Monday, December 31, 2012

Is It Really Time for This Again? 2012 in Review

I've always heard people say the years go faster as a person gets older, and wow, did this one fly past. There were some big events this year - I turned 50, my last living grandparent died, we had an exceedingly dry and hot summer, my son started his final year of high school, my daughter is now old enough to have a driver's permit. Between all that, I found time to read some things I enjoyed this year, including some things I wouldn't have expected to like.

Best Discoveries - Maybe this is the recency effect in action, but A Midwife's Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich would have to top my list this year. It was scholarly and yet created Martha Ballard as an unforgettable "character." Plus it hit several of my favorite buttons - women's history, gardening, and the drag of housework, among others.

Another discovery I enjoyed this year was an unpublished manuscript by the sister of a friend from church, about the struggle she and her siblings faced when their father began to be debilitated by dementia and they had to take control of his life. The story is dramatic and she told it well. I hope she has success in getting it published so the rest of you can read it someday.

Saddest Disappointment - When the biggest disappointment of the year was Abel's Island by William Steig, I guess it was a pretty good year of reading. That's not to say this is the worst book I read all year; I think I just had such high expectations for it that I felt unfulfilled after finishing it. I don't know what I expected....Abel to go home and reject all his "creature comforts" after a year of living in the wild?

Favorite Classic - I'm not sure if some of the things on my list that I consider "classics" would be considered so by other people, but fortunately, my favorite is undoubtedly a "classic" in everyone's book: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I say that even though I complained about the style that is part of what makes it a classic....

Favorite Love Story - It's hard for me to choose a favorite romance this year. Although the "telling" style of Pride and Prejudice occasionally got in the way (as far as I was concerned) of the love story, I was still won over by Mr. Darcy. But I think my favorite romantic moment came in Lisa Klein's Two Girls of Gettysburg; it was sweet in a young, first-love kind of way.

Favorite Historical Fiction - Ann Turnbull has another winner in this category! Seeking Eden taught me more about the history of the slave trade during the colonial period of this country than any of my history survey classes in high school or college. Not only did it give facts, but it also set those facts in a powerful emotional context, which is exactly what great historical fiction is best at doing, in my opinion.

Greatest Reading Accomplishment - I read four nonfiction books this year: A Midwife's Tale; His Excellency, George Washington by Joseph Ellis; The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum; and The Complete Guide to Successful Event Planning by Shannon Kilkenny. (Ok, that last one was for one of the classes I taught this fall, but hey, I read it, so I'm counting it!) That's not very many, I know, but I read nonfiction so very slowly that to have read as many as this feels like a big accomplishment. And I learned a great many interesting things!

Biggest Failure - I read about half of Savvy by Ingrid Law before I just decided to quit. I had seen a lot of good reviews, and my daughter liked it, but it annoyed me. And life is just too short -- those years roll past too quickly -- to read things that annoy you.

Favorite Re-Read - Hmmm. There were three things I re-read this year: The First Four Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Edge of Time by Loula Grace Erdman, and The Dark Moon and the Full, a one-act play by Joseph Hart. I enjoyed all three, so I can't really pick a "favorite." I will say that all three of them were different reading experiences for me this time than they were the first time. I'm a firm believer that although the words in a work may stay the same, what the reader brings to the work makes it different each time. Re-reading is not a waste of time.

Once is Enough (Books I Probably Won't Ever Read Again) - The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks tops this list. As part of my "market research" into what sells, I decided to check out something by Sparks, because I know he is a mega-bestselling author. My reaction? Decidedly underwhelmed. The story was ok in sort of a sappy way, but the style broke a lot of what I consider solid rules for good writing. I don't think I'll be seeking out any more of Sparks' novels. (See "Biggest Failure" above...)

Books I Thought Would Be Amazing But Were Just So-So - There are three books I would put on the "so-so" list this year: The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary Blackwood, A Painted House by John Grisham, and O'Sullivan Stew by Hudson Talbot (a picture book). I was hoping Grisham's book would be good because I had read some of his other work and liked it. But it just didn't impress me much. I was really disappointed in O'Sullivan Stew; the pictures were very attractive (which is why I bought it) and it is an Irish folktale, which I thought would be cool. But it was rather predictable.

Books I Thought Wouldn't Be Much But Were Actually Good Stuff - I was pleasantly surprised by Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz. It's not my genre, so I didn't really have very high expectations for liking it, but I'm glad I read it. It didn't convert me to trade my historical fiction for science fiction, ha ha, but it wasn't a waste of my life (See "Biggest Failure" above).

Plans for Reading in the New Year - I am feeling a hunger for fiction, and lots of it! I never got around to reading Nancy Dane's final installment in her Civil War series (An Enduring Union), so I definitely want to read it this year.

Plans for Writing in the New Year - Honestly, I had hit a slump in my writing recently. I thought when finals were over, and the Christmas preparation was over, and I didn't yet have to be getting ready for next semester, that I would have plenty of time to write. But in the first few days after Christmas, I didn't write anything and just didn't feel like writing anything. It was more interesting to clean, believe it or not. Over the last few days, though, two people have out of the blue said they'd like to read my first book, which seems to have helped bring back my motivation. (Thank you! You know who you are!)

What I'd like to accomplish in the coming year would be to completely finish the revision on my second book and get it out to some beta readers. I would also like to start a first draft of a completely different story, with new characters and new things to research.

Maybe putting it in writing will hold me responsible for doing it!

Friday, December 28, 2012

What She Said

Another snippet from A Midwife's Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich:

Historians have written a great deal about field agriculture in early America but not enough about the intricate horticulture that belonged to women, the intense labor of cultivation and preservation that allowed one season to stretch almost to another.
One more reason I love this book.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Some Things Never Change

I've been reading A Midwife's Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and there have been several points at which I thought, "Oooh, I need to blog about that!" Today, that inclination and spare time coincided, so I'm hoping I'll remember some of the things I've found so meaningful as I've been reading.

I love this book. The first chapter was pretty deadly, but every one following has been very informative and engaging. What I like best about the book is Ulrich's ability to take the seemingly trivial entries in Ballard's diary and pull them together to give a picture of Ballard's life and, by extension, the lives of women during the late 18th and early 19th centuries on the American frontier (both when it was young and as it matured). As a trained rhetorician, I am dazzled by Ulrich's scholarship - the work she must have done to pull all this together is mind-boggling! As a writer, I am so grateful to have this resource that looks at the ordinary aspects of a woman's life. As a reader, I am touched by the way Ulrich brings Martha Ballard out of the obscurity of 200 years ago and creates her as a living, breathing human. I suppose that is one of the things that most affects me about this book - despite the 200-year time interval, Martha Ballard could be one of any number of women I know. Why, I may even become Martha Ballard some day!

At first, I was reading for the differences between life in 18th-century Maine and the 21st century. The first thing that really stood out to me was the chapter when Ulrich was writing about Martha's doctoring a number of people for the "canker rash." Several of those people died, despite Martha's best efforts. Martha also lost her first patient ever to childbed fever. Ulrich goes on to explain the "canker rash" was scarlet fever, caused by a variety of streptococcus bacteria that also caused the childbed (puerperal) fever. It dawned on me (don't laugh) that she was talking about what we so casually call "strep," that annoying little infection that gives sore throats. Now, I know there are still some serious consequences to streptococcus, especially the resistant strains, but for the most part, we aren't really afraid of strep anymore. We go to the doctor and get an antibiotic, and everything is fine. We certainly don't see epidemics of strep throat that kill 15 percent of the patients (which is what happened to Martha that summer). Our "victory" over streptococcus is relatively recent, though; one of the stories my mother tells of her childhood recounts a bout of scarlet fever that nearly killed her when she was very young (two or three years old). That would have been less than 70 years ago.

I also liked reading the section in which Ulrich contrasted the work Martha did as a midwife and the way the male doctors in town related to her. Eventually, as medicine became more "professional," the men who were doctors devalued the work the midwives did and pushed them to the side as "non-professional." This is another thread that is especially interesting to me as a student of rhetoric. The doctors were able to use rhetoric and influence to completely change the way the public viewed midwives, while simultaneously building up their own position as healers. Ulrich does a good job of showing how the services each type of healer provided were not necessarily equivalent; while the male doctors came and examined the patient and recommended treatment, Martha was much more hands-on. She would sit up with the patient through the night; if the patient died, she was usually involved in preparing the body for burial. The midwife was involved with the patient's life (and possibly death) in a way the "professional" doctor wasn't willing to be.

What has been most striking to me recently, though, is Martha's relationship with her family, particularly as she aged. Throughout the book, Ulrich quotes passages in which Martha laments how "fatigued" she is from her work. Of course we would expect her to be fatigued since she's getting up in the middle of the night to go off and help deliver a baby. But it seemed to me that Martha was much more likely to complain of fatigue when she was experiencing emotionally-upsetting events. One chapter discusses the reality of the proverb, "Man may work from sun to sun, but woman's work is never done." Martha seems to have had a "martyr" streak, which led her to do things for her husband while ignoring her own needs (and then complaining about no one noticing she needed something, ha ha). What's funny about it is I hear myself saying and thinking the same kinds of things today ("I never have time to do what I want because I'm always having to go to something for the husband or kids...."). It was sort of bittersweet to read that chapter. On the one hand, I can see Martha was playing the "martyr" card, but on the other, I know what was happening. She was taking care of everyone else, while everyone else was definitely taking her for granted. Poor Martha.

The sympathy I felt for her was even stronger after I finished another chapter this morning. Poor Martha was over 70 years old at this point. Her midwife career was dwindling, and her husband had been jailed for debt (because as tax collector, he hadn't collected all the taxes due for the town). Although she was still able to take care of herself fairly well, there were also ways in which she was dependent on her grown children - in getting firewood, for example. Yet her children were too busy with their own families to remember Martha as much as she needed (or wanted). Things were even worse when one of her sons and his family moved into her house. Then she was a sort of prisoner in her own way, staying in her room to avoid the large, noisy batch of grandchildren and the inevitable conflicts with her daughter-in-law. By the end of the chapter, Martha's husband had finally been released from jail (he spent more than a year in a semi-restrictive situation - he could move about most of the town during the day, but had to sleep at the jail), and her son and his family were moved into their own new house. But I still felt sorry for Martha, probably because of something I read on Facebook the other day. It was a poem that was supposedly written by an old man in a nursing home, basically saying, "You ignore me, but I used to have a life just like you do." Now, I don't know if that story is true, but the truth is, it could be. As people get older, the world rushes past them to belong to the younger generations, who are so preoccupied with their own lives that they don't often take much time to notice their parents and grandparents.

Maybe I'm super-sensitive to that theme because my son will be leaving home in the next few months to go to college, and I know the biggest part of my job as his parent will be over. I know grown people still need their parents, but he will never need us in the same way he once did ever again - the shift of the world's focus is starting. Oh, well. It's nothing new, as Martha's diary points out.

But it makes me think I should resolve to go visit my parents more in 2013!