More about the President

Tired of political sound bits and fact checkers who tell us that practically everything that we are told by the candidates isn’t exactly the whole unvarnished truth, but still are fascinated by the presidency?  Well three new children’s books might bring some relief in this political campaign season.

Beverly Gherman’s “First Mothers” contains the stories about those powerful women behind their sons the presidents.  She tells us about Abigail Smith Adams who admonished both her husband and her son to “Remember the Ladies…Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands.”  Rebekah Baines Johnson edited her son’s speeches and reminded him to stand up straight.  In this book, Gherman’s mentions many other mothers who profoundly influenced their president sons and made the men who helped governed our nation.

Joe Rhatigan in “White House Kids:  The Perks, Pleasures, Problems, and Pitfalls of the President’s Children” points out the pros and cons of being a child in the White House.  For example, Tad Lincoln sold refreshments to visitors as their entered the White House.  Alice L. Roosevelt attended formal receptions with her pet snake, Emily Spinach, wrapped around her neck.  Susan Ford had her high school prom in the East Room of the White House.

Finally, Julie Moberg has written “Presidential Pets:  The Weird, Wacky, Little, Big, Scary, Strange Animals That Have Lived in the White House.”  From two grizzly cubs sent to Jefferson by Lewis and Clark, to an alligator kept in the East Room bathtub by J.Q.Adams, to Andrew Jackson’s parrot who swore at guest this is a fun book filled with interesting anecdotes.

Each of these books geared to fourth through eighth graders offers readers the human side of the occupants of 1500 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Kurt Vonnegut: Letters

In an essay written by Kurt Anderson in Sunday’s NYT, he discusses his appreciation of the work of Kurt Vonnegut.  As a teenager, he discovered Vonnegut in “Cat’s Cradle.”  With the publication of “Slaughterhouse-Five,” Vonnegut became his cult hero.  Later in life in the 1980s, when Andersen was to be photographed by Jill Krementz, the soon-to-be Mrs. Vonnegut, he met him.  By that time Vonnegut was not longer loved by the critics.  Andersen admits that he hadn’t loved Vonnegut’s recent work, but was excited to meet this living legend.

The 1980s were a sad time for Vonnegut which is revealed in “Kurt Vonnegut: Letters” assembled and edited by Dan Wakefield.  The first extraordinary letter in this collection was written in 1945 just after Vonnegut was released as a prisoner of war.  The letter, Andersen says, was practically a sketch for what became “Slaughterhouse Five.”

Unlike a biography, these letters are “crafted artifacts.”  This is the author’s own “cranky, funny, acute voice chronicling his life in real time.”  The letters reveal his “lifelong yearning” for Hollywood, his continually feeling that he was on the verge of quitting writing, and the constant worry about his reputation.  Sadness and a middle-life attempt at suicide are revealed through these letters.  Reading a biography helps us to know a person through the eyes of the author.  Reading letters helps us to gain direct insight into a person as he shares with the letter reader trivial and profound events.

Brave thinkers

In November’s Atlantic magazine there is an article titled Brave Thinkers.  Jay Bradner, a featured scientist, discovered a molecule that in mice appeared to trick certain cancer cells into becoming normal cancer cells. Instead of hustling for a patent, he gave his work away, hoping others could use and improve on his work.  He actually mailed samples to labs around the world.  The action, he says, felt like “the more efficient way to do science – and maybe the more honorable way.”
Would that there were more brave thinkers!  Wait a minute.  There were.  25 more were listed.

“Mrs. Mallory and a Necessary End”

is a cozy English mystery by Hazel Holt.  For those of us who like a mystery without a lot of gore and violence, the Mrs. Mallory series is a perfect fit.  In Holt’s latest edition, the widow, Mrs. Mallory, has a hard time saying no to those in need and agrees to cover shifts for a friend who works in the village thrift shop (Johanna!!).  The man who manages the shop is disagreeable and difficult to get along with.  When he turns up dead in the shop, the suspects are plentiful-  including his much aligned wife and son. Mrs. Mallory does some innocent digging around to uncover clues and track down the murderer.  A very quick read with a warm blanket and a cuppa tea.


Recently, I have been reading about and viewing a television program about midwives.  I have just finished “The Midwife of Hope River” by Patricia Harman.  Set int he 1920s and 1930s in the rural regions of West Virginia, this is the story of Patience Murphy.  Patience by the time she is in her early 30s has lost both her parents, a lover, a baby, and a husband.  Life has not been easy for her.  Rescued by two women involved in the early labor movement in Philadelphia, she learns from them the skill of being a midwife.

The details about this period of time, including vivid descriptions of delivering babies, makes this an interesting story.  Patricia Harman herself practice midwifery.  Her knowledge, coupled with research she did about the period of time in which the story is se,t makes this novel a good read.

An even better view of being a midwife is portrayed in the PBS series “Call the Midwife.”  Set in the 1950s in London’s East End, this extremely popular British series focuses on the lives on four midwives and the convent of Anglican nuns that offer their services to the women of the community.  The acting is very good and the attention to detail is extraordinary.

“The Midwife of Hope River” and “Call the Midwife” remind us of another time when having a baby didn’t mean calling your OB and being driven to the hospital.  Both mothers and midwives performed heroic acts of courage in the not too distant past and still do in many countries in today’s world.