Book Review: Jennifer Worth’s Call the Midwife

200px-Call_the_midwife_book_coverTitle: Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times
Author: Jennifer Worth
Genre: Memoir
Series: Yes / Volume 1 of 3
Rating: 4 out of 5
My Copy: Borrowed from the library

Call the Midwife first came to my attention when I heard PBS was going to air the BBC series. I wasn’t sure if I’d be interested in a show about midwives in the 1950’s and close friends kept raving about it. I didn’t get around to watching the adaptation until New Year’s Eve and was quite surprised at how much I fell in love with the show. Shortly afterwards I borrowed the book from my local library branch.

Jennifer Worth is an engaging storyteller. She decided to write about her experiences in response to an article in the Royal College of Midwives Journal by Terri Coates regarding the underrepresentation of midwives in literature. Coates urged, “a midwife somewhere to do for midwifery what James Herriot did for vets.” Worth took up the challenge and eventually sent her first volume to Coates to read. She writes, “Whoever heard of a midwife as a literary heroine? Yet midwifery is the very stuff of drama. Every child is conceived either in love or lust, is born in pain, followed by joy or sometimes remorse. A midwife is in the thick of it, she sees it all. Why then does she remain a shadowy figure, hidden behind the delivery room door?”

Some do question how much of Worth’s memoir can be accepted as truth. There are several reasons for this. It’s important to note that Worth did change names and perhaps she did it to protect her patients and her friends (although she keeps her real name and uses her maiden name: Jenny Lee). Nonnatus House is where she worked as a district nurse and midwife is a pseudonym for the Sisters of St John the Divine in Whitechapel (Worth’s setting is in Poplar in the East End of London). Questions also arise regarding the identity of a midwife and if she actually existed. Worth describes Camilla “Chummy” Cholomondley-Browne as “Six foot two inches tall, with shoulders like a front-row forward and size eleven feet, her parents had spent a fortune trying to make her more feminine, but to no effect.” She said her first impression of her was a “bloke in drag.” Worth’s daughters, however; insist they once saw a photograph of the midwives taken during their mother’s tenure and a woman seen in the photograph fits Chummy’s description, but no Sister of St John’s can recall a midwife with her description or name. Furthermore, no one knows who has this photograph because it has disappeared. Then there’s the story of Sister Evangelina who Worth describes as a nurse who parachuted into German territory during the First World War. Critics are quick to point out the story regarding Sister Evangelina is invented. I wouldn’t necessarily discount what Worth writes as untrue. By World War II parachute schools were being established and I believe France was the first to create a woman’s airborne unit. Perhaps Worth heard about this and by the time she wrote her memoir it was part of her memory as having happened.

For the women who have had children, I salute you. Reading Call the Midwife certainly put things into perspective and her descriptions of living situations in 1950’s East End London sure make you appreciate our present day living. Worth describes in rich detail, midwives getting a call in the middle night and having to use a bicycle to attend patients. Imagine having to travel up 12 miles per a day carrying a bulky (and no doubt heavy) medical box and traveling everywhere via your bike. It’s interesting to see how much the medical field has changed these past 60 years. Worth mentions how much changed with the introduction of the pill, “Women could, for the first time in history, be like men, and enjoy sex for its own sake. In the late 1950s we had eighty to a hundred deliveries a month on our books. In 1963 the number had dropped to four or five a month. Now that is some social change!” I reread this section a few times and had to contemplate for a moment. I wonder what the Sisters thought of the pill? How was it viewed among the poor in the East End?

As a woman living in the 21st century we take a lot for granted. As Worth explains, “In the nineteenth century (and earlier, of course) no poor woman could afford to pay the fee required by a doctor for the delivery of her baby. So she was forced to rely on the services of an untrained, self-taught midwife, or “handywoman” as they were often called. Some may have been quite effective practitioners, but others boasted a frightening mortality rate. In the mid-nineteenth century, maternal mortality amongst the poorest classes stood at around 35-40 per cent, and infant mortality was around 60 per cent. Anything like eclampsia, haemorrhage, or mal-presentation, would mean the inevitable death of the mother. Sometimes these these handywomen would abandon a patient to agony and death if any abnormality developed during labour. There is no doubt that their working practices were insanitary, to say the least, and thereby spread infection, disease and often death.” It definitely makes one appreciate the steps taken to pass England’s Midwives Act, which of course lead to the Royal College of Midwives being created.

No medical knowledge is needed to fully appreciate Worth’s book. She’s very thorough and explains everything; clearly she made it her mission to pay attention to detail. Also she uses the Cockney dialect throughout the book to showcase how the people in the East End talked, but it’s easy to read. There’s a guide to the Cockney dialect and even goes into detail regarding the difficulty to put a dialect into print. Furthermore, there is a detailed glossary, which further explains the medical terminology used.

If you’re a fan of medical shows or are just interested in medical history, I highly recommend Call the Midwife. For everyone else, I do believe you’d enjoy reading this lovely memoir. If you’re wondering how much is changed between the book and the series, I have to say not much. A lot of the patients she mentions feature prominently in the series, however; the book provides much more in-depth information. You’ll be left wanting more and luckily there are three volumes to her memoir.

Book Review: “84, Charing Cross Road” by Helene Hanff

933c9330dca04517bbcd5010.LTitle: 84, Charing Cross Road
Author: Helene Hanff
Genre: Memoir
Series: No, but The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is a follow-up chronicling Hanff’s visit to England years later.
Rating: 5 out of 5

For my initial exposure to this story, I have a very dear friend to credit. In passing, she mentioned the movie, and upon discovering my ignorance, we, fairly galloping over to the nearest library that listed the DVD as available, absconded with a copy and promptly watched the film together.

Watching Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft portray the figures of Frank Doel, bookseller, and Helene Hanff, writer, was like meeting a pair of kindred souls. Never have I so rapidly become enamored of a story that so eloquently captured something of myself I’ve always known, but haven’t always been able to articulate. C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know that we are not alone,” and just occasionally, we stumble across a book that makes us thrust our fists into the air and holler, YES! This was one such book.

The back of my slim Penguin paperback summarizes the book succinctly, and for those not familiar with the work, I will include it here:

This charming classic, first published in 1970, brings together twenty years of correspondence between Helene Hanff, a freelance writer living in New York City, and a used-book dealer in London. Through the years, though never meeting and separated both geographically and culturally, they share a winsome, sentimental friendship based on their common love for books. Their relationship, captures so acutely in these letters, is one that will grab your heart and not let go.

Now, I object to the inclusion of the term “sentimental,” for this book is nothing of the sort. It is hilarious, it is witty, and it is touching, but it is also real. Nothing of the disgustingly common sentimental kind is lingering on these pages. There is no cheap play of human emotion or farce here. The parts that could be equated to “touching” or “heart-warming” are born out of genuine human kindness, not something you’d see sniveling across the pages of a Nicholas Sparks novel.

Hanff displays an uncommon knowledge of English literature (the REAL stuff, the GOOD stuff), and makes many literary and cultural references that are a pleasure to catch, if one can, or a delight to discover, if they are unfamiliar. She sends shipments of food to the post-WWII English bookshop to help augment their meagre rations, listens to Corelli, and types out sentences such as:

I do love secondhand books that open to the page some previous owner read oftenest. The day Hazlitt came he opened to, “I hate to read new books,” and I hollered “Comrade!” to whoever owned it before me.

Hands down, my favourite letter is dated October 15, 1951 (reproduced here in all Hanff’s exclamatory, punctuationally-defiant glory), after having been mistakenly sent an abridged copy of Samuel Pepys:


this is not a pepys’ diary, this is some busybody editor’s miserable collection of EXCERPTS from pepys’ diary may he rot.

i could just spit.

where is jan. 12, 1668, where his wife chased him out of bed and round the bedroom with a red-hot poker?

where is sir w. pen’s son that was giving everybody so much trouble with his Quaker notions? ONE mention does he get in this whole pseudo-book, and me from philadelphia.

i enclose two limp singles, i will make do with this thing till you find me a real Pepys. THEN i will rip up this ersatz book, page by page, AND WRAP THINGS IN IT.

Having worked in a used bookstore, I also identified with Frank Doel. There’s a special sort of joy born out of discovering a book that you know a favourite customer will love. Saving titles for frequent shoppers was something I did regularly, and I loved every minute of it.

Helene Hanff is also something like myself, although perhaps a bit more caustic, brusque, and a good deal more brilliant (although I haven’t yet learned to swig martinis with a cigarette in my hand). But reading her letters makes me want to write more of them myself, and these letters serve as a reminder to hold those friends separated by geography a little bit closer.

I received it as a gift, and if I ever give it as one (which I surely shall), you can be sure I’ll include a set of stationery, a pen, and postage, for the urge to write a letter was never greater than when I came to the final page. Although 84, Charing Cross Road is short, clocking in at only 97 pages, it is 97 pages of pure, unbridled, epistolary delight. ♦

Book Review: Sophie Morgan’s Diary of a Submissive

15744239Title: Diary of a Submissive: A Modern True Tale of Sexual Awakening
Author: Sophie Morgan
Genre: Memoir / Erotica
Series: Yes / Book 1 of 2
Rating: 3 out of 5
My Copy: Review Copy via Publisher

Sophie Morgan’s book opens up with a prologue that many of us no doubt have witnessed before. A man and a woman are outside; the man tugs on her hair forcibly and we hear him call her a slut and whore. We look into her eyes and see fury behind them as she restrains herself and the man’s hand tangles tighter into her hair as we, the outsider watch. Immediately our thoughts range from calling for help to intervening, but as Morgan describes the scene, it plays out as that of a D/s (Dominance and submission) relationship. It’s an uncomfortable read as you realize what she describes could be any couple located anywhere, but at the same time she plays it off as part of the lifestyle. We the reader/outsider are left to wonder if the woman is in trouble and as they walk away, one can’t help question if we should have intervened. That scene is disturbing because abuse is not something to take lightly, but as she points out how can we tell what a relationship is? She craves the experience and is sexually aroused by it, while we, the outsider, can’t tell what’s going on. This is how our journey with Morgan beings; a mad, bad, and dangerous journey into the BDSM lifestyle.

I sometimes wonder how someone develops a fetish or a particular kink. Morgan doesn’t delve into that, but rather how she came into the lifestyle. She touches upon the normal childhood she had growing up in England; mentions her family was a typical middle class, but received no corporal punishment and was just sent up to her room when she misbehaved. This is important because her first experience involving anything remotely close to a BDSM experience was with an American she met while at university. Ryan turns out to be her first foray into the world of kink. Morgan explains how excited she was to get to know his sexual preferences and how to please him. While she says she had a good imagination, the use of a hairbrush as her first official spanking shocked her. Yes the spanking hurt and was nothing like she had imagined; yet she found the sensation pleasurable to the point of arousing her. She credits Ryan with her “first taste of playing with someone who was a dominant foil to my submissiveness, who didn’t judge me for what turned me on,” and we see how her life is forever changed.

What does Morgan teach us about being a submissive and those in the lifestyle? First of all, our misconceptions regarding those into BDSM are challenged. She shows us this through the introduction of three distinct men in her life. These men are different from each other in looks and in their choice of career. All three show her what she wants in a relationship and how much of a submissive she is. Morgan calls herself a feminist several times and yet she calls certain behaviors demeaning to her. I found these sections to be contradictory to her nature. Wouldn’t a feminist put a stop to these behaviors? Or is she using the excuse of pleasure her significant other clearly gets as way to justify the demeaning behavior? Is she hiding behind the mask of arousal to justify his behavior? Yes her limits are pushed and it’s clear that we as readers begin to separate exactly what we wouldn’t find acceptable in the bedroom, yet we have to remind ourselves this is her story and her life. While we may not agree with the behavior (yes I found it to be contradictory to her descriptions), she fully explains it’s her choice. She reminds us about this when she’s talking to one of three men, James. James is trying to come to terms with a sexual encounter between the two of them and she says, “Yes, you hurt me. But you do it with my permission. I beg you to do it, literally sometimes. Hurting me isn’t a bad thing in this context. The fact that you’re you – kind, intelligent, polite, lovely James – is what makes me feel confident and safe enough for you to do that. I wouldn’t give any old person that power over me. I give it to you. In fact, I’ve never given any other person the level of power over me that I’ve given you, not even Thomas. And I give you this power because of the vanilla you. If you were as merciless and harsh all the time as you are when you’re choking me then I wouldn’t want to play with you.” Suddenly it all makes sense. The level of trust she gives to another and giving up control is what she wants. She shows us that she’s educated, holds down a hectic job, and just like everyone else suffers from the same angst. There’s nothing deviant about her because she likes to be a submissive. Sure there are scenes that are hard to stomach, but then they just serve as a reminder what my hard limits would be and honestly, I’d be calling out my safe word.

While reading Diary of a Submissive, I agreed with a lot of what Morgan said. To the point I began to question myself and wondered if perhaps I’m secretly one of them. When I began to talk to others about this book I breathed a heavy sigh of relief with others indicated they agreed with Morgan. I’m not saying being into the lifestyle is bad or something to be ashamed about. What I admire Morgan for is putting it out there. A lot of women and men have read that other book, yes, Fifty Shades of Grey. A lot of Fifty fans are being recommended Morgan’s book as a “Fifty fix” because it’s “real life BDSM,” and alas I believe that’s a wrong approach. EL James herself has stated that the BDSM in her books is background, so in many ways filler and the heart of her novels is Ana and Grey’s relationship and not the fact he’s into BDSM. So when Fifty fans are given this to read to fill the Fifty void I cringe; I cringe mostly because they come into a pretense believing Morgan’s book will give them that love story that captured their hearts. You don’t get that with Morgan. What you get is a realistic glimpse of a BDSM lifestyle and what it’s like for her. Not everyone in the lifestyle will share similar experiences. I think it’s important to keep that in mind when reading other BDSM books in the genre. Not everything Morgan describes may sit well with a reader and again I remind you that Morgan’s book is her life and lifestyle which is varies greatly from a series in fiction as well as real life. Ana and Grey have nothing on Morgan.

In October, I had the opportunity to ask Morgan a question via Twitter. I asked her what she what thought of people recommending her book to Fifty fans and if it’s healthy for women to read about BDSM in fiction or does she worry about the misconceptions. Her response was “We just need to differentiate between d/s and abuse. It’s a grey area (no pun intended) but important, obviously.”

ETA: I always research a new author before I begin a book as a way to familiarize myself with their writing style and to compile a background portfolio on them (just so I know what may or may not influence their writing). I broke this personal rule before reading Diary. I did the research after and I as an academic, feel I need to report my findings.

In 2010, Kate Marley published a book, Subtext, and there’s some confusion whether or not it was fiction or nonfiction. Sometime between 2010 and this year, Subtext was rewritten, acquired a new publisher, and published as Diary of a Submissive. Research suggests both books are identical with parts of Diary expanded and names changed. When the opportunity came to interview Sophie, I jumped at the chance to seek clarification. Sadly, the question was not answered. I admit, I personally struggled with the rating because of that unanswered question. My immediate reaction to was to bring it down, but in the end I decided to keep it and while some do believe Diary is fiction (based on Subtext), I’ll leave that up to you to decide.