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.

My Happy, Golden Adventure

Book: Pioneer Girl by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Audience: Fans

Genre: Nonfiction

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Every two years I take a trip—a jam-packed pilgrimage to a site of literary importance to me. I’ve been to William Shakespeare’s birthplace, the Chawton house where Jane Austen wrote 4 of her masterpieces, Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House (which she used as a setting for Little Women), and Green Gables, the reconstruction of the house from the Lucy Maud Montgomery books. This was a trip year and it was a doozey. Instead of visiting one site particular to an author, a friend of mine from work and I visited five, logging over 2,000 miles of driving between sites. Who was the author who inspired this adventure? That would be Mrs. Laura Ingalls Wilder.

In preparing for this trip, I tried to remember what came first in my life, the books or the television series. The television show actually started with a made-for-TV movie that premiered in March of 1974, when I would have been in first grade, and I remember watching it. I know I did not read the books in strict order. I know I read Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, and On the Banks of Plum Creek first. I remember reading a chapter from Plum Creek (“The Day of Games”) aloud during literature time to my third grade class. I remember reading These Happy Golden Years also while in third grade and having some moments of confusion (due to the fact that I skipped some books and that I was eight years old reading a book written for an older audience). I want to say I watched the movie because I was familiar with the books, but I am not positive. What I have recently realized, however, is that when reading the books, in my mind Laura and Mary never looked like their television counterparts. They looked like the Garth Williams illustrations I grew up with. This makes me more confident that I came to the books first.

And while I LOVED the television show, so much so that my best friend Carrie had her mom audiotape the proposal episode (these were pre-VCR days, baby) because we had a meeting to go to that Monday night, it was not as important to me as the books. How important were they, you ask? Let me count the ways.

First of all, they were an incredible source of imaginative play. Carrie and I would spend hours playing Little House—she was Laura and I reluctantly was Mary (I gave in because I thought TV Mary had the cuter husband). This would be at Carrie’s house, my house, and our favorite place, Grandma and Popeye’s (Carrie’s grandparents) basement. Didn’t matter when or where. This continued for several years, likely long after imaginative play had been abandoned by our peers.

Secondly, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have the complete set. These were the books I rescued from the donation boxes—my biggest act of adolescent rebellion. How dare my mother give them away? I wasn’t done with them yet! Fast forward 30+ years, and I’m still not done with them. I’ve had to replace them because my originals wore out, but I still own a complete set of the series.

Thirdly, I’m pretty sure these were the first historical books I ever read. Considering that my passion for the past continues into my present, these books must have appealed to my imagination in a far more significant way than any books that came before.

Fourthly (but likely not really finally), I think these were the books that inspired my desire to be a writer. I remember marching into my parents’ bedroom and announcing to them that I was going to write a book about what Laura Ingalls Wilder meant to me. OK, so that book never materialized, but I have written multiple works of fiction (some completed, some not, and none published). Not to mention that for the past two-and-a-half years I have written in this blog. Published or not, I am a writer of sorts, and LIW was my original inspiration for that.

So, after a 668 word intro, I can at last get to the subject of this “review” as well as an account of my trip. Again, to prepare for the trip, I read an annotated version of Mrs. Wilder’s memoir, Pioneer Girl. This memoir was what she used to pen the fictionalized version of her life she immortalized in the Little House series. I had read excerpts from the memoir before in some biographies, but it was great to read it in total. What made it most fascinating was the actual annotations. Admittedly, I didn’t read all of them. The ones that commented on the kinds of flora and fauna didn’t hold my interest. The amazing ones were the remarks that illustrated Mrs. Wilder’s process as an author.  In reading those notes I got to see the deliberate choices Mrs. Wilder made between what actually happened in her life and what she wrote about in her fiction. Choices to maintain reader clarity, theme, characterization, pacing, and historical context illuminated just how much work goes into good writing. I often hear people say, “I could write a children’s book better than that.” Chances are those people are wrong. Chances are those people have no idea the work that is actually involved in writing. Chances are those people are yet unpublished.

Another wonderful thing about the annotations was that, for me, it put to bed the question of the actual authorship of the Little House series. Growing up, I unquestioningly believed that Mrs. Wilder was the author. Over the years, I have read theories that the books were in fact written by Rose Wilder Lane, Laura’s famous author-journalist daughter. The school of thought is that Laura, having never graduated from high school, lacked the ability to craft fiction, so she and Rose worked together to create the series with Rose being the actual author. The annotations debunk that theory. They contain excerpts from letters between the two ladies where Rose offers suggestions and Laura accepts or rejects them and gives her reasons. I have no doubt that Rose was a hand-on editor of her mother’s work and that the true authorship belongs to Laura.

So, having read this memoir, my friend and colleague J and I set out on a LIW journey. We flew to St. Louis and then rented a car (covered wagons not available). Over the next 8 days we trekked over 2,000 miles in 6 states. We saw the hotel that the Ingalls family ran in Burr Oak, Iowa (an experience Mrs. Wilder did not recount in her fiction). We wandered through what is left of the Big Woods of Wisconsin and visited a replica of the little house there (built to the description in the memoir, not the fiction). We stood in the remains of the dugout site and followed the banks of Plum Creek in Minnesota. We rode in the car for 10 minutes to get from Walnut Grove to Tracy, a journey that took a train carrying the Ingalls women an entire morning to complete in 1879. We stood in the actual surveyor’s house and the first schoolhouse the girls attended in South Dakota. We admired Pa’s handiwork in the final house he built in town. We were mesmerized by the size of the trees he planted on the homestead over 100 years ago and marveled at the size (bigger than I expected) of the sitting room in the homestead house (a replica) where I played the pump organ. We were awed by the house Mr. Wilder built in Missouri, where he customized the kitchen to fit his wife’s diminutive size, and by the stone house Rose had built for her parents’ retirement. We geeked out at the artifacts in the Mansfield, MO museum (OK, perhaps I geeked out a bit more, obsessive fan that I am). We paid our respects at the gravesites of the Ingalls-Wilder family members in both South Dakota and Missouri. We had a thoroughly wonderful time on an incredible trip, one that was all the more meaningful and enjoyable to me since I had a companion as interested in every aspect of the family as I was.

So that was my adventure this summer. J and I ended the trip with a few days in St. Louis, going up the Arch and having high tea in the swanky Central West End district, but the LIW site visits were the realization of a dream. In visiting these historic locations I was also, in a sense, revisiting my childhood and the multitude of happy hours I spent in Laura-world. It was wonderful, it was awesome, it totally rocked!

We Are Fam-I-Ly

Book: Blood Sisters by Sarah Gristwood

Audience: G-U

Genre: Nonfiction

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English royal history has long been an interest of mine. It started out with the Tudors, which morphed into an interest in King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. Then I began an interest in Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and now it has extended to an interest in the Wars of the Roses. I think one of the attractions of that particular time period was that these “wars” resulted in the Tudor dynasty, so I suppose I’ve come full circle.

I’ve already read a few books by Alison Weir (perhaps my favorite English royal biographer) about the Wars of the Roses, but this book combined that topic with another one of my favorite things—women in history. I think what intrigues me about historical women is context. The contemporary chroniclers of these women were all men, often with an agenda to promote, and often that agenda was to discredit women in any vicinity of power. So the question is, how accurate are the written portraits we have of historical women?

Since this was a book about women by a woman, the sexist issue did not likely come into play. Miss Gristwood told the story of seven women involved during this English Cousins’ War: Margaret of Anjou, queen of Henry VI; Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII; Cecily Neville, mother of Edward IV and Richard III; Margaret of Burgundy, Cecily’s daughter, sister of Edward IV; Anne Neville, Cecily’s great-niece and daughter-in-law, and queen of Richard III; Elizabeth Woodville, queen of Edward IV; and Elizabeth of York, Elizabeth Woodville’s daughter, Margaret Beaufort’s daughter-in-law, and queen of Henry VII. Confused much?

Actually, I don’t intend to enlighten about these ladies. I will say that I had significant familiarity with Margarets Beaufort and Anjou as well as the Elizabeths. My knowledge of the Neville women, however, prior to reading this book was somewhat lacking. There just isn’t a great deal of information available about Anne Neville, but Miss Gristwood certainly made good use of the little she found. Cecily was intriguing, and Margaret of Burgundy was a revelation. How could any recitation of the events of the Cousins’ War be complete without acknowledging her role? I can only guess that as she was no one’s queen or mother of a queen, earlier biographers (assuming they had information about her) tended to be dismissive of her. Whatever the reason, I am quite glad that Miss Gristwood gave this intelligent, powerful, and determined women her due, even though I totally disagree with what Margaret was trying to do.

What I enjoyed most about this book was Miss Gristwood’s dedication to presenting verifiable information as such. So often when I read a biography or history phrases such as “he thought” or “she felt” pop up. When dealing with subjects from several centuries ago it is nearly impossible to be accurate about their thoughts and feelings. The only way we can be sure about these things is if the subject kept a journal or wrote an autobiography.  We also often don’t really know why someone behaved as she did. Again, so often when I read about historical people what I’m actually reading is the biographer’s interpretation of what the subjects did and why. The problem comes when this kind of material is presented as fact. This is where Miss Gristwood succeeds so well. She does postulate, she does interpret, but she always makes sure the reader knows that she is doing so. She does not present her theories (or theories of other biographers whose work she references) as fact. How totally refreshing (Gillian Gill, I am talking to you.)

Informative work, presents facts as facts, acknowledges interpretations, shines light on somewhat obscure figures, engaging prose. What better way to become better acquainted with these Lancaster-York sisters?