blaise's book feast

Un amuse bouche de la litterature

Tag: London

Call the Midwife

Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth

This biography details the lives of brave midwives in London’s East End after WWII.  The story is narrated by Jennifer Worth, a plucky, non-Catholic nurse who decides to undergo midwife training at the prestigious Convent at Nonnatus House. It is in this house that we meet Chummy, a gentle giant of a nun with a royal past, who delights in letting the rough street children teach her to ride a bike.  Other nuns, like the elderly Sister Monica Joan who alternates senility with poetic discourse to please her mood, make cameos as well.

The gems of the book are the diverse patients that Nurse Worth attends to.  The East End after the war was a place of overcrowding, suboptimal sanitation (some tenements had one outdoor privy for a 14 family building), and small mouths going unfed.  The sisters did a tremendous job of providing sterile birth packs to each of their expectant patients, so that the baby would come into the world onto clean, soft linens, and have a skilled midwife with sterilized supplies.  These measures drastically reduced the area’s infant mortality.  More incredibly, these midwives went out on their bicycles to check on the expectant mothers weekly until their deliveries, and then daily after the delivery for two weeks.

Jennifer profiles one spectacular family, the Warrens, and their enormous brood of twenty-four children.  Nurse Worth attends to several of their deliveries and was struck by how excited and caring Len was when there was a new birth, and took on many of the baby chores himself, so that Conchita could take her two weeks in bed, undisturbed.  Nurse Worth had never seen such defiance of the traditional gender roles, nor had she seen a couple so deeply in love.

The book details ministering to the marginalized folks in the East End society- the prostitutes, the unwed mothers, the abused young mothers, and she portrays it in a matter-of-fact way and goes about sensibly administering to them the best she can.

This was a tremendous book, and will appeal to a wide range of readers- those interested in history, post-war England, midwifery, and I’m sure my colleagues in medicine will love it too.

The Tower, The Zoo, and the Tortoise

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Like a wisp of a dream, or the apparition of a long lost lover incendiary before your eyes, this book is exquisite and before you know it, it’s gone.  Ms. Stuart brings a robust cadre of characters alive into their full-fledged, quirky selves with such magnanimity that you might as well be sitting across the sofa from them, drinking their Earl Grey tea and laughing with them about the escape of the penguins from the Tower Zoo.

The story centers on Balthazar Jones, a royal London Beefeater, and his diminutive Greek wife, Hebe Jones; their 181 year old pet tortoise, and the chasm where their once eleven year old son was.  Balthazar caries out his duties of royal tour guide for the tower of London, where such queries as, “who was beheaded in the Salt Tower?” and “where’s the loo?” eventually reduce his mental status to crumbs. But just before the tourists goad him to death, Balthazar becomes keeper of the Royal Menagerie, which moves to the Tower of London to house the Queen’s feathered and furry gifts from Heads of State. The importance of the post brings Balthazar a sobering challenge in the midst of his midlife existentialism.

Hebe Jones, on the other hand, spends her time at the London Underground Lost Property office, returning such things as tomato plants, canoe paddles and urns to their rightful owners.  She consorts with Valerie, her co-worker and co-conspirator of 15 years, about what to do with lost blow up dolls and lost urns and wayward ticket takers.  Also up to various amounts of mischief are Reverend Salazar, who moonlights as a romance novelist; Ruby Dore, the buxom barmaid and keeper of many mysteries, and the Ravenmaster, a skulking figure bent on keeping his precious ravens safe from the likes of 181 year old tortoises.

In this magical tale of Beefeaters who collect rain and tend to royal zoos, lies a swift current of love and loss, and the power of two people to overcome the black hole of losing a child.  Sublimation, in book form.