CALL THE MIDWIFE – Jennifer Worth

Truth is always stranger than fiction goes the old saying. When I finished Jennifer Worth’s book, I realised the old cliché perfectly summed up the book for me. A memoir of Jennifer Worth’s work as a midwife, in the East London  slums  during the 1950s.

You could not invent some of the stories you will find in her book.
For example: Conchita, married happily to her English husband, for over 20 years, living in the East End, mother to 25 children. No: this is not a typo. I repeat: 25 children. Conchita met her husband while he was fighting in the Spanish Civil War, and escaped Spain, fleeing back to England with him. Once she was old enough they married, and then the babies began. As if all this were not incredible enough, the couple were devoted to each other and provided a happy family life for their tribe despite poverty and cramped living conditions. But wait! There’s more. The reason they got on so well was that she spoke not a word of English, and he not a word of Spanish! Even after all those years. Apparently some of the older children had learned Spanish from their Mum and acted as translators.
Jennifer Worth’s story reveals the dreadful conditions in 1950s London slums: no running water, inadequate sanitation, no home telephones (to call the midwife – you had to race to a callbox!) no domestic appliances, little or no work for women, huge families, and not much by way of birth control. The book doesn’t set out to be a social history of the area and the decade, but that’s the unavoidable backdrop. Hard to believe that her early life as a nurse, and young woman, unfolded in this milieu, and that she found the courage to deal with the harsh  circumstances , and carry on working like a Trojan. These deplorable conditions were in one of the world’s greatest cities, just under 70 years ago. Hard to believe from the vantage point of our 21st century modern world.
Despite the grim social reality, Jennifer’s story is filled with memorable characters, especially  the nuns with whom she lived. The Sisters of St Raymund Nonnatus provided midwifery services to the area, and also engaged lay nurses to help. The nurses lived in the convent building alongside the nuns. Meeting the aristocratic, semi-demented, cake-loving Sister Monica Joan is worth the price of the book alone.
Some of my readers may have seen the British television series of the same name. If you haven’t seen the programme, it’s worth giving it a try. Ditto the book – what a good, engrossing read. I see there are 2 if not 3 more titles in the Midwife series, and I’d love to read them all.

Advertisements

SEPTEMBER 2017 READING ROUNDUP

images (2)

I had a good reads all through the month, no duds at all. Two Paris themed books, and an extraordinary novel set in the Maghreb. I had to consult Wikipedia to orientate myself. ‘A Life Full of Holes’ is a translated novel, recorded by the American novelist Paul Bowles who spent time in North Africa. He had the stories translated into English, and many thanks to him for doing so.  Otherwise the book would remain closed to the English speaking world.

I followed Ann Morgan’s blog www.ayearofreadingtheworld.com  a while back. She (literally) read her way around the world, 196 books , one from every nation and this introduced me to the world of translated books.  Thanks to her, I’ve read some extraordinary books, plus a few lemons – don’t talk to me about Japanese crime novels. No thank you. Thus I pounced on the Maghrebi book (on a sale, naturally). It’s been languishing in the dreaded TBR pile for a year or two, but very much worthwhile once I got into it.

I hope you find some inspiration in my  September Roundup.

Ratings: 5* – Outstanding!  4*+  –  Good to very good;  3* – average;  2* – run-of-the-mill  dismal;  zero * – no comment.   DNF – did not finish

 

5* My Life with Bob – Pamela Paul . Memoir. A life with and through books. https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2129693716

4.5*Books , Baguettes, and Bedbugs – the Left Bank World of Shakespeare & Company – Jeremy Mercer. Memoir. Life in Paris and the Legendary bookstore at the Millenium. Riveting. Reviewed on this blog.

4* How to Stop Time – Matt Haig. A 400 year-old man resolves his  centuries old losses in the 21st century. Intriguing and highly readable. https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2129704145

4* A Life Full of Holes – Driss Ben Hamed Charhadi – intro Paul Bowles. Reviewed on this blog.

3.75* The Cold Dish – Craig Johnson. First in the Walt Longmire crime series, set in Wyoming.  Reviewed on this blog.

3.75* Lunch in Paris – Elizabeth Bard. Fall in love with a Frenchman, settle in Paris and explore the wonders of French cuisine. Reviewed on this blog.

A LIFE FULL OF HOLES – Driss Ben Hamed Charhardi

 

 

 

 

timbuktu_1_777535603

A Novel Recorded and Translated by Paul Bowles
Amazon review: One of the most unusual literary innovations ever produced, A Life Full of Holes is the result of a singular collaboration between two remarkable individuals: Driss ben Hamed Charhadi, an illiterate North African servant and street vendor, and legendary American novelist and essayist Paul Bowles. The powerful story of a shepherd and petty trafficker struggling to maintain hope as he wrestles with the grim realities of daily life, it is the first novel ever written in the Arabic dialect Moghrebi, faithfully recorded and translated into English by Bowles. Straightforward yet rich in complex emotions, it is a fascinating inside look at an unfamiliar culture—harsh and startling, yet interwoven with a poignant, poetic beauty.

 

 

The book languished in my TBR pile for a couple of years, but I tackled it in October, and I’m glad I did.

 
At first I thought I was reading a memoir, but apparently it’s a novel. The setting is North Africa , the Maghreb region, in the 1930’s and covers Ahmed’s life from 8 years old to his late teens.

 
He starts his working life at age 8 as a shepherd in the mountains, tending sheep. He moves down to the city below, and does all and any work he can get: delivery boy for a bakery, night watchman, house-servant for a debauched gay couple of Westerners; part-time smuggler of kif (a herb somewhat like hemp). And bearing in mind he’s just a kid! He’s usually hungry, desperately poor, often beaten, periodically jailed for petty theft, but he keeps on keeping on with a fatalistic belief that Allah has his life mapped out for him.

 
What a hard life! The story ended very abruptly with no sense of closure or resolution. I was left wanting to know what happened to Ahmed. Did he ever achieve his very modest ambition to own his own home, find a wife, and have children? We will never know.

 
I’ve never read anything like it. Somehow the plain unvarnished narrative – no adjectives, adverbs and seldom any indication of Ahmed’s emotions or feelings – kept propelling me onwards, after a somewhat sticky start. I don’t know that I agree with Amazon’s phrase “ a poignant, poetic beauty” . I frequently had to remind myself that I was reading about a kid, a teenager who, by today’s standards, was living a dreadful life. No wonder he smoked kif and lied through his teeth to escape another beating or arrest.

 
If you can find a copy then I suggest you give it a try. It’s definitely a reading adventure. I enjoyed the book.

LUNCH IN PARIS – Elizabeth Bard

 

51wjmKblGUL._AC_US218_
Reading her book made me itch to get into the kitchen and start cooking! Immediately! And then buy a ticket to Paris for the pleasure of seeing the wonderful food markets she describes. At the end of each chapter are two or three recipes that have featured in the preceding chapter.
Not only do you get recipes, but you also read about the difficulties of adjusting to life and culture in France, which is worlds apart – quite literally- from New Jersey, USA , and a semi-Jewish heritage. It sounds so romantic: fall in love with a Frenchman, live in Paris, marry and settle down in Paris. Dream on. Elizabeth’s struggles to adjust, adapt, fit in and build a new life and many and varied. The language – the bureaucracy – and – and …
She also lets us in on the secret why French women are so damn thin. They’re wearing bikinis to the beach with utmost confidence at age 60! Want to know how? Portion control, and never, ever eating between meals. Simple. No snacking. Not forgetting the many flights of stairs in Parisian apartment buildings and the lack of lifts.
If you enjoy foodie books and memoirs, you should enjoy the book. Plus you can stun your friends by producing fabulous French dishes at your next dinner party
P.S. Do not open this book if you are dieting or trying to adopt a leaner, healthier lifestyle.

THE COLD DISH – Craig Johnson

51xXMqOpbAL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_

Earlier this year I scooped up a terrific bargain at a booksale: five of Craig Johnson’s Walter Longmire mysteries, and have just finished reading the first story in the series.

Sheriff Walt Longmire,  long-time lawman of Absaroka County in Wyoming, faces numerous challenges –  staff issues within the Sheriff’s department, his own depression and despair over the (fairly) recent death of his wife, and now someone is systematically  knocking off the young adults who, as teenagers, gang raped a local Cheyenne girl, who was a victim of fetal alcohol syndrome. The rapists went to trial but got light sentences, due to their young age.  But obviously the verdict isn’t sitting well with the local community. Is the murderer from the local Indian community on the Reservation? Or is an incensed  citizen of the small town dishing out community  vengeance ? Revenge is a dish best served cold, as the old saying goes.

 

Due to Johnson’s  skilful writing laced with dry humour, a  plot which could have been  heavy going, keeps the reader interested and entertained. I must say I was shocked and surprised by the revelation of the murderer’s identity, but the book is a great deal more than a whodunit.

What I enjoyed the most were the descriptions of the high mountain country, the changing seasons, and the tough people who live and farm in the area.  Johnson gives us a rich assortment of characters living in town and on the Rez, particularly Walt’s lifelong best friend, Henry Standing Bear. Henry is owner of the Red Pony Saloon. He is  grave (he never uses contractions in his speech ) dignified, and something of a gourmet cook.  And finally: Walt Longmire  himself is being  pursued and flirted with by several ladies in the town, to his gruff consternation. He is, after all, a widower, and he does have an  appreciation of female beauty. Well – in an old school kind of way, you understand.

A wonderfully well rounded read which I heartily recommend. I can’t wait to read the next book in the series.

 

BOOKS BAGUETTES AND BEDBUGS

BOOKS BAGUETTES AND BEDBUGS – The Left Bank World of Shakespeare & Co – by Jeremy Mercer

Canadian crime journo, burnt-out and in a spot of bother at home, flees to Paris. Soon he’s penniless and ends up scrounging a bed at Shakespeare and Company, the legendary bookstore. George Whitman, the eccentric bookstore owner never turned away a homeless, broke, writer. He installed beds in odd corners of the rambling bookstore’s rooms where itinerant writers/readers camped for weeks, months and in some cases, years.
Oh the romance of life in Paris, following the tradition of literary greats! Oh the books! Oh! the cameraderie – the drinking – the girls – the bars, drinking wine under the bridges down on the banks of the Seine! Mercer loves every romantic moment.
But he doesn’t revel quite so much in the not so romantic life of scrounging food and showers, cleaning the bookstore, heaving boxes of books around in return for the free lodging and occasional meal.
Not to mention the whims of mercurial, eccentric George, who emerges as King of his castle, amongst a wonderful gallery of readers, writers, rogues, romantics, rascals, vagabonds, thieves, hopefuls, the lazy and the crazy – they’re all there, but the books is worth reading just for the pleasure of encountering George.
Mercer describes his five month residence in 1999/2000 at Shakespeare and Company with warmth, verve and plenty of warts (his own featuring prominently).
I loved every page. How I wish I were thirty years younger – I’d be off to Paris in a flash, living the bohemian life of a would be writer, sipping wine and desperate for a shower, along with the rest of the motley crew.
If you enjoy books about writers and readers, Mercer’s story is a Must Read.

 

AUGUST 2017 READING ROUNDUP

images (2)

This month I’ve been Globetrotting with a French novel, an Indian novel, an African novel and the usual British & American reads. Plus a marvellous book of essays from one of my favourite American writers: Rebecca Solnit. Part memoir, part philosophical reflection, and beautiful writing throughout – balm for the soul. Highly recommended .
Ratings: 5* – Outstanding! 4*+ – Good to very good; 3* – average; 2* – run-of-the-mill; 1* – dismal; zero * – no comment. DNF – did not finish

5*A Field Guide to Getting Lost – Rebecca Solnit. Non-fict. Essays. A treat for the mind and heart. See review on GR: https://www.goodreads.com/review/edit/76479
5* 21 at 21. The Coming of Age of a Nation – Melanie Verwoerd & Sonwabiso Ngcowa. Non-fict. A survey of 21 ‘Born Frees’. Fascinating insights into South Africa’s new adults. Reviewed on this blog.

4*How it all began – Penelope Lively .Contemporary English novel – entertaining .Recommended . Review on https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2095223995
4* The Golden Son – Shilpi Somaya Gowda . Rich, satisfying read about the conflict between East and West, in the life of an Indian doctor. Reviewed on this blog.

3.5*The First Thing you see – Gregoire Delacourt. French novel. Ordinary people with dark pasts fall in love. Reviewed on this blog.

 

2* The Thunder that Roars – Imran Garda. African migrants and family history . https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/5903520
2* The Bookstore – Deborah Meyler . Chick-lit. Insufferable love interest.

21 at 21 : The Coming of Age of a Nation – Melanie Verwoerd & Sonwabiso Ngcowa

516pVULBfZL._AC_US218_

 

Summary:
It has been 21 years since the dawn of democracy in South Africa. To mark the “coming of age” of the nation, Melanie Verwoerd and Sonwabiso Ngcowa travelled across South Africa collecting the life stories of people born in 1994. These “born frees” relate their personal journeys, dreams and hopes for the future of the country. The brutally honest voices of these 21-year-olds, challenging and disturbing, as well as funny and hopeful, give an invaluable insight into modern day South Africa. “A remarkable insight … It will leave no one untouched” – Archbishop Desmond Tutu
The book should be required reading for all South Africans and should be part of the high school curriculum to show our school kids that we are all human, regardless of colour and economic status.
I could devote a review to each of the stories, but will highlight a few to show the diversity of our country’s young people. The stories range from the heroic (child-headed households) to the heartbreaking, from incredible hardship to the hopeful with bright eyes on the future.
“I am Xhosa First” says Siviwe Njamela, and goes on to talk about the importance of traditional tribal initiation in black culture, a topic that many South Africans know little about and have no grasp of the cultural importance to the majority of our population.
By way of complete contrast is the chapter on Joost Strydom, titled Growing up in Afrikaner Paradise . He was brought up in the ultra-nationalist  Afrikaner enclave of Orania, and emerged as a stable, well-rounded, bright young man and not a howling racist as many might suppose. Our complex society is full of surprises and contradictions.
“Get me to 21” girl Jenna Lowe, died from pulmonary arterial hypertension. When interviewed for the book, she just wanted “to get to 21”. She passed away on Monday the 8th of June, just four months shy of her 21st birthday that she so desperately wanted to make. During her short life she became South Africa’s voice for organ donation with her campaign Get Me To 21.

 

And then there’s the vexed question of cultural and racial identity – still a big issue in South Africa, 21 years on into the New South Africa. The chapter on Ishmael Evans The Intricacy of belonging. He was born in Australia to ‘a *coloured guy from Uitenhage’ (his own words) and a mother born in Liverpool England. Because of growing Islamophobia in Australia, the family moved back to SA in 2010. Ishmael sounds and looks like an Australian, but is a devout Muslim . A good cricketer, he wants to play cricket at national level. He appears white, but thinks of himself as a coloured .
“I want to be a good dad one day” said Marcellino Fillies. That’s his ambition: to live a productive life and have a family. So many of the stories reflect a very South African problem, that of the absentee fathers. Which in turn lead to developmental problems, and lack of role models.
I could go on and on. If you live in South Africa: read this book!
If you live outside our borders and want to know more about us, read this book!
a *coloured guy – racially mixed parentage, often white & black.

THE FIRST THING YOU SEE – Gregoire Delacourt

 

51vN0oelpLL._AC_US218_

A young French woman, Jeanine Foucamprez, is a dead ringer for the gorgeous global star, Scarlett Johansson.  But what Jeanine desperately desires, is to be seen, appreciated and loved for who she really is. She knocks on the front door of Arthur Drefuss, small town garage mechanic, and changes his life forever.

A perfect week follows: simple unaffected happiness and young love. Amongst the heady bliss, dark fragments of  the couples’ past history emerges. Naturally this  can’t last. The end comes, as it always does. Life goes on, as it always does. The dark strands added texture to what otherwise would have been a romantic  meringue.

Being a French novel, it was quirky, witty and unusual; all of which I loved. It was refreshing to read about a normal ordinary person (Arthur, the mechanic). I’m tired of reading about sophisticated urbanites or struggling young wannabees, or disenchanted middle aged couples sabotaging their lives and marriages.  British and American novels often present these  stereotypes. What I didn’t like was the constant references to films and songs that meant nothing to me.  But this said, I enjoyed the book.  It was very French which was a welcome change.  Recommended read.

 

THE GOLDEN SON – Shilpi Somaya Gowda

 

51WoLnhVUdL._AC_US160_

I’m a fan of Indian novels, and this one did not disappoint.
It’s the story of Anil, born into a family of landowners and farmers. His father’s dearest wish is that Anil study medicine, and go to America to practice as a doctor. Which Anil does, but at considerable cost to family relationships, and his own love life. We’re witness to the ongoing, often heartbreaking conflict between Western career and lifestyle, and Eastern family ties and preferred lifestyle. It’s a constant tussle, and there are no easy choices.
The book has a sub-plot which involves the abuse and exploitation of Anil’s friend, Leena, when she marries into a thoroughly bad family. Previously I’ve read about the horrific crimes committed against new brides, and Leena’s story is no exception. I’ll leave it at that, so as not to write a spoiler.
An interesting feature of the book was the description of the ancient panchayat system, which I knew nothing about. In short, community disputes (often involving land or water rights and usage ) are solved within the community by a local open court , presided over by the leading family in the district. In this case, Anil’s family and on the death of his father, Anil finds himself unwillingly acting as referee to weekly panchayat telephone conferences between Texas and India! That’s what I enjoy about Indian novels: the juxtaposition of ancient and modern lives.
Altogether a rich, satisfying read.