The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman

The basic premise of this book is simple enough: a Hmong family brings their infant daughter, Lia, in to the emergency room of a hospital in Merced, California. She is having an epileptic seizure. The doctors do what they can to treat the child, then and in subsequent visits, but the parents do not follow through on the requested regimen. Lia’s condition continues to deteriorate; after several years of treatment, Lia arrives at the hospital in the throes of a particularly bad seizure, and despite medical efforts, she ends up brain-dead as the result of oxygen deprivation.

What lifts this above a mere “he said, she said” medical account is Fadiman’s delving both into the Hmong culture and her access to the Lee family’s home life. Her book thereby ends up being as much socio-cultural documentary as it does description of medical treatment; the parents allowed Fadiman considerable insight into their own background, and she did what appears to be a creditable amount of research into the Hmong culture as a whole. One thing to keep in mind, when reading this book now, is that not only was it written fifteen years ago but also the author is describing events that took place fifteen years before that. I don’t know how hospitals’ policies have changed in regards having translators available, at least for the major languages spoken in the specific community (and Hmong were a significant portion of Merced’s minority population even then. Think immigrants from Mexico and Central and South America.)

Like a few other reviewers on Goodreads, I am not convinced that the cultural gulf between the doctors and the parents was the only cause of Lia’s death. Contributing factor, to be sure. That lack of communication affected her health and well-being while she was alive, certainly. None of us will ever know, however, whether a child of acculturated American parents with a similar condition would have lived or died; epilepsy, like many conditions, comes in a range from mildly discommoding to untreatably entrenched. If the child’s epilepsy falls at the severe end, or the patient does not respond to treatment despite following it scrupulously…what do you think would happen?

I do, however, come away from this book with a sympathy for the parents. If the situation were reversed—I were in a town outside Luang Namtha and non-English-speaking doctors kept insisting on treating me with acupuncture but never explained WHY they chose this modality over that one—I’d respond much as the parents here did. Differences in treatment methods aside, how can you possibly give informed consent when you cannot comprehend the doctor’s explanation? In fairness to the parents, too, there are more than a few “non-compliant” patients who’re of the same culture as their physicians, and who speak the same language as the hospital staff; we ought not to lay the blame for the parents’ choice not to medicate their child purely on the doorstep of ‘cultural misunderstanding’. Drugs’ effects can sometimes seem worse than the condition they’re supposed to be alleviating.

Overall, I think it’s still worth reading, not least for the background into the Hmong culture. I’d hope, however, that if there was sufficient interest in the community, the library would respond by getting more recent books on the subject, whether medical or cultural.

The Lumberyard and Mrs. Barrie by Jane Barrie

Ever wonder what it’s like to own your own business? Don’t, unless you’re prepared to do a lot more billing and personnel management than dealing with the projects of your dreams. Perhaps you’ve thought how much overlap there is between men’s and women’s spheres? More than many men would like to admit, even prior to the surge in Women’s Lib in the 1970s.

The Lumberyard and Mrs. Barrie is a more or less autobiographical work, published in 1952, about one woman’s stepping into the financial shoes of her husband’s assistant when he reveals that the lumberyard/building supplies business he owns and runs isn’t doing as well as he’s made out over the previous six years. In fact, it was foundering completely and on the verge of going out of business…a fact the husband was doing his best to keep from his wife despite her having invested $15,000 of her own money, almost all she had, in his business to keep it afloat.

It is not until the husband allows as how he’d better not take her to Paris on their second honeymoon because the business is a trifle shaky that she suspects there’s something seriously amiss. Her husband’s one of those charming but more than slightly happy-go-lucky people who can charm the socks of anyone he sets his sights on, but without a scrap of business sense, much less the heart of granite required to dun people who’ve fallen behind in their payments to him. It is perhaps a measure of his own charm that he has managed to cajole his own creditors into extending as much as they have…but even this much credit is coming to a rapid end. The wife comes in the next day to find two haphazard women in the office, one who does billing and one who does receipts, neither of whom have any idea what is owed in the other’s purview, and none of the clerks and suppliers who work the sales floor arrived, despite it being half an hour after the business is supposed to have opened.

Horrified, she takes the business in hand quite firmly. The two other women begin working together to sort out all the piles of paperwork into something a modern office would recognize as “organized”. The sales staff begin arriving on or before the store’s opening time. Trucks go out fully loaded each morning as soon as they’ve been filled with the previous day’s orders…and if they arrive back at the main store before the end of the day, they’re loaded with orders that have been received that day since the trucks’ departure for the next morning’s deliveries. Hardest, but perhaps most important of all, Mrs. Barrie then begins work on collecting the monies owed the business while negotiating terms of payment for the creditors on what they owe others.

When she started at the lumberyard, the scuttlebutt was that it had no more than a few weeks left to stay in business, and her threat of filing bankruptcy (and therefore allowing creditors only pennies on the dollar and not many pennies at that) if those selfsame creditors refused to accept her payment plans was all too believable. While the company had good cash flow, the overhead was too close to income for comfort and staffing was inefficient. However, she managed to collect something like 80% of the $110,000 worth of debts owed the company while paying down well over $200,000 in credit lines to them…all within two years. Indeed, she’d negotiated payment plans (and honored them!) well enough that within a year the wholesalers supplying them had gone from insisting on C.O.D. deliveries to accepting sixty-day payments on deliveries shipped on a regular schedule without having been ordered….and the bank had quit sending nastygrams within six months.

This is one of the books I picked up on the course of stocking an on-line bookstore; I’m not sure how widely it’s held these days so (with apologies) this may be something of a teaser entry for readers without access to a decent Interlibrary Loan system. (If you haven’t got a library card at all, much less any idea what this “interlibrary loan” is, shame on you. You know what to do!) For more avid readers, ‘Jane Barrie’ was a pseudonym for Mildred Savage, and I’m sure that the name of their home town, as well as of their chief competitor and their main clients, wase equally fictitious. I suspect that she had a bit more innate talent, not to mention training in business technique, than she let on; I think the book’s intended to be more a screwball comedy memoir than the account of a woman proud to be a strong-minded businesswoman.

What to read next? That depends on whether you liked the period piece aspects of the book or the descriptions of the wife’s perspective on working in what is, after all, even today largely a man’s world, that of home renovation and related fields, such as carpentry, plumbing, and bricklaying. If it’s the former, I’d suggest Betty MacDonald’s autobiographies, her sister’s books, or perhaps Jean Kerr’s collections of magazine articles. If it’s the latter, perhaps something along the lines of Helter Shelter or Dreaming in the Dust. All of these books have the same sort of light-hearted take on their various subjects, to varying degrees, though the writing styles have changed considerably in the thirty years between the two clusters’ publication.

The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float by Farley Mowat

Dreaming of the glorious life of freedom that sailing the seven seas, or at least three or four of them, might grant, Farley Mowat bought a boat.

And regretted it almost immediately.

For starters, she was designed as a fishing boat, not a pleasure cruiser. This meant that as much space was given over to cargo space and as little to the comforts of the crew as possible: there were three stations for fishermen on deck with two cavernous wells into the hold, but living quarters (sleeping, cooking and all) that wouldn’t pass muster in a walk-in closet in a cut-rate McMansion today. The fact that she was elderly and hadn’t been used for some time meant that she was not in the best condition, to say the least, and her equipment was antiquated…

OK. The ship leaked like a sieve. The pumps were incapable of keeping up. The engine kept shaking apart, leaking diesel into the bilge and then sparking right where the fuel was puddling. The masts and much of the rigging was quite literally held together with baling wire and netting ties. The hull was “sealed”, in a manner of speaking, with several inches of gurry. (For non-commercial fishermen: you don’t want to know. Really.)

The Happy Adventure was cantankerous, to say the least. The beginning of her maiden voyage under Mowat’s ownership and captaincy should have given him a clue about the ship’s nature: he and his companion ended up traversing the bay backwards while under full sail forward when the make-and-break engine started in reverse.(The “make-and-break” engine commonly installed in fishing vessels in this area had only two speeds, so to speak—forward and backward—and would randomly start in one direction or the other.)

Mowat spent a great deal of the subsequent sailing seasons wrestling that bull-headed vessel along in an effort to actually sail her. Voyages seemed to consist largely of alternating between plugging her porous bottom with whatever variant on sodden dirt was available, and searching frantically for the next mud bank while using ungentlemanly language in reference to the make-and-break engine. He did later fix the Happy Adventure as well his finances permitted, though even electric pumps and a newer four-cycle diesel couldn’t cure all its ills. Getting stranded in various outposts, in varying degrees of desolate isolation, was inevitable for Mowat and whoever was crewing for him; the Newfoundlanders were nonplussed but on the whole charitable, and indeed Mowat and the woman who became his wife, Claire, ended up settling down in one of the more hospitable communities for several years.

Mowat’s style is amusing, but the various voyages are clearly at best miserable and at worst skimming disaster. It’s amusing to read, but I can’t see wanting to do this up close and in person. I’m not sure how exactly truthful the book is; I’m sure there was such a boat, and he did struggle with it more or less as described, but I’d be curious to hear how much creative non-fictionization was going on.

While Mowat may be better known for books such as People of the Deer and Never Cry Wolf, he did nevertheless show a great talent for this sort of humorous writing. (Indeed, some would argue that those two auto-biographical non-fiction books were humor/creative, as well.)

(For all the editors out there: yes, the title is grammatically incorrect. It should be ‘the boat that/which wouldn’t float’. Now, shush. You’re missing the point: the title of this book parallels one of his other books, The Dog who Wouldn’t Be.)

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tova Bailey

The author was struck ill with a particularly virulent strain of the flu while in Switzerland1. Although she recovered from the original bout of influenza, it played havoc with her immune system, leaving her with something approximating Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, only much MUCH worse. This left her unable to turn over, much less rise from her bed, and required her to move from her beloved farmhouse home to a minuscule studio apartment, close enough to town that she could get the nursing care she needed. One day, a friend brought her a potted up wild violet, which happened to contain a minuscule wild snail under one of its leaves.

Flat on her back in a stark white studio, having little else to look at other than the ceiling, Bailey became fascinated with the snail, watching it crawl about its now circumscribed home. The snail had fairly clear tastes, both in crawling surface and in what it ate: it preferred forest humus to ordinary potting soil, creeping along the violet’s leaves to avoid the latter, and portobello mushrooms were a gourmet feast. At night, it crept out to explore the world around its little violet pot, nibbling at various things tasty by the alien standards (to humans) of a woodland snail. Even as debilitated as she was–she’s still incapacitated by most people’s standards two years after the book’s publication–a snail’s needs were low-key enough for her to manage. She attended to its gastropodal needs as she recovered, and in the end wrote a bit of prose that might equally well be called free verse. (No idea what the snail had to say about matters.)

As with so many books, this is not for everyone. It will hopefully come as no surprise that a book won’t have a lot of thrilling high speed action if it’s about a woman prostrated by illness who occupies her otherwise empty days by watching a snail crawling about its terrarium. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for an author with the patience (albeit enforced by an outside influence) to sit still long enough and quietly enough to actually hear a snail eating? see it moving?

This is a remarkably swift read for a book by an ill woman about the daily activities of a little snail. Don’t let that fool you. If you’re the sort to read memoirs reflecting on the inner life of molluscs, which even at their most sophisticated, aren’t terribly complicated creatures from a biological or intellectual standard, this will give you cause to stop and think. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would; while I zipped through the book on first reading, I came back to it for a second slower and more contemplative reading.

Mother Nature Network
Odyssey Books

1or perhaps Italy; I’m not entirely clear on this point.

Arctic Mood by Eva Alvey Richardson

The short version: this is the description of two years in the life of a teacher working in Wainwright, Alaska, from 1924 to 1926.

The author had dreamed for years of the Arctic, and at last, in 1924, she applied to and was accepted by the Alaska Division of the Native School and Medical Service (Department of the Interior); in short order, they gave her a post in “The Eskimo [sic] Village of Wainwright”. A territory for only twelve years at the time and yet thirty-five years from becoming a state, though owned by the United States for some years previously, the northern regions of Alaska were Ultima Thule, both literally and physically. With some help from the department secretary (all congratulations to department secretaries!), Richardson planned out all the supplies she would need to bring, and bravely set out to a part of the country that has maybe two months of ice-free access to the coastal waters and less than that of above-freezing weather.

As one might guess from the full title of the division which hired her, Richardson’s job combined teaching the children and providing medical treatment for any in the community who required it; this last was largely what might be described as first-aid in a modern setting, given the lack of drugs or medical facilities within less than several days travel.

The book is based largely on a combination of her own memories and letters and diaries written at the time. She remembers it fondly twenty-five years later–the book was published in 1949–though one always has to wonder how much of books such as this are rosy tinted memories of youth. Today, I’d call it more a period piece, describing a long-gone world, than a description of teaching technique, much less how the indigenous cultures should be treated or are managing themselves. While training teachers to work in the more remote areas of Alaska is a concern even today–the combination of the distances separating the communities from more populated areas and the extremes in seasons deters many who might otherwise come up from the lower forty-eight–the demagogic techniques have changed, to say the least, in the intervening eighty-five years, not to mention attitudes on how Caucasian interlopers ought to act with the locals. The book’s an interesting window into the past, however.

It’s an interesting, though now more than slightly dated, description of life in the northernmost part of Alaska; they lived within a few days travel by dogsled of Point Barrow, the northernmost point of the state of Alaska. Not brilliant writing at the time of its publication, nevertheless I can see this being an interesting introduction to the culture of the Inuit for readers in the lower forty-eight at the time, and an at least diverting description of the historical period for readers today. As with many other books of this type at this period, it could be argued that the Caucasian writer is working from a conscious or subliminal “white man’s burden” perspective. Nonetheless, Richardson does seem to respect the local people; while she finds their dwellings somewhat backwards compared to her own, I get the feeling that she at least acknowledges that while she would not like them, this is part of the Inuit heritage.

And I have to confess that I admire her for taking on the doyen of the Arctic, Knud Rasmussen–he and friend Peter Freuchen would have been contemporaries of hers–by saying that while the Inuit1 heritage and culture are admirable, it may not be sufficient to ensure their continuing ability to hunt in the traditional ways, given that (gee golly whillikers!) the non-Alaskan whalers have laid waste to the sea creatures the Inuit traditionally hunted! Better, she agrees, to figure out how to preserve their traditions while adapting their lifestyles to modern exigencies–in the case of this book, reindeer herding.

Kirkus Reviews

1I think that the group/culture she was dealing with were indeed Inuit; there are however several other cultures in what is now the political ‘Alaska’.

Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Donald Zochert

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder will be of interest primarily to those of us who’ve cut our broadcast television teeth on the “Little House” series starring Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert, and perhaps read only the “Little House” series of books which Laura wrote some fifty years after the time which she describes.

For those paying attention neither to my own book blog or to literary works in general from the past eighty years: Laura Ingalls Wilder, in the 1930s and 1940s, wrote a series of autobiographical works of fiction describing her own childhood in what was then the American West. The fictional series begins when Laura is a child of approximately five or six, living in the Big Woods near Pepin, Minnesota, and as the books progress, the family ebbs and flows farther west until they settle in De Smet, South Dakota, when Laura is approximately thirteen. The books as published do not match exactly the Ingalls’ family experience, although they provide an interesting fictional perspective on life in the United States between (approximately) 1870 and 1885; they end with Laura’s marriage to Almanzo leaving readers to wonder “What happened next?”

Zochert’s work will probably serve best as an adjunct for fans of Wilder’s original series to those books; he follows fairly closely Laura’s early life, which was covered in her books; he continues to the end of her life, but the remaining seventy years of her life comprise only about one quarter of Zochert’s book, whereas Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder follows more the process by which Laura came to write the books about her childhood. Zochert spins a tale only slightly less romantic and more based on factual research about Laura’s life than Laura herself wrote about her childhood; while I appreciate the research he did tease out from the thin threads of the census and the legal records, Zochert’s biography is only a little less flossy than Jean Nathan’s of Dare Wright. If one bases one’s assesment purely on the book’s cover, this would be a romance novel complete with bodice-torn heroine panting for her hero. I suspect that Laura would have been scandalized to see this book’s cover, though she did have a durable relationship with her husband.

Thirty-five years on, I suspect that writing styles and research techniques have changed sufficiently that this would not serve as a neutrally written, authorially distanced biography. There are more recent biographies of Laura, and ones which cover her adult married life at that, for those of us who want to know “What happened after the books ended?” While I suspect that Laura is a more enjoyable read than Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, allowing for literary changes in the intervening decades, I suspect Zochert’s interpolating between the lines of what is known renders it somewhat less factual. There’s only so much one can extrapolate from census records and legal documents, alas, and, as I mentioned with Dare Wright’s biography, the vast majority of us leave little in the way of documentation and information behind for potential biographers, as the vast majority of us are of precious little interest to anyone but our direct descendants.

Akenfield by Ronald Blythe

Originally published in 1969 based on Blythe’s study of village life in Suffolk–the interviews being done in the late 1960s. Blythe seems to have based his ‘fictional’ village of Akenfield on a couple of communities near Ipswich in East Anglia; I’d assume also that some of the identifying details of the people interviewed in the book have similarly been changed to protect his sources, but I can’t prove that one way or the other.

Blythe interviewed a range of residents of a (fictional) town in Suffolk, England about their lives; he talked to people of a range of ages and positions and backgrounds–the vicar, the verger, farmers, members of the W.I., the blacksmith and so on.

Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield is more akin to Studs Terkel’s Division Street and Working than Rubin’s Worlds of Pain; all three authors interviewed a number of people for their books, but Blythe and Terkel present the interviews themselves with significantly less interpolation and interpretation of the author for the readers. Blythe and Terkel both provide a fair bit of background information, but on the whole their readers are let to assess the speakers’ words on their own.

It’s an interesting book for Americans to read today1, separated by an ocean and a generation (coming up on two) from the time and place of publication. Given the ages of some of Blythe’s subjects, and the people they knew in their childhoods, the people mentioned herein have experience spanning back well over a hundred years from today. World War II was part of many of their lives, and World War I of theirs or of their parents; the village suffered through the loss of (most of) two generations of men in a time when people were already fleeing the countryside for more promising urban communities. The wars produced a societal shift much larger than the loss of men: the village moved from a Victorian model of horse powered agriculture and the Lordship and Ladyship’s Manor being the primary source of employment (and quite a respectable employment at that) to something approximating a modern mechanized society…but with incomers who came to this small ‘village’ in hopes of finding what the society as a whole had abandoned. These incomers and their home renovations did result in an upsurge in the skills of a previous generation, thatchers and blacksmithing among others, but I suspect this was a last gasp.

Was it? I wouldn’t mind hearing from people living in Sussex today to hear of the changes a subsequent generation has brought. Until then, I suppose I’ll just have to re-read Division Street.

1well, for me anyway.