Thursday Book Feature: Re-blog–Philomena

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.

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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.

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Abbie Johnson Taylor
We Shall Overcome
How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver

That’s Life: New and Selected Poems
My Ideal Partner: How I Met, Married, and Cared for the Man I Loved Despite Debilitating Odds
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Thursday Book Feature: Hidden Figures

Hidden figures: the American dream and the untold story of the Black women mathematicians who helped win the space race Lee
Shatterly, Margot.Copyright 2016

This book follows the lives of four African American female mathematicians who worked in a Virginia aerospace lab during World War II. It provides background information about technical aspects of the war and how blacks were treated. In the prologue, the author talks about her life growing up with her father working at that same laboratory and how she was inspired to tell these women’s stories.

This was one of two titles my book club chose for discussion this month. Although the historical information was interesting, there was way too much of it. I would just get into the story of one of these women when the author would switch from storyteller mode to historian mode. I also think the subtitle should have been shortened. I got through about five chapters before realizing that these women’s stories, though interesting, are not worth slogging through all the unnecessary background information.

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Abbie Johnson Taylor
We Shall Overcome
How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver

That’s Life: New and Selected Poems
My Ideal Partner: How I Met, Married, and Cared for the Man I Loved Despite Debilitating Odds
Like Me on Facebook.

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Hangover: A Source of Inspiration

Now that the holiday season has passed, some people’s thoughts turn to the effects of drinking too much on New Year’s Eve. Did you know that a hangover isn’t necessarily related to consuming a lot of booze? According to dictionary.com, a hangover can also be defined as “any aftermath of or lingering effect from a distressing experience.”

For six years, I cared for my late husband who was totally blind and partially paralyzed by two strokes. People who have never been family caregivers don’t understand the trauma involved in such a role. Bill could do little for himself. I had to dress him, take him to the bathroom, and even help with his computer from time to time. With children, you know they’ll eventually grow up and become independent, but when your spouse is no longer able to do for himself, your family caregiving obligations will only stop when he dies.

It has been three years since Bill’s passing. Because he could do little for himself, I couldn’t be away from home for more than a couple of hours at the most. Even now, on occasion, when I leave the house and am not home in a couple of hours, I become anxious and have to tell myself that Bill is in a better place where he can go to the bathroom, change the channel on the satellite radio, and find another book to read, all on his own. He’s not waiting for me to come home and empty the urinal or get him out of bed so he can sit outside and listen to the Colorado Rockies being creamed by almost every team in the league.

I occasionally have trouble getting to sleep at night. I nod off and am jerked awake by a feeling of anxiety or restlessness. I tell myself that Bill is not calling me to get up and empty the urinal, that I can go to sleep and not be interrupted. I eventually do and usually sleep through the night.

I have developed sciatica in my right hip, probably as a result of lifting Bill from the bed to the wheelchair to the recliner to the commode, etc. It occasionally flares up after I’ve been exercising and becomes more prevalent during cold and humid conditions. Adville and ice packs are my best friends.

This type of hangover is not something that a Bloody Mary will cure. It will probably stay with me for the rest of my life. The good news is that it’s not as bad as a hangover you get from excessive imbibing.

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The above was inspired by an activity we did recently during a Range Writers meeting. Now, it’s your turn. I’m pasting below definitions of “hangover” from various sources. See if any of them apply to you, and feel free to share your insight in the comment field.

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–   the disagreeable physical aftereffects of drunkenness, such as a headache or stomach disorder, usually felt several hours after cessation of drinking. (Americanism 1890-1895)

  • –  something remaining behind from a former period or state of affairs
  • –  any aftermath of or lingering effect from a distressing experience (dictionary.com)
  • –  continuing or remaining in effect, as a hang-over fire
  • –  something that remains from what is past, as a surviving trait or custom
  • –  The effect of a period of dissipation after the exhilaration has worn off. (Slang U.S.)

from the Big Fat Dictionary at the library

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Abbie J. Taylor 010Author Abbie Johnson Taylor

Front Book Cover - We Shall OvercomeWe Shall Overcome

Cover: How to Build a Better Mousetrap by Abbie Johnson TaylorHow to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver

That’s Life: New and Selected Poems

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What I Read in June

Chasing Utopia: a Hybrid by Nikki Giovanni. Published by William Morrow, an Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, Copyright 2013.

 

This is a collection of the author’s poems and essays. Utopia, in this case, is actually a type of beer, and in the title piece, she talks about her search for this rare, expensive beverage. Other topics include black culture, hip hop music, family memories, poetry, and living alone. Although most of her essays were interesting, I was bored by a lot of her poems. They were just what I needed to put me to sleep on a Friday night in a strange motel room while attending a writers’ conference.

 

Where Aspens Quake by Tory Cates. Published 1983 by Simon & Schuster.

After photographer Christin Jonsson receives a negative review of her exhibit at an Albuquerque gallery, she quits her mindless job as a graphic designer, dumps her apathetic boyfriend, and flees to New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains where she is hired as a cross-country ski instructor at High Country Lodge. She falls for the establishment’s owner, Grayson Lowerey, but he turns away. His developmentally disabled daughter and past relationship with his ex-wife have created a barrier that Christin must help him overcome before the story can reach that happily ever after ending.

This book brought back memories of photography and skiing. My younger brother Andy dabbled in photography as a kid. Reading scenes where Christin is developing photos of mountain scenery in a rented dark room in Taos, I was reminded of the times I watched Andy develop pictures in an upstairs bathroom converted to a dark room. I also thought back to my two attempts at downhill and cross-country skiing during which I landed flat on my back and gave up. If I had an instructor like Christin, I might have succeeded. I liked the way she took the time to ensure each student’s success by starting them out on a level plain and then gradually increasing the route’s difficulty. In any case, during hot summer months, this book will refresh you.

 

Country Girl: A Memoir by Edna O’Brien. Copyright 2013.

 

Author Edna O’Brien talks about her life growing up in the Irish countryside before and during World War II and her life in Dublin where she apprenticed at a pharmacy and became involved in the theater and literary scene. She also describes how she married another writer against her family’s wishes, gave birth to two sons, and moved to London where she did most of her writing. She discusses the objections of Irish people to her novels and her husband’s resentment of her success as a writer and how that eventually led to a messy divorce. She then describes meeting such celebrities as Paul McCartney and Marlin Brando and other aspects of her writing life including how she wrote plays for stage and screen. That was about as far as I got before deciding not to finish the book.

Although I enjoyed Edna O’Brien’s reading of this book on a Hachette Audio recording, after her divorce, her experiences seem to become more and more bazaar. She describes a party during which a man offered to use an electric drill to bore a hole in her forehead and a session with a pseudo psychotherapist during which she and the man took LSD. After that, I decided enough was enough.

 

Wake the Dawn by Lorraine Snelling. Copyright 2013.

 

In the woods near the small town of Pineview, Minnesota, on the Canadian border, Ben, a patrol officer, finds an abandoned baby girl and takes her to a clinic run by Esther, a physician’s assistant. They work together to save the life of the baby and others in the wake of two severe storms that hit the town almost simultaneously, resulting in downed trees and power lines and damaged houses. Ben has turned to alcohol to help him cope with the death of his wife in a car accident. Esther suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of a hit and run. Eventually, the two of them help each other divest themselves of their emotional baggage and achieve that happily ever after romantic ending.

Once I started this book, it was hard to put down. I was not in danger of falling asleep while listening to this one, another Hachette Audio recording. Although it wasn’t read by the author, the narrator did an excellent job, even using a Minnesota accent with some of the characters’ voices.

However, this book contains some religious overtones I could have done without. The themes of forgiveness and trusting in God aren’t introduced until the middle of the story by the time you’ve gotten into it and absolutely must know how it ends. Had I know this, I might not have read the book. Otherwise, it’s a good story.
Abbie Johnson Taylor, Author,

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What I Read in May

Prairie Tale: A Memoir by Melissa Gilbert. Copyright 2009 by Half Pint Enterprises. Published by Simon Spotlight Enterprises, a division of Simon and Schuster, Inc.

 

I first thought this book would be about the author’s experiences starring as Laura on Little House on the Prairie, but it’s not just about that. It’s Melissa Gilbert’s autobiography from her birth until 2009 including photographs.

She describes what it was like to learn as a child that she was unwanted, given up for adoption at birth. She emphasizes the fact that she was taught to hide her feelings and pretend everything was okay during her parents’ divorce, her mother’s re-marrying, her father’s death, and other heartbreaking events during her life. She talks about being involved in Gun Smoke and other movies before she signed on to the cast of Little House on the Prairie.

During her ten years on this television series, she gives detailed descriptions of filming certain episodes, describing how Michael Landon, who wrote and directed the series and starred as Pa, became a surrogate father to her, the irony of how she developed a close friendship with the actress who portrayed Nellie, the nasty little girl who goes to school with Laura, and how she didn’t always get along with Melissa Sue Anderson, who played Laura’s older sister Mary. She also discusses her involvement in The Miracle Worker, The Diary of Ann Frank, and other projects during this time. At the end of those ten years, she explains how Michael Landon wrote the last episode in which the town of Walnut Grove is destroyed to get back at NBC executives for canceling the show.

After Little House, Melissa Gilbert describes the myriad of movies and television programs in which she was involved. She also talks about her relationships with Allan Greenspan and others, her failed marriages to actor Rob Lowe and playwright Bo Brinkman, and her marriage to actor Bruce Boxleitner, and the birth of her two sons, Dakota and Michael. She also talks about saying goodbye to Michael Landon when he was diagnosed with liver cancer and passed away. She discusses her law suit against The National Inquirer over a story they printed that was fabricated by Bo Brinkman and how the stress caused her to give birth to Michael prematurely.

Melissa Gilbert also describes how she became the president of the Screen Actors Guild during the earlier part of this century. She discusses her bout with alcoholism and her work with terminally ill children. She ends the book by describing how she played Ma in a musical production of Little House on the Prairie in Minneapolis and visited Walnut Grove, Minnesota, and Desmet, South Dakota, where Laura Ingalls Wilder spent part of her life.

Reading this book made me realize that the Little House television series sensationalized Laura Ingalls Wilder’s story. Melissa Gilbert’s fans coveted her idyllic Laura Ingalls Wilder life, but Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life was far from idyllic, and although Melissa Gilbert’s family wasn’t battling blizzards, drought, and grasshoppers, she still had her demons.

 

A Little House Sampler by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane. Edited by William T. Anderson. Copyright 1988 by the University of Nebraska Press.

 

This is a collection of essays, poems, and short stories by Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane that appeared in various magazines during the earlier part of the 19th century. Presented in chronological order, much of this work, not contained in Laura’s Little House series, covers her life growing up, her journey with her husband Almanzo and Rose from Desmet, South Dakota, to Mansfield, Missouri, and her life on Rocky Ridge Farm once they were settled in Missouri. This collection also includes some short fiction by Rose that was inspired by their experiences. The editor introduces each piece, and in an epilog, he provides additional information about this mother and daughter’s careers, and of course there are pictures.

I found some of the pieces boring, especially Laura’s articles about her kitchen and dining room on the farm. Others were fascinating. To my astonishment, I learned that Laura’s sister Mary’s blindness was caused by spinal meningitis, not scarlet fever, as indicated in the Little House books. I was interested to read a conversation between Rose and her father about the price of furniture, horses, and farm implements in 1878. I definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoyed Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series as a child.

 

Love, Rosie by Cecelia Ahern Copyright 2005

 

This is the story of love between two friends in Ireland, a love that withstands many years of separation. The author tells it in an unusual way through notes passed in school, letters, e-mail and text messages, newspaper articles, and other documents. Alex and Rosie go to school together as children in Dublin and become best friends. In their last year of high school, Alex’s family moves to Boston, Massachusetts, but he and Rosie still keep in touch over the years and visit each other occasionally. When they graduate, Alex is accepted to Harvard, and Rosie plans to attend Boston College to study hotel management. However, when Alex is unable to return to Ireland to accompany Rosie to the last dance of the school year, she is compelled to go with Brian, another boy in her class. They have a one night stand, and when she gets pregnant, he leaves town.

Rosie cancels her plans to go to college, has a daughter, Katy, works at a string of dead end jobs to make ends meet, marries Greg, and divorces him several years later when she finds him cheating on her. She eventually gets her degree in hotel management and opens a bed and breakfast near the beach. On the other hand, Alex becomes a successful heart surgeon in Boston, marries and divorces twice, and has two children. After almost fifty years, Alex and Rosie are together for good, their romantic dream a reality.

There are a couple of reasons why I didn’t want to finish this book. First of all, I found all the note passing and text messaging unrealistic. Yes, children pass notes in school, but at the fast and furious rate these messages seem to be flying, it’s a wonder Rosie and Alex didn’t get caught more often. As an adult, Rosie texts her family and friends constantly while at work. I was afraid that at any minute, her boss would catch her, and she would lose her job. She is fired once, and that could have been the reason. I’ve never known anyone who texts as often as Rosie and other characters do. I would have liked to see more narrative mixed with messages.

Then, there’s Rosie’s attitude. When she becomes pregnant with Brian’s child, she blames Alex for not being able to come to the dance, thus forcing her to go with Brian and then to sleep with him and become pregnant with his child. I kept thinking that she didn’t have to have sex with Brian, or she could have decided not to keep the baby and go on with her life. When she discovers Greg is cheating on her and decides to move to Boston so she can re-kindle her relationship with Alex who is divorced from his first wife, she receives a letter from Brian, living in Spain, who wants to get to know Katy. She decides to stay in Ireland for that reason and blames Alex for that, too. I wanted to tell her that she could have moved to Boston, and Brian could have just gotten to know Katy there. Then, I wanted to delete the book from my device and not give it another thought, but after some serious consideration, I realized that I wanted to know how it ends, and I’m glad I stuck with it. I like the epilog, a narrative told from Rosie’s point of view, in which she and Alex come together, both free, both ready to love each other.

 

Abbie Johnson Taylor, Author

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