area, but it was unusual for a woman to have a desk in those days. Her father made the semicircle desk especially for her. I also enjoyed this view of C. S. Lewis at his desk with his cup of tea nearby and Lucy Maude Montgomery at hers. I stopped there, as this rabbit trail could take hours. But maybe someday I’ll explore some more.

I enjoyed this glimpse of writers’ spaces and styles.

Women Heroes of World War II

Irena Sendler and her best friend, Ewa, were social workers in Poland when the Nazis took over. The Germans erected a nine-foot wall around the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw. The women were then separated, because Ewa was Jewish.

But Irena used her position as a social worker to visit homes in the ghetto and then secretly make arrangements with parents to take their children to safety.

She was arrested by the Gestapo, interrogated, and beaten to the point of breaking her legs and feet in several places. They decided to execute her, but she was suddenly released due to a bribe someone offered an official.

Kathryn J. Atwood has collected several stories of brave women such as Irena in Women Heroes of WWII: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue.

The women cover all ages, from teens on up. They ran the gamut from nurses to actresses, students to countesses, a pastor’s wife, a watchmaker.

Some were famous, like Corrie ten Boom, Josephine Baker, and Marlene Dietrich. Most were unknown.

Some hid Jews. Some were couriers. Some were saboteurs; some helped downed airmen get out of the country. One was an assassin. Some worked with organized resistance groups: some worked on their own.

What they all had in common was human decency, bravery, and a desire to help that overshadowed any reluctance or fear.

Kathryn gives an overview of the war in the introduction. Then she grouped the women by country, with a brief introduction of that country’s involvement in the war. I’ve read a lot of books about WWII, fiction and nonfiction (Irena’s story, mentioned above, sounds similar to the plot in The Medallion by Cathy Gohlke, making me wonder if that book is based on Irena’s story). But Kathryn’s summaries helped me see the bigger picture and taught me a few things I hadn’t known.

Each chapter is just a few pages, with a list at the end of other books, movies, or web sites featuring each person.

This is a YA book, but it’s not juvenile. It’s easily readable.

It could spark a lot of questions. What would you do in similar situations? Where is the line between helping and going too far? This is a secular book, so it doesn’t go into right and wrong. For instance, one dancer was required to wear skimpy costumes, but the author says this wasn’t “considered immoral but, rather, artistic and representative of the new Jazz Age” (p. 77). Nothing is said about whether the assassin was right or not. But if I shared this with a daughter, I’d want to discuss some of those issues.

There’s an updated version of the book: Women Heroes of World War II: 32 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue. If I had known that before I started, I would have looked for this book at the library rather than the one with 26 stories.

But I am very glad to have read it the stories of these brave women. Thanks to Bev for the recommendation.

I’m going to count this book for the Wartime Experiences category of the Nonfiction Reading Challenge.

Gift from the Sea

Anne Morrow Lindbergh was not only married to famous aviator Charles Lindbergh and a pilot herself; she was also a popular author—and not just because of her famous name. Gift of the Sea is probably her most well-known book, still read widely even today.

Anne was a busy mother of five when she had a rare opportunity to go to the beach alone for a couple of weeks. She took the time to reflect on her struggles as a woman, wife, and mother. Over eight chapters, she uses the metaphor of the sea, island life, and different kinds of shells to illustrate different stages or aspects of life..

For instance, the chapter on the channeled whelk, a shell once inhabited by a creature, speaks to her of “the art of shedding.” What she says in this chapter would fit right in with the minimalist movement of the last few years: the need to simplify and pare down not only our stuff, but our responsibilities and relationships.

The chapter on the moon shell speaks of needed time alone.

I find there is a quality to being alone that is incredibly precious. Life rushes back into the void, richer, more vivid, fuller than before (p. 42).

Quiet time alone, contemplation, prayer, music, a centering line of thought or reading, of study or work. It need not be an enormous project or great work. But it should be something of one’s own. Arranging a bowl of flowers in the morning can give a sense of quiet in a crowded day–like writing a poem or saying a prayer. What matters is that one be for a time inwardly attentive (p. 56).

What Anne calls the double-sunrise is a bivalve that reminds her of early marriage, “two people listening to each other, two shells meeting each other, making one world between them” (p. 65).

What she calls an oyster bed has “small shells clinging to its humped back. Sprawling and uneven, it has the irregularity of something growing. It looks rather like the house of a big family, pushing out one addition after another to hold its teeming life” (p. 80). This speaks to her of the middle years of marriage.

I am very fond of the oyster shell. It is humble and awkward and ugly. It is slate-colored and unsymmetrical. Its form is not primarily beautiful but functional. I make fun of its knobbiness. Sometimes I resent its burdens and excrescences. But its tireless adaptability and tenacity draw my astonished admiration and sometimes even my tears. And it is comfortable in its familiarity, its homeliness, like old garden gloves when have molded themselves perfectly to the shape of the hand. I do not like to put it down. I will not want to leave it (p. 83).

I particularly liked this about middle age: “For is it not possible that middle age can be looked upon as a period of second flowering, second growth” (p. 86) rather than the “false assumption that it is a period of decline” (p. 87).

One other quote that stood out: “Good communication is as stimulating as black coffee and just as hard to sleep after” (p. 102).

I thought it interesting that even in Anne’s day (this book was published in 1955), she felt the weight of what she calls “planetal awareness.” How much more would she feel it now?

The world is rumbling and erupting in ever-widening circles around us. The tensions, conflicts and sufferings even in the outermost circle touch us all, reverberate in all of us. We cannot avoid these vibrations.

But just how far can we implement this planetal awareness? We are asked today to feel compassionately for everyone in the world, to digest intellectually all the information spread out in public print, and to implement in action every ethical impulse aroused by our hearts and minds. The interrelatedness of the world links us constantly with more people than our hearts can hold. Or rather—for I believe the heart is infinite—modern communication loads us with more problems than the human frame can carry. It is good, I think, for our hearts, our minds, our imaginations to be stretched, but body, nerve, endurance and life-span are not as elastic. My life cannot implement in action the demands of all the people to whom my heart responds. I cannot marry all of them, or bear them all as children, or care for them all as I would my parents in illness or old age. Our grandmothers, and even—with some scrambling—our mothers, lived in a circle small enough to let them implement in action most of the impulses of their hearts and minds. We were brought up in a tradition that has now become impossible, for we have extended our circle throughout space and time.

Faced with this dilemma what can we do? How can we adjust our planetal awareness to our Puritan conscience? We are forced to make some compromise. Because we cannot deal with the many as individuals, we sometimes try to simplify the many into an abstraction called the mass. Because we cannot deal with the complexity of the present, we often over-ride it and live in a simplified dream of the future. Because we cannot solve our own problems right here at home, we talk about problems out there in the world. An escape process goes on from the intolerable burden we have placed upon ourselves. But can one really feel deeply for an abstraction called the mass? Can one make the future a substitute for the present? And what guarantee have we that the future will be any better if we neglect the present? Can one solve world problems when one is unable to solve one’s own? (pp. 124-125).

Her answer was to concentrate on “the here, the now, the individual,” “the drops that make up the stream,” “not as a retreat from greater responsibility, but as a first real step toward a deeper understanding and solution of them” (pp 127-128).

I mentioned when I read Anne’s biography that she seemed a very conflicted person. Probably most women struggle with how to best use their time, how to meet the needs of others and not feel depleted, etc. She had more pressures than many, dealing with the fame and lifestyle her husband brought to the family. But she seemed to struggle a lot inwardly.

I want first of all… to be at peace with myself. I want a singleness of eye, a purity of intention, a central core to my life that will enable me to carry out these obligations and activities as well as I can. I want, in fact–to borrow from the language of the saints–to live “in grace” as much of the time as possible. I am not using this term in a strictly theological sense. By grace I mean an inner harmony, essentially spiritual, which can be translated into outward harmony. I am seeking perhaps what Socrates asked for in the prayer from the Phaedrus when he said, “May the outward and inward man be one.” I would like to achieve a state of inner spiritual grace from which I could function and give as I was meant to in the eye of God (pp 23-24).

I approached this book with some wariness, since Anne’s biographer said this book “is a journey infused with classic literature and Christian doctrine, yet rooted in teachings of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy. . . . Camouflaging her Hindu and Buddhist sources beneath the words of Christian saints and modern poets and writers” (Susan Hertog, Anne Morrow Lindbergh: Her Life, p. 429). I don’t know enough about Hindu and Buddhist doctrines to be able to discern those threads in the book, but I picked up on a bit here and there.

And there’s a lot of feminist thought, though Anne doesn’t take it as far as some. She does believe that marriage and family and even housework are worthy: she just struggles with how to meet the needs of all.

I identified with some of Anne’s struggle, though not all of her angst. I wouldn’t agree with all Anne’s philosophy, and I’d caution the need for discernment in reading the book. But I think one can take the Christian references and common sense passages at one’s own interpretation.

I’m going to see if Shelly Rae at Book’d Out will allow this book to count for the Oceanography category of the Nonfiction Reading Challenge. This is probably the closest I’ll get to that one. 🙂 If not, it would work for the Essays category.

Have you read Gift From the Sea? What did you think?