The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine – Lindsey Fitzharris (2017)

“The ascendancy of knowledge over ignorance, and diligence over negligence, defined the profession’s future…”

If you are interested in Victorian times, in medical history, in social history, in well-told narratives… have I got the book for you. The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris ticks all the boxes for me with regard to having a great read: dry sense of humor, loads of facts, about a time period that I’m very interested in, and medicine? Yes please. 

I think that it’s quite amazing how fast (and how far) medicine (especially surgery) has come from its roots in Victorian science. In close to 150 years, we’ve completely reshaped the goals and methods of surgery, along with significantly reducing the death rates associated with that. When you keep in mind just how grubby surgery was, it’s an astonishing leap forward. 

So, always curious about the history of medicine, I was trawling my TBR shelves (go me!) and stumbled upon this title. Shortlisted for the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize along with other notable accolades, it was a brilliant read and one of those “read at the right time” situations for me. I loved it. 

So, what’s the book about? It’s revolves around Joseph Lister (1827-1912), a surgeon who introduced new principles of cleanliness (along with the germ theory) which went on to transform surgical practice and reduce post-operative mortality (or “ward fever”) deaths by huge numbers. Or, as the book says, the shift in medical procedure from antisepsis (germ killing) to asepsis (germ-free practices). It’s quite the story. 

Fitzharris reports that during this period of time, surgery was traumatic and risky. No anesthesia was available, surgeons’ cleanliness habits were anything but, and this was a time when most physicians believed that pus from a surgical incision was a “good thing” instead of an ominous onset of sepsis. In fact, surgeons were known as having a particular odor when they were working: “good old hospital stink” which was really the smell of rotting flesh and blood from their time in the operating theater. Crikey.

It was actually safer to have an operation at your own home (instead of in hospital) – hospitals had mortality rates that were three to five times higher. Curiously, Death was known at the time as Old Jacky, and some patients were said to be able to predict who would recover and who would die during surgery. Odds were that the patient would die… 

In fact, hospitals were such filthy places that many of them had a person who was charged with going around to rid the patient mattresses of lice. In fact, this person was more highly paid than surgeons, so that demonstrates how important hospitals viewed this lice person. 

Despite being such places of high mortality rates, there were a lot of hospital expansions and excitement about new techniques for surgeons at this time. The latest official medical text, The Art of Surgery, was in its ninth edition and was such a respected resource that a copy of it was given to every single doctor in the federal army during the Civil War. 

The medical field was still ignoring germ theory though, and so public health was still pretty terrible, particularly for those who were in poverty. The world’s first flushing toilet came about during Albert’s Great Exhibition, and more 800,000 people paid a penny to test these facilities out for themselves during their visit. 

(Interestingly (for me – maybe not for you!), this is where the English saying, “going to spend a penny” (for needing to go to the lavatory) arose. I remember my grandma frequently using this euphemism when I was growing up, and I always thought it was because in my childhood (1960s/1970s), the lavatories at the local park would have a locking mechanism so anyone in need would have to put a coin (usually a big penny) into the slot before it opened. I can only imagine how many wet pants this tradition caused British schoolchildren as they didn’t have a penny to use.) 

London, packed with all these thousands of visitors for the Great Exhibition, was not really equipped to deal with the teeming masses, and there was a time when the river Thames was called “The Great Stink” due to it smelling particularly badly due human excrement that had piled up on the riverbanks. Yuck, but where else were people supposed to go? 

One of the old locks that used to guard the access to the public lavatories back in the 1960’s/1970s in England. No penny? No luck. 🙂

Back to Victorian medicine: Fitzharris uses a wide variety of sources for this history, including one called the Yearbook of Medicine, Surgery, and Their Allied Sciences, which gave the helpful statement: 

“The bandages and instruments which have been employed for gangrenous wounds ought not, if possible, to be employed a second time…” 

This was the world of medicine that Lister entered, after having given his first speech at his new job in LATIN because the establishment believed that that showed these men (of course) were of higher learning. (Imagine the reaction of today’s surgeons being told to do that…) 

(Non sequitur: Glasgow (in Scotland where Lister’s first job was) was actually growing in such numbers that people called it “the second City of the Empire” after London. Well, didn’t know that.)

I think it’s best to do bullet points from now on…:

  • Lister was extremely interested in the parallel work of Louis Pasteur and his research on fermentation and the decomposition of organic matter. Lister was convinced that it was linked with the health of surgical wounds, but no one else was ready to listen yet.. (Curiously, another doc, Thomas Spencer Wells, was also interested in Pasteur’s work. Wells happened to be the surgeon for Queen Victoria… I love these overlaps!)
  • There’s also a good link between Lister and Lord Brougham (who founded University College of London where my brother teaches). Lord Brougham was president of the both the university and the hospital, and Lister was trying to get a gig teaching there as a professor. Brougham is also the name for a type of carriage and was so named for this guy. (See here for more on Lord Brougham and his travelling mummified body.) After other doctors started to believe that Lister was onto something with his cleanliness theories, they began to be known as the “Listerians” and as they became more established in the medical world, they gradually started to spread the theory throughout the profession. 
  • Random trivia: it was around this time that more personal hygiene items started to come on to the market, including a mouth-wash called, wait for it, Listerine. Developed by an American in Philadelphia after he had listened to a speech by Lister as part of his professional medical society meeting…  It was marketed as a variety of things, including a treatment for dandruff, a floor cleaner, and notably, even a cure for gonorrhea. (I know. I’d never put this together with Lister either…)
  • All this was happening around the time of a big flu epidemic that occurred earlier than the most famous flu epidemic of 1918. This particular epidemic was in 1889-1890, and brought a doctor to the fore named Robert Wood Johnson, who, influenced by one of Lister’s talks, joined together with his two brothers to develop a company focused on developing sterile surgical dressings and sutures. The name of the company: Johnson & Johnson. Huh.
  • (And also, around this time, was the start of public health and John Snow mapping the outbreak of cholera… Well, I never. It’s fascinating how things overlap sometimes…)

And, really, the information goes on and on in one of the most interesting reads I’ve had this year. 

Honestly, if you’re looking for some great non-fiction about a field that still holds its importance today, Fitzharris is a great guide to show you the way of Victorian medicine. I loved it (in case you can’t tell). 

For some Victorian social history reads, you could try these: 

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November 2018 reading review

It’s the beginning of a new month and it’s close to the end of the college semester, so let’s check in with how my reading is doing (just out of interest). I’ve been reading, but not quite with the same speed as I usually do. My eyes is tired at the end of the day, sometimes!

The reads for November included:

So to the numbers:

Total number of books read in November4 (and a half)

Total number of pages read 1,818 pages (av. 303). (This is exactly the same number of pages that I read last month. Weird.) 

Fiction/Non-Fictionfiction / 4 non-fiction.

Diversity0 POC. 2 books by women.

Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): library books, owned book and e-book.

Future plans include reading more of the printed word and my students’ writing. 🙂 

Queen Victoria: A Life – Giles Lytton Strachey (1921)

“Her attitude towards herself was simply regal…”

Seeing as it’s been a while since I’ve indulged my inner Queen Victoria fangirl, I thought I’d dig up a copy of this 1921 biography of Queen Victoria, except this one is a little less reverent than other ones. This one was rather chatty, a bit sycophantic in places, but also had some snark in it every now and then, and even though it didn’t follow more typically “serious” biography format, it was still awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. And it’s a good read.

Who was Strachey? Giles Lytton Strachey was born into a fairly wealthy family, and although college-educated at Cambridge, didn’t quite make it into academia, instead leading a writer’s life (mixed with other dilettante activities) and became part of the Bloomsbury Set. He had lovers of both sexes (scandalous at the time), and seems to have led a pretty quiet life overall.

Strachey had been interested in skewering some of the Old Guard of Victorian times, a period that was not all that far away from when he was writing. And this was the first of quite a few skewerings of Victorian leaders…

To the facts:

Victoria had only died at the turn of the century, and was followed by World War I, a war which rather turned the world on its head in many ways. England was no longer the Imperial Mistress of the world, the Industrial Revolution was turning centuries-old social class structure on its head, and by the 1920s, the Old War was far enough way where it was ok to have a more light-hearted view of things, whereas the Second World War was seen in few people’s headlights at the time. Thus, this biography was published and is said to have changed the world of biographies from then on. (No longer so serious…)

Since the biography was packed with interesting tidbits (esp. if you’re a Victoria nerd), here are some of the more intriguing details, bullet-style. (If you’re not a Victoria fan, you might want to avert your eyes.) 🙂 :

  • Not a big fan of women’s suffrage: “The Queen is most anxious to enlist everyone who can speak or write to join in checking this mad, wicked folly of “Women’s Rights,” with all its attendant horrors, on which her poor feeble sex is best, forgetting every sense of womanly feeling and propriety…. Lady so-and-so ought to get a GOOD WHIPPING. It is a subject which makes the Queen so furious that she cannot contain herself…
  • Victoria was rather difficult and stubborn throughout her life, but no one was brave enough to say this to her face.  In fact, when Disraeli was prime minister, at one point she was trying to persuade her government (and everything was “hers”) about a foreign diplomatic situation, and when it wasn’t going the way she wanted, she threatened to abdicate the throne …

Her life was pretty typical for a queen once she grew up and married her first cousin, Albert, but when he died, things went a scotch awry.

  • After Albert died, every single bed that Victoria slept in had a photo of Albert in his death-ness taped to the back of the headboard just above the pillow on the right-hand side. (Those Victorians loved a good death…)
  • Victoria believed that all her subjects were naturally as bereft as she was with the death of her True Love….

“The Queen desired that wherever her subjects might be gathered together they should be reminded of the prince. Her desire was gratified; all over the country – at Aberdeen, at Perth, and at Wolverhampton…”

  • Apparently, the Queen was quite a packrat in some ways: she never threw any tangible thing away, but had them scattered throughout her palaces. Almost every surface was covered in objects d’art and photographs, portraits and marble or gold busts of people in her life (or her pets).
  • After Albert died, these things could also never be moved (since she thought Albert had decided many of their locations and thus they were sacred). In fact, she had so many that eventually, her staff took photographs of the things (from several angles) and measured exactly where they were located in each room, so if, by some chance, something got moved, it could be put back into EXACTLY the same place as it was before “darling Albert” died. According to Strachey, she loved looking through the multiple volumes categorizing her things, and would also have an album or two close to hand for when she would have a spare minute.
  • When Albert died, the set of his rooms at Windsor was kept shut away for only a few privileged eyes, but she commanded that her husband’s clothes be set out afresh each evening upon the bed, and water set by the basin as though he was still alive. Kept this up for 40 years.
  • Post-Albert, she was very overwhelmed by official duties, and complained of it frequently in letters. Albert had been a big help to her, getting up early and writing precis of all the complicated correspondence and then putting it in a neat pile in her red boxes for when she got up. In fact, she over-relied on him (and he enabled this) to the point that foreign diplomats and politicians worldwide knew that the only way to get on Victoria’s good side was to overly-compliment Albert and to match their words with her feelings towards him.
  • Despite the age of Victoria being an age of discovery and the Industrial Revolution, Victoria pretty much ignored most of that. (They were really Albert’s interests, and although she was interested when he was there, once gone, no more.)
  • Public view of Victoria vacillated from time to time over the years: she wasn’t very popular when she withdrew from the public eye, but when she gradually came out of mourning (decades later), her public image improved. She fought vociferously with the various prime ministers – about world affairs (esp. going to war with Prussia and/or Russia) but also the smaller things. For example, she recused herself legally from signing new commissions in the army (up until then, new officers had always been approved by the Queen/King), and changed the law for would-be assassins (of which there were more than a handful) so that they would face the death penalty instead of automatically being charged of being insane. (And – get this: lashings would still take place – up to 40 lashes from a birch branch for some unlucky people.)
  •  “From 1840-1861, the power of the Crown steadily increased in England [due to influence from Prince Consort]; from 1861-1901 it steadily declined [due to influence of her Ministers].”

(Strachey writes that in the first years, she was a “mere accessory”; in the second, since there was no Albert, her Ministers rather took over a bit more when she checked out for her decades of mourning.)

  • She never allowed any divorced lady to come into her courts. (Not sure about divorced men, but that was probably ok.)  She frowned upon any widow who married again (see Victoria’s own life) – even though she was the daughter of a widowed mother who had married again. Hmm.

Victoria died on January 22, 1901. For many of her subjects, they had never known any other queen, and this death, although not a huge surprise, did rock the world in a number of ways. 

So, this was a rather fascinating read for me, seeing as it was the first royal biography that was a bit more gossipy (and even sarcastic) in places. I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

For some other Victoria-related reads, try:

The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London – Christopher Skaife (2018)

Having heard a mention of this book on NPR, I happened to come across it in the New Books section at the library, and immediately picked it up to check out and read. It was close to perfect for me and reminded me of just sitting down to a cup of tea with this charming author.

Being a ravenmaster (or person in charge of the ravens at the Tower) is quite a new job title, despite the long history of the location. People have only been given the title since the late 1960’s – before that, staff (i.e. the Beefeaters*) would look after the ravens, but it was put under the responsibilities of the quartermaster (or similar).

And it’s the little (and surprising) tidbits that really drew me into this read. Skaife is the perfect guide to this small but prestigious world of people who live within the grounds of the Tower of London. (And the Beefeaters and their families really do live inside the castle. The drawbridge is pulled up every evening around 11 or so, and then the inhabitants are cut off from the rest of central London for the night.) The Tower is still an official royal palace and yet, despite having lived inside its confines for more than a decade, Skaife still retains his wonder and curiosity which is communicated to the reader throughout the pages.

ravenmaster

Despite the cachet of being a Beefeater (also called the Yeoman Warder), each person who holds this position has at least 24 years of unblemished service with the British military, and then once in this position, warders usually stay there for the rest of their lives until they retire.

Skaife has been doing the Beefeater-ing for the past 15 years or so, and the Ravenmaster-ing for the past eight (or more?) years after completing 24 years as an infantryman (and drum major) in the British Army. He knows his stuff and reports that most of his deployment time as an active soldier was in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles (1970s/1980s), which means that he was frequently at risk from the IRA.

So Skaife came to this position legitimately and having paid his dues. Despite being an infantryman and despite having a patchy formalized education, he succeeded when he joined the army at the (young!) age of 16 and a half. (Good for him, I say.) He’d been veering down the path of trouble in his early years, and his parents were happy to see Skaife doing some honest labor under army discipline.

His time as a full-time professional soldier was spent immersed in military life, but he’d maintained a lifelong interest in history despite his early attitude to formal education. When coming to the end of his army career, there was an opening to be a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, and he applied and was selected.

His job as the ravenmaster (its real job title!) came after years on the job as a Beefeater, and his main job duty now is to look after the seven HUGE ravens who inhabit the castle. Tradition holds that should the ravens ever leave the castle, it will lead to the destruction of the Tower and great harm will come to England, and Skaife’s recollections of how he looks after these birds (and how they look after him) is incredibly interesting. (Luckily, the ravens are happy with the food and the set-up that they have at the Tower, although every now and then, one of the birds tries to make a break for it.)

The day-to-day routine provides a general structure for the narrative, but interspersed is related information to do with the history of the Tower, its ravens and his own life. It’s a fascinating mix, mainly because Skaife seems to be one of the most charming raconteurs in addition to being a self-taught raven expert. He’s self-deprecating, funny, and modest, all of which combine to make the book read experience come across as though you’re having a cuppa tea with one of your friends.

Skaife pulls together mythology and facts about the Tower and about the corvids (name for ravens), and as he recounts his life with the birds, you can’t help but join in with his enthusiasm for his life. (As it turns out, Skaife learns during his research on the job that the ravens haven’t actually been at the Tower for centuries (despite the legend). He thinks that the ravens arrived around the 1880s, and have just stuck around since then. They have a safe living situation for the most part, a steady supply of food and water, and Skaife works to keep the flock as wild as they need to be whilst they’re there at the Tower. He doesn’t clip their wings to force them to stay there (although he does trim their feathers every now and then)…

Skaife honestly seems to be one of the most genial people that I’ve ever read – he’s both convivial and authentic, and so both the reader and the ravens are in good hands with him. Plus – he has an Instagram account as well (ravenmaster1) if you’re interested.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable read. Highly recommended.

Summer’s Reading…

endofsummer

Well, let’s see. Last summer, there was quite a bit of reading and quite a bit of other stuff (which is to say everything that’s not reading!). For my first time through a faculty summer, I found it to be an enjoyable and relaxing experience (although I might rethink the “taking a class + teaching a class” paradigm for next year).

In lieu of a book-by-book-review post, I thought I might just hit the highlights of the titles that I did read. That way, you get the cream of the crop and I get to catch up. Win-win for all!

Fiction was a pretty good haul overall. One or two stinkers, but I won’t mention those. Good thing about most of this is that they were off the TBR and therefore, are now out of the house. (Just in time for the FoL Library Sale that’s coming up…) 🙂

Did a flurry of reading two books by Nina Stibbes (whose book, Love, Nina, I had loved on an earlier read). These were both solid Stibbes’ efforts: The Man at the Helm was about how two teen daughters are trying to find a new husband for their newly divorced mum with varying levels of success, and the second read was “Paradise Lodge” (no blog post) about a young teen working her first job at a retirement home in England. Both very British in setting and tone, and thus fit the bill for me very well.

(This is our off year for going home to England [i..e. unlikely that we’ll get there by the end of December], so instead, I’ll read some Stibbes. Funny, relevant, and just like hanging out with my own family over there!)

Read the very lovely title, “The Rosie Project” by Graeme Simsion, an Aussie author. An easy (but still enjoyable) read with a plot that revolved around a man who lives a very controlled life (rather similar to an Aspie and/or OCD) and how he wants to find himself a girlfriend with the end goal of getting married.

Using spreadsheets and questionnaires, the guy starts the search only to meet a young woman who is the opposite of predictable and detailed. How does this process go? You’ll have to read it, but if you know any Aspies in your life (diagnosed or not), then you’ll enjoy the story. Funny without being at all mean. (I’m on the lookout for the follow-up title now. I’m curious how the story evolves!)

Then lined up some multicultural titles with a short fiction anthology, “Mixed” (from authors who are of mixed descent and how that impacts their lives) – edited by Chandra Prasad and left me lots to think about. Then, some fiction by the oh-so-talented Paule Marshall (this one called “Timeless People, Chosen Place” about the culture clash of a white academic research team on an unspecified Caribbean island community). No blog post, but very good, as per.

Read some Colm Toibin whose writing I happen to love. Set in Ireland and usually pretty domestic in setting (and revolving around family), “Nora Webster” (no blog post) was a really good read. (Plus it was a cold weather setting which was nice in Texas summer).

For non-fiction, I read some corker titles. I travelled to the moon and back with “Moondust” by English journalist Andrew Smith (no blog post). This title searches for the remaining U.S. astronauts who have seen the earth from the moon (a number that is reducing as the astronauts get older). Smith is trying to answer the general question: “What do astronauts do/how do they cope when they’ve been to the moon and then have to live on earth for the remainder of their lives? How do they handle the ordinariness of earth life after having traveled to space?”

An absolutely fascinating read (whether you’re into space or not). Smith is a great writer with a dry sense of humor and tracks down the pilots while delving into the Space Race of the 1960s and 1970s. I remember being woken up in the middle of the night to watch the moon landing, but I was only six years old so didn’t actually have a thorough understanding of the whole thing. I understand a lot more now, and realize that it wasn’t just about getting to the moon first.

Read a harrowing title by Luis Alberto Urrea called “By the Lake of the Sleeping Children”  about the people who live in the community that borders San Diego and Mexico. It’s actually a rubbish dump, but people live their whole lives in this awful place. I was astounded that this would happen so close to the Land of Milk and Honey, but it was true (probably still true).

However, despite the grim subject, Urrea is a gifted journalist who treats every one of his characters with dignity and respect while informing the reader of how truly hard their lives can be. (This was a bit of a hard read for me.)

Changing tack a bit (!), I finished up a biography of Princess Diana by Sally Bedell Smith (whose other work about the Queen and Prince Charles I’ve also read). Closer to a long People article than an academic treatise, it was still an interesting read and yet, even when you finish, you’re still no closer to the answers than before you started reading it. Interesting though.

Staying on the topic of royalty, I tracked down a title called Victoria and Abdul (about the “scandalous” [for the time] relationship between Queen Victoria and an Indian servant she called the Munshi. Fascinating reading and took me down all sorts of rabbit holes for a few days after that. I wonder if the accompanying film is any good…

Did some traveling around the world via some titles: Canada guidebooks (where I visited avec la famille), and also an old classic travelogue about England in the 1930’s: “In Search of England” by H.V. Morton. Adored this read, both because it was like going back in time and also because it is one of my mum’s favorite titles. Just loved it – like a traveling “Cider with Rosie.”

Speaking of going back in time (but this visit to a startling different place) was my read of  the graphic novel, “The Harlem Hellfighters” by Max Brooks and illustrator Canaan White (no blog post but trust me, it’s good), which is a fictional account of the (true) harrowing tale of the 369th Infantry unit of the U.S. Army who were the only African-American soldiers to travel to France during WWI.

This unit of soldiers was given exactly the same (and sometimes more) responsibilities as the white U.S. soldiers, but then, upon the unit’s return stateside, the soldiers were expected to slide right back into the segregated racial divide that was life in America in the early twentieth century. Another rather harrowing read about a topic of which I was woefully unknowing, but important just the same.

And then I started my second all-the-way-through read of the AP Style Book (as needed for work and class). I’m getting there, but have learned to expect very little logic in its rules. :-}

And now, I’m reading a library loan called “The Book of Books” (from the PBS TV series and the Great American Read project) which covers 100 titles that are popular in America. I’m not sure who chose them (or how they were chosen), but it’s an interesting and diverse list of books ranging (so far) from “Gilead” (Robinson) to “Catcher in the Rye” (of course) to “Pride and Prejudice” to James Baldwin and the “Fifty Shades” series (!), so it’s difficult to know what’s coming next from page to page. Its actually really fun to turn the page and see…

Lovely production values and pretty diverse in fiction titles, so enjoying a browse through that. Plus, it’s fun to see which titles I’ve read and which I’ve not… (I seem to have missed that whole related PBS TV series though… Did anyone else see it? Is it worth tracking down?)

And now class has been back in session, the slightly manic first week is over, and I’m developing loads of PowerPoint presentations since I’m teaching a lecture class for the first time this fall. It’s all fun and games though, and I’m very happy to be back in the classroom again!

Empty Mansions – Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr. (2013)

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Subtitle: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune. 

An intriguing non-fiction about the Clark family who were a real rags-to-riches frontier family led by a ruthless businessman who traveled out to the hinterlands to find a better life through discovering and then selling copper and then growing his wealth even more through a series of savvy (and lucky) business deals. The patriarch, W. A. Clark, became nearly as wealthy as the Rockefellers and ended up being a controversial US Senator (with a bribery scandal to his name), a builder of railroads and the founder of Las Vegas.

But who was he really? Who was his French wife Anna, and what about his family?

With this background of privilege, the narrative traces the story of the Clark family from a log cabin in Pennsylvania to elegant Fifth Avenue in New York, from a one-room house to one of the largest houses in NYC with 121 different rooms for a family of four, and then in reverse when the only surviving member of the family chooses to seclude herself in an ordinary hospital room for twenty years.

WAClarkHugetteClark

(Above) – Huguette (in white) stands with her father and elder sister.

It’s a really strange story but it’s fascinating, mainly because there are so many questions that still remain and no one seems to know the truth. As the youngest daughter, Huguette lived a life of extreme privilege far removed from the typical American life that surrounded her.

She had little formal schooling, but became an expert on Japanese culture; she owned Degas and Renoir paintings but without a successful painting career; she bought and owned a never-played Stradivarius violin which she rarely looked at and grew a large collection of antique dolls worth millions of dollars and with houses of their own to store the collection.

But with so many people sworn to secrecy about Huguette’s life, this is an NF based on rumors and family lore more so than actual fact. It’s also heavily based on memories that surround a $300 million fortune to be inherited and so it’s very difficult to know the actual truth of these events. Everyone has a stake in their perspective and so who’s to know what really occurred.

When Huguette retired from outside life and entered her hospital room, rarely to leave again despite being healthy and able-bodied, why was that? When Huguette gave $30 million to her personal nurse towards the end of her life, was she being manipulated by the nursing staff and the greedy hospital hoping for a “generous donation”? Why did she pull herself away from everyone she knew to choose to watch The Smurfs in a darkened room? Was she mentally ill or was she being blackmailed? So many questions!

So, this was an interesting read, although I did have to run it through the filter that it was co-authored by her great-nephew who trod very carefully when it came to the honest truth (what little there was). (Sort of a “Don’t annoy grandma or you’ll get left out of the will” idea.) In the end, this book was a mix of fact and fiction and although it rather veered towards sycophancy towards the last third of the book, it was still an interesting read.

How much is true? How much is Memorex? Who is to know, but it was interesting to learn about this filthy rich but slightly strange family.

 

Traveling to the nation’s capital…

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Abraham Lincoln monument in DC.

So, if you’re in any way connected with the U.S. education system, you will be probably be familiar with the cheers and hoorahs that occur from both the students and the teachers when it’s time for Spring Break… Thus, it was mine the other week, and so I jetted off to meet my lovely mum in the nation’s capitol, Washington D.C.

Many moons ago and in an earlier life, I lived and worked in D.C., but I haven’t been back there for anything longer than a weekend since then, and so it was rather a Rip-van-Winkle experience as we walked around the Mall and environs. I remembered bits and pieces of long-ago events, but for the most part, my time there is lost in the fog of youthful times. (Probably a good thing, as well.)

Mum has not really visited the East Coast of the U.S. that much, although she’s very well-travelled in other regions, and so we chose D.C. as being quite a central place for us to meet, she flying in from London and me from Texas. My mum is a trooper for traveling long distances, but I also wanted to choose a destination that wouldn’t take a long and uncomfortable journey for her to reach since she’s getting a bit up there, age-wise. (She can still walk me into the ground re: stamina, but you know what I mean.) We had tried to hook up with me, my twin sister, and mum, but the differing Spring Break dates between the college where my twin sis teaches and the one at which I teach meant that was a no-go this year.

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This pic was taken at the Museum of American History and was included in an exhibition of the history of immigration to the U.S. This was the recommended way to talk with foreigners getting ready for the spoken English exam. How are you, my alien friend? 🙂

So – to the travel. Flying there was uneventful, thank goodness, although I did end up traveling whilst I was wearing a big medical leg brace since I’m still healing from the ankle surgery last December. Not to worry. I packed quite lightly (But. Must. Do. Better. Next. Time.), and having the leg brace, cumbersome though it was, meant that I finally got to ride the airport carts and get early boarding for prime seating since I’m walking at a top speed of a tortoise right now. No worries.

Everyone was extremely kind and understanding about it, and I have nothing but good things to say about traveling with United. (Note: It was impossible for us to get a cart or wheelchair at Houston Airport for unknown reasons and so we ended up walking 40-something gates or we were going to miss our connection, but moving on from that… The other stuff was great.)

My mum had landed in DC the day before I arrived and already had the hotel sussed out so that my late arrival went smoothly and we woke up the next morning ready to up and at them, tourist-style. (You just never know how these things are going to go when you book a hotel blind, amirite?)

I’d researched a rather vague itinerary prior to the trip, and I highly recommend that you do the same (although perhaps a little more detailed) if you travel to D.C. It’s a huge city, and there are approximately fifty billion museums and other cool places to visit, so it’s good to have a plan of some sort. We were interested in a mix of museums, art galleries, and other places, and with mum getting older and me in my leg brace, we chose the walking-intense National Mall to start off when we were fresh and pretty rested.

It’s a lot of walking if you want to see the Lincoln monument, the Reflecting Pool, the Vietnam War Memorial, and other iconic sights, and although there were the occasional (and slightly puzzling) DC Circulator buses that you could hop on to, the four-day passes that we bought for the Metro didn’t work on these buses, so there was quite a bit of faffing about with that until we worked it out.

The National Mall is also a food and drink desert (i.e. there are very few options for lunch, coffee or just a sit down out of the cold), so be prepared. You could buy a very over-priced ice cream, I think, but apart from that, there’s nada that we could find. Caveat emptor and all that.

So Mum and I walked past quite a few of these, hoping to catch the cherry blossoms that line that reflecting pool, but there’d been a hit of cold weather which had delayed their opening up. (You can follow the progress of the cherry blooms at this website.) Not to worry, it was still pretty with all the green buds out, and it was great to walk around in a pedestrian-friendly and safe environment with cool temperatures. (We’d just missed snow, thank goodness.) So we strolled up the Mall, and then came across the new National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

I’d skim-researched on-line about tickets to enter etc., and the guide book had mentioned that you could buy tickets ahead of time or there were some walk-ins available on the day. This is not quite accurate (as there were no available walk-ins), and so if you’re heading for DC and wanting to pop into this museum, get your tickets 1-2 months ahead of time. Tickets are for a timed-entry to prevent crowds overwhelming the building, so it was well organized, but you just couldn’t walk-in as the guide book suggested. (Note to self for next time.)

Just up the street were some more treasures so all was not lost. We visited the National Archives, and the very intriguing National Museum of American History (which is really interesting and seems to contain everything else that they couldn’t put into one of the other Smithsonian museums). Honestly, it’s a fascinating hodge-podge of topics, times and people, and we could have stayed there for hours.

Still, time was a-ticking so we hopped across the street to run through the National Gallery of Art to see what gorgeous pieces that they had there. One really unexpected display was a small indoor courtyard that was stuffed with the most gorgeous and prolific flowers… Just beautiful and very unexpected in an art museum…

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By that time, we were running out of time and out of energy, so we whipped by the White House (didn’t stop as not a big fan of the current inhabitant), and then came back to the hotel. We were staying in a DoubleTree just outside the city in a place called Crystal City (close to the Pentagon etc.) and only a ten-minute subway ride from downtown. Cheaper, less traffic, more conference-focused hotel which was lovely and quiet.

Plus, they had the friendliest and most helpful staff I’ve ever encountered which was a big plus. (Say hello to Tyrone when you next see him. Great guy, and deserves a raise as he went waaay over and above in his customer service when we’d just missed the shuttle.)

The next day featured more of the museums at the other end of the Mall: the Library of Congress (with the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights et al.), a quick visit to the U.S. Capitol (where our politicians sometimes do their work), and then back for a rest.

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Points to consider when traveling to DC:

  • Check which museums you are interested in attending and see if you can get your (free) tickets ahead of time. (Sometimes having tix is the only way to get in and with no tix = no admittance.)
  • If you’d like to tour the U.S. Capital itself, you can send an email to your local Representative person, and they can arrange to have an intern give you a tour of the inner workings of the place. We chose not to do this due to the current tenant.
  • There’s a pretty decent clean and cheap cafeteria in the basement of the Capital building if you’re dying for a coffee or lunch etc. Open to everyone, including large groups of school children who were, I have to say, very well behaved. (Thank you, teachers and chaperones.)
  • At the start of your trip, take a photo (with your phone) of the subway system so you’ll always have this with you. (Take it quite hi-res so then, if you have to enlarge it to see a particular station, you’ll be able to read it ok. We had to enlarge quite often to read the map.) The subway stations can be a little hidden away on the streets at times, but you’ll learn to recognize the grey columns with the big M on them after a while. They’re not massively obvious though, so there’s quite a bit of searching around for them sometimes.
  • Along those lines, take photos of the guidebook pages talking about the places that you’re interested in visiting that day. (Guidebooks can be heavy and dense to carry around, and honestly, how many pages are you really going to need that day?)
  • At the Metro, it’s cheaper to buy the reusable/reloadable plastic passes for multiple days if you’re going to be there for more than 48 hours. These tickets are discounted and you only have to carry that one plastic pass for never-ending journeys for that one holiday. Plus they are reloadable, and transfer from person to person in most cases. Just know that the Metro pass doesn’t work on the buses.
  • People in DC are really helpful and courteous. There are the occasional mentally ill homeless folks as there are in any metropolitan areas, naturally, but keep your eyes peeled and be aware of your surroundings, you’ll be fine.
  • Know that visits to museums are going to take much longer than you think so you might want to be flexible for your daily itinerary with regard to the number of places you visit, and where they are located. (Some have pretty long lines to get in.)
  • Take snacks and water bottles with you when you leave the hotel to go tourist-ing. Sometimes you’ll be in a food desert (i.e. the Mall) wandering around with no hope in sight, and then, my friends, is when you’ll be glad of that energy bar and the drink. Plus – if you start off with an empty water bottle, there are loads of water fountains for free refills. (This is even more important if you go in the summer months when the humidity is about 1000% and the temps are high.)
  • Unless you’re a young ‘un, plan to sit down and have a cup of coffee (or other drink) fairly regularly, otherwise all the walking can turn your trip into the Bataan Death March pretty quickly (especially when you’re not sure where the closest metro is).
  • It’s fine to ask people questions about where you are, where the Metro is etc. DC is a working city, and the majority of the locals are fairly happy to point you in the right direction (unless they’re in a stinking hurry in which case you wouldn’t ask them, right?)
  • Try to avoid getting on the Metro at rush hour (just as you would in any other large city). More expensive, more crowded. Much more relaxed if you can travel either before or after those hours.
  • Stay flexible with your plans. The odds are that you will probably get lost at some point, or can’t find the Metro or your destination, or just get fed up and want to go back to the hotel for a nap. It happens. It doesn’t mean that you’re a failed tourist.

Use your City-Smarts, and DC is a blast.

P.S. I did do some reading of some earlier work of Mary Roach (My Planet) whilst I was traveling, but it was a collection of her lifestyle columns from a newspaper, and trust me, it wasn’t her best work. Let me save you some time and money by saying that your life will continue if you don’t read this one. 🙂

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The amazing Library of Congress in DC… Slightly posher than my own local branch… 🙂

The Negro Motorist Green-Book – Victor Hugo Green

The_Negro_Motorist_Green_BookSo, scouting around the interwebs, I somehow came across a curious snippet of information that led me to the discovery of the Negro Motorist Green Book, an old travel guide book series designed for African-American car drivers who may have been looking for a safe space to have a drink, eat some food, or get some sleep when they were on the road.

Published annually between 1936 and 1966 when Jim Crow laws were abound in the U.S. and as African-Americans earned their way into the middle class and car ownership, these guides would help drivers know of safe places to travel to (or through) until they reached their destination. Car ownership was also necessary for African-Americans to avoid using public transportation and the problems that would be encountered there, so these guides played an important role for a lot of families.

Open widespread discrimination and arbitrary rules were not uncommon for the African-American car driver, from restaurants who would refuse to serve African-Americans to “sundown”* towns to communities with a police force who would enforce laws with a very heavy racially-biased hand. Thus, seeing a need for some reliable and up-to-date info, newspaper man Victor Hugo Green began to publish this guide in New York.

AfAm_car_ownersOriginally, the guide (or the Green Book, as it was known) was published only with a focus on New York City, but as its circulation grew, the geographic areas that the guide covered expanded until it covered the entirety of North America and Canada (and even Bermuda and parts of the Caribbean) by the end of its run. Written by Green, it was a directory that was really important and was effectively crowd-sourced from its readers as new entries were added by word-of-mouth via personal experience.

The annual guides included names and addresses of cities and towns with safe restaurants, safe hotels, or night clubs, and even, in the particularly small communities, the contact info to stay in someone’s private house if there were no hotels or inns that would house you. It’s incredible that this was the case, but that’s Jim Crow for you. Interestingly, the city where I now live does not have any entries in the Green Book for the year that I looked. I can only imagine that this meant that there were few (or no) safe places for African-American travelers. 😦

This led to a fascinating journey down some wormholes to learn about this neglected and shameful piece of history. I have never heard of these guides before. Have you?

  • ”Sundown” towns were all-white municipalities (in both the north and the south) that practiced segregation by enforcing impossible and awful restrictions such as all non-white/non-Christian people had to leave town by sundown. Not only was it impossible for African-Americans to purchase land or housing in such a town through extensive exclusionary housing agreements, it was also highly likely that such folks would be run out of town or lynched. (There are a couple of places that didn’t actually remove their anti-Jewish and anti-African-American covenants until 1990!! Shameful.)

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Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch – Sally Bedell Smith (2012)

book412Since we’d just finished watching the latest season of The Crown TV series, I decided that I was interested in learning more about Her Majesty (HM)* QE2, and having had an enjoyable read of a biography about Prince Charles (same author), followed it up with this bio of his famous mother.

Sally Bedell Smith is an American author who has a penchant for writing biographies of royalty, whether that is monarchy-related royalty (such as the Queen) or Camelot-related royalty (such as JFK et al.) This author can write very readable books and does so in a breezy rather People-magazine-like manner, so I think if you know that this is fairly superficial coverage of a very private and elite world, then you’ll be squared away. It’s not, however, a very heavy fact-based book, but Smith doesn’t claim otherwise really.

So this title covers the life of Queen Elizabeth II (or Lillibet, as the Queen Mother would call her) up until 2012, and the one word that jumps out at me after having read this now would be “dutiful”. Smith does a thorough job covering how QE2 has grown up, inherited the throne when she was a young 21-year old, and she seems to do a pretty decent writing job with the limited public information that the Palace office releases. (Obvs, no F2F interviews with the royal family.) (All the info seems to come from secondary sources, and thus the People magazine comparison.)

The Queen is portrayed as playing a huge role in continuity and consistency, whether complications arise from within her family or outside in the world at large. My own take on the Royal Family is that they are a link over the centuries in the history of the UK, and although they may be expensive to keep and house, they are also interesting in their right, acting as a strong lure for tourists from around the world. From this read, it was interesting to see how hard (some of) the family actually work in the Firm (the nickname for themselves), and although I can see the attraction of being a princess, it’s also a gilded cage in a lot of respects.

This read is obviously pro-monarchy, and does seem to be rather full of speculation rather than fact in places, but if you remember that the book is just a biographical take on a very private but public figure through an American author’s worshipful lens, you’ll get on ok with this. It’s not academic; it doesn’t break any new ground; there are no surprises in this, but it’s also quite a good read (despite all those caveats).

What I liked most about this biography was that it was also a useful primer for some of the history of England during the twentieth century. Despite growing up in England, I still had some huge gaps in my historical knowledge wrt prime ministers, Princess Margaret, politics, and other topics, and I found that this was a pretty useful history book (albeit in a sycophantic and superficial manner).

As I think about this, this title was (and is) tailored to the American market (myself included since I live here), and through that lens, it does what it says on the tin, simplistic though it may be. It’s a good birds-eye view of the world of QE2 and the people who surround her, and it was helpful to me to be able to put more context on some of the larger monarchical events that have happened during my lifetime.

However, I think it’s important to remember that this is more of a celebrity biography than anything, and perhaps is more of a taster of the life of HM than anything else. Despite the shallow depth, this was still an enjoyable read, and I think that it’s scratched that “The Crown” itch for a while, and opened several rabbit holes down which to chase.

Now I’m going to peruse the shelves to see what else I can find to read from the TBR pile.

  • So I did have Her Royal Highness (HRH) here, but that wasn’t actually correct. QE2 is referred to as Her Majesty (HM) as there is no one in the family who has a higher position that she does.

The Making of Home – Judith Flanders (2014)

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I’m always really curious about the social history of places and times: how did people live then? Under what conditions? What did they do each day, and what did their houses look like?

With that said, it’s little wonder that I really enjoyed a recent read of historian Judith Flanders’ work called The Making of Home: The 500-Year Story of How our Houses Became our Homes which covers exactly that topic, huge as it is.

Flanders is a social historian with several titles to her credit, including Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain (see review here), The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed (see review here), and one or two in the TBR pile (The Invention of Murder and The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London). Obviously, I enjoy her writing and what she has to say…

The idea that “home” is a special place, a separate place, a place where we can be our true selves, is too obvious to us today that we barely pause to think about it. But… “home” is a relatively new concept.

As usual, this book is so chock-full of interesting (to me) points, I ended up with a bullet list of curious facts, so hopefully, that will work for you.

  • The concept of having a “chairman/woman” on a committee or in a company stems from the fact that early in history, furniture was really expensive and out of reach for many families. If they did have enough disposable income to buy something, they might only have the cash to buy one chair (instead of a set).* Thus, if you review early paintings of domestic settings (such as in the seventeenth century), you may notice that a family may only have one chair in the room. As this was typically the father’s or husband’s place (since he was considered the most important person in the group), he got to sit in the chair. Thus, the chairman. 🙂
  • Bedding was a huge chunk of a family’s budget when starting out. For a family in the 18th century, there are records that show they paid more than a quarter of their total household income for bedding and furniture, so it was a huge investment for the average family.
  • Beds usually only had flour sacks of hay (or straw) as the mattress, and families sometimes put up to five flour sacks of hay on top of each other to give more padding. (I’m wondering if this is where the origin of the Princess and the Pea fairy tale came from…)
  • Families were all up on the latest household fashions. For example, pendulum clocks were invented in 1657. Two decades after that, almost no Dutch families owned a similar clock. Four decades after its invention, nine out of ten families owned one. And thus the world turns…
  • In 1727 in Bath, it was quite common for a middle class family to own a table, cooking pots, and a mirror, but curiously, the great majority of these same households didn’t own a cup or even knives and forks.
  • For middle class pioneer families in the US during this same time, they lagged behind their British counterparts in terms of household goods: it was very common for pioneer families out west to live in a similar fashion to the lifestyle of English families one century earlier. (Couldn’t exactly go shopping very often and didn’t have much disposable income.)
  • The history of cups and saucers: When tea was first imported to UK, the Chinese style of tea-cup with no handle was fine for how the tea was served (lukewarm). However, when the Brits started to like their tea really hot (as now), the previously handle-free cups were unsuitable and thus, handles were added to the cup. When Brits started adding milk to the tea, there was a need for a bigger cup, and when sugar came into the pic, tea drinkers needed a small spoon to put the sugar into the drink, so thus teaspoons. Teaspoons led to saucers, as a place to rest your spoon whilst you drank your tea. Huh.
  • In the Middle Ages, guests were expected to bring their own knives and forks (instead of the hosting family providing them). They were considered as personal items. Knives were originally round-ended, and thus one could not spear your food to eat it. Instead, forks were developed to spear your food once you’d cut it with your knife. Most middle class people just ate with a knife and a spoon which they would bring with them when they traveled.
  • The British Navy refused to accept use of forks until 1897.
  • Seventeenth century England houses commonly only had one fireplace in one room, and heat was seen as a luxury more than a necessity. (What were they thinking? Have you been to England in December and January? Brrrr.)

And there’s so much more, that if this type of social history whets your whistle, I think that you’ll like Flanders and her work. Plus – the bibliography is lengthy and I added quite a few new titles to my ever-expanding TBR list.

Anyway, thoroughly enjoyed this read, and now I’m very grateful for central heating. 🙂

* When Superhero and I were young marrieds, we only had enough money to buy a dining room table. (We didn’t have enough to buy the matching chairs, so for quite a few months, we only had two non-matching dining table director’s chairs.) The next Christmas, we saved up and got the matching set. Baby steps, amirite?

Added for reference:

If you like this sort of book, here are some other domestic/social history books that I’ve read in case you’re looking to add to the ol’ TBR pile. (Obvs, I like Flanders!):