Sunday, April 8, 2018

Cluster Critiques

Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Issacson

If Leonardo da Vinci had been a baby-boomer, he would have been picked “most popular,” “most handsome,” and “best dressed” in high school, then showed up at his 25thclass reunion dressed in a purple suit with his young, beautiful, blond wife named James. 

Leonardo’s long-time apprentice and boyfriend’s name was actually Giacomo, which roughly translates from Italian as James, but that doesn't really matter. What is important about Leonardo de Vince (the man, not the book) is that he was uncompromising, and he bridged art and science, much like another Italian polymath with whom I'm infatuated, Galileo Galilei, who brilliantly, and at great risk, managed to span science and religion. 

What is important, about Leonardo de Vinci (the book) is that Walter Issacson, a lauded documentarian of hyper-visionary super men like Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs, twines vague marginalia, scattered references and exquisite drawings into a seamless, believable, page-flipping story about an irritatingly smart, irresistibly cool guy, who inspire of all that is just like you and me, a little bit flawed.

For example,  Leonardo was worshipped as an artist, but he rarely if ever completed a commissioned piece of art. He worked on the Mona Lisa for 16 years and never considered it finished. Also, he was a master at drawing and painting the human anatomy because he dissected humans (sometimes even when they still alive) to study muscles, inside out and moving. And despite all this, he somehow managed to live a relatively luxurious, unimpeded lifestyle, whiling away his hours (even years) simply observing and wondering about things like the flow of water and clouds. 

I had to tamp down my jealousy of de Vinci’s capacity to live life on his own terms, but it didn’t diminish my enjoyment of this book. Even my hubby, who tilts more towards Stephen King and Michael Connelly, loved Leonardo de Vinci, and I believe you will too.

The Moleskin Mystery by Anonymous (Turk Pipkin)

A writer, an actor, a juggler and a philanthropist walk into a bar. His name is Turk Pipkin.

It seems talented people possess or have a special capacity to build multiple talents and skills, while the rest of us struggle to simply survive. Turk Pipkin the not so anonymous author of The Moleskin Mystery is one of those people, but this isn’t about Turk, so I’ll move on.

The story begins when a guy walks into a New Orleans bar the time of day when only a few lost souls and vampires perch. As he climbs onto a bar stool, so obviously weighed down by some melancholia yet undisclosed, he is beckoned by a mysterious pocket-size, mole-skin-covered journal sitting in front of him on the bar. As if by destiny, he picks up the journal and begins adding his chapters of lost love and self-discovery. 

What starts out as obtuse yet clever Kerouac/Burroughs-ish navel-gazing soon takes shape as a nourishing story set in romantic, steamy New Orleans. What’s the mystery? The characters are. The finder of the journal is a mystery. Who is he? Where’d he come from? His love interest, Emilia, is a mystery. Who is she really? What happens to her? And what about Marvin, the oracular seer who speaks in riddles and seems to live in the bar where "nobody knows your name"? 

Of course good writing is important, but for me, enjoyable literature is even more so about complex characters I can have feelings for – love hate, sympathy, empathy, curiosity, whatever. Otherwise they are just an irritating distraction. In Moleskin, it isn't the quantity of what Pipkin tells us about the characters - that's the mystery element of his book. It is the quality of what he tells us that makes The Moleskin Mystery part fairy-tale, part fable, and 100% charming.

Red Notice: A True Story by Bill Browder

Eventually tiring of college binge-drinking and womanizing, the rebellious main character of Red Notice decides to drive a stake into the heart of his communist-leaning family tree by getting an MBA from Stamford and becoming a ruthless capitalist, in Russia, which had only recently realigned from a communist dictatorship to a capitalist order!  Ha! That’ll show ‘em! 

With a keen eye for opportunity, a mathematician’s mind and more than a little luck, our protagonist quickly rises to the top of the financial world in a sequence of Russian investment scenarios so exciting and intriguing, and which afforded him a lifestyle so enviable, I couldn’t wait to get to the next chapter!  But the powerful Russian oligarchy - the Mafioso-like families who took over most of the businesses previously run by the Russian state -  didn’t like the idea of someone other than them, especially an American, making millions of dollars off the growing pains of their country’s privatization transition.

Being the rebel he is, however, instead of taking the hint that he’s not wanted in Russia, our American rebel sticks out his chin, eventually losing everything when he denied reentry into Russia and his assets are seized, his lawyer is taken prisoner, tortured and killed in a new Russian Gulag, all his Russian allies end up similarly suspiciously dead, and his and his family’s lives are threatened. But our rebel doesn’t give in, he continues his fight in America, and although it takes years and a relentless campaign, he ends up convincing US Congress to pass a law imposing sanctions against Russia.

Did you happen to notice the "A True Story" in the book title? Yep, author Bill Browder is the rebel and protagonist of this book.

Red Notice had me from beginning to end, but for reasons I probably don’t want to acknowledge, when Bill Browder went from brilliantly conniving to capitalize on investment opportunities in Russia, to avenging his lawyers murder, his story started to feel more along the line of his rebellion against his family (I’ll show you) than about altruism. Although some will disagree, I was never convinced that he cared about the people who died trying to defend him. It just felt like revenge, and that made the final 1/3 of the book seem less authentic.  

Read it? Sure. It’s an intriguing glimpse into the mechanics of a country’s infrastructure transition from communist to capitalist Russia, and a glimpse into predatory capitalism that knows allegiance to no country. 

100 Things I Want to Tell My Children and Grandchildren, #28

Don’t take pictures or videos of yourself or anyone else naked, and if you do, make sure you’re the only person who has copies, and then burn them.

OK, I know this is a weird and possibly questionable lesson, but kids are going to explore their sexuality and being in denial doesn’t change that. My kids, assuming they even read my blog, are probably thinking, “Mom, I’m forty-something years old. I don’t even like pictures of myself in a bathing suit.” And most of my grandkids, assuming they read my blog – or might read it someday, are probably thinking, “Ewwweeeeww!”) But, the day will come when they will be tempted, as taking nude photos or videos of yourself having sex are almost a universal rite of passage.

Here are the reasons why you want to be smart enough not to fall into that trap: 

  1. You’re not going to look as good nude as you think. It is better to live in the delusion that you look better than you do.
  2. The relationship associated with the photos/video may not last. Most people go through several relationships and even marriages, and you can’t know for sure you’ll end up spending your entire life with your partner in the photos/video (although in the  euphoria of love or lust you’ll probably find this impossible to believe).  
  3. If you ever decide to become an actor/celebrity, politician or Dallas cowboy cheerleader, those pictures/video will threateningly surface. 
So, if you decide you just must take nude photos or a sexual video, just do yourself one huge, smart favor. Look at them then burn them.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Best Books Read in 2017

What I’m Reading:

Among Heroes by Brandon Tyler Webb and John David Mann

Artemis by Andy Weir     
Esther’s Follies: The Laughs, The Gossip and the Story Behind Texas’ Most Celebrated Comedy Troupe by Jesse Sublett

Best American Food Writing 2017

Leonardo da vinci by Walter Isaacson

Magpie Murders: A Novel by Anthony Horowitz    
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

The Moleskin Mystery by Anonymous (Turk Pipkin)

The Power by Naomi Alderman

Best American Science and Nature Writing 2017

Best American Sports Writing 2017 

The Tao of Willie by Willie Nelson with Turk Pipkin

Train to Crystal City, The: FCR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II by Jan Jarboe Russell

Best American Travel Writing 2017 

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Cluster Critiques

Delbert McClinton – One of the Fortunate Few by Diana Finlay Hendricks

“(Delbert) has the advantage of never having ‘made it’ so to speak. Roy Orbison said he felt like he was dragging this legend around. Elton John hated playing a new song because he knew everyone would leave to go to the bathroom.
Delbert’s audience doesn’t believe he is only as good as his last hit.”
T Bone Burnett (paraphrased)

I’m standing in the middle of the dance floor of Soap Creek Saloon, March 1979. Delbert McClinton is on the stage, and although the dancers and music are swirling around me, I’m in a quiet, still bubble – frozen in an existential connection with something that might be genetic imprinting. I’d never heard anything like Delbert McClinton, and never would again.

In Delbert McClinton – One of the Fortunate Few, Diana Finlay Hendricks tells McClinton’s life-story (so far) with a soulful rhythm (not unlike McClinton’s music), keeping it off the too-typical biographical treadmill of “he did this, then he did that, then that” - a testament to her journalistic and writing skills, and maybe to the character of Delbert McClinton. The narrative flows smoothly around truly interesting characters and milestones, like when as a child, Delbert heard 'Honey Hush' by Big Joe Turner, and instantly knew his life dream was to become a musician/singer and play that kind of music.

Of course, there’s plenty of back story, including McClinton being one of the many famous musicians born in Lubbock; the history of the “shady” side of Fort Worth, which incubated Delbert’s ambitions and skills; and fascinating radio and music label history and characters. There’s plenty of family drama too: multiple marriages and kids, serial infidelity and drug use, and an eventual “jackpot” marriage to the woman who “straightened” Delbert out (maybe because he was too old and tired not to straighten out). And there’s no shortage of sham record deals, shyster music executives, and bankrupt labels. There’s even the juicy story of Delbert’s involvement in the famous Fort Worth, T. Cullen Davis/Priscilla Davis murder scandal.

Four final tidbits: (1) I loved that Delbert uses the Socrates quote "Speak, so that I may see you" as a tool for measuring character; (2) Delbert and Bonnie Raitt have leaned on each other, and helped get each other out of musical and financial jams for years; (3) Are you sitting down? Delbert McClinton is 77 years old; and finally, (4) If you like Delbert McClinton, or if you like the country/rock/blues music he sings, or if you have some Austin music history yourself, or if you like to read books about musicians, or if you have a pulse, you’ll enjoy Delbert McClinton – One of the Fortunate Few.

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

Driving to Marfa for a short stay at the beautiful and hip Hotel St. George was just an excuse to swing by the grandkids’ ranch to drop off Christmas gifts, and to listen to a good book while on the road. When I researched “best of 2017,” for a book for our trip, Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke kept popping up, so I took the leap, with fingers crossed, and purchased and downloaded the book.

Bluebird, Bluebird is about the seemingly connected murders of an African American Chicago attorney, and a young, white wife and mother, in a small East Texas town, and the racial tension that surrounds their deaths, as well as the investigation of their deaths by a flawed but ethical African American Texas Ranger, Darren Matthews. Locke does a pretty good job creating a compelling story, creating conflict and questions, and making us wonder why two seemingly disparate characters, seen together just prior of their deaths, died, and who could want them both dead.

Although I do recommend this book, and think you will enjoy it, I won’t rate it as highly as some. First, for me, Locke never fully developed several characters and side stories that filled a lot of dialogue and type, but never seemed important to the story and ended up just feeling annoying and confusing (i.e., the Chicago attorney’s wife, and the Texas Ranger’s wife, and another murder case in which the Texas Ranger was involved). Second, Locke never made us feel any emotion for the two murder victims. If we’d liked them more we might have cared more that their murders be solved. And finally, and I see this mistake made so often in books - all the small-town, white characters are ignorant, immoral, “hayseed,” shady characters, and all the small town black characters are wise, moral, oppressed, people of good character. Profiling doesn’t work any better in literature than it does on the streets. I get that that is the theme of this story, but “all the white people are bad” and “all the black people good” doesn’t work any better than “all the white people are good” and “all the black people are bad.”

Although we were happy enough with Bluebird, Bluebird to stick with it beginning to end neither me nor my husband said, “Wow! I loved that book” or “That book was really great!” We did however say, “That was a really good book.” But as you probably understand, there’s a pretty vast chasm between a good book and a great one. Read it.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

I discovered Harari’s Homo Deus (Latin for Man/God) last spring when it was first released in English, but when I realized it was the sequel to his other best-seller, Sapiens, I put it aside to read Sapiens first (see my review here). Although Sapiens wasn’t the first version I’d read of how humans gained dominance over the world, it was the first version I’d read that didn’t feel driven by a religious, political or scientific agenda, and it aligned pretty much with my own theories.

Harari’s sequel, Homo Deus, didn’t fit me quite so well – probably because Sapiens was a lot of deduction/interpretation based on what we (as a society/humanity) know about ourselves (recorded history), and is behind us. Homo Deus, however, is predictive, and that challenges the future we see for ourselves, and is therefore scarier – especially as predicted by Harari, who starts this book with this charming observation:

“For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists, and criminals combined.”

And it goes downhill from there, setting the foundation for Harari’s prediction of where humans are collectively headed, and causing me to walk away every 50 pages or so to stop my brain from spontaneously combusting. Harari says:
  • Humans live within an "intersubjective reality" that exist only in the human mind and are given force through collective belief (countries, borders, religion, money and companies), all created to enable large-scale, flexible cooperation between different individual human beings;
  • Humankind's immense ability to give meaning to its actions and thoughts is what has enabled its many achievements (human algorithms);
  •  Humanism is a religion in which humans are framed as the dominant, “godlike” beings (Homo Deus) - with ethics and values derived internally, within each individual, rather than from an external source (traditional organized religion); and
  • That “humanism religion” is generating “super/techno-elite” humans with the capacity to master the environment (no more war, hunger, disease, environmental degradation), but which is threatening the continued ability of humans to give meaning to their lives.
All this leads to Harari’s theory that some human’s will eventually become gods, and those who don’t will be rendered economically useless and die off. Fun stuff huh? But dystopian forecasts (The Handmaids Tale, Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Brave New World, Homo Deus) are not supposed to be fun. Homo Deus is a fascinating but heavy read.
Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews

Dominika, beautiful daughter of a high-up Russian politician wants to be a ballerina, but her father dies and she suffers an injury, both of which limit her future options and render her vulnerable to an uncle who offers to help her and her mother if Dominika will become a “sparrow” – a seductress spy, and sleuth out a Russian traitor by bedding an American spy. So many clichés there – beautiful Russian ballerina, seductress, bedding the American. Couldn’t she just be a smart, clever spy like the male characters? 

OK, I know “sex” sells, but come on.  On the flip side, the sexy parts are pleasantly sexy, and the story is fun, so I let it slide, and enjoyed Red Sparrow

I also enjoyed it because it is a spy novel with a female protagonist, and those are rare; the story was complicated enough to keep me interested, but not so complicated I ever felt lost; and finally, Matthews is a gifted writer – in that he is a 33-year CIA veteran, lending huge believability to the spy narrative, and gifted in that he is an exceptional writer of dialogue and characterizations.

Read Red Sparrow.

Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West by Christopher Knowlton

We know a lot about Cowboys and cattle. Right - John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Rawhide, George Strait? Not really. What we know about cowboys mostly came from Hollywood and Nashville, and is highly dramatized and substantially inaccurate.

In Cattle Kingdom, journalist Christopher Knowlton shines a spotlight on the historic origins of the legends, providing a vastly expanded context for understanding more about the world that produced cowboys. What we learn is that much of the development of the cattle/beef industry in America that gave birth to the cowboy developed from a strangely irrational source, the English law of primogeniture, which defines an exclusive right of inheritance belonging to the eldest son.

Up until the late 1800s, the American cattle industry was barely a bump on the map of US development. But then a couple of eastern seaboard journalist wrote about the western lifestyle and the life of “cowboys,” dramatizing them to the point that although most of what was written was far from the truth, the image and image worship persists more than 100 years later. For example, although the “six-shooter” and gun fights are typically associated with cowboys, Knowlton clarifies that very few cowboys in the 1800s had the money or a reason to own a pistol. He also burst the “romantic” bubble of the cowboy life, re-defining their lives by long work-hours, harsh weather, almost no pay, danger and loneliness.

But back to primogeniture. When life on the western front was romanticized, it drew the attention of several wealthy English families’ second sons, who were desperately looking for a way to establish their identity outside of primogeniture. They didn’t have the title or wealth inherited by their older brother, but they did have access to significant potential investors, and the west represented an exciting opportunity to attach themselves to a lifestyle that had captured the imagination of the wealthy English gentry.

Within a couple of years, owning large and growing cattle ranches in Wyoming, Dakota Colorado and Texas became super trendy, creating an industry that produced cattle drives, plush ranch homes, bustling cattle towns, refrigerated cattle cars, luxury steak restaurants and clubs of wealthy ranchers and an even more inflated image of cowboys and gentleman ranchers. Unfortunately, it also produced land-wars and other criminal activity, financial devastation for most of the investors (who pretty much knew nothing about cattle ranching), and a colorful chapter and many colorful characters (one of which was Theodore Roosevelt), adding to the history of the development (and conservation, thanks to Roosevelt) of the American west. 

If you like cowboys and/or history, Cattle Kingdom is an easy, well-written, interesting read.

Wishing The Best of 2018 - From Our Fam to Yours

Sunday, November 5, 2017

100 Things I Want to Tell My Children and Grandchildren, #27

Photo is of me and my friend Lisa in NYC - looks sort of "Thelma & Louise" doesn't it. It was around this time I thought sex was a tool for fixing my low self-esteem. Turns out it did just the opposite.

Sex won’t fix what is wrong with your head or your heart.

Epiphanies come from the unlikeliest places sometimes. This one came to me through a movie - nothing artsy or classic, but rather from the movie “City Slickers” – and no, it’s not the “just one thing” thing.

In the movie, Patricia Wetting, who plays Billy Crystal’s wife, is talking about a friend of theirs who is having an affair, and she says, “I’m not happy here,” (pointing to her head), “or here” (pointing to her heart), “So I’ll just be happy here,” (pointing to her pelvis). I remember momentarily slipping into a parallel universe as I reflected on my own brief, albeit intense period of sexual promiscuity and low-self-esteem. And in that moment, one thing became perfectly clear; the worst decisions of my life were all made when my self-esteem was at its lowest.

Unfortunately, some of those bad decisions involved looking for someone else to make me feel better about myself, i.e., they want to have sex with me so I must be better than I think I am (or better than someone else thinks I am). And sometimes the sex was so great I mistook it for love. But when the sexual attraction leveled off - and it always does - I was right back where I started – but with the added guilt. Too many mistakes later, I finally learned that although other people can stroke your ego, the only reliable way to avoid the pitfalls of low-self-esteem is by becoming a lovable person – lovable to yourself. 

So, the lesson I’m hoping to convey is that although sex may make you feel better about yourself for a while, unless your heart and your head also feel good, it won’t fix anything, and the damage could last a lifetime. So, become the person you can love, and chances are others will love you too, and if they don’t, then that is their problem, not yours.

Cluster Critiques

The Dry by Jane Harper

When main character Aaron Falk was a teenager he had to leave his small hometown in Australia because something horrible happened. Twenty years later he reluctantly returns to attend his high school best friend, Luke’s funeral. But Luke isn’t the only one dead as his wife and young son were also found at a bloody scene that implicates Luke as the killer - of his family and himself.  

Within a few hours of Aaron's arrival,  Luke’s father is threatening Aaron, who is federal officer in Melbourne, with blackmail if he doesn't stay to prove Luke didn’t kill himself and his family? Blackmail him for for? What happened 20 years ago and why do the townspeople harbor such hate for Aaron? What, if anything does it have to do with Luke and his family’s deaths.

Jane Harper's believable small community culture, colorful characters, and unique plot textures keep the reader off balance, driving a compelling and satisfying plot. Read it.  

What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton

Hillary has written another informative and interesting book. Much of it is a rehash, albeit fascinating rehash of the story of her commendable and impressive history of public service and the disasters and victories that hallmark that history. And much of it is in defense of the controversies used against her by both Obama and Trump.

If you’ve not read her other books or books about her, it will be impressive; if you have you may find yourself wanting to skip thorough chapters. Once you get past everything leading up to her second bid for the Presidency, much of this book is about the day-to-day drudgery of the campaign trail, along with surprisingly believable and touching vignettes featuring her seasoned relationship with Bill Clinton and her reflections on grandmother-hood.

Unfortunately, although Clinton very effectively tells us “what happened” during her life, her public service, and her several election bids, I don’t feel like she tells us “what happened” in terms of “why” she didn’t win her race against Donald Trump - because she doesn’t really understand herself.

She of course discusses Russian interference and touches on the undercurrent of “white, male discontent,” but at the core of it all is the unsettling truth that even hindsight doesn't reveal. It is still simply confounding – to Hillary, to me, to the press, to the Democratic and Republican Parties, to many voters, and probably even to Trump.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

When I learned that my BFF in New Mexico, and Keanu Reeves and Bill Gates all loved this book. I knew I had to read it, and I too couldn't put it down! Why? I can't speak for my BFF, Keanu or Bill, but for me, Sapiens was a fresh and intriguing perspective on human history, un-tinted by religious doctrine and untainted by human arrogance, and certainly an version of the history of Homo Sapiens I’d not heard before.

With the passing of time, perspective is something with which I've become very fond, and this book was a provocative perspective for me, in the same way the book, Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey was. Before I read Diaries most of what I understood about the westward movement of the mid 1800, was the courage and determination of the frontiersmen and the savagery of the American Indians. In “Diaries” which was womens’ account of that same period, families traveling west in covered wagons withstood horrible conditions, buried their children along the trail, settled in extremely primitive conditions, and never saw their other family members again. Their diaries also said the frontier families would have never survived without the help of the Indians, who taught them how to ford rivers and plant corn. A very different perspective. 

Bill Gates’ review of Sapiens is good, and although I don't agree with everything he says, worth sharing (click on read more below).

What I’m Reading

Red Sparrow: A Novel by Jason Matthews (one of my book clubs’ next book selections that I just finished) - A sexy, well-written spy thriller with a savvy, tough female protagonist.  Each chapter ends with a recipe for a Russian dish mentioned in the narrative.  Delicious? Distracting? You decide, but prepare to “salivate”!

The Principal’s Chair: Who Sits There Matters, A Secret of School Success by Dr. Judith D. Knotts - Friend and book club sister Lynn Meredith introduced me to Dr. Judith Knotts and since I am curious, I researched her and discovered her book, which is on the stack of “to reads” weighing down my bedside table. Judith was formerly the Head of School at St. Gabriel’s here in Austin, and is a columnist with the Austin American Statesman. I have grown to know her as one of the most thoughtful (in every way) people I know. The following description is excerpted from, where you can purchase her book: In today’s educational system, a lot of attention has been given to the skills a school principal should have to be successful, but there is little focus on the person that the principal should be. The school’s head administrator as a person is at the core of school improvement and, as a result, student development. Judith D. Knotts draws from her years of experience as a school leader to provide powerful insight into multiple aspects of what it takes to be an effective principal. From the first chapter, “Beginning the Leadership Journey,” to the last, “Honoring the Leadership Position,” this insightful book provides a conceptual and practical guide to help principals set priorities, establish credibility, and strengthen leadership skills. 

Texas Tales: Stories That Shaped a Landscape and a People by Myra Hargrave McIlvain - This book is one of several by award-winning author, book club sister and good friend Myra McIlvain. If educators used books like Myra’s to teach history, kids would have a more realistic and accurate context from which to understand and build personal and family culture, which ultimately and collectively influences global culture.  The following description is excerpted from, where you can purchase Myra’s book. These tales trace the Texas story, from Cabeza de Vaca who trekked barefoot across the country recording the first accounts of Indian life, to impresarios like Stephen F. Austin and Don Martín DeLeon who brought settlers into Mexican Texas. There are legendary characters like Sally Skull who had five husbands and may have killed some of them, and Josiah Wilbarger who was scalped and lived another ten years to tell about it. Also included are the stories of Shanghai Pierce, cattleman extraordinaire, who had no qualms about rounding up other folks' calves, and Tol Barret who drilled Texas first oil well over thirty years before Spindletop changed the world. The Sanctified Sisters got rich running a commune for women, and millionaire oilman Edgar B. Davis gave away his money as fast as he made it… all these characters and many more… who created the patchwork called Texas.

Men in Green Faces: A Novel of U.S. Navy Seals by Gene Wentz and B. Abell Jurus Because it's a novel, the truth can be told. Because it's the truth, you'll never forget it.. (Description excerpted from Gene Wentz's Men in Green Faces is the classic novel of Vietnam that inspired a generation of SEALs. Here is the story of a good soldier trained to be part of an elite team of warriors—and of the killing grounds where he was forever changed. In this stunning novel, former SEAL Gene Wentz brings to life what it was like to be a SEAL in Vietnam, running an endless tour of top-secret, death-defying operations deep in enemy territory.

Like I Used to Dance: A Novel by Barbara Frances (Description excerpted from Our kids, my, my, Gracie, where did we go wrong? One marries God, another a Jew, and the last one, the devil!" Texas, 1951. The Wolanskys—Grace, Bud and their three grown children—are a close-knit clan, deeply rooted in their rural community and traditional faith. On their orderly farm, life seems good and tomorrow always holds promise. But under the surface, it’s a different story. Barbara Frances’ sparkling, richly human novel takes you back to a time when Ike was president and life was slower. You’ll encounter a cast of characters storm-tossed by change, held together by love.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger (Description excerpted from The Twins were playing their debut season, ice-cold root beers were selling out at the soda counter of Halderson’s Drugstore, and Hot Stuff comic books were a mainstay on every barbershop magazine rack. It was a time of innocence and hope for a country with a new, young president. But for thirteen-year-old Frank Drum it was a grim summer in which death visited frequently and assumed many forms. Accident. Nature. Suicide. Murder.  Frank begins the season preoccupied with the concerns of any teenage boy, but when tragedy unexpectedly strikes his family—which includes his Methodist minister father; his passionate, artistic mother; Juilliard-bound older sister; and wise-beyond-his-years kid brother—he finds himself thrust into an adult world full of secrets, lies, adultery, and betrayal, suddenly called upon to demonstrate a maturity and gumption beyond his years. 
The Wild Oats Project by Robin Rinaldi (Description excerpted from The project was simple: Robin Rinaldi, a successful magazine journalist, would move into a San Francisco apartment, join a dating site, and get laid. Never mind that she already owned a beautiful flat a few blocks away, that she was forty-four, or that she was married to a man she'd been in love with for eighteen years. What followed-a year of abandon, heartbreak, and unexpected revelation-is the topic of this riveting memoir. Monogamous and sexually cautious her entire adult life, Rinaldi never planned on an open marriage-her priority as she approached midlife was to start a family. But when her husband insisted on a vasectomy, something snapped. During the week, she would live alone, seduce men (and women), attend erotic workshops, and have wall-banging sex. On the weekends, she would go home and be a wife.
(For more of what I'm reading, click on read more below)

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

100 Things I Want to Tell My Children and Grandchildren, #26

          (Crouse and me - July,  Brennan's, New Orleans)
When I was about 7-years old I stole 50 cents from my mother and felt so guilty that I confessed.

Although there’s a part of me that wants to believe the reason I confessed to stealing from my mom was because I have a solid value of honesty, I think I remember it because it was a defining moment in the development of my character.

I told the truth because my conscience was more painful than the “switching” I knew I’d get from my mother.

I learned that dishonesty can be painful. I would soon learn that honesty can be equally painful.

We teach children to lie right from the “get go” don’t we?  If they cry they get what they want, so they learn to fake cry. If they do something bad, we scold or spank them, so they learn to deny they did the bad thing, or point to a sibling to blame. They learn early on that lying pays off.

We’ve all been on the receiving end of painful honesty. I used to say that my husband was the most honest person I’d ever known, but I taught him to lie by punishing his honesty. Like the time I asked him if a dress looked OK on me and he said, “No, you look like a beached whale.” He shortly thereafter learned the value of lying (and I gave that dress to Goodwill).

If you Google “Is honesty the best policy?” you’ll see this issue has been debated forever. Some argue “honesty is the best policy” no matter what. Others say honesty is a human impossibility, or at least insensitive or unrealistic. We even have a nationally recognized holiday, April 30, “Honesty Day,” which was created in the early 1900’s as part of a campaign “to urge politicians to stay away from lies and tell the truth”!

Honesty has so many different facets it is mind-boggling. Check out this interesting BBC article dissecting honesty, which says, for example:

“What harm do lies do? Society is hurt because:
  • The general level of truthfulness falls - other people may be encouraged to lie
  • Lying may become a generally accepted practice in some quarters
  • It becomes harder for people to trust each other or the institutions of society
  • Social cohesion is weakened
  • Eventually no-one is able to believe anyone else and society collapses”
Sound familiar?

And what about being honest with yourself. Sounds like a good policy in general. Right? But there are times when being honest with oneself is so punishing it is debilitating.

So, what am I trying to say to my kids and grandkids? I’m saying honesty is complicated.

I’m not sure I have the right to define honesty for anyone, because to me honesty is relative, which feels sort of icky, but is honest. And although I couldn’t live with the dishonesty of stealing money from my Mother, there are some dishonesties I can live with, and some honesties with which I cannot live.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Cluster Critiques

The Arrangement: A Novel by Sarah Dunn

A couple whose marriage is eclipsed by the challenges of raising a child with disabilities decides they can no longer relate to each other sexually, and that they should try an “open marriage.” 

I went into this novel annoyed (it was a book club choice I didn’t think I’d like) and came out of it entertained. Despite my aversion to anything that even sniffs of soap-opera or romance novel, I was surprisingly sucked into this well-scribed book, which includes some juicy (tongue-in-cheek) drama, but didn't feel "soapy" or "romancy." 

I’m fussy about writing that is discernibly contrived and exploitative. And maybe The Arrangement is both. But if so, well done Dunn!

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Gann

The Osage were a dominant tribe of American Indians in Missouri, Kansas and Arkansas but were forced by the US Government to move onto a reservation in Oklahoma in the early 1900’s. One clever Osage Chief, James Bigheart, negotiated for the Osage to purchase their reservation, which gave them rights to all the lands' value, including minerals.

Then oil was discovered on the Osage land, and the Osage became “the richest people per capita in America,” leading to further exploitation of tribal members. People even married into Osage families, then murdered off all family members, to gain sole ownership of the oil royalties. There was complicity from law enforcement, coroners, judges, just about everyone, because the murdered were just “injuns.” They soon became the “most murdered people per capital in America.”  It became such a huge mess that J. Edgar Hoover’s budding Federal Bureau of Investigation interceded.

This is another chapter in the shameful history of American genocide, and although a thought-provoking story, it is not an easy read.

The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial by Maggie Nelson

Charged with picking out a book for our next book club meeting, I did my usual “deep” research, determined to come up with something worth everyone’s time. When I came across these two comments about The Red Parts on the NPR website’s book section - “seriously great writing,” and “on the dark side,” I was pretty sure this was it.  The Red Parts is author Maggie Nelson’s story of the 1969 murder of her 23-year-old aunt, Jane Mixer, and about the trial 35-years later of her murderer. Maggie never met her aunt, but in a period of creative limbo (writers block, life block or some of both), decides to go be with her mother, Jane’s sister, to support her and the balance of the damaged family during the trial.

Maggie’s slightly removed position (and enviable writing skills) gave her a perspective, both objective (upon seeing her aunt's murderer for the first time),  “Where I imagined I might find the ‘face of evil,’ I am finding the face of Elmer Fudd,” and idiosyncratic, “If I can make my language flat enough, exact enough, if I can rinse each sentence clean enough, if I can find the right perch or crevice from which to record everything, maybe I could do it. I could tell you this story while walking out of this story.”

Read The Red Parts.

Exit West: A Novel by Mohsin Hamid

“What is wrong with me?” I pondered. “Everyone is rating this book so highly, but I keep waiting for something extraordinary to happen.”

Exit West will end up on many “best of 2017” list, but not mine. I was so certain I would love this story of a young couple escaping civil war in their country, seeking new lives. And indeed, Hamid’s writing is crisp, describing well, in minimal-detail, how everyday life in a community can be turned upside down overnight when civil order is interrupted and a hometown becomes a war zone, and every aspect of life ceases to matter other than finding food and finding a way out.

Most compelling is Hamid’s conveyance of the pain of ripping roots from the family tree, from everything familiar and comforting. I just couldn’t seem to connect with Hamid’s characters. Maybe you can.

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

Born a Crime is Trevor Noah’s (comedian and host of “The Daily Show”) story of growing up “half-white and half-black” in South Africa during the absurdity of apartheid.

Three things come to mind in writing this review. First, I learned a great deal about South African culture, history and politics, which was quite captivating. Second, sadly, especially as relates to recent events, it made me realize just how “not far” we’ve come on racial respect, and how little separates us (American’s) from what is viewed by some as primitive politics. And finally, Trevor Noah is an intellectual comedian, with an interesting perspective, and has what comes across as a fun, funny personality.

I enjoyed Born a Crime and believe you will too.

News of the World: A Novel by Paulette Jiles

Captain Kidd (former Union soldier) is an older man, who in the late 1800’s, makes his living traveling around Texas reading newspaper stories to a non-reading public. He reluctantly accepts a job that involves returning a young girl kidnapped by Indians, and five years later “rescued” by the military, to her family in Castroville, TX.

Author Jiles exquisitely paints the scenery along the wagon journey, and the history leading up to and during her tale, but the story breaks down in her description of interactions between the characters, which to me felt unauthentic. That is probably because I couldn’t help but compare News of the World to a couple of other books with similar themes, True Grit and Ride the Wind – both of which excelled in characters.

In sum, News of the World is a book worth reading, but read True Grit and Ride the Wind first.

American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road by Nick Bilton

I’m not entirely sure why I found this book so intriguing. Maybe it's because the “criminal mastermind” main character of this book was a young Austinite with the pseudonym “Dread Pirate Roberts” (reference movie “Princess Bride”), or maybe it’s because I’m fascinated by all things technology-related. Bottom line, I couldn’t put this “really happened” book that felt like a fictitious, globe-hopping spy thriller, down.

In 2011, 26-year-old Austinite Ross Ulbricht, a libertarian who believes in non-governmental control over capitalism, taught himself to code and created a website called “Silk Road” on the “Dark Web” (Tor) to sell the psychedelic mushrooms he was growing in his skanky apartment. Tor is an untraceable website where anyone can sell/buy illegal items using cryptocurrency Bitcoins, i. e, drugs, hacking software, forged passports, counterfeit cash, poisons, weapons, etc. 

Within two years Silk Road had become a multi-billion-dollar business involving murder and creating a world-wide manhunt for the "Dread Pirate Roberts" (the Coen brothers are working on a screenplay). This story is full of colorful characters, lots of “plot” twists and turns and code names, like a spy novel, and the antagonist is also the protagonist.

Ulbricht was so brilliant in his deceit, I found myself irrationally rooting for him. Read this real-life adventure book.

In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi

When Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Susan Faludi wrote “Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women,” I was president of the Texas Women’s Political Caucus and Ann Richards had just won the Texas Gubernatorial election. The air crackled with the power of women.

I was invited to a reception for Ms. Faludi at the private home of some Austin woman whose name I cannot remember, and I recall standing slack jawed in awe of Faludi's cerebral acrobatics.

When Kirkus chose Faludi’s most recent book “In the Darkroom” as the best non-fiction book of 2016, I was curious but weary and cynical at the impotency of brilliant feminist diatribes, so I didn’t seriously consider reading it until I saw that the book wasn’t a women’s lib manifesto. It was about Faludi’s father’s sexual reassignment, which completely caught me and Susan by surprise.

Considering the current American political climate, and the emergence of a brand of ignorance I thought we’d disposed of through natural selection, I found this topic particularly timely. Not only did Faludi’s perspective as a feminist provide a particularly fascinating view to her father’s evolution, but her analytical, journalistic nature gave the story substance and kept it from getting bogged down in emotionalism.

Faludi presents with amazing clarity a nearly blow-by-blow of her first visit to see her father in Hungry after his surgery – intertwining the story with her father’s family’s extraordinary experience surviving Nazi Hungry. I’d not  heard details about the Nazi occupation of Hungry, so that history was very readable for me.

My only reaction to Faludi's father's sexual reorientation was a a good bit of curiosity as to how Susan would handle being with her father, now a woman. That is until she said, “My father, she…,” which caused my brain to sort of short-circuit every single time she said it. 

I always feel like I’m drowning in the backwash of Faludi’s intellectualism, but what an exquisite way to go. I LOVED this book.

Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, the Man Bomber, and the Invention of Criminal Profiling by Michael Cannell

We seem to want to blame Muslim radicals for the invention of terrorism in America (and practically everything else bad for that matter), and although there have been some domestic attacks perpetrated by Muslim radicals, there have been just as many that were not.

Domestic terrorism is nothing new, and has been utilized to bring mass attention to many issues by many different groups and characters. For example, Ted Kaczynski, a recluse ideologically opposed to technological progress, sent 16 bombs through the mail over the course of two decades killing 3 people and injuring 23. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols killed 168 in Oklahoma City to protest the Waco siege.  Eric Robert Rudolph set off the bomb at the Atlanta Olympics, killing 1 and injuring 111, to protest abortion.

I could list many more, but the one I want to talk about is George Metesky, The Mad Bomber, who terrorized New York City citizens and alluded the authorities for 17 years between 1951 and 1968, setting off 33 bombs (11 of which failed to explode). George planted the bombs to bring attention to the fact that he felt he had been treated unfairly by this employer when he suffered a job injury.

The story of George, his bombs, and how he escaped capture for 17 years is a gripping enough story, but another aspect of this story is that George was identified and eventually captured through a relatively new and infrequently used methodology, the "third wave" of investigative science, criminal profiling.

Wiki says, “The first wave was the study of clues, pioneered by Scotland Yard in the 19th century, the second wave was the study of crime itself (frequency studies and the like), and this third wave is the study of the psyche of the criminal.” The first criminal profile assembled was for Jack the Ripper.

Dr. James Brussel’s criminal profile that lead to the arrest of George Metesky, apparently launched the FBI profiling technique, which is used extensively today.

Incendiary isn’t as exciting as it’s topic or its name, and at times is slow, so I wouldn’t recommend you take it on unless you are really interested in the history of the Mad Bomber, or the science of profiling.