Sunday, January 28, 2018

Cornwall and Coal, Mining for Romance in the 18th Century

Wallowing in 'tween-season of "Downton Abbey" and the aptly dubbed "Droughtlander", I stumbled across the PBS Masterpiece Theater gem,"Poldark".  Unlike the decadent binge-watching that usually follows my discovery of a long-overlooked television series, I was limited to a single season, since that's all that has been produced to date.

English: Wheal Prosper near Rinsey. Prosper wa...

My compulsive tendencies, aided and abetted by Google, revealed that the series is based upon a treasure trove of novels by Winston Graham, first published in 1945.

The main character, Ross Poldark, was born in the 1700's.  His youth was rather unremarkable before he joined the British Army and spent several years fighting in colonial America.  Poldark finally returns home to Nampara in Cornwall, anxious to claim the beautiful young Lady Elizabeth Chynoweth.  Although not formally engaged before he left for his stint at soldiering, they had a youthful understanding that they would be so, upon his return.  Rumors of Ross's death as well as the actual death of his father, Charles, have preceded his return, and Poldark arrives to find his beloved engaged to his cousin.  His home at Nampara has been sorely neglected, overrun with the remaining livestock as well as two drunken servants.  With little money and even less hope, he sets out to repair and rebuild both his life and the remnants of his country property.

 While visiting the country market to purchase meager supplies, he comes across a lamentably dirty child being punched and kicked by a group of rowdy boys.  When no one intervenes, Ross steps forward and rescues her.  He takes her back to his home with the intention of returning her to her family in the morning, but she begs him to let her stay on as a kitchen maid.  The bruises and strap marks across her back bear testimony to her father's abuse, so Ross agrees with reluctance.  Gossip and rumors fly about as young Demelza stays on, gaining the novelty of enough to eat and new clothing sans beatings.  As she blossoms into a young woman, her gratitude develops into a desperate desire for Ross's affection, despite their difference in class.

Torn between his lingering desire for the gentile Elizabeth and the fiery Demelza, Ross finds himself at a crossroad as he works to revitalize his family's old, closed copper mine.  Should he follow the manners and conventions of polite society of the 18th century or seek the happiness that may ostracize him from everyone he knows?

Note that this blog post previously appeared in "Girl Who Reads".

Saturday, November 4, 2017

YA Reading Jungle - "Tell Me Three Things"

When 14 year old Jessie Holmes' mother dies, she feels lost.  Counting each day afterward is her way of marking time, waiting for the pain to ebb.  Her dad is buried in his own grief, leaving her adrift, with only her best friend, Scarlet, to cling to.  Fast forward two years and Jessie is blindsided by her father's announcement that he is remarrying...and that they are moving from Chicago to California.

Stunned, Jessie finds herself in a West Coast mansion, living with her dad, new stepmother and a stepbrother, who wants nothing to do with her.  In addition to mourning the loss of her mom, she is now separated from her town, school, and best friend.  She lands in a private school, populated with veneer-smiled, expensively dressed teens.  This is not a place where she will ever fit in.

When an anonymous male student texts her, identifying himself as "Somebody Nobody", and offers to be her guide through the maze of her California hell, Jesse is suspicious, but decides to accept.   This strange boy becomes a lifeline for her as their virtual relationship grows and she develops coping skills that she never knew she possessed.

I did not expect to like this book targeted at young teen girls, as I viewed reading it as a chore.  The anxious, drama-filled 13 year old in my family circle is in need of appropriate books, so I've taken on the role of designated screener.  "Tell Me Three Things" by Julie Buxbaum is a genuinely surprising read.  The writing vibrates with humor and authenticity.  The young protagonist's struggle to adapt to loss, change, and relationships is spot-on.  It is a New York Times bestseller for good reason and I highly recommend it.  I know our drama queen will love reading it!    


Monday, June 26, 2017


Sometimes the politics of the day really get to me.  Things just never seem to change.  Women still make less than men.  They bear the lion's share of rearing children and family nurturing.  There are still men who want to deny women the choice of bearing children.  When necessary, I retreat to the solace of reading fiction.  It won't solve anything, but it provides a much-needed respite.  The problem is that once I discover a fictional series, I grow to love the characters so much that it is more difficult to say goodbye to them than to those in a single, stand-alone novel.  I felt that way with "Outlander" and then the "Into the Wilderness" series.  It's going to be a while before Diane Gabaldon completes her next much-anticipated novel, so I nosed around to see if Sara Donati had written anything else.  She had, so I took a chance on "The Gilded Hour".

It focuses on the late 1800's and two women physicians, Anna and Sophie Savard.  The depictions of old New York City are fascinating.  Donati excels at historical fiction.  I realized that life had to be difficult for female medical doctors at that time.  The medical profession is changing, but make no mistake, it is still a male-dominated occupation.  Women are still discriminated against more than most people realize.  So imagine what life is like for a woman who is a practicing obstetrician during an era when birth control is against the law.  Even disseminating information about how to avoid pregnancy is illegal.  Childbirth was a very dangerous undertaking at that time, and women were subject to the whims of their husbands.  Most had no idea how pregnancy could be prevented. 

Enter Anthony Comstock, an anti-vice crusader who is determined to extinguish anything considered indecent - including information on preventing pregnancy.   While one sister is determined to help women gain some small bit of control over their lives, the other is dealing with the fallout - the orphans of deceased mothers and family members who, unvaccinated, fall victim to the various epidemic diseases common to those who live in poverty.

Donati delivers a compelling story that is a composite of history, romance and thriller.  You will see the parallels with today's lingering patriarchal remnants.  You will be angry.  You will return to resist the present day.     

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Reunion

School reunion celebrations are an American tradition, especially the milestone years: ten, twenty, and fifty.  The big 5-0 is significant, as it is likely the last time you will see a good number of these classmates.  Mortality weighs in, and the seats at the "death table" increase.  Of about two hundred women, our committee members were able to gather information on one hundred and twenty.  The other eighty had either vanished or just didn't care to be found.  God forbid they should receive a letter from the Alumni Association asking for a donation to the Annual Fund.

I had attended two earlier reunions, but wasn't sure I would attend this past weekend's events.  Having been retired for several years, my wardrobe had diminished to yoga pants and tee shirts.  In addition, those pants and shirts were a few sizes larger than the ones I'd worn back in the 1960's.  Several friends asked me to reconsider, so I bought a few new things to wear and sent in my check.  I'm glad I did, because it was a blast...and an endurance contest, the social equivalent of an Ironman competition.

We began with a cocktail party on Friday night.  It's odd that after so many years, some people were instantly recognizable, while others seemed virtual strangers.  Thank God for name tags.  Classmates with distinct facial features were often most recognizable.  The women with the good fortune to have inherited exceptional genes were recognizable, especially if they had stuck with a similar hairstyle or found a shade of hair dye that most matched their eighteen-year-old locks.  With others, you tried to hide the furtive glance at the name tag, and then squeal like you'd just located a long-lost cousin.

There were less of the "popular or nerd" cliques in the room as we circulated, careful to snatch a few snacks to minimize the impact of the wine.  No one wanted to repeat the scenario of that dance (or two), where we had to duck into an alley or bathroom.  We began to care much less about who held the most prestigious job, or rose the fastest on the corporate ladder.  Pictures of grandchildren circulated, and we reveled in having survived the traumatic events of our youth.  We were likewise relieved that we didn't have to keep the number of plates spinning in the air simultaneously that our own daughters and sons must.  The world has changed.

The second day, which included a luncheon at a local country club, was easier.  We had braved the sometimes critical eyes of  our classmates the night before - and this was particularly true for an all-girls' school.  We relaxed, ate, drank, forming and reforming tight little groups, remembering the crazy things we did and said, the detentions, walking in silent, single file to and from each class, how strict some nuns were, how hilarious some others had been.  We remarked on the excellence of our education and lamented how difficult it is to replicate today.  We gathered for a group picture.  One woman remarked that it was like 'herding cats', as we milled around, figuring out who was short vs. tall.

The next morning we gathered at our school.  The surrounding area was declining when we attended and hasn't improved much since then .  I thought of how the nuns would have been outside, sweeping up the litter that was cast down on the encircling sidewalk.  Mass was held in our chapel, as the adjoining church was no longer Catholic.  We strolled the multiple floors, up and down interminable steps and long hallways, making me regret having left my FitBit at home.  I could have sent that sucker into the stratosphere.  My feet could almost feel the saddle shoes that were a part of our uniform so long ago.  The spirits of the nuns permeated the halls, all of them gone now, except for one last holdout who leaves next week.  The upper floors - where the nuns lived - were eerily dark, and the rooms alternately empty or used for storage of old desks and assorted furniture.  It had been converted from convent to infirmary as the number of the religious dwindled.  We heard the echoes of our adolescent cheers in the old gym, the site of basketball games and St. Patty's Day festivals where we spun prize wheels and paid for chances to win insignificant prizes, all to raise money for 'the missions'.  I still don't know what those missions were, but we willingly forked over our nickels for games and treats, paying to vote for a 'colleen' who ruled for a day.

We laughingly recalled our Health classes with the school nurse, Miss Apicella.  She was a short, Barbara Milkulsi-esque Italian nurse who taught what passed for Hygiene and Sex Ed in the Sixties..  The ghost of Miss Dietz rubbed our faces with tissues, searching for any trace of makeup.  The School Sisters of Notre Dame knew that the use of cosmetics was a sure sign of a slut.  The rows between our desks were patrolled regularly for evidence of roots showing on either side of our parted hair.  If any were spied, you were not only a slut, but quite possibly a harlot.  That raised the possibility that you might have been working nights at the Two O'clock club on Baltimore Street.

As the reunion parties neared their end, any initial cattiness had dissolved.  The charity, loyalty and kindness that the nuns had instilled in our souls had reurfaced.  The random unfairness of life left numerous marks.  Some had endured more than others:  disease, death of a child or other family members, and other arrows of Fate had visited our circle of survivors.  We looked past the wrinkles and extra pounds to see the young women we had been as well as the strong, accomplished women we had become. We mourned the dramatic drop in enrollment. 

There was a new type of room, filled with the history of our school, but too small for an institution that has stood since the 1840's.   Our hope for the future is that this room will expand and encompass the stories and histories that are yet to be.  The Institute of Notre Dame is a treasure that Baltimore should not let slip through its fingers.  Hail to thee, alma mater.         

Thursday, July 21, 2016

What the heck is a NEAPOLITAN NOVEL and who is ELENA FERRANTE?

When I first stumbled across a mention of Italian author Elena Ferrante, I wondered what she had written to be crowned one of Italy's most renowned novelists.

I heartily agreed with an article in "The Economist", which called her "the best contemporary novelist you've never heard of."

Her series of Neapolitan Novels begins with My Brilliant Friend, the first in the multi-volume set.  I was intrigued as I have a deep love for Italy and its people.  And, at the risk of sounding shallow, I liked the cover art.

For some reason, I have been ensnared by multi-volume novels of late (such as Outlander and Poldark) so I decided to flip a coin.  After all, unlike the other two series, this one only has four books.

Set in the 1950's  near Naples, Italy, Ferrante tells the story of two young girls, Lila and Elena. Translated from the original Italian, it was not an easy book to read.  Even the best of translators cannot precisely duplicate the lilt and flow of the author's language.  My grammatical background did battle with the occasional run-on or incomplete sentence.  I had to force myself to chalk it up to artistic license. 

The story is deeply personal, often violent, and I felt that Ferrante's goal was to reach through the page and slap me, reminding me that this was her story to tell, not necessarily one that I would love to hear.  As I moved through the first hundred pages, I was irritated by the ever-shifting friendship of these girls as they matured.  Yet I was drawn back, wanting to know how they could possibly remain friends   The author captures the insecurities of girlhood in a male-dominated culture surrounded by grinding poverty with the honesty of first-hand experience. 

Though I fought valiantly to dislike this book, the characters repeatedly sucked me back in with their raw, honest descriptiveness.  I knew I could walk down any poor street in Naples and run into each and every one of them.  Damn it, now I'm going to have to buy book two, The Story of a New Name.

Friday, July 1, 2016



Ever since going through chemotherapy, when I began to eat to comfort myself, my weight has been on a slow, upward spiral.  Once or twice I've managed to drop ten or twenty pounds with exercise and kind-of-dieting, but decades of bad habits have always managed to sabotage my efforts.  When I recently went through my closet to get rid of outdated clothing, only the "fat clothes" remained, and they were getting pretty ratty-looking since I've worn them over and over for years.  Any shopping trips have ended in dressing room tears and a bowl of peanut butter and chocolate ice cream as soon as I got home.  I'm hoping this time will be different.

Denial is a convenient state.  You close your eyes when photographs of you with your grandchildren appear.  The only time you weigh in is on a doctor's visit.  You avoid joining old friends who aren't overweight too.  You wear shorts and a top to the beach rather than the embarrassment of a bathing suit.  Notice that I've used "you" instead of "I" in my denial.  Life gets lonely, which leads to more food comfort.

And then comes the 50th high school reunion.  The initial reaction is to let it just slide by quietly.  No one will notice my absence, right?  Maybe not, but this may be the last chance in my lifetime to see these old friends.  What to do?  Show up and hope everyone else is fat too?  Hope that the snarky whispers of long-ago won't happen like they always did at an all-girls school?  After all, how much weight can I lose in ten weeks?

About two weeks ago, I pulled out my old Weight Watchers points program materials.  It really does work well.  Slowly, but well.  The hardest part for me is drinking water.  You'd think it would be giving up ice cream, processed crunchy snacks, and the other high-sugar things I've been lulled into thinking were just normal.  I can't remember ever seeing my parents drink water while I was growing up.  It was always iced tea or lemonade, both heavily laced with sugar and lemon during warm weather or coffee in the winter.  Now I've managed to put down 16 ounces a day...not the recommended 32-64, but it's progress.

The next part will be to get moving.  It may not be much in the beginning, walking one or two miles several times each week, but I learned long ago that I am a creature of habit, good or bad.  One of the most embarrassing things is that I used to teach exercise classes.  I used to run 5 days a week.  I used to play raquetball often.  Then the stressors began to accumulate:  divorce, cancer, having to reinvent my former housewife self into a career woman with classes to advance more quickly.  Then the kids began to peel off, becoming adults, getting married, having children and moving away.  I had to learn how to live alone, and it wasn't easy.

So, I won't tell you my starting weight or my goal weight....not until I'm finished and proud of it.  I will say that I've dropped 7 pounds in the last two weeks purely from willpower.  When I reach ten, I'll reward myself with something for that and for every ensuing five pounds.  I need to tie more than a carrot on my stick.  Wish me luck.  I'll need it.          

Wednesday, April 6, 2016


*****Please note that this review appeared previously in the blog "Girl Who Reads"*****

I rarely read non-fiction, and I've never rowed.  I can count on one hand the number of crew races I've watched on television in my lifetime.  The books I choose to read are based on suggestions from a trusted circle of friends, and they are invariably fiction.  So, whatever possessed me to buy this book? 

A friend outside my reading circle raved about it on Facebook, so I decided to look it up.  I'd never heard of it and was knee-deep in my third re-reading of the Outlander books in preparation for the start of its second season in April.  Olympic rowers were not on my radar screen.  Yet when I checked on Amazon, there were over 17,000 reviews, and 81% were five stars.  The other 19% were four stars.  My interest was piqued.  How could so many people love a book that sounded kind of ho-hum to me?  I still had some money left on a holiday gift certificate, so that made it a little less painful to take a chance and check it out.

Yowza...I'm glad I did.

The sport of crew (rowing) is, for the most part, Eastern elitist.  What kind of chance did Depression-era young men have in the Seattle, Washington area?  I wondered if I were in for a deadly dull read about Rowing Rocky-types.  Yet author Daniel James Brown knows how to weave everyday details and historical timelines into a magic carpet ride of hope, determination, team bonds and glorious triumph.   The magical alignment at that point in the 1930's of British boatmaker George Pocock, the brilliant University of Washington coach Al Ulbrickson, and an unlikely group of young men from economically-devastated America is nothing short of historical lightning. 

The story centers on Joe Rantz, a boy who had been abandoned by his family, but survived through his wits and ability to endure a daily amount of hard labor that would have crushed a lesser spirit.  Thrown together as freshmen, the assortment of young men from dairy farms and lumber mills soon coalesced into a very special crew.  As they learned to submit to the harsh master that is team rowing, they ascended to a level of excellence that allowed them to represent the United States triumphantly at the infamous 1936 Olympics, otherwise known as Adolph Hitler's plan to showcase German superiority. 

Author Brown's ability to tell the story by blending descriptive detail and the euphoric memories of a dying Rantz make this an extraordinary tale that will enchant and inspire readers for years to come.

Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, Kathleen Barker attended Catholic elementary and high schools before graduating with a B.A. in English and Education from Towson University. She also attended Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. After 20 years as the widely-traveled wife of a U.S. Navy pilot and mother of three, Ms. Barker worked in New Orleans, LA for a Forbes 500 company until just before Hurricane Katrina. During her tenure there she wrote multiple feature articles for the company magazine, and received the Field Reporter of the Year Award. She returned to her beloved home state of Maryland in 2006, where she still resides.  Her published works include "Ednor Scardens", "The Body War", "The Hurting Year" and "On Gabriel's Wings".  Barker maintains a blog, "Dashboard Confessions of an Undisciplined Mind" at