Category Archives: Non Fiction

The Duchess Countess: Catherine Ostler

Catherine Ostler’s non fiction book The Duchess Countess is the strange story of Elizabeth Chudleigh (1721-1788), an 18th century woman who had looks, ambition and opportunity, but who had the bad fortune to bet on the wrong pony. Reading the book, I couldn’t help but think that Elizabeth’s life repeatedly took bad turns. Our lives are shaped by the times we live in, but in Elizabeth’s case, she was constrained by the standards of her time.

Elizabeth’s father was lieutenant governor of the Royal hospital but his sudden early demise found his widow and his two children, Elizabeth and her brother, Thomas tossed out of their home with scanty means. Thomas and Elizabeth’s uncle, Sir George Chudleigh married an heiress, but when he died, Thomas was set to inherit the baronetcy and “much of the family estate.” It looked as though fortune had turned in their favour, but then Thomas was killed in battle at age 22. Back to no prospects for Elizabeth.

Thanks to the influence of a family friend, William Pulteney, 1st Earl of Bath, Elizabeth became a maid-of-honour to Augusta, wife of Frederick heir to George II. This was “the most glamourous position available to a single girl of Elizabeth’s background.” Elizabeth seemed made for the role; she was fashionable, witty, stylish and according to one report, “a vixen.” The problem was that being a maid-of-honour wasn’t an end in itself–it was essentially a stepping stone. Many maids-of-honour married very well, but Elizabeth, although beautiful was penniless. Plus the prince’s household was at odds with King George II’s household and the two were sharply divided into factions. Being a maid-of-honour was expensive. Elizabeth was paid 200 pounds a year, yet details here reveal that some women spent 100 pounds on a single dress. The pressure was on for Elizabeth, who was essentially dependent on her own mental resources, to find a rich husband. At first this seemed to be achieved when Elizabeth met James Hamilton, Duke of Hamilton and they fell in love, Hamilton was a “chaotic figure who liked dogs hunting, women and drink.” They were “secret lovers, perhaps even privately engaged,” but Hamilton sailed off on his Grand Tour without making a declaration.

And it’s here that the story gets weird. Elizabeth and her Aunt Ann retreated to Hampshire where she met Augustus Hervey. They married secretly and a short while later, he, in the navy, sailed off. In the eyes of the world, Elizabeth was a single woman when she returned to court and her scandalous life. She certainly carried on as if she were a single woman. Hervey, in the meantime, had a decent naval career and gained a reputation as a libertine. In time he returned to England and it’s almost as though Hervey and Elizabeth forgot they had ever been married–although some shreds of jealousy remained and Hervey paid some of Elizabeth’s substantial debts.

Years rolled on, and Elizabeth fell in love with Evelyn Pierrepoint, Duke of Kingston, an incredibly wealthy man who did not have the best of health but who adored Elizabeth. Now in middle age, heavily in debt, Elizabeth needed to marry. But wait wasn’t she already married? Hervey, about to become Earl, wanted a divorce, but Elizabeth claimed they were never married in the first place. Only a man could sue for divorce.

Elizabeth did not want a divorce, for several reasons. First, her adultery would have to be proved, which required an action for “crim.con” as it was known in order to be successful; then a private act of parliament would have to be obtained. For Parliament to dissolve the marriage there would therefore have to be a shameful parade of marital history. Allegations of adultery and deceit would be publicly humiliating, and on a practical note, if she accepted that she was married, her property belonged to Hervey, not her. As if that was not enough, it was unclear whether the Duke of Kingston would be willing to marry a divorcee with her reputation in shreds. Even Elizabeth was not that much of a risk taker.

Elizabeth was in the uncomfortable position of juggling scandal, debt, forgery and Time with her desire to marry the Duke. After a grimy court case, Elizabeth, aided by forgery, was declared not married, so she married the Duke. He died leaving Elizabeth all his money. By that time, Hervey was Earl of Bristol, which made Elizabeth, the countess of Bristol. The Duke’s family leveled the charge of bigamy against Elizabeth, and so there was another trial. This is such an odd story, and there’s the sense that had the stars been kinder, Elizabeth’s fate would have been different. Her life was punctuated by the early deaths of her brother and father, a strange betrayal by her aunt, the death of a child by Hervey, marriage to two wealthy men and public opinion cruelly against her. I enjoyed the all the details regarding the cost of her clothing etc, but I never felt as though I got into Elizabeth’s head. The author mentioned a few times that Elizabeth could be borderline personality disorder. I am not a psychiatrist/psychologist but I dismissed that label as we really cannot appreciate the pressures Elizabeth, with a short shelf life, was under to nail a man, permanently.

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A Taste for Poison: Eleven Deadly Molecules and the Killers Who Used Them: Neil Bradbury Ph.D

I picked up Neil Bradbury’s A Taste For Poison due to my interest in crime; while murder is never good, murder by poison seems particularly cold. The book’s emphasis is the history of poisons, their delivery, how they work on the body, and the tell-tale signs they leave behind. Chapters covers each of these poisons: insulin, atropine, strychnine, Aconite, Ricin, Digoxin, Cyanide, Potassium, Polonium, Arsenic and Chlorine, and chapters include poison cases and detail the sometimes limited technology available at the time. The author points out that murder by poisoning can’t be “spur-of-the-moment,” and it

requires planning and a knowledge of the victim’s habits. It requires consideration of how the poison will be administered. Some poisons can kill within minutes; others can be given slowly over time, gradually accumulating in the body but still leading inexorably to the victim’s death.”

The intro explains that the book is “not a catalog of poisoners and their victims, but rather explores the nature of poisons and how they affect the body at the molecular, cellular and physiological levels.” This results in a unique book which is a mixture of chemistry, history and crime. The author explains that poison can be “delivered” through 4 “routes”: ingestion, respiration, absorption or injection. I’d never quite heard the subject of poison broken down with this specific simplicity, and I immediately began thinking of various poisonings and how they slot into the 4 methods of delivery

One of the points made in the book is these chemicals can be “both toxic and tonic” with a quote from the 16th century alchemist/physician Theophrastus von Hohenheim (Paracelsus): “It is the dose that makes the poison.” Enter insulin. A short, concise history of insulin takes us to the murder of Elizabeth Barlow, whose hubbie, Kenneth, sobbed over a photo of his wife as the police arrived to pull his dead wife from her bathtub. Then there’s a description of what insulin does to the body, and while insulin really is a miracle drug, in Elizabeth Barlow’s case (she was NOT a diabetic), a huge injection of insulin left some tell-tale signs which became clues that her death was an act of murder. In 1957, there was no “reliable test for insulin in the body.” In this landmark case, “1200 mice, ninety rats and several guinea pigs were used to determine that a lethal amount of insulin was in Elizabeth’s body.” Kenneth Barlow, a nurse, is “credited” for being the first person to commit murder using insulin. Another fascinating fact, most of the documented murders by insulin have been “committed by doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals.” Makes sense.

One of the frequently recurring themes in this book is the idea that physicians and scientists believe their training and expertise provide unparalleled insights that allow them to commit undetectable murders where others had failed.

Shocking facts here–animals killed in courtrooms as demo opportunities (probably plus a great shock factor to the jury), increasing patient deaths that defied all statistical possibility while murderous nurses ran rampant, and insulin-induced coma therapy as a cure for schizophrenia. (Note to doctors: AMAZING: comas will ‘cure’ all deviant behaviour.) Poisoning is a deadly serious subject yet the author delivers this detailed book with an irony that fits its content. Here’s an example:

Doctors giddily competed to see how many times a week they could put their patients into an insulin-induced coma, while others pushed the envelope to see how long their patients could be kept in a coma before reviving them.

It’s curious how many poisons have/had other uses–again that ‘dose’ quote. Arsenic for the face, castor oil for sickly children (thanks, mum!), Foxglove for the garden, the colour Prussian Blue….

In 1994, Safeway customers in Edinburgh were victims of a campaign poisoner who tainted bottles of water with Atropine. While the victims appeared to be random, they were collateral damage as part of a macabre plan for biochemist, university lecturer Paul Agutter to rid himself of his wife. Again, there’s a history of atropine, its uses and the tell-tell signs in the body.

Strychnine (“listed third in the top ten poisons by number of criminal cases, behind only arsenic and cyanide“) was a handy-dandy “pick-me-up” tonic for years but expanded into use as a “vermin killer.” A description of the crimes of the Lambeth Poisoner details the delivery, results and signs of this horrific poison.

Historically, Aconite plants appeared in herbal medicines for a variety of ailments and were used by dentists, but as the author notes, the margin of error between “numbing a pain and killing the patient were narrow.” (Let’s hope they were good at Math.) Enter Dr. Lamson who in the 19th century “went on a killing spree right out of a Christie mystery as he worked his way through his inlaws/family to get his hands on their inheritance.” In this case, a Dr. Stevenson, an expert in alkaloid poisons was called in to help the police. Stevenson’s “hobby” (well we all have to have hobbies, right?) was his ability to taste alkaloid “against a background of various bodily fluids.” Yes you guessed it.

Out of interest I looked on Amazon and found innumerable aconite herbal remedy products. Yikes!

Also included here is mention of Laboratory Number 1 in Moscow–a lab whose “trademark” “was to take existing poisons [and] using them in a way that was difficult to detect or trace back to Russia.” Cyanide mists, contaminated coffee (radioactive), poison tipped bullets. Also the poisoned umbrella tip “created” for the Bulgarian Secret Service used to kill Georgi Markov. All very James Bond–except that this is real– as was the murder of Alexander Litvinenko (polonium poisoning, Chapter 9). It’s difficult for me to narrow down the most shocking info here, but the most shocking mental image award goes to the section which details “death by bleach”–how one nurse injected bleach into dialysis ports eventually doing it in front of patients on dialysis machines!

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Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old: Steven Petrow

“Throw it in the fuck it bucket.”

I almost passed this book over as the synopsis sounded…. well… judgey. After finishing Steven Petrow’s Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I’m Old, I’m glad that I read listened to this audiobook. It is amusing but more than that, it made me think. The author starts with, as the title suggests, a list of things he swears he will NOT do when he is old, and this was generated by watching his parents age and grow ill. After the death of his parents, he reread his list and realized that the motivations behind the list were complex. He added that he sees “more clearly now that I meant the list to serve as a pointed reminder to me to make different choices when I eventually crossed the threshold into my senior, sunset or silver years.” The short chapters are infused with humour, anecdote, and then backed up with facts and figures.

My attention was almost immediately pulled into the author’s quest to understand aging and its challenges when he asks at age 63 “am I old?” So he begins asking friends on Facebook ‘when are we old?’ The answers were varied–some amusing, some poignant. Physical limitations were mentioned a lot, and I suspect that those markers were significant for those who define themselves by their physical ability. I wonder if this cohort will have a harder time aging–I suspect so. I was, then, interested to hear that “old is not synonymous with ill, disabled or even injured.” Researchers state that the old-age “threshold” in America is 71 for men and 74 for women, and that “our true age” contains many factors, including how happy we are.

In one chapter, “I Won’t Colour My Hair,” Steven Petrow describes his “unfortunate adventure in hair colouring.” After spending 100s of $ trying to fix a bad dye job, Petrow still ended up looking like a “trashy secretary from Staten Island.” It gets guts to publicly point out one’s mistakes, laugh about it, and move on. Other chapters include discussing habits that “mark” us as “geriatric” and “Elder Abuse of Technology“–phrases and habits that scream: “Old Person On the Loose Online.” (OPOTLO)

Another chapter, “I Won’t Lie About My Age–Even on Dating Apps” discusses the author’s experience with online dating. After separating from his husband, the author Joined Tinder, Match and OKCupid and here he learned that many people lied about their age while admitting he “used to be one of those people who shaved a few years, or more, off their true age. either to avoid appearing like a dinosaur or to improve their odds of finding a match online.” He joined in with the “fudging” but then was outed by his Wikipedia page. It’s funny, but not surprising, to hear how age cheaters on dating sites are prolific and that users screen for age-cheaters by lie-detecting questions, such as “where were you when…?” Petrow describes how an age-fibber created a “cheat sheet.” It’s really hilarious and sounds like so much work. Too much work.

Another chapter discusses sexuality. Petrow had testicular cancer in his 20s and so had to confront sexual difficulties early. Discussing sexual issues segues into the idea of how we all too often obsess on our health/issues/illness as we age in the chapter called “I Won’t Join the Organ Recital.” Recently, in line at the pharmacy, I noticed a few older customers, strangers, discussing their colonoscopies much to the disgust of a few thirty somethings also waiting–a trapped and horrified audience. This is a perfect example of exactly what the author means by talking, sometimes exhaustively, about health issues, which, let’s face it, younger generations must find boring and embarrassing. Hoarding, driving, falling, hearing loss, personal cleanliness, grumpiness all come up for discussion.

Ultimately this is an extremely positive, life-affirming book. One chapter that stuck with me is: “I Won’t Stop Enjoying Myself,” for its great outlook. This book has a target audience, and while most of the content can be applied to all of us–some things are considerations for those who have the extra funds to apply to life (wardrobe, assisted living, reconsidering employment options). This is not a criticism of the book–just an observation. I’m also going to add that some of this is easier said than done. It’s one thing to be old but still be able to go sit in the garden and smell the roses–literally or figuratively, but quite another to keep up one’s spirits if you’re the 90 something wheelchair bound lady with oxygen in her nose who’s parked in the doctor’s office by her family who will “send someone to pick her up” tout suite (and yes, I just observed this to my horror). Finally Steven Petrow kept me entertained and engaged. I’d already started Swedish Death Cleaning (without knowing the term) and I’d already committed to embracing and enjoying my old age. But then some of us have a high happiness set point, and some of us don’t. In other words, some of us are destined to be old misery guts/ratbags. You know who you are. … Obviously the author is NOT one of those people: he’s a fan of Mel Brooks and stresses the importance of laughter. So here’s to enjoying ourselves: After all, we’re only old once.

The late great Madeline Kahn as Lili von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles

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Days in the Caucasus: Banine

“‘The champagne flowed freely’ to use that classic phrase. Thus our world marched towards disaster.

Memoirs potentially offer valuable eye-witness accounts, and, unlike non-fiction, are unmoored from facts, figures and extensive research, yet with that ‘insider’s view,’ they can illuminate great moments in history. Banine’s Days in the Caucasus is a great example of the niche-memoir. Born in 1905, into a large oil merchant’s family made rich when a peasant grandfather struck oil, Banine (real name Ummulbanu Asadullayeva) was caught between two worlds. On one hand, her wealthy father fostered western ways (a devoted Baltic German governess, Miss Anna), but she was also a member of a Muslim family, and her relatives expected Banine and her sisters to conform to Muslim ways. It didn’t help that Banine’s grandmother, “a fat, authoritarian woman,” had been abandoned by her husband for a Russian, so that from that time on, all things Russian were despised. When the memoir opens, life is good for Banine. Her father is a widower who places the care of his many daughters into the gentle, loving hands of Miss Anna. The politics on the horizon are strictly family politics–and those focus on marriage. Banine spends a great deal of the memoir describing her early life; it’s certainly colorful, but in spite of growing up in luxury, there’s always the distant threat of marriage.

Banine’s childhood includes the ethic troubles between the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis. Banine and her two nasty male cousins “played at massacring Armenians, a game we loved above all others.” While the children ‘play’ at torture and disembowelment, the 2 males cousins, without Banine’s knowledge, ‘play’ “rape the Armenian.” The malicious tendencies of these two dreadful cousins appear later in the memoir.

By 1914, the Caucasus becomes “full of Russians,” and this brings changes to Banine’s family. At first, the biggest ‘threat’ is Russian men carrying off Muslim girls, and Banine’s older sister turns those fears into reality. But suddenly, after the Tsar abdicated, the Armenian population “managed to install a military dictatorship,” and Banine’s family was forced to flee. There was a brief period in which the family managed to move back to Baku, but ironically just as her grandfather died leaving Banine a “a multimillionaire at the age of thirteen,” the Red Army soldiers arrived. So much for the inheritance. ….

After her father’s arrest, Banine retreats to her grandmother’s countryside house where she is reunited with her libidinous cousin, Gulnar. Their way of life there is upended with arrival of the “Commission for the Creation of Holiday Camps,” and it’s declared that the grandmother’s house will be divided for the use of “revolutionary veterans, all worn out to a greater or lesser extent by their exploits.” Gulnar, who can’t wait to get married so that she can start taking lovers, is delighted by the male Russians, and soon Banine and Gulnar are eagerly indoctrinated, wear Lenin badges, and join a commission to inventory the contents of neighbouring villas.

In spite of the gravity of events, the memoir is light. I’m used to piles of corpses when reading from this period, but Banine’s privilege, youth, location, and family connections must have shielded her from the atrocities of the times. We hear nothing of the events taking place in Russia or Ukraine. The major problem here is Banine’s desire to run off with a Russian vs her sense of duty towards her father. The intimate look at the family dynamics offers a completely different view of this period.

Impartial observation seems to show that in families where interests diverge, hatred between relatives is constant and widespread; where interests are not divisive, affection sometimes exists. But most often there is only indifference mingled occasionally with a sense of duty towards the clan, which one could, with a little imagination, take to be love. To be honest, indifference appears to me to be the natural state between members of a family. When one thinks of the number of people one must know in order to find some friends, to discover an affinity in the small group that is family would be something of a surprise.

Banine’s relatives wish to marry her off to a cousin as she’s this great heiress, and even when her fortune is lost, one uncle can’t let go.

That memories were all the heiress had left of her fortune did not deter him: the memories were dazzling enough especially since he considered Bolshevism an accident of fate and our impoverishment a temporary phenomenon.

While there are many memorable people here. Banine’s cousin, Gulnar stands out. At one point, Banine, naively tells Gulnar, that life isn’t so bad:

“To be honest, life isn’t too terrible in Baku or Tiflis.”

“That’s because they haven’t had time to deal with us yet.”

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Translated by Anne Thompson-Ahmadova

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If This Was Happiness: Barbara Leaming

“Men go to bed with Gilda but wake up with me.”

Rita Hayworth’s life is a study in contrasts: she was an incredible beauty, a phenomenal dancer, and a glittering screen presence. As the Sex Goddess, she was the chosen pin-up for American servicemen. Married and divorced 5 times, at her peak she was a highly paid actress, and yet there were periods during her life when she had no money for food. One husband threatened to throw acid in her face, another walloped her in public. Men chased her, wooed her, wed her and promptly cheated on her. How could someone so beautiful so lithe, so exquisite, be so mistreated by the men who wanted to possess her?

Barbara Leaming’s biography of Rita Hayworth, If This Was Happiness begins with background information about Rita’s father and aunt, Eduardo and Elisa Caniso. They came from a family of Spanish dancers, and arrived in America in 1913. “Although silent films were already beginning to encroach on its appeal, vaudeville clearly dominated American entertainment, and the Cansinos ” were a celebrated and highly paid vaudeville dance team.” By 1915, they earned 1500 a week. Eduardo and Elisa and his sister had a tight relationship which was not infiltrated or diminished by Eduardo’s marriage to 19-year-old dancer, Volga Hayworth.

As I read about Eduardo and Elisa, I heard these alarms bells in my head and wondered exactly what the relationship was between brother and sister. I decided I must have a dirty mind, but then later as I read how Eduardo molested Rita, I wondered again just how far back that behaviour went.

Eduardo and Volga’s first child was Margarita (later Rita), and they also had 2 sons. Eduardo tried to break in Hollywood, but his strong accent hampered his success. The family lost all their savings due to “bad investments” during the depression, and by the age of 12, Rita became her father’s dancing partner. She never graduated from high school and only completed the 9th grade. By age 13, with her parents lying about her age, she was travelling down to Tijuana, the sexual relationship between Rita and her father (she was not allowed to call him ‘father,’ in public) was established, but her “sexually provocative” performances on stage did not mirror the reality of the “shy, withdrawn” child. This dichotomy defined Rita for the rest of her life.

There began a curious phenomenon that would be observed repeatedly throughout her career: While silently and obediently taking orders, doing exactly as she was told, Rita would seem somehow to blank out, to withdraw deeply into herself.

It was quickly understood that Rita was the family’s money maker. At 16, she landed a contract with Fox, and headed for stardom, she was courted by 39-year-old Eddie Judson, a man who claimed to be Hollywood savvy and who made “the rounds of fashionable nightspots.” Rita and Eddie eloped and when Rita married Judson, she traded one domineering man, her father, for another. It was Judson who took control of Rita’s metamorphosis; he arranged painful electrolysis treatments to alter her hairline and her hair was dyed auburn. One person quoted notes that Judson tried “to push her to have affairs with people” (including Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, who was so obsessed with Rita he had her spied on) to further her career. Orson Welles didn’t shy away from calling Judson “a pimp. Literally a pimp.” The marriage didn’t last long, but Judson flagrantly cheated on Rita and left her penniless. To quote Rita: “I married him for love, but he married me for an investment.”

There was an affair with Victor Mature, but then Orson Welles entered the picture after seeing a photo of Rita and seeking her out. In some ways, it seems as though Rita’s marriage to Orson was the high point of her life, perhaps both of their lives, but then Orson was cheating. Divorce number 2. Rita’s third marriage was to Prince Aly Khan, another man who lavishly courted Rita–a woman whose value always sunk the minute that ring was on her finger. Prince Aly Khan’s playboy lifestyle did not end with his marriage so there was divorce number 3. Orson Welles noted that:

After Aly, Rita was on a downward path, a steep toboggan ride.

Rita returned to America to revive her film career and she was quickly wooed by Dick Haymes, a singer with a long string of debts and a fading career. It’s hard to say which marriage was the worst but if I had to pick, I would say this was it. The marriage brought public humiliation when Dick Haymes, who should have known he owed Rita a great deal, walloped her across the face in a nightclub. Rita had already damaged her career by her European marriage to Aly Khan, but public scandal, contract issues, along with child neglect charges landed on her head when she took Dick’s advice continually. Whoever named this man did so aptly.

Rita’s last marriage to film producer James Hill seemed a repeat of all the mistakes of the past. By the time she was in her 50s it was evident that there was something wrong with Rita and alcohol was blamed before the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s was finally reached.

The book is a sad read. IMO the author was too kind to Orson Welles, “We’re such a cruel race of people,” groaned Welles, with reference to those who told Rita about” his extra marital affairs. (An interesting way of objectifying one’s own behaviour.) I would have liked to have known whether or not Rita had any female friends. There are a couple of names mentioned but its not clear whether these were deep friendships or just light social acquaintances.

Men flocked to Rita like bees to honey but then treated her like shit. This is a woman, damaged in childhood, who outwardly had the world on a plate, but whose relationships were all destructive in one way or another:

“I think if you take ego and vanity out of sex,” Welles would explain, “you would find that the actual amount of sexual activity would be reduced drastically. I’m thinking of men in, particular more than women. A man is to a great extent operating on other juices than the sexual ones when he’s chasing around.”

Here she is driving Glenn Ford crazy

Gilda clip

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Happily Ever Older: Revolutionary Approaches to Long-Term Care: Moira Welsh

After reading Leisureville, I stumbled across Moira Welsh’s non-fiction book Happily Ever Older: Revolutionary Approaches to Long-Term Care. Since I was on a roll when it came to reading about aging, I decided to take a chance and see what I could learn. As it turned out, I learned a lot. Canadian author Moira Welsh is an investigative reporter, with a career focus on the elderly. The book was written during the COVID pandemic, and considering how hard nursing homes have been hit, the book’s publication is timely. Covid was fueled by “the system that controls seniors homes. For decades, long-term care has operated on a tight budget, draining the life pleasure of the people who reside within while devaluing the work of staff forcing many to work in two or three locations just to make a living wage. This is how the virus spreads from one home to the next.” Someone I know runs a care home and, under Covid, he says “it’s like being in a war zone.”

After a long career in journalism Moira Welsh acknowledges that her stories “always exposed the negative, neglect, abuse and isolation with the goal of improving the system.” This book takes a look at the established system of care for the elderly and then examines some of the revolutionary alternatives. As a result, writing the book, visiting the various homes, was, the author explains “like opening a door to another world.”

At one point, an Emotion-Based care “observational audit” is conducted in a highly rated care home by David Sheard, Founder of Dementia Care Matters. There are some descriptions of typical ‘interactions’ between residents and staff–for example– staff checked icons on computer screens such as “food eaten” “bodily functions” etc. There’s one mention of residents parked “like cars in a parking lot.” Residents are ignored, meals served with staff “whisking away plates on schedule.” Yes it’s all very efficient but rather ignores the whole premise that we are dealing with people here. For this reader, it sounds like the staff are monitoring lab rats. The author states that “neutral care is a form of abuse,” and I agree. One image that sticks in my mind is that of a nurse entering a room every once in a while and tossing a ball at the residents who are parked in a circle.

The author describes various new approaches to Elder Care: The Butterfly Model and its emotion-based care (uniforms banned, hallways painted bright colours, removing central dining rooms), The Eden Alternative, The Golden Girls Network, The Pioneer Network, Toronto HomeShare Programme, The Green House Project, and an incredibly interesting visit to a nursing home in the Netherlands. Another approach, outside of any sort of institutional, is the growth of acceptance of “Tiny Houses.” The book is packed with various stories of improvement in residents when Emotion-Based Care became the underlying philosophy of the various care homes. It may be difficult to formulate studies that scientifically measure specific improvements in residents, but things under consideration are a decrease in medication, less aggression, putting on weight, increased interactions. Other results are anecdotal and not so easy to measure– improvements in resident social behaviours, for example. Of course none of this comes cheap. Canada predicts that the cost of long-term care will increase from 22 billion in 2019 to 71 billion in 2050.

This is a very upbeat look at a depressing subject. The author argues that a shift in social attitudes is underfoot and must continue. There were a few too many sentimental anecdotes for my taste, but at the same time, it’s probably hard to avoid given the topic. I would have like more $$ numbers because that’s how my brain works. I would have liked more on the kids that stuff their parents in homes while looting the estate. I would also have liked more on the ethics of homes providing services to residents (there’s one near me that provides cleaners). I know it’s based on the hotel type of model, but I keep thinking about Better Call Saul. But all these things belong in another book. Or two.

Anyway…. I learned a lot that I had no idea about, and the book gave me food for thought. I decided to chop down some of the ornamental trees in my back garden as the annual trimming (on ladder) is something I can do without going forward. There are a few times in the book when numbers are bandied about. One home costs over 6K a month. Another 9-10K. I know someone who pays 8K a month. Good care doesn’t come cheap; I get it, but ye gods who can afford this??? In America the average social security check is around $1500 a month (numbers vary). Social security estimates that 50% of married couples and 70% of singles receive 50% or more of their income from Social Security. It’s debatable just how many Americans rely of social security alone. There’s a range of numbers on the internet–anywhere from 12% -40%.

During the creation of this book, the author had to confront her aging parents’ health issues which necessitated a move from their home, and her very personal experience is both candid and tender.

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The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives: Diane Johnson

I’d never heard anything about Mary Ellen Peacock Meredith (1821-61) before I picked up Diane Johnson’s book, The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives. If you’d described the book to me, I probably would have rejected it as there are aspects to this history that would normally drive me crazy.  But the book, which is described as an “alternate biography”  and includes hypothetical and occasional filling in of gaps, is quite extraordinary. The author argues, and proves, that while Mary Ellen Peacock Meredith existed as an aside in other, more famous, peoples’ lives she had a rich and historically ignored life of her own.

The life of Mary Ellen is always treated, in a paragraph or a page, as an episode in the lives of Peacock or Meredith. It was treated with a certain reserve in the early biographies because it involves adultery and recrimination, and makes all the parties look ugly. More recent biographies of Meredith repeat the received version of the story with a brisk determination, a kind of feigned acceptance: we know that these things, regrettably, do indeed happen. 

Mrs. Meredith’s life can be looked upon, of course, as an episode in the lives of Meredith or Peacock, but it cannot have seemed that way to her. 

Mary Ellen was the daughter of Thomas Love Peacock, married and widowed within a brief period of time, and then she met George Meredith who was 7 years younger. And what a miserable old sod Meredith sounds like. So perhaps it’s no wonder that Mary Ellen took a lover and ditched her neglectful spouse, but there was no happy ending for Mary, and who could have expected it in the 19th century.

Mrs Meredith

Mary Ellen’s first husband was Edwards Nicholls, “the wild, sexy son of a general of the Royal Marines,” and they were married, happily by all accounts, for a few “glorious months,” before he drowned trying to rescue a friend. Mary Ellen, 23 years old, returned home to her father, a pregnant widow. Four years later, she met George Meredith, “a brooding neurasthenic fussy about his food, obsessed with achieving literary success, and hardly ever wanting to leave the house.” They were “together” for 8 years.

After running off with her lover, Mary Ellen died of kidney disease in 1861. Convenient for many perhaps and thus she sank into history. Yet author Diane Johnson shows that Meredith, who used a flexible version of the truth whenever he recalled his former wife, never really recovered from the relationship–continually working her character, “drawn from his evergreen memories,” into various forms in his novels. 

He had never ceased to brood over her–her presence is invoked in novel after novel.

The book opens, after an excellent introduction from Vivian Gornick, with Mary Ellen’s poorly attended funeral. It’s a somewhat fanciful beginning with some details that surely must be speculative (the young vicar is embarrassed, for example) but instead of being annoyed, as I usually am by such fancies, I was drawn into the misty story of Mary Ellen, a woman whose short life wasn’t much fun, who struggled with poverty and abandonment and was haunted by the knowledge of an imminent early death.

Snippets of Mary Ellen’s childhood underscore her somewhat unconventional upbringing thanks to her “too-indulgent” father. Literary figures dot Mary Ellen’s life: James Hogg, Mary Shelley, and Claire Clairmont. These details hint at the inevitable rebellion of Mary Ellen when faced with the loneliness of a drab marriage, so it’s no great surprise that she fell in love with pre-Raphaelite artist, Henry Wallis, But Mary Ellen may have been born in the Romantic Age, but she was married in the Victorian Age, and Victorian attitudes to scandal buried her story.  Her poignant letters and notebooks reveal the realities of her married life to Meredith coupled with details of a troubled, rich inner life. Since Meredith lived to a ripe old age while the long-deceased Mary Ellen faded into obscurity, Meredith controlled both the narrative of his dead wife’s character and also the narrative of their life together. And the truth? Meredith kneaded the truth into an acceptable narrative even hinting that he had been trapped into marriage by Mary Ellen when certainly her literary connections gilded the deal. 

Somewhere, in some British parlor, she looks out of a painting called Fireside Reveries, and the people who see her every day may wonder–or perhaps it never occurred to them to wonder–whether the lady over the mantel was ever anyone real. 

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I Belong to Vienna: Anna Goldenberg

I Belong to Vienna from Anna Goldenberg was inspired by the author’s desire to answer the question: why did her relatives return to Vienna, the scene of catastrophic events, following WWII? This is a very unique, personal history, part research, part contemplative as we learn how the members of one extended family were scattered by WWII. The author’s grandparents, Helga and Hans Feldner-Bustin, met at a Zionist group meeting in 1945 and slowly became a couple. After the war, they both attended medical school and emigrated to America, working as residents in a Poughkeepsie hospital, but did not settle there, instead deciding to return to Vienna in 1956. 

I belong to Vienna

This is a remarkable account which manages to convey a sense of urgency as the author digs into the past to discover details, and in this intimate history, we stay by Anna Goldenberg’s side as she digs into the story of how some family members died and others survived.

As I’m doing research for this book, a memorial is erected on the former site of the Aspang train station, from where most Viennese were deported. One of my cousins, as chairman of a Jewish student organization, is preparing to give a public address here on the anniversary of the November pogroms. I’m sitting in a restaurant, across the table from my mother, when he calls. Were our great-grandparents and Hansi’s brother Herbert, deported from the Aspang train station? Yes, I answer, and explain what happened to our grandfather’s family: Theresienstadt, meningitis, Auschwitz; family camp, selection, Sachsenhausen. I talk fast, get all excited, and feel the exhilaration I always do when I know the right answers to tough questions. When I hang up, I see a shocked look on my mother’s face. “I never knew all those details,” she says. 

The book offers a unique look at the disintegration of Jewish family life during this horrendous period.  Hans’s (Hansi) parents, Rosa and Moritz Bustin owned a furniture shop. One great point made by the author, backed with incredible detail, is how the Nazis systemically and bureaucratically stripped her family of any means whatsoever:

On April 13, 1938, a law was passed allowing the Nazi appointed Reich Governor–who was in charge of “coordination,” meaning forced political conformity–to appoint so-called acting administrators for Jewish enterprises. The administrators’ task was to oversee such businesses’ appropriation. The man assigned to Moritz’s furniture business set about collecting all customers’ outstanding payments. It’s hard to say whether the largely non-Jewish clientele had been intimated or impressed by his stormtrooper uniform, but either way, he’d collected all debts within a few months. 

The author scours official documents that record the decimation of her family, and the bureaucratic, systematic details are in horrific, cold contrast to the reality of the results: the suicide of Hansi’s uncle the day before an administrator took over the family business, the stripping of assets, the impossibility of creating any sort of livelihood. In another instance, the author’s great-grandmother scraped every penny to save her husband only to have him stuck in Italy as he tried to connect to a non-existent steamer.

The seventeen scanned pages attached to my great-great-aunt Frieda’s form allow me to understand what happened to the family between May 1938 and November 1939: the first page details the Jewish communal organization’s “home check” and describes their living situation in words. Shortly after the Anschluss, Frieda’s husband had been arrested because one of his vendors had filed a false complaint against him, presumably hoping to take over his furniture business. “Business liquidated–nothing kept,” it reads. 

But amidst the horror and despair, there are some stories of survival: Helga’s grandfather, who had proved to be a not-so-great dad, came through for his daughter and grandchildren, the miracle of transportation of children to England, and a Bronx-based cousin who sold his car to fund steamer tickets for relatives escaping from Vienna. 

It’s amazing that so many documents survive. 

They reveal in detail one cog in this massive machinery of annihilation, I see how seriously the administrator took his task. For half a year he carefully prepared lists, scoured warehouses, wrote letters, calculated balance sheets. Thus is how my family was destroyed and I can still read all about it today.

Review copy

Translated by Alta L. Price

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Uncrowned Queen: Nicola Tallis

A few months ago, I watched The White Princess which I enjoyed in spite of its flaws. It’s a period of history that interests me, but it’s by no means a favourite era: the subtext here is that I’m not an expert when it comes to the details. One character leaped out me: Margaret Beaufort. I saw her tomb years ago, and have always remembered it. While I found her role in the series interesting, I knew the programme was far from historically accurate, and that made me want to learn more. The series portrayed her as a religious fanatic, multiple marriages in her past, that incredibly tight relationship with her son Henry (who became Henry VII), the mother-in-law from hell, in love with her brother in-law Jasper, and even at one point she commits murder. What was up with all that?

So this brings me to the book: Uncrowned Queen by Nicola Tallis. The first section of the book explores Margaret’s origins. With history, there’s always an argument as to how far back one should go. In this case, there are so many people mentioned that I became bogged down with keeping everyone straight. No doubt someone who is well versed in the period would fare better. 

Uncrowned queen

While some things about Margaret’s early life are known, there are also huge gaps in her early history. It’s clear from her history, a young heiress whose father died young, that she was a bargaining chip. I was unaware of the whole ‘wardship’ scam (I may be using the word ‘scam’ out of context but after reading that wealthy lords were granted and/or bought wardships, the word seems to fit–especially when you consider that those guardians got first dibs when it came to marrying off their wards and the doling out of their wealth.)

Margaret was a hot commodity–a “marital pawn since the earliest days of her childhood” as the author points out so well. Engaged then married and unmarried when politically expedient. Married at 12, pregnant and widowed at 13. These are things that make or break a person, and what rings through loud and clear, is that Margaret came through all the marriages, the political intrigue and turmoil of her era, strong, pragmatic and ready to play the long game. 

I found some parts of the book frustrating: so many people mentioned (and this reflects my own deficit not the author’s), plus then there are some speculations that while they were minor, were to this reader, a bit superfluous. We don’t really get down to the nitty gritty of Margaret’s life until about the half way point of the book when her son, Henry, finally becomes king. 

There’s an argument here regarding Margaret Beaufort’s personal lack of involvement in the death of the two princes in the tower. I have no issue with that particular argument but IMO while we can speculate until the end of time, whatever happened is all so murky, we will never know for certain the Tudor involvement. 

Anyway, an interesting read: Margaret emerges as an incredibly strong woman, a survivor who as an heiress saw her lands confiscated for the actions of others. This period is a time when people threw caution to the winds for religion, and courted terrible fates in the pursuit of power. Margaret, intelligent and self-controlled, learned how to survive and fight another day. Particularly interesting is her devotion to education.  

Over time, Margaret pressed against the constraints imposed by her sex and society, slowly demanding more and more control over her life, until the crown on her son’s head allowed her to make the unprecedented move for almost total independence: financially, physically and sexually. This is a woman who learned pragmatism very early on, who knew when to lay aside ego and finer loyalties for the sake of the long game–unlike so many of her male contemporaries. 

Review copy. 

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Diary of a Foreigner in Paris: Curzio Malaparte

“How kind France is when it is noble.”

Malaparte, a play on the name Bonaparte, was a journalist whose real name was Kurt Eric Suckert. Malaparte (1898-1957) initially supported the Italian fascist movement, but later fell foul of the Mussolini regime and was arrested and imprisoned multiple times. Malaparte certainly got around. In The Skin, Curzio Malaparte, as a liaison officer with the American forces, takes a look at the ugliness of Naples in 1942. In The Kremlin Ball, Malaparte is in 1929 Stalinist Russia.

Both The Skin and The Kremlin Ball echo a thought that rolls in frequently: amazing eye witness accounts cannot be exchanged for history books, and then comes a second thought: while all these things happened in incredible times, I’m glad I didn’t live through them.

diary of a foreigner in paris

Diary of a Foreigner in Paris finds Malaparte in the City of Light, but since it’s 1947, Paris is a changed place. In 1933, Malaparte left Paris and returned to Italy where he was arrested and imprisoned. After a stint in the Regina Coeli prison, he was sent to the island of Lipari. Malaparte recalls that although he had many friends, it was only his French friends who “defended” him. So Malaparte, who enlisted in the French army at age 16, and whose mother was French returns in 1947 to a country he knows well and loves. He considers himself not to be a “foreigner in France,” but France has changed.

There are some famous people in these pages: Rossellini, Jean Cocteau, Camus, Henry Muller, François Mauriac. At a dinner party, Malaparte feels uncomfortable and senses “a hint of animosity, of repulsion, of dislike.”

Everyone looks at me as if I were not only a foreigner but an uninvited guest.

An icebreaker comes from Henry Muller who tries to smooth things over:

recalling my years in Paris, my time in prison. François Mauriac interrupts him to say that many people in France suffered a great deal in prison as well, that it’s rare to find a Frenchman who hasn’t been in prison, etc.

Malaparte thinks “it’s not my fault if Mussolini declared war on France, if he behaved badly toward France. I think that certain foreigners who came to Rome before the war to pay homage to Mussolini are rather more responsible than the Italians who had no choice.” So hardly a warm welcome for Malaparte.

Malaparte is, at least for this reader, somewhat disingenuous since he supported Italian fascism, fought as a fascist soldier and praised the Wehrmacht at least initially–even if he fell foul of Mussolini later. Yes he was exiled and imprisoned, but the introduction from Edmund White explains that Malaparte is a “mythomane” and that he was “under house arrest in his luxurious villa in Capri and several times imprisoned for short stays in Regina Coeli in Rome, he claimed  for his assiduous anti fascism.” (In reality, he “siphoned off public funds” and remained an avid supporter of Italian fascism.) Mussolini’s son in law personally intervened for Malaparte’s freedom from exile to Lipari.

With WWII still close in the rear view mirror, other intellectuals find it hard to mingle with Malaparte, and it’s easy to see why.

Time passes, to be sure. Oh, does time pass. No one is still Catholic in 1947 the way one was in 1933. Then one was Catholic in a freer, more personal way. Today it’s more political. 

This is an interesting, somewhat fragmentary read. It’s more impressionistic than The Kremlin Ball and The Skin, and more philosophical (even if his sometimes twisted thinking is bizarre).  For example, at one point, he outrageously argues that “Gide is the high priest of a religion whose sacrificial altars are at Dachau.” Malaparte tries to make sense of what he interprets as general, wide changes in France and in the French. Of course, there’s never any personal responsibility here, any acknowledgement. At one point he’s asked why he didn’t desert, and decides that the criticism directed towards him is “amusing.” According to Malaparte “there’s no longer any sense of humour in Europe.” So WWII and the Nazis sucked a lot of ‘fun’ out of the world; Malaparte’s comment is tactless at best. 

Collaboration was born from the sense of feeling like a winner alongside the Germans. And I wonder why those in the Resistance, why I myself, don’t feel like winners alongside the Anglo-Saxons and the Russians. What is so indigestible for us Europeans about the Russian and Anglo-Saxon victory?

Mythomane and fabulist–this is a study in a very particular personality with Malaparte revealing more about himself than he ever imagined.  For this reader, while this book is my least favourite of the three I’ve read, Malaparte, who obviously feels rather aggrieved by his lack of welcome, by is, above all, a wonderful stylist, and the very scene in which he throws up his hands and asks “what do they want of me?” shows, rather queasily, how slippery people argue their way out of anything. 

Review copy

Translated by Stephen Twilley

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