E. Goudge’s Island Magic

0848813421When Hope at Worthwhile Books reviewed Elizabeth Goudge’s first novel, I wanted to read it.  The setting is St. Pierre, the capital of Guernsey, a channel island between England and France. Island Magic quenches two of my current fascinations: island culture and late 19th century rural life.

André and Rachell du Frocq are barely eeking out a living on a farm called Bon Repos (“Good Rest” or, as I like to translate it, “Sweet Tranquility”), a place that comes with a benediction written on stone outside the farmhouse:

Harbour and good rest to those who enter here,
courage to those who go forth.
Let those who go and those who stay forget not God.

The characters of André, Rachell, their five children, Grandpapa, and the stranger Ranulph— who is taken in after a shipwreck—, are vivid and unique; they linger in my thoughts days after I finished the book. Among the five siblings are a humanitarian, a poet, a failed academic, an adventurer, and a joyspring.

The story is sad and yet not without hope. The children have individual minor tragedies, they also have the confidence and security of being part of a bustling family. The tension resides between husband and wife as they begin to think about conceding failure at farming. The stranger’s assistance is helping the bottom line, but brings more marital conflict.

Typical of Goudge, there is a fairy element in the story. Themes of faith, bitterness, the value of beauty, hard work, service, gratitude, grief and sacrifice make the story shimmer. One point of the plot beggars belief. Of course I can’t identify it without giving away part of the story.

Rarely—and happily— I come across a sentence, with which I can fully relate, and about something I’ve never before seen in literature. Island Magic delivered! This is used to be me!!

How thankful she was for her one great gift—the gift of making her nose bleed at will.

Here is a great Christmas quote:

Christmas Day at Bon Repos was something terrific. The du Frocqs took the whole of December preparing for it and the whole of January recovering from it.

Goudge’s mother was a native of Guernsey; summer visits to the grandparents were part of Goudge’s childhood. Her final thoughts on island living in this book are a bit idealistic, but they reflect some of the necessities of interpersonal relationships in a closed society.

You can’t be an individualist on our Island. There’s so much magic packed into so small a space. With the sea flung round us and holding us so tightly we are all thrown into each other’s arms—souls and seasons and birds and flowers and running water. People understand unity who live on an island. And peace. Unity is such peace.




For All the Tea in China

How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History

Tea met all the definitions of intellectual property: it was a product of high commercial value, it was manufactured using a formula and process unique to China, which China protected fiercely; and it gave China a vast advantage over its competitors.

Robert Fortune was a plant hunter sent to China by the East India Company to steal tea plants. He shipped them to Great Britain’s greatest possession, India, where they would be grown, giving England its own source of a precious commodity, thus bringing the price of tea down and making it available to England’s citizens.

This is a fun book on many levels: 19th century, England, China, espionage, horticulture, tea and opium.

I listened to the audio book, read by the author. I found her voice a bit off-putting. I have found few audiobooks read by authors that I’m crazy about. My interest lagged at times. This is the kind of book which required close attention: unfamiliar place names and era, scientific, political and economic considerations of a complex subject. I listened to several discs more than once to keep up with the details.

Recommended for history buffs, tea enthusiasts, and science lovers.


I enjoy participating in Semicolon’s Saturday Review of Books.

I Know, Let’s Talk About Hormones


Ah, you know…hormones. At my age, I hear this all the time. I say it myself. It’s the reason we are hot, the reason we are cold, the reason we are wet, the reason we are dry, the reason we can’t sleep, the reason we can’t wake up.  Many women my age feel like a hostage to hormones.

If you need to take back your body, you will find much to consider in this book. Stanton addresses diet, exercise, stress, supplements, and, most importantly, bioidentical hormones. The book’s design and writing is about as exciting as a Wikipedia article. But the content is helpful.

Bioidentical? Huh? This neologism describes a “hormone [which] is exactly the same as a hormone made by our bodies.”  This is different from conventional hormone replacement therapy.

And we have just tripped off the path of traditional medicine onto the scenic bypass of alternative medicine. In other words, (lean close to me so I can whisper) the FDA hasn’t approved bioidentical hormones.

Yes, there is controversy. Google “bioidentical hormones” and you will dance your way into the debate.


May I tell you my story? Purely anecdotal evidence, but it’s my anecdote. 

I’m not a physician, but I’m a pretty good reader. When the hot/cold/wet/dry problems began—roughly seven years ago—, my most pressing problem was an utterly deflated outlook on life. I woke up, took a shower, and wanted nothing more than to go back to bed.  Stanton discusses this in a section delightfully titled NOT YOUR MOTHER’S MENOPAUSE. 

Initially, many women notice they have less energy or zest for life.
They don’t get as excited about things that should matter,
or just don’t have the energy to do things they used to enjoy.
One day follows another, but none of them brings much joy.
They might notice themselves getting irritable or exploding
for reasons that, in retrospect, seem ridiculous.


My respoonse to problems is to read. Shoot, my approach to life is to read. I looked through the lenses of both traditional and alternative medicine, searching for some sense. Across the spectrum, three words flashed: diet and exercise. No one argued with basic stuff like drinking more water and taking a walk. And I firmly believe that so many problems we blame hormones for can be corrected with real food and real movement.

I work for a compounding pharmacy; I am an accountant and cannot pronounce the drug names. But, we have a library of books and CDs (where I got Hormone Harmony) that we lend out to physicians and customers. I took John Lee’s What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Menopause. When I read parts aloud to my husband, he dismissed it as rubbish. But one Sunday afternoon, we listened to Dr. Lee speak and his words filled us with hope.  “Let’s do this,” Curt said, although all the “doing” was mine. So I began using an over-the-counter bioidentical progesterone cream. 

Because of my symptoms, my doctor had urged surgery as a solution. Well. He hadn’t urged surgery, but I’ve been longing to pair up that delicious pair of words. The big H. Take it out and be done with it. It made sense to everyone but me. I acknowledge that I have issues: my mom died immediately after a minor gynecological surgery. I wasn’t hysterical, but I refused to consent to a hysterectomy, to use another phrase I’ve tasted these many years.

It wasn’t a shazam! solution, but I made progress with progesterone. I knew my OB/GYN would raise his eyebrows when I disclosed this bit of information. “I think you are wasting your money,” were his words. I decided to push back. “Are you telling me not to use bioidentical hormones? Because I want full cooperation between us; if you say to stop I will either stop or I’ll find a different doctor.”  I respected him and don’t believe in doing stuff—medically speaking—behind my physician’s back. He shrugged and relented.

After a few years, I did my own experiment. I stopped the progesterone. The hot/cold/wet/dry symptoms came right back. That convinced me, and I continue on, with over the counter progesterone (which doesn’t require an RX to buy). Ideally, one should take a $150 saliva test that tells exactly what your hormone levels are. A physician or nurse practitioner uses that data to prescribed an individually formulated compound prescription for you.

If you are curious, click on the link above and use the Look Inside! feature. If you type “frequently” in the search, you’ll be able to read a large part of the the FAQs.

Beauty Has No Explanation

I asked myself, why do I love,
and what is the power of beauty,
and I understood that each and every
instance of beauty is a promise and an example,
in miniature,
of life that can end in balance,
with symmetry, purpose, and hope—
even if without explanation.

Beauty has no explanation,
but its right perfection elicits love.
I wondered if my life would be the same,
if at the end the elements would come together
just enough to give rise to a simple melody
as powerful as the one in Paolo’s metal top,
a song that, even if it did not explain
the desperate and painful past,
would make it worthy of love.

Of course, I still don’t know.
God help me to have a moment
of his saddest beauty in which I do.

~ Mark Helprin in A Soldier of the Great War

Picking up a book I have read, a book I have loved.
Flipping it open.
Finding a quote marked.

This is why I love to dust my bookshelves.
This is why it’s an all day affair.

Amy Tan’s Third Grade Essay


I love school because the many things I learn
seem to turn on a light in the little room in my mind.
I can see a lot of things I have never seen before.
I can read many interesting books by myself now.
I love to read.
My father takes me to the library every two weeks,
and I check five or six books each time.
These books seem to open many windows in my little room.
I can see many wonderful things outside.

~ excerpt of essay written by Amy Tan at age 8
quoted in Reading Rooms

Waking Up to Love

Some as they approach middle age, some only when they are old, wake up to understand that they have parents.

To some the perception comes with their children;
to others with the pang of seeing them walk away light-hearted out into the world,
as they themselves turned their backs on their parents;
they had been all their own, and now they have done with them!

Less or more have we not all thus taken our journey into a far country?

But many a man of sixty is more of a son to the father gone from the earth, than he was while under his roof.

What a disintegrated mass were the world,
what a lump of half-baked brick,
if death were indeed the end of affection!

   ~ George MacDonald in Home Again

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.

Zinsser on Friday

Zinsser on Friday is a sweet reward for waking up on Friday.
What is Zinsser on Friday?
A weekly posting about writing, the arts, and popular culture
by William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well,
based on a favorite quotation or comment.

From today’s offering, Content Management:

Content management. Isn’t that what we used to call “writing”?
I’ve been in the content-management business all my life.
I look for content that interests or amuses me
and then I manage it into a narrative.

It’s what all writers do if they want to keep paying the bills.
Dickens did it very well. So does every good crime writer:
Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler.
Elmore Leonard was once asked how he keeps his novels moving so fast.
He said, “I leave out the parts that people skip.”
That’s content management.

Life, Well Lived, Is Like Writing a Poem

Life, well lived, is like writing a poem.
 And therefore it is hard, very hard.
A sloppy prose or an unintelligible,
free verse life would not be as hard.
And the effect would not be as great.
God is beautiful,
and the life that expresses his glory should be beautiful.
…Beauty and truth and compelling depth
come by painstaking thinking
and trial and praying
and self-correcting.

~ John Piper