Top Drawer and Tickety Boo

Book: Is It Just Me? by Miranda Hart

Audience: G-U

Genre: Nonfiction

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Three years ago a blurb and photo in a PBS viewing guide happened to catch my eye. It was for a series about nurse-midwives in post WWII London. So we’re talking about a high quality British, historical, and medical series featuring strong female characters. What more could I ask for? I tuned in to watch the pilot of Call the Midwife and have been hooked ever since.

As always, my favorite part of storytelling is the characters. While I like Jenny, the main character, she isn’t nearly as interesting to me as the supporting characters around her. There is Sister Julienne, the serene, enlightened, diplomatic, and consummate leader. There is Sister Monica Joan, the eccentric retiree who seems to inhabit her own slightly child-like world until she comes out with some wry and insightful take on the issue at hand. There is party-girl Trixie and her surprising romance with the neighborhood vicar (I’m still rooting for a reconciliation, BTW) and no-nonsense Sister Evangelina who hides a heart of gold beneath a gruff exterior. And then there is Chummy—endearingly gawky, gangly, self-deprecating, humorous, and as generous as her outsized frame. Portrayed by actress/comedienne Miranda Hart, Chummy quickly becomes the heart of the show. So when I encountered a non-fiction book written by Miss Hart, of course I had to read it.

And I am ever so glad that I did.

Is it Just Me is essentially Miss Hart’s musings on several topical issues, such as body image, work, getting through the holidays, dating, the prevalence of technology, and dieting, among others. She gives us (whom she calls MDRC, My Dear Reader Chums) her take on these matters, often asking “Is it just me who…”  (as in, “Is it just me who hasn’t bought in to the need for a £700 Mulberry bag?”)

So often I found my answer to be, “No, MDWC (My Dear Writer Chum), it isn’t just you. As in anyone who spends $1077 (using today’s exchange rate) for a purse should have her head examined.” When a purse costs significantly more that all the items in it combined, something is wrong. But perhaps that’s just me. Well, me and Miss Hart.

In addition to, for the most part, agreeing with her take on things, I was also quite taken with her writing style. Most chapters open up with an introduction to the topic, often with an anecdote from Miss Hart’s life. She then checks in with her 18-year-old self, basically telling young Miranda that her life will not exactly turn out as she expects. Young Miranda responds and there is usually a spirited exchange between the two. Confusing, you think? Actually it’s not. I might not give justice to Miss Hart’s technique here, but I promise she pulls it off well.

The other thing she pulls off so well is the humor. OK, she should, since she is a comedienne, but I have to say I find Miss Hart’s trademark wit seriously funny. The combination of the topics she writes about, her self-effacing approach, her vivid descriptions, and her quintessential British-isms (hence the title of this post) is hilarious to me. Uproariously so. I mean, I was literally laughing out loud throughout my reading of this book. That’s rare, and that’s a gift.

I do have one slight criticism, though (thus explaining the 4 instead of 5 rating). I had a minor problem with Miss Hart’s technology chapter. While I agreed with her stance on the over-dependence and over-use of personal technology and social media in today’s society, I found this chapter to be somewhat preachy and therefore a bit off-putting. But this was a small blip in an otherwise charming book.

I seem to remember reading somewhere (although I cannot recall where) that Jennifer Worth, author of Call the Midwife, thoroughly approved of, and perhaps even suggested, Miss Hart for the role of Chummy. If that is indeed true, after reading this book I can totally see why. Miss Hart, you might worry that your out-of-the-mainstream opinions are singular and unique, but I assure you they are not. It is not just you.

Discovering Herstory

Book: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott

Audience: G-U

Genre: Nonfiction

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Spies have long held a fascination for the American public. Ten or so years ago the television series Alias was a big hit. Even longer ago were the shows Get Smart and I Spy. Jason Bourne ruled the box office as did the Mission: Impossible and Austin Powers series. The current show The Americans is a popular and critical success. I myself loved the book Washington’s Spies by Alexander Rose and am hooked on the series TURN: Washington’s Spies, which is based on Mr. Rose’s book. No wonder I had to read this book which combined spying with another thing I enjoy, long-overdue recognition of the contribution women have played in shaping history.

This book traces the Civil War activities of 4 women. Emma Edmonds and Elizabeth Van Lew worked for the Union, while Belle Boyd and Rose O’Neal Greenhow supported the Confederate cause. Belle and Rose were out and out spies, while Elizabeth combined spying with providing her Richmond home as an underground station for Union soldiers to return to the North. Emma’s contribution was a bit more radical: she disguised herself as a man and became a Private Frank Thompson of the Union Army.

Miss Abbott takes us through the war and the activities of her ladies chronologically, starting in July of 1861 with Belle’s murder (or homicide in self-defense, however you choose to interpret it) of a Union soldier attempting to occupy her Martinsburg, VA, home through April of 1865 when Elizabeth was able to hang Old Glory on her house as Union soldiers drove out the last remaining Confederate troops. In between she provides great detail into the spy rings, the highbrow connections, the imprisonments, and the near death experiences of these four courageous women.

There are two things I’d like to address about this book—style and bias.

First off, style. For the most part, this book reads like a narrative. As the reader, I didn’t always feel like I was reading to learn about these ladies; it was more like I was reading their story. As an historical purist, that can be off-putting. Fortunately, before I began the actual book I read an author’s note in the front matter. In that note, Miss Abbott explains that the book contains no invented dialog, that in fact, anything that appears in quotes comes from a primary source of one of her subjects. She also notes that these ladies may have engaged in embellishments and notes when she could not verify something that came from their letters, journals, or autobiographies. After reading that note, I enjoyed the narrative style with a clear conscience: while the book might read like a story, it is actually a well-researched and authoritative history. Miss Abbott’s choice of a narrative style for this work of nonfiction was a good one. It immediately made the information more interesting, engaging, and accessible.

The other thing I’d like to talk about is bias. The question is, though, whose bias? I found myself not liking Belle or Rose but admiring Emma and Elizabeth, Elizabeth in particular. And as I was reading, I had to ask myself, why was that?

Certainly, I did not care for the characters of the Southern sympathizers. They seemed to be entitled, rude, egotistic, and condescending. They used their feminine wiles when necessary and saw themselves, Belle in particular, as queen bees. In contrast, Emma, by the confines of her situation, had to draw attention away from herself. Elizabeth, as an outspoken abolitionist living in Confederate territory, was immediately under suspicion and also had to draw attention away from what she was doing. I tend to shun the spotlight myself, so I identified more with Emma and Elizabeth. Perhaps that is why I preferred them.

Or it could simply have been because I also am a Northern sympathizer. Not only did I identify with Emma and Elizabeth’s characters, I identified with their cause. Pretty much anything connected to the Confederacy is anathema to me, so Rose and Belle entered the narrative with strikes against them, as far as I was concerned. So perhaps I disliked them merely for their ideology.

Maybe I just liked the names of the Union supporters more. I mean, come on. Elizabeth? Emma? Any self-respecting Janeite knows exactly what I’m talking about.

So perhaps I was biased against the Southern women. Or was the bias Miss Abbott’s? I did not do a quantitative analysis, but it seemed to me that Belle and Rose got more ink. As flirts and extroverts, certainly they must have been more interesting to write about. Did Miss Abbott give away her own bias in devoting more time to their stories?

Actually, I tend to think not. Although Rose did not survive the war, both she and Belle wrote much more extensively about themselves than Emma and Elizabeth. Belle went on to become an actress (no surprise there) and wrote multiple autobiographies. Rose had several major players in the Confederate cause as correspondents whose letters survived. Elizabeth and Emma kept journals and wrote letters, but overall Rose and Belle were more prolific. Miss Abbott had more information about Rose and Belle, so it’s natural that she herself wrote more about them.

So I suppose I like to think that the bias is in me, for any or all of the above-mentioned reasons. Admittedly, that the bias is mine does not reflect well on my character, but at least it means that Miss Abbott was an impartial author. That is so essential for a history/biography writer that I will willingly shoulder the responsibility and declare Miss Abbott an exceptional writer for her genre.

And talking of character, while I did not like Rose or Belle, they did earn my admiration for their courage. Certainly all these ladies took incredible risks to do their bit for the causes in which they so passionately believed. Rose and Belle were both imprisoned and neither one let that deter them from what they believed was their calling to do. I may not have agreed with their politics, sanctioned their lifestyles, or appreciated their essential characteristics, but that kind of bravery deserves respect.

Belle, Elizabeth, Emma, and Rose. Four hitherto unknown women who rose to the occasion and in the process changed their world. Their actions then, ultimately, helped shape who our nation has since become. Thank you, Miss Abbott, for bringing their stories to life.

An Ordinary Tale

Review #14

Book: The Ordinary Princess by M.M. Kaye

Audience: C

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: bookbookbook

In The Ordinary Princess, M.M. Kaye attempts to upend fairy tale conventions. And, in part, she does. Princess Amethyst (Amy for short) is the youngest of several beautiful, charming, talented, graceful (etc., etc.) princesses. At her birth celebration the traditional fairies come to bestow their traditional gifts. This is where things get interesting. The final fairy comes forth and, tired of the usual, boring, and mundane gifts, she decrees that Princess Amy will be ordinary—plain looking, no exemplary talent, no particular charm or grace. In short, Amy herself will be boring and mundane.

This, however, is the extent of Miss Kaye’s fairy tale rebellion. We are now accustomed to having our fairy tale heroines be smart, brave, self-sufficient young ladies who always get their man. Amy is no different. Yes, she becomes a kitchen maid and briefly has to work for a living, but she is still friends with the woodland animals and still marries her prince. So this ordinary heroine with her ordinary plot and her ordinary happy ending merits an ordinary rating.