I have four books to report on for April. What the...?! In related news, we have about a day's worth of TV shows on our DVR that are probably never going to get watched.
1. A Country Doctor by Sarah Orne Jewett
Sarah Orne Jewett was a contemporary of Willa Cather, one of my favorite authors, and her style of writing is similar to Cather's, so I thought I'd enjoy this book. The story is of an orphan named Anna, called "Nan" for short. Nan's mother thought she was too good to stay in the small Maine town where she was born and raised, so she went off to the city, met and married a man, they ended up not being a good match for each other, she has Nan and returns to the small town in shame. The quiet scenes in country homes were great - it was easy to recognize people I know in those characters. "The cake was peculiar to its maker, who prided herself upon never being without it; and there was some trick of her hand or a secret ingredient which was withheld when she responded with apparent cheerfulness to requests for its recipe." Ha!
Nan's mother dies from a vague disease that has something to do with being an alcoholic. I think. Anyway, Nan's small town grandmother raises her. Nan is always outside running and teasing nosy neighbors and worrying her grandmother. The town doctor (whose entire business is making house calls - this is late-ish 19th century) takes notice of Nan and enjoys seeing her spirited play. Right before Nan's mother died (really wishing I remembered that character's name), she asked the doctor to look after Nan. The doctor takes that request seriously. He seems to be able to inspire good behavior in Nan when no one else can. Nan's grandmother dies and instead of alerting the family of Nan's father (wealthy family in Boston), the doctor and his housekeeper take her in and raise her. Naturally! As a person who has waded through swimming pools of red tape to adopt my children, I say that's kind of crazy.
There is a lot of talk about nature and what a person is "meant" to do in A Country Doctor. Nan is determined to be a doctor and her mentor, Dr. Leslie, encourages and teaches her as much as he can - he is all for this path for Nan. "And if I can help one good child to work with nature and not against it, and to follow the lines marked out for her, and she turns out useful and intelligent, and keeps off the rocks of mistaking her duty, I shall be more than glad. I don't care whether it's a man's work or a woman's work; if it is hers I'm going to help her the best way I can."
Some major obstacles try to block Nan's chosen profession. The biggest is an offer of marriage from a man she likes and maybe even loves. Nan can't be a doctor and a wife. I guess. It was the 1870s, so... I wouldn't have married him just because he made fun of her desire to be a doctor. Booo. Also, he was her first cousin. Too close. Ick. I didn't appreciate all the comparisons to the usefulness of a woman as a wife and mother versus her usefulness as a doctor (guess who fared better in that comparison). I enjoyed the writing very much - the humor was subtle and the characterizations were complete. The ending was bad. Like throwing a hat up in the air and declaring, "Thank you for my future!" bad.
The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago by Douglas Perry
I can't remember where I came across this book, but I was so shocked that the women in the musical 'Chicago' were real people, that I had to read more. Remember the woman reporter, Mary Sunshine (I think Christine Baranski played her in the movie), she's also a real person and she wrote a play based on these women killers and that play became 'Chicago.'
So! During about an 18-month period in the mid-1920s in Chicago, it seemed like women were killing their boyfriends, husbands, and lovers in shocking numbers. "Everyone in the city wanted to read about the fairest killers in the land. These women embodied the city's rebellious side, a side that appeared to be on the verge of overwhelming everything else." Newspaper reporters camped out in police stations waiting to see and hear all the juicy details. They even described what the killers were wearing like it was a red carpet event.
The Girls of Murder City follows the crime, incarceration, and trials of mainly Belva Gaertner/Velma Kelley (former dancing girl who married one of her rich clients and killed her side-boyfriend when she was drunk) and Beulah Annan/Roxie Hart (pictured above, married and working at a laundry, she killed her co-worker/boyfriend when he threatened to stop seeing her). Both women were pretty and milking the publicity the newspapers gave them in hopes that it would get them acquitted of their crimes. Beulah especially liked to see herself described in the papers - more for the vanity than because she thought it would help her case. Beulah was dumber than a bag of hammers. She changed her story many times in the weeks leading up to her trial. One of the quotes she gave a newspaper, "I think in most cases where a man is shot by a woman, he has it coming to him" had me singing that awful song from the musical for days. Bother. When she was about to go to trial and another news story threatened to overshadow her, Beulah claimed to be pregnant with her husband's baby. She was acquitted. And no, she was not pregnant (the all-male jury totally bought that story).
Maurine Watkins was the real-life reporter who brought the murderesses stories to life in The Chicago Tribune. Maurine saw right through these ladies and her cheeky reporting appealed to the readers of the Tribune. Perry's book also focused on Watkins's story. Maurine Watkins was kind of the Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert of her time - her writing style was satire on a whole new kind of American experience. Beulah and Belva were the first "reality" stars. They were gross. Maurine moved the spotlight away from their beauty and on to their brutal, despicable crimes. Interestingly, Maurine left the newspaper reporting business when two young, ivy league educated men kidnapped and killed a 14 year-old boy "just for the experience" of it. Watkins was a religious woman and the remorselessness of these two young men was too much for her. She couldn't be cheeky about that story, so she left Chicago to write a play.
Perry's writing style is newspaper-y in a good way. I found myself wondering when exactly the "good ol' days" were, because 1920s Chicago sounds pretty grim. Also, before and after the 1920s.
3. The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution by Alice Waters
I find myself looking for recipes that fit into our family food revolution. I figured the best place to look was Alice Waters. I saw an interview she did with Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes a few years ago. Waters is all about experiencing food instead of viewing it as a utilitarian function. "Even a well-written recipe, with accurate measurements and correct proportions, cannot be made successfully without your active engagement."
Waters begins her book with stocking your pantry and having the right equipment. The next several chapters are detailed explanations of cooking techniques followed by recipes that use those cooking techniques. I found myself underlining a lot of sentences and flagging pages with post-it notes. I consider this book a valuable textbook on cooking the way I really want to know how to cook. Although I don't see myself making my own mayonnaise any time soon. (I watched someone making mayonnaise on Top Chef once. There was so much whisking and precisely timed additions of olive oil. Nope.)
"A well-set table (and this can be as humble a setting as a folded napkin and a fork) is the crowning touch to a satisfying meal, one that feeds all the senses and nourishes the body." Ahhh. Don't you just want to eat her food? The best part is the roughly 30 recipes for vegetables in the last section of the book. :)
Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman
This book was a last-minute pick - it wasn't on any of my "to read" lists. Ever since reading The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, I've been interested in the differences in parenting among cultures and countries. Druckerman goes from living in New York City to living in Paris with her British boyfriend who then becomes her husband. They have a daughter together and Druckerman suddenly becomes hyper-aware of the differences in parenting styles, child care, etc. between Americans and French families. I say "Americans" but Druckerman is really only comparing Parisian parents to the apparently very unhappy upper-middle class families she knows.
I think if Druckerman widened her circle to include smaller cities with parents who don't have enough money to pay a full-time nanny and who are teaching their children to not be the Center of the Universe, she would find that Parisian parents are a lot more similar to "Americans" than she gives them credit for. It's true that I do recognize some of the stereotypes in people I know, but most of my friends and neighbors are doing all the things Druckerman seems to think are strictly a French thing. For example, the sitting down as a family for meals that include a variety of foods (she has plenty of stories of American families who claim their King Children will only eat white food or fried foods or whatever and these idiots give in to their children's ridiculous demands). Druckerman gushes about French moms making meals from scratch almost every night of the week. That's not French, unless my Mom, my sisters, and all my friends are also French. Der. I'm with her on the strange need for American moms to pack a giant bag of snacks for quick outings. She compares that to treating children like addicts instead of expecting them to have patience, which would be respecting them.
I didn't know before I started reading Bringing Up Bebe that Druckerman has a daughter and twin boys. Sames! She has a fun, observant humor when she writes about her own children. I like that she is open to the advice that French men and women give her without her asking for it. One woman advises Druckerman to use "big eyes" and say no with conviction. I've tried it a few times on Emil the last few days - not a loud voice, but serious eye contact, no smile, and "no" with conviction. It stops him in his tracks (those being pushing a bar stool to the kitchen table to climb up and hang from the chandelier) as long as I keep the eye contact. As soon as I turn my back, Emil goes back to what he was doing. When Emil is sad or in trouble he closes his eyes and pretends we're not here. It is the funniest thing ever.
Anyway! I enjoyed Bringing Up Bebe because of the insight into a different culture, but as a parenting book it was "meh." Any country that encourages week-long field trips for four year-old children (sans parents) cannot be my go-to source for parenting advice. There was also a sad undertone in some of the stories of French mothers. They don't gain as much weight during pregnancy and all of their relatives and their doctors tell them to lose the weight quickly. Druckerman has a few quotes from French wives that boil down to they're all afraid their husbands will leave them at any moment. It was kind of an "elephant in the room" thing. Keep the kids quiet so they don't bother Dad (and he won't want to leave), let the kids spend their entire summer with grandparents so Mom and Dad can have "adult time"(and Dad won't want to leave). Maybe I'm the only one who saw that, but it bothered me.