Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

Feb 27, 2017

So far, 2017 is not the year of the audiobook for me. This is the only book I've listened to, and it took me nearly two months to finish. At this rate, I'll be lucky if I make it through six audiobooks this year, which is a far cry from the years where at least half of my reading was done by listening. I blame podcasts, knitting vlogs, and my noisy children for the drop in numbers.

All that said, even though it took me an agonizingly long time to listen to, I thoroughly enjoyed it. There have been a bunch of WWII bestsellers lately; besides this one, I've also read All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale, but I have to say, I liked this one best: the setting, the plot, the characters, and the treatment of hard subject matter were all just really well done.

The book jacket claims that this is a "novel about three lives entangled during World War II," but I would argue that it's really about just two: Mary North and Alistair Heath. I think the third character the summary refers to is Tom Shaw, who is Mary's boyfriend and Alistair's best friend, but although he certainly plays a critical role in both of their lives, the story is never really told from his perspective, whereas it travels back and forth between Mary and Alistair. If Tom is noted as a main character, I feel like you also have to mention Hilda (Mary's best friend) and Zachary (a young student whom Mary tutors).

But really, I'm getting ahead of myself since I haven't actually told you anything about anyone.

The story opens with this line (which I quite like): "War was declared at eleven-fifteen and Mary North signed up at noon." Mary lives in London and comes from a wealthy family. But I love that opening sentence because I think it sums up Mary so perfectly: she's feisty; she doesn't think twice when it comes to making a decision; she's willing to work hard and fulfill her duty; and she doesn't care much about propriety or social standards.

Mary is hoping she'll be assigned as a liaison, or possibly even a spy, but instead she gets sent to a school. It's not quite as glamorous as she was hoping for, but she discovers that she really enjoys teaching children. However, just a few days into her responsibilities, the children are evacuated to the countryside, and the headmistress dismisses Mary from her post: "I like you, Mary. Enough to tell you that you will never be any good as a teacher. Find something more suited to your many gifts." And so, just like that, Mary has nothing to do, and she's rather embarrassed about it.

Meanwhile, on the other side of London, Tom Shaw and Alistair Heath are good friends and flatmates. With everyone enlisting, there aren't many young men left in London, so Tom, a teacher, has recently been put in charge of a school district (most of the children have been evacuated, but there are a few left--mostly those who, for one reason or another, are unwanted by families in the country). It's to Tom that Mary goes for help finding a new position, and he eventually finds one for her, teaching a small class of outcasts and misfits. Alistair, on the other hand, is not content to stay in London, just waiting to be drafted, and enlists almost immediately. Within weeks, even before he's seen any real fighting, he's seen enough to know this war will change him forever.

Mary and Tom begin dating very soon after meeting each other for the first time, but then, she meets Alistair on his first leave back to London, and, even though he was actually set up with her best friend, Hilda, she begins secretly writing him.

One thing that almost all of my friends have mentioned after reading this book is the smart and witty dialogue, and that was definitely one of my favorite parts as well. Between the daily bombings in London and the horrible assault on Malta (where Alistair is stationed), the devastation and heartache in this story is tremendous. Lives are stamped out so quickly and with so little fanfare, it sets you reeling trying to grasp it and keep track of it all. But then there's the dialogue, which, in stark contrast to the awful scenes, is light and often quite amusing. These conversations don't downplay the grave situations, but they do provide the right kind of balance to help the characters (and the reader) survive.

The title of the book was actually one of my favorite parts, and I don't often say that, mostly because it's usually pretty obvious why a book bears a certain title. But in this case, I didn't really understand the title until I was about halfway through the book, and then things started clicking, and I just thought, Oh my goodness, how beautifully tragic.

At one point, Mary herself uses the line. She writes, "I was brought up to believe that everyone brave is forgiven, but in wartime, courage is cheap and clemency out of season," meaning, everyone has to be brave so showing mercy doesn't even matter.

And yet, it does.

As the book progressed, and the costly and fatal mistakes began to pile up, I really saw the truth in the sentiment, "Everyone brave is forgiven." In spite of what Mary said, perhaps the need for bravery and accompanying forgiveness is more apparent during war than any other time. Decisions have to be made, and usually those decisions involve death on one side or the other, making the decisions impossibly impossible.

I wanted to list a few of those devastating decisions from this book, for my own memory, with the warning that spoilers will follow, so please stop reading now if you haven't read the book.

(I'm not kidding--major spoilers ahead.)

Here are just a few of the instances where some of the characters had to overcome the intense guilt brought on by their decisions and forgive themselves, all while hoping others would show the same mercy: 
  • Zachary leaves the school basement in the middle of a bombing raid (all of the parents are in attendance because the children are performing the school Christmas play). Mary sends Tom after him, and then she soon follows. A bomb hits the school, killing everyone inside. Tom, on the outside, is hit by flying debris and is also killed instantly. Mary and Zachary are the only survivors.
  • Alistair leaves the comfort and warmth of a truck to help a fellow army buddy walk back to camp. On the way, his friend steps on an unexploded artillery shell and is killed mid-sentence.
  • While helping on an ambulance crew, Mary nearly dies when her leg becomes trapped by a fallen beam and pins her down while the water level in a basement steadily rises. She's given morphine to ease the pain while she heals but becomes addicted to it and makes some poor choices because of it.
  • Alistair is bitten on his hand by a dying German and ends up losing his arm.
  • Alistair restores a painting for a local church. He takes great pride in it and wants to deliver it before he returns to London, so he convinces his friend, Briggs, to drive him to the church. They have no other reason to be out (and Alistair has to lie and say they're delivering maps to some other camps in order to have the request approved), but during the drive, a host of shells fall on them, one of which kills Briggs.
  • Alistair's good friend, and commanding officer, Major Simonson, pulls a few (unapproved) strings in order to bump Alistair ahead of some of the other soldiers waiting for a flight home.
With each of these situations, I could see the goodness and courage twisted up among the final consequences. Perhaps Alistair said it best when he receives a letter from Mary's friend, Hilda, informing him (quite bitterly) about Mary's addiction to morphine. She paints Mary in a very unfavorable light, and Simonson says, "If half of what she says is true then you are best off without Mary, and this Hilda has done well to warn you." But Alistair replies, "I should like to know Mary's side of the story."

And ultimately, that's what this book is: it's this side of the story and then that side of the story, and looking at all these different sides reveals the great complexity of human choices. As much as we like to think that decisions are clear-cut and black and white, many times they're not at all. We do the best we can with the information we have. We reap the consequences, as awful as they might be. We give our best and hope that it's enough.

And it is. Because, in the end, everyone brave is forgiven.

Content note: Mild language (I don't remember any f-words, but there might have been one); one pre-marital sexual scene (not descriptive); the usual violence associated with war.

Raising Readers: When a Book Finds You at Just the Right Time

Feb 21, 2017

I love it when a book falls into my lap at just the right time, and my life seems to converge with the characters in the story in an almost uncanny way. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, I pay attention.

One of the most notable times this has happened in our family was last fall when I was reading All-of-a-Kind Family to my kids (one of our favorite readalouds of the year!)

The very first chapter is about Sarah, the middle of five daughters. One Friday afternoon, the girls are getting ready to make their weekly trip to the library, an activity that is eagerly anticipated by all of them. Except this Friday, Sarah is found in a crying heap instead of getting ready with her sisters. When questioned, she chokes out the awful truth: She can't find her library book.

The whole family is enlisted to help search, but it doesn't turn up, which doesn't surprise Sarah because she actually loaned the book to her friend, Tillie, who said she returned it to Sarah's desk at school but Sarah never saw it. Although sympathetic to Sarah's plight, Mother tells her she won't be allowed to check out anything else from the library unless she pays for the book.

It's a hard lesson, particularly because, most likely, it was Tillie who lost it, not Sarah, but, as Mother says, "You borrowed the book, and that makes you responsible. The library lets you borrow the book, and you're not supposed to lend it to anybody else." Things get even harder when Sarah asks her mother is she'll come with her to the library, and Mother says, "No, Sarah, that's something you must do yourself. If you explain just how it happened, I'm sure the library lady will understand that you didn't mean to be careless. Find out what you have to do, and we'll talk about it when you get back."

It's a long walk to the library, and when it's finally Sarah's turn to talk to the librarian, she can barely get out the words. She's so embarrassed and ashamed. Luckily, the librarian is incredibly kind and understanding, and even though Sarah ends up having to pay for the book (it costs a dollar, which takes Sarah several months to pay off), she is allowed to check out another book, and it's the beginning of a sweet and lovely friendship with the librarian.

I know that was a rather long recounting, but it will be worth it, I promise.

Not two days after we read that chapter, Maxwell came home from school with a slip of paper. It was an overdue notice from the school library, which said that one of his books was ninety days past due, so he would need to pay for it. He seemed fine when he handed me the paper, but as soon as I started questioning him about it, he burst into tears.

I was completely unaware that he'd even lost a library book, much less that it had been gone for ninety days, but from the way he was crying, it was apparent that he'd known it was missing all those weeks but just didn't know what to do about it. All of the pressure and stress and worry unleashed itself in a great flood of inconsolable sobs.

Maxwell has always been very concerned with his image. At school, he is a model student. He does careful work, pays attention, and follows directions to the letter. But a model student does not lose his library book, and the thought of having to own up to it and fix it was almost too much for him to handle. He was not at all unlike Sarah, who was also absolutely mortified at the impression the pretty, new librarian would have of her if she admitted to losing a library book.

I'll admit that my heart almost burst seeing Maxwell's anguish. I was ready to swoop in and take care of it all for him when I remembered the words of Sarah's mother: "This is something you must do yourself." And so instead I said, "Max, do you remember what happened when Sarah lost her library book? She had to talk to the librarian and take care of it herself. I know you can take care of this, too."

We came up with a plan: We were sure he'd lost the book at school because it hadn't ever come home with him. The next day was Thursday. He would talk to his teacher first and explain the situation to her (during first recess because he was adamant that none of his friends know about his mistake). He would ask her if he could look through the bookshelves in the classroom and see if it had somehow been shelved there by mistake. ("Maybe she'll even help you look for it," we said. "She's been teaching for a long time. You aren't the first of her students to lose a library book.") If the book was nowhere to be found, he would go to the library on Friday and pay for it so that it would all be taken care of before the weekend.

The next morning, we said a prayer before he left for school. We prayed that he would be brave and that, if possible, he'd be able to find his book. Then, armed with the memory of how it had all worked out for Sarah, he walked into school. And I let him go.

His story has a happy ending, even happier than Sarah's. He followed our plan and talked to his teacher during first recess and, just as I'd suspected, she helped him look for the book, and they found it on one of the classroom shelves. He returned it to the school library and cleared his record. When he came out of school, his eyes were bright and happy and he was literally beaming.

I know Max's experience would have probably turned out very much the same whether we'd read that chapter or not. But it was so nice to feel like there was someone, albeit fictional, in our corner. It gave both of us a little boost of confidence to do the right thing.

Have you had any experiences like this, where your life bears an uncanny resemblance to that of a fictional character? How have stories helped you through tough learning moments? 

In Progress: Home Comforts, Part 1 (Why am I Reading This Book?!)

Feb 17, 2017

One of my reading goals this year is to read Cheryl Mendelson's 900-page tome on housekeeping. It's long. It's intense. It's not for the faint of heart (which may or may not describe me--I haven't decided yet).

Rather than give one over-arching review of it at the end of the year (because I fully anticipate it taking me the entire year to finish), I thought I'd do little monthly reports--mini-reviews, if you will. I'll share the tidbits I've found helpful (or not helpful, as the case might be) and how I'm applying what I'm learning. Hopefully, this will keep me accountable as well so that I actually chip away at it every month rather than saving it all for the end of the year (which would surely be akin to torture).

I think the first real emotion I felt soon after starting this book was depression. Not exactly the emotion I was hoping for, but there it was. The second chapter was about establishing a routine, which I'm definitely in favor of, but as I looked at her daily, weekly, monthly, and annual cleaning lists, I felt like a miserable failure.

To clarify the daily routine, Cheryl Mendelson said, "A daily routine restores the household to a level of basic order twice each day: once before work or after breakfast, and once before bed."

It was at that point that I wanted to raise my hand and ask, "And, um, what about the ten hours in between? How do you suggest I deal with the spilled milk and the crumbs from fifty snacks and the dirt and/or snow tracked in and the 500-pieces from two mixed-up puzzles and the paper scraps from an over-zealous, scissor-wielding two-year-old and the jam painted on the window and the large couch cushion and blanket fort and the four abandoned board games and the piles of books and the flooded bathroom because the (same) two-year-old decided to get himself a drink of water and the three discarded outfits and . . . and . . .????? What if by the time bedtime rolls around, I've already cleaned up so many interim messes that I'm too tired to "restore order" for supposedly only the "second" time?"

Honestly, at this point in my life, it sounds rather heavenly to straighten up in the morning, close the front door, and return in the evening with the house looking exactly the same. But as it is, if my house looks even close to the same at 5:00pm as it did at 8:00am, it's because I've done nothing but clean all day.

But it wasn't just the daily routine that depressed me. It was learning about all of the things I should be doing every week in order to establish the bare minimum of "health, safety, and comfort" for my family and realizing that I fall far, far short.

(Quick poll: How often do you wash your family's sheets? I'm genuinely curious because apparently, we aren't washing ours frequently enough.)

And thus it was that not even two chapters into the book, Mike forbade me from reading any more of it: "This is not helpful. Why are you even reading it?"

So I had a little heart-to-heart with myself and asked that very question: "Why am I reading this book?"

And it turns out, it wasn't for the routines or lists or to achieve the perpetually clean house. It was more narrow, more focused, than that. I wanted a simple how-to on all the little tasks that go into keeping a clean house: scouring a sink or doing laundry or cleaning a toilet. I do all of those things, of course, but was I doing them the "right" way . . . or was there even a right way? Those were the answers I was looking for, and they're coming, but the book had to begin with the over-arching objective before breaking it down into its smaller components.

So I didn't listen to Mike. Instead, I took a deep breath, relaxed, and realized a house with four young kids in it looks markedly different from a home with two working adults. I'm not trying to make excuses for myself (well, maybe a little . . . ), but standards are different. They have to be, unless 1) cleaning is your passion/hobby so you don't mind doing the same work a dozen times over in one day (I know people who fall into that category) or 2) cleaning is not your passion, but you're okay with feeling perpetual despair and frenzied anxiety all the time because your house is never as clean as you want it to be (there are days when I definitely feel like this). Personally, I'm not okay with either of those options.

Don't get me wrong, I am infinitely happier in a clean, uncluttered home, but I also have other interests and responsibilities outside of cleaning, so I have to find a balance that works for me, my kids, and Mike. And I think that balance is different from Cheryl Mendelson's.

But I decided to continue with the book because, while the big picture looks overwhelming and daunting, focusing on one thing at a time doesn't sound too bad. If she expounds on the fine art of cleaning a toilet, for example, I can read and learn and maybe tweak and hone my own toilet-brushing skills, and that sounds totally doable.

And no matter how Mike feels about the book, we're already seeing some positive changes from it. I decided we really should be more organized about our Saturday cleaning. Usually it's something that gets dragged out over the course of the whole day with us handing out jobs to our kids and listening to them whine and complain for hours and hours. I knew that if we all focused on the task at hand and split up the load, we could be done in a couple of hours and be left with a clean house (for at least five minutes). We actually did use Cheryl Mendelson's weekly cleaning checklist to give some structure, and we've been altering it as needed. It feels so good to work together as a family in such a concentrated way, and I'm glad my kids are learning the joy and satisfaction that comes from hard work.

The next chapter in the book focuses on food (as in menu planning, grocery shopping, meal preparation, etc.), which honestly doesn't interest me that much, so we'll see if I have much to talk about next month.

Have any of you read this book? If so, what were the most helpful bits you gleaned from it? And whether you've read it or not, how do you maintain your sanity and a clean house at the same time? (And don't forget the clean sheets question!)

The Book Blab Episode 11: Love and Marriage in Books Plus Two of Our Favorite Reads from 2016

Feb 13, 2017

Were you wondering if Suzanne and I had abandoned The Book Blab in favor of other pursuits? Well, I guess we did, but only temporarily. Suzanne had her baby girl at the end of December and took a little maternity leave from her blog. But she's back, which means we're back with another episode of The Book Blab! This time, we discussed our favorite literary romances, shared a couple of favorite recommendations from 2016, and announced the book we'll be reading for our upcoming mini-book club. Enjoy, and please let us know your favorite romances in the comments!

0:35 - Suzanne had her baby!
1:42 - Today's topic: Romance novels . . . the tame variety.
3:15 - Regency/Classic romances
  • 3:55 - Favorite Jane Austen novels
  • 7:15 - Defining the actual regency period
  • 9:45 - Contemporary regency romances
  • 12:21 - Other favorite classics with love stories
15:47 - Contemporary romances
21:23 - Fantasy/Fairy Tale romances
23:35 - Young Adult romances
26:14 - Love and marriage in nonfiction
29:33 - Two favorite reads from 2016
  • 30:10 - Suzanne's recommendation
  • 31:00 - Amy's recommendation 
32:55 - Upcoming mini-book club: The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
35:17 - Conclusion

Books mentioned during the show:

Persuasion by Jane Austen
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (Amy's review)
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (Amy's review // Suzanne's review)
Edenbrooke by Julianne Donaldson (Amy's review // Suzanne's review)
The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer (Amy's review // Suzanne's review)
Gone With the Wind by  Margaret Mitchell (Amy's review)
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (Amy's review)
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (Suzanne's review)
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (Amy's review)
Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Middlemarch by George Eliot (Amy's review)
Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (Amy's review // Suzanne's review)
What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty (Amy's review)
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (Amy and Suzanne's combined review in Episode 6)
Dancing on Broken Glass by Ka Hancock (Amy's review)
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes (Amy's review // Suzanne's review)
The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman (Amy's review // Suzanne's review)
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer (Amy's review // Suzanne's review)
Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace (Betsy in Spite of Herself is #6 in the series)
Anne of Green Gables series by L.M. Montgomery (Suzanne's review)
Emily of New Moon trilogy by L.M. Montgomery (Amy's review)
Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin (Amy's review)
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalinithi (Amy's review // Suzanne's review)
The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work by John M. Gottman (Suzanne's review)
The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman and D. Ross Campbell (Suzanne's review)
A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanaukin (Suzanne's review)
A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatramen (Amy's review)

A Little of This and That in January

Feb 6, 2017

I did it. I made it through the dreaded month of January, and actually, as far as Januarys go, it really wasn't bad. I think I'm slowly giving myself permission to survive winter the way I want to (which usually means opting for indoor activities, but not always). In January, we were:

Embracing . . . hygge. I've actually been meaning to write a whole post about this because I think my coming to terms with winter is due, in large part, to the concept of hygge. It's a Danish word (pronounced hoo-gah) that entails living in the moment, embracing simple pleasures, and creating a cozy mood or environment. I've realized that during these cold, dark months, I am happiest when I'm in my own home doing the simple, comforting things I take real joy in: reading (alone or with my kids), knitting, writing, baking cookies, or chatting with family or friends. Hygge doesn't necessarily mean staying inside, but for me, for the most part, it does. I know many people survive winter by getting out, and I've had people tell me I just need to try winter sports or get the right gear, but I'm finally realizing that I survive (and thrive) by staying in. And that's okay.

Celebrating . . . my birthday. I don't have the greatest track record with enjoying my birthdays, mainly because I don't like January and getting older depresses me, but I'm working on both of those things, and this year, the whole day was delightful. Mike took me out for breakfast in the morning, which felt super indulgent, especially since I know Mike would prefer going out for dinner instead of breakfast. Then we picked out a new chair for our front room, which looks great with the new wall. And then, my family came over for cake and presents. (Oh, and I got some quiet time in my room, which is basically the equivalent to heaven for me.)

Spending . . . some quality time in the hospital. The day after my birthday was not so much fun. I've been having sharp abdominal pains since the beginning of this pregnancy. I always thought they were related to an umbilical hernia (a souvenir from Clark's birth) because the pain usually starts right at that point. Sometimes it stays localized to that spot and other times it spreads across my abdomen. Anyway, the evening after my birthday, it escalated to something atrocious. I acted like I was in labor (the pain wasn't at all the same, but it was the same kind of intensity, even reaching the point of vomiting because it was so severe). Even though I was sure it would go away eventually, we decided to go to the emergency room to see if we could get some answers, relief, and peace of mind. Everyone at the hospital acted like there was no way an umbilical hernia would be causing that level of pain. To them, it sounded more like kidney stones or gallstones. They did a bunch of tests and an ultrasound but didn't find anything conclusive. I've decided to go with the gallbladder theory (all of the facts match up except for where the pain originates), so I've been treating it as such and haven't had another episode since (fingers crossed).

Experimenting . . . with metal in the microwave. Mike had to bring home his $5 microwave from work because they wouldn't let him take it to their new building, so he decided to let the boys have at it for their science fair projects. Maxwell's project involved testing the effectiveness of the turntable in producing uniform heat. Aaron's project involved metal, and I'm still not sure exactly what his hypothesis was, but there seemed to be a lot of sparks and fire, followed by exuberant cheers. Mike enjoyed himself as much as the boys.

Listening . . . to some truly excellent lectures on the scriptures. A friend pointed them out to me. They're given by three women who live in our neighborhood, and they have changed my personal scripture study. I'm learning so much.

Soaking . . . up the sunshine in Las Vegas. I already wrote details about the trip here. But the short version is: it was one of the best family vacations we've been on. And just yesterday, Clark said, "Remember when we went on the High Roller?" And then today, he asked, "Remember when we went to M&M World?" Those good memories are sustaining us through the rest of winter.

Feeling . . . the baby kick. I've been feeling this baby for months, but it's only been in the last few weeks that the boys have finally been rewarded with some big punches. Clark especially loves all of the movements and likes to put his face right next to my tummy in the hopes that he'll get blasted in the cheek. (Also related: I entered the third trimester, and all of a sudden, my hips hurt, I can't bend over to put on my shoes, and I get heartburn every night. It's almost like this baby knew when I hit 28 weeks and decided to up his game.)

Taking . . . advantage of all the snow. After talking to my friend, Alicia, about the "snow day" they had in Arizona where a bunch of artificial snow was trucked in for the kids to play in, I felt like we should appreciate our real snow a little more. So we (meaning, the kids) are trying. A couple of weeks ago, Aaron built a giant snowman all by himself (almost . . . he just needed a little help lifting the middle ball into place; wet snow is heavy!).

Trying . . . some new recipes. I'm pretty much a failure at meal planning, and if I'm being totally honest, I let Mike take the reigns in the kitchen more often than not. But I actually do enjoy making new things if I've thought about it enough in advance to actually cull together all the necessary ingredients. This past month, I tried Ham and Pasta Skillet Dinner, Chicken Apple Sausage Couscous, Chicken and Zucchini Poppers with Citrus Avocado Dip, and Overnight Oats (from the cookbook, 100 Days of Real Food). I would make all of them again.

Walking . . . through the majestic ice castles in Midway, Utah. This is the first year we've gone, and we were kind of awestruck. They were bigger and more intricate than we imagined. It was a beautifully clear day, and the sky was gorgeous. And there were a bunch of ice slides for our kids to go down over and over and over again. We arrived at 4:30 and hoped we'd be able to see them in the light and dark, but as the sun went down, so did the temperature, and we wimped out at 8 degrees.

Setting . . . goals. I still haven't written about any of my goals except for the reading ones, but that doesn't mean I didn't set any others. I have a personal theme for the year (based on a quote by Marjorie Pay Hinckley), I've set a few project-type goals to be completed during the year, and I've been setting smaller, weekly goals every Sunday (which has actually been very successful so far). I'm still planning on writing about it all in great detail . . . you can still talk about goals in February, right?

Waiting . . . for our 2017 calendar. I made one through Shutterfly and ordered it at the beginning of the month. When it hadn't arrived a couple of weeks later, I contacted the company, and we figured out that I'd had it shipped to an old address. They were nice enough to send a new calendar off right away, but it still didn't get here until the end of the month, so we didn't get to enjoy January's pictures for very long. (Also, I didn't realize how dependent I am on just our good, old-fashioned paper calendar for writing down appointments and such until I didn't have it for almost the entire month. Luckily, I didn't miss anything too important.) 

Going . . . to a Vocal Point concert. My friend, Alicia's, nine-year-old son is obsessed with Vocal Point (BYU's male acapella group), and so she gave him tickets to their concert for Christmas. She asked if Aaron and I wanted to come, too, and of course I said yes, even though, up to that point, Aaron had never heard any of their music. Well, the concert was fantastic, and now we can't get enough of them. In fact, I checked out one of their albums from the library, and Maxwell has been listening to it on repeat ever since, so I'm thinking I should have taken him to the concert, too.

Laughing . . . at all the comments on my last post. Not because they were funny (they were actually very enlightening and helpful), but because you all proved my point that women really can't resist the invitation to talk about birth. Where are all of you on my other posts?! :-)

As I'm writing this, it's 54-degrees and sunny, so I have a pretty good feeling about February. What were the highlights of your January?

Baby Catcher: Chronicles of a Modern Midwife by Peggy Vincent

Feb 1, 2017

I am a self-diagnosed birth story junkie. I'll take them in any format (blog posts, books, conversations), about any person (stranger, family member, distant acquaintance), from any time period or part of the world. Basically, the act of giving birth fascinates me. Each story is so different while also being so much the same.

Pregnancy, labor, and birth bind women together. No matter our experiences or background, they put us on common ground with one another. Mike jokes that women can't get together and not talk about birth. It's like this magnetic subject that pulls all other topics to it--no matter where the conversation started, somehow it always comes around to childbirth.

I've written about my own children's births in great detail (Clark's is the only one that's here on the blog, but I'm always happy to email the others to anyone who wants to read them), and I've found that rereading them plus reading and listening to other women's birth stories is one of the best ways I prepare myself to go through the labor of love again.

And once more, that time is approaching. I've just reached the 28-week mark, and if the next 12ish weeks are anything like my other pregnancies, they will go both incredibly fast and impossibly slow--the great paradox of pregnancy.

So I've been seeking out birth stories to pump myself up and get myself ready. Aside from the scary stories, which I do try to avoid around this time because they tend to put me in a unproductive place mentally, most birth stories create a feeling of almost supernatural power: This is what my body was made to do. Birth is a natural process. I am strong. I can do it. And those feelings go a long way in helping me gear up for the real thing. Because often--definitely not always, but often--labor is one big mental game.

And that is why I picked up Baby Catcher by Peggy Vincent. I've had it on my to-read list for a couple of years, and so I knew I wanted it to be one of the books to fulfill my reading goal of reading two books about childbirth.

But I wasn't expecting it to blow every other childbirth book I've read completely out of the water. It was the most interesting, entertaining, and, dare I say, helpful book on childbirth I've ever read.

It's not even billed as a childbirth manual, per se. It's simply Peggy Vincent's own memories of her career as first, a nursing student in 1962 (where standard practice in the hospital at Duke University was to wheel a laboring women into a large delivery room (complete with bleachers) where she'd be knocked out for a couple of hours and wake up to a baby), followed by a few years' stint as a public health nurse, after which she worked as a labor-and-delivery nurse, and finally ended with her following her passion to become a certified nurse midwife.

It helps that her writing is honest, funny, and just so beautifully accessible. She begins with one of her earliest patients, Zelda. At the time, she's a nursing student and not even sure if she wants to continue in the program, but then she does her rotation in the labor-and-delivery department at Duke University. Zelda is a young black woman, laboring with her third child, and, despite Peggy's pleas for her to lie down and be a good patient, Zelda dances her way through each contraction while standing on the bed.

Zelda begs Peggy to keep the doctor out as long as possible, knowing that she can labor just fine on her own, but as a young nursing student, Peggy doesn't have any real authority and is worried about the consequences that might come with defying protocol. When Zelda's cries become loud enough for the medical staff in the hall to hear her, she is forced onto a stretcher and rolled to the blindingly stark delivery room. Despite her protests, she is strapped down. Peggy can see that she's moments away from pushing out the baby, but they put a gas mask over her face anyway. Zelda rips it off, but they get it back into place just as the baby comes out. But instead of taking off the mask, they let her slip under, grateful to have her quiet at last.

That experience is the spark Peggy needs to propel her through nursing school, but other things help to fan the flames.

For example, several years later, Peggy is instrumental in establishing a birth center at Alta Bates hospital in Berkeley, California. Many of the doctors are uncomfortable with the idea of women laboring on their own without pain meds. In fact, one of the doctors is quite irate about having nothing to do except catch the baby. Peggy protests, "But if the birth is normal, then what's there to do?" The doctor responds with something Peggy never forgets: "Normal birth is a retrospective diagnosis. No birth is normal until after the fact. All births are complicated until proven otherwise."

It is because of that declaration that Peggy takes the final leap to become certified as a nurse midwife. She has her own private practice in the 1980s where she assists in hundreds of home births while still enjoying hospital privileges: if one of her patients needs emergency intervention or simply wants to deliver in the hospital with a midwife by her side, she can do that without sacrificing anything in continuity of care. It's really the best of both worlds, and something that is actually not possible in many states today. (In Utah, you can either deliver with a lay midwife at home or a certified nurse midwife in the hospital but you can't cross those invisible barriers.)

With the other childbirth books I've read, I've found myself wanting to skim over some of the techniques or instructions so that I could get back to the actual stories. But not with this one. That's because Peggy already edited out all that other stuff so it's literally just birth story after birth story after birth story.

And these are some birth stories! In one home, Peggy has to fend off an ultra-protective, and maybe slightly psychotic, cat with one arm while delivering a baby with the other. At another, she has to navigate a slippery pier on the San Fransisco bay during a torrential rainstorm to help with a delivery in the leaky cabin of a sailboat. At still another, she coaches a dad through the delivery of his own baby, and he freaks out when the baby turns his head, opens his eyes, and looks at him: "Oh my gosh! It's a baby!" (I laughed at that one.) Some of the labors are loud and slow; others are silent and fast. Sometimes older children or a dozen family members are present, while other times the couple wants to be completely alone. Peggy learns to have zero expectations when attending a birth because there's just no way to predict how things are going to go.

Besides just the unpredictability of birth however, because she's practicing in Berkeley, she also has some very colorful clients with unconventional lifestyles and abrasive mouths. I have to admit that I wasn't entirely comfortable with every birth story I read, but Peggy took it all in stride and never cast judgment but just did her job.

And hidden among all these stories were the little observations or tidbits of info or helpful tips that made me stop and think, Well, isn't that good to know?! Such as:
  • the changes in a woman's voice, complexion, and attitude when she's reached the pushing stage (besides when it's totally obvious because she's freaking out)
  • the importance of pushing slowly and having someone support the perineum, even if you feel like your body has taken over and everything's out of your control
  • the different clues that make each stage of labor obvious without ever checking the cervix
  • the danger signs of a distressed baby
This book was as gripping as a fast-paced novel to me, and I couldn't put it down. And as the end approached, it really did reach something of a climax--a rather heartbreaking climax actually, and that made it even more impossible to stop reading. Without giving away too many details, Peggy ends up helping with a birth that does not end happily. The mother had wanted Peggy to attend her at home, but Peggy refused because the woman had had a previous C-section. So the woman was actually being attended by a doctor, but things did not go as planned, and Peggy ended up being a big part of the birth. Because of the outcome, the family sued, and the result was disastrous for Peggy's career and actually goes a long way in explaining some of the standards and rules governing midwives today.

Personally, I've been in a bit of a weird place with my current pregnancy. For the first time ever, I'm vacillating between another unmedicated birth or getting an epidural. I'm not exactly sure why an epidural has even entered my mind; all four of my children's births have been overwhelmingly positive experiences--excruciatingly painful, yes, but ending with such crowning moments that they've made all the pain worth it. I've always had a similar view to Peggy's patient, Julie: "It hurt a lot, but it was my pain, and it wasn't something I wanted anyone to take away from me."

But this time, I also keep thinking about the positive epidural stories I've heard, and wow, I just can't even imagine what it would be like to be in the last stages of labor and still be able to carry on a fairly normal conversation (I'm sure Mike can't imagine that either). I guess I'm a little curious--I mean, here I am pregnant with my fifth baby and I've never experienced an epidural. Doesn't it seem like I should know what both sides are like so I can compare and contrast?

And yet, this is birth we're talking about--not a science experiment! And so I really want to do what will be best for me and for my baby . . . but I don't know what that is.

I was hoping this book would provide some answers, but instead it just jumbled up everything even more. I'd read one story and think, That sounds amazing. Of course I don't want an epidural! But then I'd almost instantly counter myself with, But an epidural? That just sounds heavenly. Why wouldn't I want one?

So you can see my predicament, and of course I'd love to hear about your experiences with or without an epidural. They might help me, and they probably won't make me feel any more conflicted than I already do. In the meantime, I guess I'll start another childbirth book in the hopes that I'll have an "aha!" moment and know what to do.
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