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Longbourn by Jo Baker Random House, 2013 The popularity of Downton Abbey and the spate of movie versions of Jane Austen’s novels makes this book almost inevitable. Inevitable doesn’t always mean good. But this book surpasses expectations. Jo Baker has created a novel out of the “downstairs” people of Pride and Prejudice. The Bennet family – drama queen Mrs. Bennet, her five marriageable daughters and their father, bibliophile Mr Bennet, bored with it all, the bonnets, the dresses, the dances  – are served by a small overworked household staff. The story opens in the kitchen with the servants. Sarah is a young woman, probably about seventeen years old. Polly, the “scrub” is a mere child, about ten or eleven. Mr. Hill is the ancient footman, groom, and jack of all trades. He is getting too old for the work, and the whole shooting match is held up by the housekeeper, Mrs. Hill. Mrs. Hill, capable, hard-working and kind, is the heart of this novel, though there are three viewpoint characters. The others are Sarah, and James Smith, a mysterious stranger who arrives at Longbourn and becomes the family’s footman. Through her portrayal of the day to day work of these servants and her lyrical  descriptions of the English countryside, Baker has  given us a fascinating view into everyday life in the early nineteenth century. That would have been enough for me, history buff that I am, but it would not have made a novel. On the edifice of Austen’s fictional characters and place, though, Baker has created a plot so powerful that it enhances the original Austen model. Unlike Austen, Baker moves the reader beyond the safe little Tory world of Longbourn, to the Napoleonic War raging in Europe, which in Pride and Prejudice is central to the plot because of the stationing of the English Militia in the town of Meryton. Though Austen’s own brothers served in the Navy, in her novels the war is seen only through the eyes of home-bound women, who see officers as marriage material. In the second half of Longbourn, Baker takes the reader beyond England to Europe and back again, exposing the perennial horrors of war, and showing us the social inequities that led to the revolutions of the nineteenth century. Jane Austen has been criticized for portraying a small world-view, comfortable and smug – even though her writing is actually rapier sharp, exposing women’s limited options. In Longbourn, Jo Baker redresses this alleged fault.

How Green Is Your Orange?

We had a prolific orange tree growing in our back yard when I was a kid and now I grow two lovely trees in our own back garden. In winter they bear globes of fruit in that luscious color. It never occurred to me that oranges were not always the color orange. Let alone that growers in some areas of this country dye the fruits to get that color. I was shocked to read that the FDA allows this, especially as the dye, Citrus Red 2, contains ingredients that may be carcinogenic. Read about it at the FDA’s own website here. You’ll see that the FDA only allows the oranges (which remain green if grown in  tropical climates) to be dyed if they are not  “intended for processing.” Whatever that means. Does “processing” mean juicing? Does processing mean zesting? I do both all the time. Have you ever seen a supermarket orange that’s labeled “Use only if not intended for processing?” Arizona and California do not allow Citrus Red 2. Florida, with a wetter, warmer climate does. You might want to ask where your grocery store’s oranges come from. As for me, I’m lucky we can grow our own. And I intend to eat these only, from now on, in their winter season. Margaret Recipe Card1

The Dog Catcher of Jabiru in About Place Journal

Ranger Mine, Jabiru, AustraliaWelcome to my blog. As a freelance writer, my beat was the odd nugget of information, the buzz at parties, parsing what people were muttering about. Not the breaking of a news item, but finding out if  “Who Knew?” was real or a rumor. What I found is that truth is really stranger than fiction. A trip to the Top End of Australia, where the strange meets the wonderful, the funny, the tragic, and the redemptive is chronicled in my essay, The Dog Catcher of Jabiru. The Dog Catcher of Jabiru was published in the November 2014 issue of About Place Journal. A version of this story won the 2013 Tara L. Masih Intercultural Essay Prize in the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition. About Place Journal is a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute, dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society. Volume III, issue II is called “Voices of the Human Spirit.”  Edited by Michael McDermott, this online magazine issue features articles, essays and poetry on environmental and social crises, the search for a sustainable environment and social justice and the need to find support and inspiration for change. To read The Dog Catcher of Jabiru, CLICK HERE.

Montpelier Tomorrow

Montpelier TomorrowMontpelier Tomorrow By Marylee MacDonald All Things That Matter Press, 2014. Lou Gehrig’s Disease or ALS, is a devastating disease. The victim loses motor function, may undergo personality changes, and will eventually be unable to eat and to breathe. How do family members cope with this disease when it strikes? Based on real-life experience, Marylee MacDonald has written a fine novel about how a family deals with this situation. I urge you to read Montpelier Tomorrow. At first, Colleen Gallagher’s instinct was just to help her daughter, who gave birth to her second child the same week her husband was diagnosed. But as her son-in-law Tony’s disease progressed, he became the third child in the family, not only physically disabled but regressively self-centered, compounding the difficulties of care. The novel raises so many questions: What does it mean to be a good mother, a good wife? How do we make end-of-life decisions that preserve the dignity not only of the dying, but of the caregivers? How do we make end-of-life decisions when the consequences of putting someone on a respirator or a feeding tube are not honestly discussed by medical professionals? Why is it so difficult to get a terminally ill person onto Medicaid?  Who pays for custodial care? Who should? You cannot read this novel and come away unchanged.