Call the Nurse

Combine James Herriot, John McPhee, Seamus Heaney’s poem Digging with a dash of Call the Midwife. Mary J. Macleod moved her family from southern England to become a district nurse on an island twenty miles long in the Inner Hebrides. She, along with a 70-year-old doctor, provided medical care for all the inhabitants in the 1970’s. She writes with a clear-eyed, unsentimental, but affectionate voice.

The book is a series of vignettes: like a gurgling stream it ambles along, making it an satisfying read in pockets of time. Macleod worked (tending elderly, administering daily injections, attending to medical emergencies) with her patients in their homes. She was called at all hours and had to traverse a mountain or be taken by sea in a boat. She cared for people from newborns to octogenarians, many who spoke only Gaelic.

This book taps into three fascinations: island culture, self-sustaining lifestyle, and Scotland. I have been on two islands in Scotland, which is knowledge enough to be dangerously ignorant. To protect the privacy of the inhabitants, Macleod calls her island Papavray. This fired my curiosity, sending me to Google to unsuccessfully tease out the island’s true name.

The best thing? The author wrote her first book (of three now published) in her 80’s. It fuels my hope. Check out her Facebook page.


Photo taken from Iona, a small — but important — island on the western coast of Scotland.

The second best thing? This book is $.99 on Kindle today.


Reading Year in Retrospect

DSC_1833“I am an inveterate browser of people’s bookshelves, always curious to see what other people have been reading, and which books they choose to display. but I am equally curious about the manner in which they array them. Are their books neatly aligned, like the leatherbound books in the Levenger catalog, or do they teeter on the shelf at odd angles?”  — David Levy in Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital AgeI love looking back at my reading year, and yet I also shrink from the raised eyebrow of my inner critic. Deciding on categories and distributing my titles in those gives the same thrill that I get in organizing my books. This is my reading year in retrospect.

My own Book of the Year? It’s a tie! N.D. Wilson’s Death by Living: Life Is Meant to Be Spent was both the slowest and most profound read. I read it aloud to my husband a page or even a paragraph at a time. But reading through Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence was also deeply satisfying. (confession: I have 60 pages to finish)

This Rich & Wondrous Earth Linda Burklin (life in boarding school)
When a Crocodile Eats the SunPeter Godwin (living in Zimbabwe)
The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild Lawrence Anthony (animal conservation)

Over the Gate Miss Read (cozy read)
Lark Rise to Candleford(trilogy) Flora Thompson (a portrait of a culture)
Lady Anna Anthony Trollope (novel of a marriage)
Cousin Henry Anthony Trollope (a study of a guilty conscience)
Tyler’s Row Miss Read (not my favorite Miss Read)

The World, the Flesh, and Father Smith Bruce Marshall (story of a Scottish Priest)
Father Hilary’s HolidayBruce Marshall (priest gets involved in political intrigue)

Death by Living N.D. Wilson (memoir/family heritage/travelogue/random thoughts)
Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community Dietrich Bonhoeffer (crammed with good stuff)
The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert Rosaria Butterfield (unusual story)

From Dawn to Decadence Jacques Barzun (500 years of cultural history, EXCELLENT) Scrolling Forward David Levy (e-book or bound book debate, written a decade ago)

Early American
Rip Van Winkle & Other Stories Washington Irving (some classics improve as we age)

Fit to Burst : Abundance, Mayhem, and the Joys of Motherhood Rachel Jancovik (wise)
Real Marriage Mark and Grace Driscoll (yes and no: all the stats got old)

Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed Philip Hallie (5K Jews saved by people of Le Chambon)
The Elegance of the Hedgehog Muriel Barbery (postmodern novel, quotable sections)

First Family: Abigail and John Adams Joseph Ellis (very enjoyable read)

Kid Lit
Anne of Green Gables L.M. Montgomery (priceless)
Anne of Avonlea LMM (sad to lose Matthew Cuthbert)
Anne of the Island LMM (away at school)
Anne of Windy Poplars LMM (winning over the Pringles and Katherine Brooke)
Anne’s House of Dreams LMM (early marriage, bereavement)
Anne of Ingleside LMM (a houseful of kids and dear Susan)
Rainbow Valley LMM (add the Meredith kids to the Blythes: delightful)
Rilla of Ingleside LMM (I love Rilla; more Susan; a great view of WWI at home)
Chronicles of Avonlea LMM (12 short stories, Anne is just a cameo)
Further Chronicles of Avonlea LMM (includes a delicious story of a revival meeting)
The Story Girl LMM (she can make a story reciting the multipication tables)
The Golden Road LMM (a hilarious mistaken identity story)
Kilmeny of the Orchard LMM (a mute girl plays the violin)
Emily of New Moon LMM (appeals to all aspiring writers)
Emily Climbs LMM (word lovers will love Emily)
Emily’s Quest LMM (overcoming obstacles to writing)
The Blythes are Quoted LMM (more short stories)
Charlotte’s Web E.B. White, (classic, test-drove with a grandson)
Island Magic Elizabeth Goudge (Guernsey family, classic Goudge)

The Story of the Trapp Family Singers Maria Augusta Trapp (must read for S o M fans)
God’s Arms Around Us William Moule (heart-pounding tale of family in WW2 Philippines)
Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism Temple Grandin (she translates autism)
The End of Your Life Book Club Will Schwalbe (terminally ill mom and son read books)
A Little Moule History William Moule (life of a vagabond adventurer)
Appetite for Life Noel Riley Fitch (bio of Julia Child)
The Bookseller of Kabul Asne Seierstad (daily life in Afghanistan)
The Alpine Path LMM (frustrating in its brevity)

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie Alan Bradley (I ♥ Flavia de Luce)
Speaking from Among the Bones Alan Bradley (another Flavia book)
Chop Shop Tim Downs (Bug Man is a forensic entomologist)
First the Dead Tim Downs (almost had a heart attack reading this)
Less than Dead Tim Downs (difficulty breathing while reading this thriller)

Twelfth Night W. Shakespeare (mistaken identities)
The Tempest Shakespeare (full fathom five thy father lies)
The Comedy of Errors Shakespeare (TWO sets of identical twins)

Little Black Sheep Ashley Cleveland (the gift of willingness)
Sober Mercies: How Love Caught Up with a Christian Drunk Heather Kopp (story of addiction)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Rebecca Skloot (spellbinding story of HeLa cells)

TV Reading (one-night read without substance)
A Lancaster County Christmas Suzanne Woods Fisher (English stranded with Amish)

Shadow of the Silk Road Colin Thubron (China-Turkey by one of my fave travel writers)
In a Sunburned Country Bill Bryson (winsome writing…mostly)
Stephen Fry in America Stephen Fry (witty, sometimes coarse flyover)
Roads : Driving America’s Great Highways Larry McMurtry (he drives the interstates)

The Whistling Season Ivan Doig (the Wendell Berry of Montana)

What have you been reading?

(This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which allows me to buy perhaps one or two new books a year. But I’m thankful if you decide to buy a book through the links.)

Madhur Jaffrey’s Climbing the Mango Trees


I remember the moment. The cover beckoned, winked, seduced me. I was browsing the shelves at Sunflower Books, a charming local book shop. And, full price or not, I had to have it. Unwittingly I had purchased a book by Madhur Jaffrey, the celebrated author of Indian cookbooks. Once obtained, I held it in reserve, a hoarded treasure which continued winking from the shelf. I almost enjoyed the five years of anticipating the read as much as the cozy evenings with my nose in this book. Memoir, ethnic, family, foodie—it has all best ingredients for a delightful read. 

The child of a happy marriage, she begins by explaining her name:

My father, … , firmly named me “Madhur,” which means “Sweet as Honey,” an adjective from the Sanskrit noun madhu, or “honey.” My grandfather, apparently, teased my father, saying that he should have named me “Mahbhari,” or “I am sated,” instead, as I was already the fifth child. But my father continued to procreate, and I was left with honey on my palate and in my deepest soul.

Jaffrey’s is the life of privilege with a curious blend of cultures. She describes her family as Hindu by origin but heavily veneered with Muslim culture and English education. Two motifs spiral through the book: her father’s quest for the best education for each child and her mother’s preparation of the most delicious food for every occasion. 

All of us sisters liked to read. we could be caught all over the house in the weirdest positions: legs flung over the back of a wicker chair, books on chest; lying flat on the takht (divan) on our stomachs, book on floor; head down on the desk, book an inch from eyes.

Mrs. McKelvie was my history teacher. She didn’t just teach me Indian history and British history, which were part of the set curriculum; I also learned from her that any subject could be fascinating if I delved into it deeply enough. She showed me how history, for example, could be researched from a hundred angles, some obscure and seemingly unrelated; that the study of maps and drawing of maps led to ever-greater clarity; that understanding the character of emperors and generals was sometimes as important as memorizing the dates of their battles.

During her school days (before India was divided) Madhur and her girlfriends shared their lunches: some Hindi, some Muslim, some Punjabi, one Jain.

It was not so much the ingredients—the ingredients we used at home were not all that different, though we did use less chili powder—as the hand that put these ingredients together, and the order and timing it chose to use. That hand had a different rhythm, a different energy from my mother’s, and from our own Hindi cooks from Himalayan villages. It produced a Muslim result.

Her family participated in a prayer gathering with Gandhi days before he was assassinated. Anyone interested in 20th century India would benefit from reading this book. A bonus for those interested in Indian cuisine is the fifty pages of family recipes included in the back.

German Boy

I had already read stacks of Holocaust memoirs and was suffering “misery fatigue” when I bought German Boy. What compelled me to buy and read this book? Simply because it is written from the point of view of a German boy; other than Hitler’s Mein Kampf and All Quiet on the Western Front, I had not read a German narrative. Apparently, misery does not recognize boundaries. Once again I am astonished at the suffering a human being can survive.

Wolfgang Samuel’s story covers the time between his tenth birthday, January 1945, in Eastern Germany to January 1951 when Samuel, his mother and her new American husband leave Germany for America.  As the narrative begins, Wolfgang, his sister Ingrid and their Mutti  (German for “mom”) leave in the middle of the night to flee Russian troops entering their city. This is the first of many three-suitcase trips. The family of three lives with Mutti’s parents until they again travel west.  The formal end of hostilities did not bring an end of deprivation, an end of hunger, or an end of violence.  

An uncomfortable aspect of this story is the extent Mutti went to provide for her hungry family.  It is a sad story, delicately told, of a desperate woman who exchanges sex for soup. Mutti was a beautiful woman, estranged from her husband, who was used to flirting for favors.  In the flurry of packing up and leaving, Mutti dons a silk blouse, silk stockings, a black velvet jacket and makeup.  When her mother disapproves, she replies:

Mother, our only chance of escape is to be picked up by an army
truck heading west to the American lines. Do you think anyone is going
to stop and pick up a frumpy-looking woman with two children and an
old woman by her side? No. They’ll stop for a pretty, well-dressed woman,
if they stop at all. I am trying to look my very best. If we are lucky,
someone will have a heart and will take a look at me–and stop for us.

Amongst the multiple migrations searching for a safe place, the family takes a small room near the train station.  After months of dwindling food supply and no way to feed her family, Mutti does the unthinkable.  A Russian man starts to visit at night; in the morning a steaming two-liter can of soup sits on the windowsill.  Even so, Wolfgang protests: Mutti, you shouldn’t be doing what you are doing. Only Dad should sleep with you. It is a raw story, a poignant story. Almost every woman Wolfgang was associated with at this point in his life was raped by soldiers. 

Carnage caresses his life.  Besides daily bombings, Wolfgang lives through a strafing attack on a long column of refugees where people five feet from him were killed. He witnesses a school fellow’s drowning.  His father shows up and leads them in a night crossing, dodging Russian patrols, through a blizzard to the American zone. And yet, in the way a child focuses on the immediate things, he also remembers the loneliness of being ostracized by other German boys, the boredom of bad schools, the shame of ill-fitting clothes and the petty corruptions of life in a refugee barracks.  

Living next to RAF Fassberg, Wolfgang witnessed firsthand the continual air traffic of the Berlin airlift. When the Americans arrived, Sergeant Leo Ferguson made his entrance.  He fell in love and married the now-divorced Hedy (Mutti’s name); he was the means for Wolfgang and his Mutti to move to Colorado.  Wolfgang’s sister Ingrid remained with her father.  Enamored with pilots and airplanes, Wolfgang served in the U.S. Air Force for thirty years, retiring as a colonel.  In June 1998, Wolfgang Samuel was a speaker at a conference commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Berlin airlift. His story arrested the attention of Stephen Ambrose, who encouraged Samuel to publish his book.

I cannot conceive of circumstances leading to the choices Hedy made.  I shuddered and recoiled as I read.  I have a relative who lived through post-war Austria.  In the past, when I have asked for this person’s story, the answer was always a silent shaking of the head, a polite refusal to revisit that period.  I still have no idea what that story would be, but after having read this book, I am inclined to never again ask that question.

The Sword of Imagination

When I picked up Sword Of Imagination: Memoirs Half Century Literary Conflict I respected Russell Kirk.  By the time I finished the book I was quite fond of this charming articulate author. 

Kirk’s name doesn’t have the recognition that William F. Buckley Jr.’s does but they are closely connected.  In 1953 Kirk wrote The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, a book which had a great influence on Buckley’s thinking.  Like Buckley, Kirk was a cheerful conservative.  Like Buckley, Kirk was an excellent writer.  Unlike Buckley, Kirk came from modest means.
Kirk warns the reader in the preface:

Enthusiasts for modernity, the global village, the end of history, the gross national product, emancipation from moral inhibitions, abstract rights without concomitant duties, and what Samuel Johnson called “the lust for innovation”–why, such folk may be little pleased by my fulminations and vaticinations.

Dr. Kirk had an antiquated vocation: man of letters, an intellectual devoted to literary activities.  (An aside: To be a woman of letters is my ideal occupation: to read and write all day, all week, all year!)  Writing his memoirs in the third person,

Kirk believed that his political function it was to work upon the body politic by endeavoring to rouse the political and moral imagination among the shapers of public opinion — that large category including political leaders; opinion makers of serious journals, the mass media, the academy, and the church; and that unknowable crowd of individuals who, as Dicey points out, influence their neighbors by the strength of their convictions. By talent, he was a writer, a speaker, an editor. In the long run, conceivably he might demolish some molehills, if not move mountains. The only weapon with which he was skilled was the sword of imagination.

In this highly detailed autobiography Kirk outlines how he moved from a boy living next to the railroad yards to a nationally regarded intellectual. His peregrinations took him to Michigan State College, the Salt Lake desert, Duke University, St. Andrews, throughout the United States and Europe. 

The book reads like a popular history of the second half of the twentieth century.  Kirk writes engagingly of his encounters with many leaders: Richard Weaver, Donald Davidson, Flannery O’Connor, T.S. Eliot, Barry Goldwater, Lyndon B. Johnson, Hoover, McCarthy, Nixon, Reagan, and Pope John Paul II.  Never bland in his opinions, he writes generously of both of his convivial and and his adversarial relationships.

Kirk’s writing is both erudite and highly personal.  The winning of his young wife, Annette, is the kind of romance I enjoy reading.  Together they build a family (four daughters) and a community of scholarship and fellowship.  Kirk writes of his wife, “Openhanded, glowing with life, and discerningly compassionate, Annette Courtemanche Kirk turned the shadowy old house, without altering its character, into a center of charitable and intellectual undertakings, so that it was crowded with people of all sorts and conditions.” A young visitor paid the Kirks a supreme compliment calling their place the Last Homely House, a reference to Elrond’s Rivendell in The Lord of the Rings.   

One thing I found uncomfortable was Kirk’s love of ghost stories, haunted houses and his dabbling in things uncanny. 

I know a book was worth reading when the reading of Book A makes me want to read Book B,C,D,E and F.  I finished Sword Of Imagination with a renewed desire to read several books already on my shelves: Edmund Burke: A Genius ReconsideredIdeas Have ConsequencesThe Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor (really, all things Flannery), T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (I need to become acquainted with Eliot), and a book on economics that Dr. Kirk wrote Economics: Work and Prosperity.    


I don’t understand Korea.  Why it is divided, why we fought a war, what distinguishes it from other Asian countries.  Helpful books are waiting on my shelf; If I Perish, by Esther Ahn Kim (Ahn E. Sook) was the first one I picked up. The setting of the book is Japanese-occupied Korea during World War II.   

Kim tells the compelling story of her six years of imprisonment for refusing to bow to a shrine. Like holocaust memoirs, it is incredible to fathom what a body and spirit can endure.  Her courage is huge, but so is her honesty: she was resolved to die a martyr’s death, but she was horrified at the thought of being cold.  She was, in short, perishable. 

The readiness is all. (Hamlet)  After her first escape from prison, Kim found refuge in an abandoned country home.  Expecting future imprisonment, she began a systematic preparation for persecution.  Did you read that last sentence?  She prepared for persecution

She memorized more than one hundred chapters of the Bible and many hymns.  She fasted to train her body to live without food and drink: first three days, then seven, then ten.  She barely survived the ten day fast.  The role of food in her life fascinated me.

Thoughts of food never left my mind. 146

The thought that I might die of hunger
and not be able to join the martyrs
made me gloomy.  Didn’t I even have
a little of a nature, or did I only have a
beggar’s stomach? 147

The only way I could show her my love, I decided,
was to give her my meals. However, determined as I
was, all the food went into my mouth when it was served.
What a despicable, ugly person I was.
I was upset and sickened at myself.
I rebuked and insulted myself more than I
had ever done before, but when the mealtime
came, I was again finding excuses. The battle
continued for several days, but each day I lost.
Then when I was praying, a ray of light touched my spirit.
“I will offer my meal to Jesus!”
I carried my food quickly to Wha Choon.
“This is Jesus’ meal. I have offered it to Him.
And He wants you to have it, so thank Him and eat it.”
192 (abridged)

Ahn’s mother is a great study.  She kept the view of eternity on the dashboard of her life.

“Whatever might happen to you,” she cautioned me,
“you should never forget the moment when you shall
reach the gate of heaven. Be faithful,” she said. 176

Mother couldn’t sing a tune, made some funny linguistic mistakes, but she could work. This next quote is going into my file on working to the glory of God:

Because her heart was pure, she always worked diligently
to make her surroundings clean, too, by washing, sweeping
and polishing the house. She was truly a living testimony of
God’s grace, strong spiritually, and very dependable. 128

Who wouldn’t desire to be described this way?

Wherever Mother was, it was like a
chapel of heaven around her. 129

Esther Ahn Kim’s faith was vibrant, vocal, bold.  Amazingly, she lived when many others died.  My favorite quote from this book illustrates the active nature of that faith.

I looked out the window and saw a bird trembling on a bare bough
that had long ago withered. I was just like that bird. Suddenly I shook
my head to the right and left vigorously. That courageous bird was
playing in a swirling snowstorm, ignoring her enemies. I had to be
such a bird. If she only perched on that withered bough with her
head stuck beneath her wing and feared the wind, snow, heaven,
earth, and everything else that might challenge her, she would only
freeze and die when night came. 135