Cecily's book reviews

In general I've written reviews of every book I've read since I joined GoodReads (RIP) in May 08, along with one or two I read prior to that. More recent reviews tend to be longer (sometimes a tad too long?). I always carry a book, though I don't get as much time as I'd like to get engrossed - life is busy, but in a good way. Too many of my favourite authors died without writing enough! Apart from reading, and writing about reading, I enjoy Scrabble, good restaurants, woodland, and attending the theatre.
Can Any Mother Help Me? - Jenna Bailey Don't be put off by the title!
This is riveting, poignant, uplifting, occasionally shocking, but never sentimental.

Not my usual sort of book, or one that fits the chick-lit cover and cheesy title, but it is a quirky, charming, moving, unsentimental and revealing peek into women's lives over half a century. It's very easy to dip in and out of and is likely to make most modern readers very grateful for what they have, without every being misery lit, or anything of that ilk.

It is a compilation of articles (personal letters, really) written for a small (~20 women) fortnightly private magazine, starting just before WW2.

The women were all young mothers, mostly well-educated, and frustrated with the confines of domesticity; children and parenting were explicitly not the focus of the magazine, though they certainly cropped up often. In other respects they were remarkably diverse in geography, political and religious views, employment, relationships, and financial status. Several were notably unconventional in their day, including a conscientious objector, a self-sufficient eco couple, and a vegetarian - alongside a minor aristocrat. Perhaps the most startling thing is how large their families were: one had seven children and most had at least four.

The introduction explains the context and how the CCC (Co-operative Correspondence Club) started. Thereafter, excerpts are broadly chronological and grouped thematically. Early chapters focus on small children and the war, while the closing ones discuss the difficulties of aging and the pain of loss. In addition, there are brief biographies of each woman and a smattering of photos.

CCC provided a support network for these women (though there were fallings out as well) through war, illness, abandonment, relocation and other upheavals. The initial anonymity enabled them to discuss issues that might otherwise have been taboo ("what was written in the magazine stayed in the magazine"), but most of them did get to know each other in real life, and an annual lunch happened for more than 40 years. As the single copy of each issue circulated, comments on the articles extended the conversation; often these were supportive, but sometimes combative. There were close parallels with some online groups today.

For its members, CCC was also an opportunity to see how other women lived and coped. Most were born Edwardians and lived through two world wars, so they experienced huge change during their lives. In their youth, the marriage bar was far more rigid than I'd realised: one woman loved her job so much, she delayed marriage for three years because once married, she'd be forced to give it up. For modern readers, these contrasts are even greater.

Some of the articles that stood out for me, whether for power or sheer curiosity:

* Finding a crashed German bomber and the pilot's bloody body, and trying to resolve the contradictions: "a man, who this morning had his breakfast...He was someone's child, someone's brother perhaps... This is war, I said... No, God, no, I screamed inside myself. This is wrong, wrong."

* POWs not only missed out on promotion, but had their pay cut. One woman's husband was imprisoned for most of the war and when he finally returned, he was confined to low ranking admin jobs, which were unsatisfying at a personal and financial level.

* The strange beauty of the infamous London fog of 1952: "I felt as if I was inside a pearl...it did give me a strange feeling to be so enclosed by white vaporous walls, in such a silent little world, a world in which all colours were muted to dim greys except for the white frosted edges of leaves and branches."

* An eye-witness account of braving awful weather to be in the crowd at the coronation is beautifully written, and is interesting because it's not set at the best viewing point or written by an ardent royalist who'd planned the trip for months.

* Despite tacit agreement not to say much about husbands or marriage, one woman asked another whether her anti-contraception belief that sex must include the possibility of conception meant she was or would be chaste post-menopause! Sadly, it doesn't give the answer.

* A doctor suspected a baby had Down's Syndrome but didn't even hint at the possibility to the parents for over a year, and even then, it was only the father he told!

* One child was sent to boarding school (albeit weekdays only) shortly before his third birthday!

* There is an amusingly euphemistic description of the failings of the rhythm method and other amateur contraception by a woman who had turned out to be "recklessly philo-progenitive and quite capable of filling his (sic) house with noisy pledges of my affection while blandly protesting every time that I didn't know the gun was loaded."

* When real tragedies arise, there are no euphemisms, just raw and honest pain, told in an unsentimental way to friends. There was one particular section relating to a disabled grandchild that really chocked me up. Such powerful writing.

This ought to be a 5* book, and the articles are indeed wonderful; the weakness is in the way the book has been compiled, hence only 4*. In particular:

* There is no index (unforgivable in most non-fiction, especially something like this, and relatively easy with modern technology).

* There are footnotes in the back which are mostly patronising (e.g. that Huw is the Welsh version of Hugh!), banal or dull, but which are not referenced in the text, so you have to keep flicking to and fro to see if there are any notes relating to what you're reading.

* The bios are in two places, but not exactly duplicated, which means there is pointless repetition and more cause for to-ing and fro-ing (and if you read the ones at the back too early on, some contain spoilers). There are even inconsistencies between them, such as one woman's children being born in 1930, '33 and '34, but in '58 they were apparently aged 28, 26 and 23.

* There are some asides by the compiler that she does not back up, so it's hard to know whether they are based on articles that are not included, or her leaping to conclusions based on her own ideas and prejudices.

Even so, the actual content makes it worth the irritations caused by a poor compiler. A fascinating book.

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