Here I am, again coming to you from Florida, where I’m having too much fun in the sun to do my usual Thursday book feature. Instead, here’s a re-run from March of last year. Enjoy, and have a great day.
With St. Patrick’s Day just around the corner, here’s a gripping tale of an Irish woman forced to give up her child at birth who attempts to find him later. When I read this book and saw the movie years ago, it made an impression on me, so much so that I blogged about it several times. Again, here’s my extended review of the book and movie.
In 1952, you’re a teen-aged girl in Ireland. After a romantic encounter with a man you meet at a fair, you become pregnant. In shame, your family sends you away to a convent.
It’s a breech birth. The nuns have little or no medical training. Other women and children have died during childbirth there and are buried in unmarked graves nearby. The mother superior believes that the pain of childbirth is God’s punishment for carnal sin so no drugs are administered. In agony, as the nun removes the baby with forceps, you beg her not to “let them put him in the ground.” Miraculously, you give birth to a healthy baby boy. Thus begins the story of Philomena, a book I’ve read and a movie I’ve seen.
Martin Sixsmith, the author of The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, (2009) and Philomena, with Dame Judi Dench, (2013) is a British author, Russian scholar, BBC presenter, and former advisor to the government in the United Kingdom. He has written about Russian history, the scandal surrounding the adoption of Irish children by American parents, and other current events. Besides two books about Philomena Lee, the Irish mother forced to give up her child for adoption, his other work includes Russia: A 1000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East, (2012) and Spin. (2005) In his writing, he has also focused on political communication in government. To read more about him, visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Sixsmith.
In Philomena, after a short introduction by Dame Judi Dench, the actress who portrayed her in the movie, Martin Sixsmith starts by describing the details of the birth of Philomena’s son Anthony and their lives afterward in the convent. Philomena and other girls who had babies out of wedlock were virtual prisoners at the convent for four years, working to pay off the cost of their care, so to speak. She worked in the laundry seven days a week and by night, she and the other girls sewed clothes for their children who stayed in the convent until they were adopted. The mothers were allowed daily contact with their children and naturally, they developed close bonds.
Sixsmith also touches on the sale of Irish children to American families by the Catholic Church. He describes how some Irish government officials tried to block such adoptions but were thwarted by the Catholic Church. In 1955, Philomena was forced to sign papers giving Anthony up for adoption, and he was taken to the U.S. to live with a family in Missouri. Mary, a little girl at the convent about the same age who developed a close friendship with Anthony, was also taken by the same family who didn’t want to separate the children.
The remainder of Martin Sixsmith’s book is devoted primarily to Anthony’s story. The family who adopted him and Mary changed his name to Michael, and Sixsmith describes his life growing up in Missouri and Iowa. The friendship between Michael and Mary grew stronger in America, and in later years, Mary was the only one in the family who supported him. All through his life, Michael wondered about his natural mother. His adoptive parents, who knew the truth, thought it better to tell him that his mother abandoned him.
Sixsmith explains how Michael first realized he was gay as a teen-ager. A priest at Notre Dame University told Michael that homosexuality is a sin and encouraged him to purge himself of his desires. Michael tried but found himself becoming more and more involved in such activities.
In the 1970’s after graduating from Notre Dame and receiving a law degree from George Washington University, Michael worked for the National Republican Committee in D.C. and eventually became the chief counsel for the White House. Sixsmith pinpoints the irony of a gay man working for the Republican Party during the Reagan and Bush eras when homosexuality was considered taboo and Republicans blocked funding for AIDS research. This, combined with feelings of abandonment Michael harbored from his childhood, caused mood swings and bouts of drinking and engaging in sadomasochistic activities. Most of his relationships didn’t last long.
In the 1970’s Michael and Mary made a trip to Ireland in an attempt to find their mothers but were told by the nuns at the convent that they had no records. In the 1990’s, after Michael developed AIDS, he made a second trip to Ireland with his partner, Pete Nelson, and was told that records from the 1950’s were destroyed in a fire. They later learned at the bed and breakfast where they were staying that the nuns deliberately set the fire because of an investigation into the Catholic Church’s practice of selling Irish children to American families for adoption. Michael died a year or so later, never knowing about his mother. At his request, he was buried at the convent in Ireland where he was born.
At the end of the book, Martin Sixsmith devotes a couple of chapters to Philomena after Anthony was taken from her in 1955. I would like to have read more about her, but she may not have wanted her life revealed in such detail. After Anthony left the convent, bound for the U.S., the nuns sent Philomena to work at a school for boys in England, and she eventually became a nurse. She married twice and had several children and grandchildren. She made frequent trips to the convent in Ireland to inquire about her son but was rebuffed by the nuns every time. She kept the secret of Anthony’s birth from her family for fifty years.
After she finally broke down and told them, her daughter introduced her to Sixsmith, and the three of them visited the convent in Ireland. By this time, there were different nuns with more liberal views, and through other channels, they were able to learn of Anthony’s life in America and that he passed away and was buried at the convent.
I liked Martin Sixsmith’s style of writing this book. Besides giving us a journalistic rundown of all the events and when they happened, he takes us into the lives of the main characters, telling us what they were feeling and thinking. The book was written like fiction, and I was compelled to keep reading to the end.
On the other hand, the movie doesn’t tell the whole story and uses some artistic license. After Sixsmith meets Philomena’s daughter at a party, he is introduced to her mother, and the two of them travel to Ireland to inquire about Anthony. The nuns tell them their records from the 1950’s were destroyed in a fire and show Philomena the contract she signed, giving Anthony up for adoption that stated she agreed not to try to contact him. Sixsmith later learns from locals in a pub that the nuns started the fire.
The search for Anthony takes Martin and Philomena to Washington, D.C. where they learn of his life and passing. After talking with Mary and Pete Nelson, they learn of Michael’s burial at the convent in Ireland. Upon their return, Martin becomes confrontational with one of the nuns and Philomena finds her son’s grave and says goodbye. I enjoyed the performances of Dame Judi Dench and the other actors, but the movie left a lot to be desired, compared to the book.
According to Sixsmith, Michael requested that “Danny Boy” be sung at his funeral in Washington, D.C. before he was taken to Ireland for burial. This is a song I’ve sung many times in the fifteen years I worked as a music therapist in a nursing home. I can’t think of a better way to end this post. Please click below to hear me sing the song one more time.
Don’t ask why my group chose a Christmas book to discuss in March. At least you’ll have something to put on your December reading list. Merry Christmas, three months late or nine months early, depending on how you look at it.
After being put on the no-fly list as a result of a confrontation with the airlines, journalist Tom decides to travel by train across the country from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles and write about it. In L.A., he plans to spend Christmas with his current girlfriend, Lilia, an actress. Along the way, he meets an eccentric old lady, a retired priest, a movie director, and then his former girlfriend Eleanor. Things get even more interesting when Lilia boards the train in Kansas City. Other events including the discovery of a naked man sleeping in one of the coach cars, a series of robberies, and a blizzard make this a hilarious, heartwarming holiday tale with two interesting revelations at the end.
This was another book that was hard to put down. I was right there on the train with Tom, Eleanor, and the other characters, yet thankful to be safe in my recliner at home when the train encountered an avalanche. I definitely recommend The Christmas Train as a great holiday read.
I read and reviewed this book several years ago. Recently, the author told me it’s now on Bookshare, an online service that makes books available in accessible formats for those like me with disabilities that prevent or make reading difficult. Since I haven’t had time to read anything new lately, I decided to post a link to this old review. Bruce is one of many children who had negative experiences at government-run schools for the blind in the U.S. and Canada before 1970. I hope you’ll find his story inspirational and thought-provoking.
And I thought the dream I had a few weeks ago in which I woke up in a hospital, not sure how I got there, was bazaar. This takes the cake, and it wasn’t a dream. In the spring of 2009, Susannah Cahalan woke up and found herself strapped to a hospital bed, not remembering how she got there. When she panicked, a figure in purple with a foreign accent told her to calm down. Thus begins her memoir about her experience with a rare autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks the brain.
The author explains how she first experienced symptoms while she was working as a journalist for the New York Post. It started as an obsession with bed bugs in her apartment. She then experienced numbness and other flu-like symptoms and gradually became forgetful, paranoid, and dilusional. Her gynecologist referred her to a neurologist who said these symptoms were caused by stress and too much drinking. Then, she had her first seizure, and things went downhill from there. Her parents were finally able to get her admitted to New York University Hospital’s epilepsy unit.
Since she doesn’t remember much of what happened after that, most of her information was gleamed from interviews with family and friends, her father’s journal, and footage from EKG video. She describes the battery of tests she endured and how she was visited by neurologists, psychologists, and other professionals who were stumped by her condition. She reverted from being paranoid with dilusions to a catatonic state where she could barely speak, let alone care for herself. Her doctors were about to send her to the psychiatric unit when a new neurologist joined the team. After performing a brain biopsy, running more tests, and conferring with other doctors across the country, he finally diagnosed her with anti-NMDA receptor autoimmune incephalitis. This neurologist pointed out to her parents that her brain was on fire, hence the title.
After being given medication to combat this disorder, she was discharged. She then describes the long, arduous process of recovery. Although she was able to move and care for herself by this time, her speech and thought processes were slow. She talks about how her parents, boyfriend, and other relatives and friends supported her during her stay in the hospital and recovery. After six months, she returned to her newspaper job, and she describes how she completed her first major assignment, an article about anti NMDA inhibitor autoimmune incephalitis and her experience with it. She provides more information about this disorder.
This book was an Audible daily deal, and I’m glad I picked it up. The narrator does an excellent job portraying the author’s first-person account of her story. I love this book’s beginning and ending in which the author describes waking up in the hospital’s epilepsy unit, then returning years later after her recovery for a visit and her encounter with a nurse who cared for her during that time.
I would like to have known more about Susannah Cahalan after she returned to work and successfully published her first major article. She mentions moving in with her boyfriend, but did she eventually marry him and start a family, perhaps balancing that with her career?
According to the author, this rare disorder strikes women of child-bearing age and is often mistaken for psychosis. At the time this book was written, a percentage of women afflicted with anti-NMDA inhibitor encephalitis ended up in psychiatric hospitals where they eventually died. So if you’re a young woman, I encourage you to read this book, and if you experience any of the symptoms mentioned, consult a neurologist before you see a psychiatrist.
The founder of The Huffington Post shares her insights on sleep. Using scientific evidence and other sources, she describes what she calls a sleep crisis, in which many Americans aren’t getting enough sleep. She explains how people in the trucking and medical industry and even politicians can be adversely affected by sleep deprivation. She discusses the correlation between not getting enough sleep and diabetes, Alzheimer’s and other disorders.
She talks about how even Benjamin Franklin didn’t get enough sleep and the attitude that sleep wasn’t important. She explains why sleeping pills and caffeine are NOT the solution to the problem of sleep deprivation and, in some cases, can exacerbate it. She discusses sleep disorders and how they can be treated.
She then outlines what we can and shouldn’t do in order to get a good night’s sleep. She describes how hospitals, colleges, and hotels are helping people sleep better, also talking about what is being done in the workplace to promote good sleep habits among employees. The book includes a sleep questionnaire, suggested meditation techniques, information about hotels around the world that will ensure you get a good night’s sleep, and matrress recommendations.
I found many of the facts in this book fascinating. For example, did you know that the Beatles song “Let It Be” was inspired by a dream Paul McCartney had in which his mother, Mary, told him everything would work out? Here I thought he was referring to the Virgin Mary. Who knew?
I’d never describe myself as sleep-deprived, although I’ve had occasional trouble falling asleep and staying that way. Nevertheless, I decided to take the sleep questionnaire at the end of the book. I discovered, to my amazement, that my sleep was in good shape. I encourage everyone to read this book and spread the word about the importance of getting a good night’s sleep.
In this anthology, Elizabeth Gilbert, Amy Tan, Billie Collins, and others talk about writing. Each piece contains a quote from a novel, poem, song, or other work and an explanation of what that particular work means to the author. Some writers share childhood memories that relate to their writing process. The title comes from a quote by Wallace Stevens.
I read about this book in the December issue of Poets and Writers, and I’m glad I picked it up. Although I’m not familiar with some of these authors, I enjoyed reading what they had to say. It might have been better if information about each author was placed at the end of each piece instead of in a separate section. This would make it easier for readers to learn more about a particular author after reading his/her work. Otherwise, I recommend this book to all writers in the hope they gain inspiration and ideas from its pages.