Sunday, December 9, 2018

100 Things I Want to Tell My Children and Grandchildren, #30

Perspective is everything.

(Photo is of me, 4th from left, and some of my nieces and nephews. Probably dressed for church.)
I must have been about 12, walking from our house, a teacherage (teacher housing), to main street in the little 1,200-person community where I spent the first 18 years of my life. I recall with uncanny clarity what the sky looked like, summer blue faded by heat. What was to my left, the abandoned old red-brick two-story house I was certain held secrets. And to my right, the tiny little worn-down apartments where people who were really, really poor lived, not just kinda’ poor like us. I remember how the air smelled, hot and full of promise for hotter. And I especially remember the epiphany that made me stop abruptly. 

“We can’t judge what we don’t know.” 

That was my 12-year old understanding, but which over time and maturity became “Perspective is everything.”

Isn’t it peculiar how countless moments in our lives go un-noticed, un-remembered, un-recorded, and then there are those moments you never forget. This was one of those for me. Maybe you recall me saying I’d never heard my mother say a bad thing about anyone, and how incredibly extraordinary that was. When I criticized someone or something, a behavior I no doubt picked up from one of my playmates as it certainly didn’t exist in our home, Mom would say, “you cannot judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their moccasins,” a statement that conjured a visual, but no understanding of its meaning. But on that warm summer morning as I walked to town, the true meaning and significance of that saying blossomed, and I have ever since been intrigued by its truth.

“…walk a mile in his moccasins” has been attributed to American Indian wisdom, but in fact it’s attribution goes back to a poem written in 1895 by Mary T. Lathrap, called “Judge Softly.” And although the poem isn’t exactly earth-moving, the “moccasins” adage certainly resonated and found traction in American culture. And now that I understand the origin, I am even more charmed by the poem’s title, “Judge Softly,” a concept I wish more of us embraced.

“Perspective” has been a central theme in the texture of my personal culture, and has helped me be less judgmental and angry, and more compassionate and understanding. I try not to get angry and criticize people who don’t believe what I believe.  I know they are who and what they are because of how they have been raised and the culture in which they live. 

We tend to be critical of individuals with beliefs and lifestyles different than ours, thinking, “What is wrong with them? Can’t they see?” But we only know what we know, and we stay in the culture that supports what we know.  For example, generational poverty. “It is so easy,” we say. “Go to school and get a job!” But when you’ve been raised in a culture where dropping out of school, and maybe doing drugs and committing crime, is the norm, that is what you know and understand – you are comfortable there. Stepping out of that is a scary, unknown place. So, you stay in the culture you understand. 

I had a funny experience recently that reminded me that being judgmental is all about perspective. I was making my bed and the sheets were so wrinkled I found myself thinking, “Gosh, maybe I’ll send them to the laundry to be washed and pressed.” And then I recalled nearly 20 years ago being incensed when someone whose house I was staying in for a weekend, said for me to be sure to take the sheets to the laundry to be washed and pressed. I remember thinking, “That’s ridiculous! Why would anyone think sheets needed to be pressed? Such a waste of money!” My perspective at the time was, that’s not how money should be spent, because I had so little money. Twenty-years later, when I have the money to pay someone to wash and iron my sheets if I want to, it sounds like a pretty nice idea. Silly, simple, but a personal reminder of how perspective shapes everything, and we need to be careful about judging others.

I occasionally give graduating seniors an upside-down map of the world, with the inscription “It’s all about perspective. Get some.” As you can see below, this different perspective changes everything. The US and Mexico look so tiny, and the Russian Federation and Canada look huge, yet we do not typically think of them that way. 

So, what I want to say to my children and grandchildren is that what something looks like all depends on where you are standing. Don't be critical or judgmental of people who believe differently from you, because you have not lived their life and you do not have their perspective.

Perspective is everything. 

Cluster Critiques

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen: A Novel by Sarah Bird

One of my book clubs was fantastically honored to have the esteemed author of our November book choice, Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen, Sarah Bird, with us. Sarah brought the subject of the book to life for us - Cathay Williams, the freed slave and descendant of an African queen, who at the end of the Civil War disguised herself as a man to become one of the famed Buffalo SoldiersIn response to the many questions from the group, Sarah gave a mesmerizing account of why she had to write the book, that goes back decades to her experience as a  journalist covering African American rodeos, and to her reoccurring encounter with the “myth” of Cathay Williams, who Sarah eventually discovers, really existed. Sarah’s amazing grace at so accurately capturing the culture, dialect and history of Cathay Williams’ story is humbling. I cannot recommend Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen highly enough, and I encourage you to listen to the audible version, read by Bahni Turpin, as it is one of my all-time favorite audible books. Here’s a sample.

God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State by Lawrence Wright

Wright’s narrative about all things Texan spans generations, eras and perceptions, providing justification for those of us who believe Texas and Texans are unique and special, and equally for those who believe Texas and Texans are backwards and arrogant. But it principally provides a “behind the fence” and somewhat personal perspective on Texas historical and political issues we thought we’d heard all there was to hear about, like the Kennedy assassination in Dallas, the romantic myth of cowboys, and the migration of Texas from the LBJ blue state, to the reddest state in the union - Austin being the paradoxical liberal bubble referred to by state legislators as "the spore of the California fungus that is destroying America." After a lifetime witnessing the horrors and charms of Texas, Wright admits he can’t give her up, and his book title, “God Bless Texas,” is what Texans are prone to say when they don’t have anything nice to say. 

God bless “God Bless Texas.” 

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

I cringed when Esther’s Follies icon, Shannon Sedwick, announced that our September book club choice, Less, was a Pulitzer Prize winning novel. What would it say about me if I didn’t like it? I don’t have “Pulitzer-level intellect or sensibilities?” So, I went into the book determined to be “worthy,” and fortunately was charmed immediately, in spite of the main character, Arthur Less, being an uncharming, recently jilted, over-the-hill, perpetually depressed and grumpy guy. What made Less entertaining was author Andrew Sean Greer’s superior writing and sharp humor, and the unexpected relatability I had with “Mr. Grumpy,” who struggled with his collapsing physique (yep, get it), his fed-up-ness with the world in general (yep, get it), and his inability to stop giving a shit (yep, totally get it). Terrified of running into friends offering condolences for his recent lost boy-toy, Arthur jets off to one disaster after another, proving it can get worse. Pulitzer material? Yep. 

Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes by Nathan H. Lents

This may end up being one of my favorite books of the year, but you would probably hate it – that is unless you are intrigued by things like evolution being described as a disaster moving at the pace of molasses, and humans characterized as the deadliest species in the annals of extinction. Actually, this is a funny and informational book about how screwed up (physically and mentally) humans are because of the inefficiencies of evolution: bad knees, allergies, mental illness, and those are the simple things. And it makes total sense when you consider that it takes generations to correct a genetic error- assuming the stars and genes happen to align just right. Challenges and flukes it seems should have been weeded out years ago through natural selection hang on petulantly, creating a never-ending laundry list of health issues for us. Human Errorsis a fun albeit somewhat bleak look at how screwed up we and evolution are.

Educated by Tara Westover

This book reinforced my theory that people stay in really bad situations because that choice is less scary than going into the unknown. Tara Westover is one of seven kids born to a fundamentalist Mormon family living off the grid in Idaho, which is not necessarily the reason her life is chaotic and dangerous, but rather is just the setting of her very chaotic and dangerous childhood. Due to religious zealotry, Westover’s family is a sociological nightmare. Her father is a rigid fatalist, seemingly determined to make life miserable for everyone in the family, and mom is gut-wrenchingly compliant - to the point of endangering her children over and over again. And although the father is an intellectual (author Westover eventually becomes a professor at Cambridge in spite of never attending public school), his machoism and religious beliefs are lethal – particularly contaminating his sons, one of which is very dangerous, and always a threat to the author. And yet in spite of the horror show at home, Westover cannot seem to break away from her family and her past, putting the reader though a painful, ongoing struggle, making me want to scream out, “You can’t save them. Save yourself!” Educated is both an inspiring and irritating tale demonstrating how religion zealotry is a form of mental illness, how children manage to survive horrific environments, and how blood is indeed incredibly thick. 

The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us (and What We Can Do about Them) by Lucy Jones

Lucy Jones is called the “earthquake lady” and one of the most highly regarded seismologist of our generation. Her purpose in writing this book was to put into context the reality of disasters – earthquakes, floods, volcanos, tsunamis, and how we tempt fate by living in their crosshairs – specifically noting that San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, New Orleans, Phoenix, and the St. Louis area are doomed. She also very interestingly shows how previous disasters have significantly changed the social dynamics of the cities in their wake, Japan (women, for the first time took control), Iceland (90% of the population was wiped out), Italy (civil order greatly enhanced). Her other purpose was to say as strongly as possible, “They’re coming. If you are in their path, leave.” She’s not a hysteric. She’s a realist. I listened to the audio book and found Jones’ reading very dry, so I can’t recommend that. However, if you are fascinated by the threat of natural disasters, or how society’s that have survived (or not) natural disasters coped (or didn't), The Big Ones is as good as it gets. 

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

I’m inexplicably mesmerized by British sensibility, so I loved Kate Atkinson’s new book, Transcription,which hops around time-periods, but is primarily set in London during WWII. Eighteen-year-old Juliet Armstrong is recruited to transcribe recorded conversations between a network of British Nazi sympathizers called the "fifth column," and British M15 agents posing as German spies. There’s a plot and numerous interesting characters, but honestly the only thing I seemed to be able to latch onto was Juliet’s (Kate’s) ongoing asides, which were so delicious I found myself waiting for them. Here are a few of my favorites.  

“Juliet could still remember when Hitler had seemed like a harmless clown. No one was amused now.” 

“The world is a comedy to those that think; a tragedy to those that feel,”

“Perhaps sex was something you had to learn and then stick at until you were good at it, like hockey or the piano. But an initial lesson would be helpful.”

“The blame generally has to fall somewhere, Miss Armstrong. Women and the Jews tend to be first in line, unfortunately.” 

“Why was it that the females of the species were always the ones left to tidy up. … I expect Jesus came out of the tomb … and said to his mother, ‘Can you tidy it up a bit back there?”

“Do not equate nationalism with patriotism. Nationalism is the first step on the road to Fascism.” 

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

I alternately wanted to throw this book across the room, and binge read it. The Great Alone is about a family of three, Cora, Ernt and their daughter Leni. Ernt (a former Vietnam POW with PTSD) inherits land in Alaska and mistaking it for a solution to his increasing spells of violence, drags his family to a remote and primitive wilderness. Instead of a new start, the trials of living in the Alaskan outback speed up Ernt’s unraveling, until he becomes so unstable that, well, let’s just say things fall apart. Cora is a pitiful codependent enabler, and Leni is stuck in the middle as the tension builds and builds. Author Hannah has a talent for making you need to know what happens next. I was exhausted by the time this very long book ended, but not sorry I read it – like I had a choice after about page 50!   

Saturday, July 14, 2018

100 Things I Want to Tell My Children and Grandchildren, #29

Being right feels good for 15 minutes.

(Me and the hubby - learning to survive together)

You get into an argument with your wife, husband, partner or employer about something relatively simple. It starts out calm with logic examples, corrections, polite tone of voice. But at some point, when neither of you are willing to back down, compromise, admit your wrong or simply agree to disagree, the argument escalates to shouting, name-calling, and ugly, graphic itemizations of every perceived  wrong that ever occurred between the two of you. 

You are right, and you know you are, and you’re not going to back down. It’s a matter of principle. You need to stand up for yourself, to take a stand. 

But what happens after doors are slammed, tears are shed, and silence laced with “I’ll show you,” or “we’re done” cast a black shadow over the heart of your relationship, rendering the original point irrelevant, and sometimes even forgotten.  Words are said that can never be unsaid. The hurt damages a place in our heart that is irreparable. Regret, resentment, confusion, anger, hate or fear threaten to displace love, acceptance, forgiveness, and compromise, creating a nauseating disorientation of your relationship.  The damage is done, and undoing the damage may be impossible. Relationships may dissolve into codependent resentment and desperate attempts to reclaim respect and love. Love relationships and marriages end causing heartbreak that impacts many people. Rock-solid friendships you thought were permanent dissolve with a whimper. You are fired from your job causing terrible hardships on you and your family, possibly damaging your ability to get another job.

So, before you get into an emotional battle with someone, take a nano-second to assess the worth of standing your ground (pick your battles VERY carefully). I’m not talking about saying you’re wrong when you know you are right. I’m talking about walking away, agreeing to disagree, compromising, or trying to resolve the conflict under less emotional terms. 

Being right feels good for 15 minutes, while the damage inflicted can last a lifetime. 

Cluster Critiques

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

Romy Hall, main character and narrator of The Mars Room is a 29-year-old drug addict and lap dancer at the skanky San Francisco Mars Room strip club. She has lost custody of her son and is serving two life sentences in prison for killing a man.  I felt so disoriented by Romy’s narration of her sordid life, until in chapter 23 she says something along the lines of: 
“When you’re a kid you eat whatever you can find, your mom’s a junkie with a boyfriend who sexually abuses you, there’s nobody around to make you go to school so you drop out and start prostituting and doing drugs until you get caught and go to prison, then you get out, get caught again and go back, but that’s OK because that’s the culture you live in, it’s normal for us, expected.” 
Suddenly it all made sense. People who live what feels like a gutter-level Greek tragedy, live that way because it is their “normal.”

The Mars Room is a work of fiction as is Romy Hall, but author Rachel Kushner’s writing felt so authentic I had to keep reminding myself The Mars Room wasn’t an autobiography and Romy doesn’t really exist.The story ping-pongs back and forth between Romy and her prison mates’ disaster-movie lives that predestined them for prison, and their similarly grim lives behind bars. I felt like a rubbernecker at a roadside wreck with a morbid inability to look away, wanting to rub my own nose in the horror of Romy’s life to appreciate the thin line that separates her existance from mine.  

And then, when Romy said things like, 
“At the Mars Room if you’d showered you had a competitive edge. If your tattoos weren’t misspelled you were hot property. If you weren’t five or six months pregnant, you were the it-girl in the club that night,” 
I sort of illogically swooned from the richness of Kushner's imagery. 

Read The Mars Room.

Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story by Chris Nashawaty

After reading about the making of the movie Caddyshack, I’m surprised they didn’t name it “Clusterfuck.” Caddyshack (the movie) is a secret guilty pleasure of mine because it requires no mental heavy-lifting, while providing classic comic bits by Rodney Dangerfield, Bill Murray and Chevy Chase.  The book is full of gossipy tidbits about the personalities and relationships of most of the players. 

Dangerfield’s part in the movie was originally small until his outrageous ad-libs won him more celluloid. There was a hot feud between Chevy Chase, who’d recently hit it big and left Saturday Night Live, and Bill Murray, still at SNL and extremely resentful of Chase’s success. Chase and Murray only showed up when they felt like it, creating frustration for everyone involved in the film. 

The brains behind the movie (if one can imagine any were) was Murray’s brother Brian. And the whole mess was fueled by the ubiquitous drugs of that time-period (late 1970s). Not unlike the movie this book is mostly junior high-level entertainment (fun).

Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan

I waited patiently for this book to go somewhere, and maybe it did for some, but  for me it felt like I boarded the wrong plane and was stuck sitting on a lifeless literary tarmac. A family acquires a beautiful ocean-front property on a long-ago paid off bet, and converges in summer over several generations to share their life’s disappointments. 

I’m fully stocked up on my own personal family drama and have little patience for people whining about first world problems. Sullivan can write, but her characters didn’t inspire me, unless you call wanting to throw the book across the room inspiration. Meh...

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

In 1969 Brooklyn, four siblings ages of 7 to13, hear of a gypsy woman who can tell you the exact date of your death. So, they gather up their nickels and dimes and go see the gypsy, who one by one seals each child’s fate – or one might think. 

Benjamin’s book, which has generated a lot of discussion in the literary community, follows each of the siblings over 50 years as their lives play out under the glare of a date-certain death sentence. 

Although the descriptions of their lives’ might not look that different than say a typical family saga, it is told within the context of something the characters in the story know but we do not, the date each character will die. It is this underlying theme that makes all the difference.  We anguish over the characters’ every decision, and it is this dynamic that makes The Immortalists interesting and worth our time.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

Justice should be absolute, simple, cut and dried. But, like life, or just about anything, nothing is as absolute or simple as it should be. I’ve been binge-watching true-crime on TV at night, and one thing I have learned is that criminal justice is much more complicated than it seems on the surface– even with a confession, even with witnesses. Like an iceberg, you can only see 10%. The other 90% is below the surface.

Author Bryan Stevenson has made it his life’s mission to bring due process, and perhaps justice and mercy to individuals languishing destitute on death row. The bulk of Just Mercyis about a man convicted of murder and sentenced to death despite multiple witnesses confirming his presence at a church fundraiser during the established time of the murder. And though that profile is truly sympathetic, not all the people Stevenson represents are, but rather are the victims of poor representation in court. Stevenson’s goal is to level the justice playing field, which is rocky on the end where the poor end up, and smooth on the end where those with resources briefly land.  This plea for public awareness of injustice isn’t a hammer, it’s a soft, humbling, spiritual song, and one I will not soon forget.  

Two Kinds of Truth by Michael Connelly

Some of you may know author Michael Connelly from the Mathew McConaughey movie “Lincoln Lawyer” in which McConaughey plays lawyer Matthew Haller, half-brother of Michael Connelly’s other favorite character, the main character of this book, Detective Harry Bosch. 

Bosch is one of those hard-nosed detectives always at odds with his police department, as is the case in Two Kinds of Truth, which nimbly juxtapositions two story lines: Bosch going undercover to expose an opioid drug ring, all the while fighting off an old foe in prison for murder, now filing a lawsuit again Bosch claiming he planted evidence resulting in a false conviction. 

Connelly doesn’t really write a bad book, and is a pretty reliable read in the crime novel genre, but this one was one of his best (of 36).     

The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantú

I’m a perspective fanatic, so I was immediately attracted to the idea of a book written by a US Border Patrol agent (especially in light of recent immigration issues). What does immigration enforcement look like from the perspective of a Border Patrol agent on the front lines? What do they see? How do they feel? 

Author Francisco Cantú is a third-generation Mexican America, raised in Arizona by his National Parks Ranger mother. The same intellectual gene that drives Cantú’s mother’s environmental ambitions, drives Francisco to study illegal (as opposed to legal) Mexican immigration close-up – to become a Border Patrol agent. His mother struggles to understand why her son would stray into enforcement of a law that under a different set of circumstances might have deprived his own family residence in the US. Soon enough, unable to rationalize a system so punishing of the crime of breaching a border seeking a better life, Cantú drops out of the Border Patrol and returns to school, feeling not angry, but rather confused. Eventually, simply by coincidence, he becomes involved in trying to help a friend who has lived illegally in the US for decades, but who is unable to return to the US after going to Mexico to tend to his dying mother.   

The Line Becomes a River provides perspective, and a relatively unemotional inspection of the issue of illegal Mexican immigration. Francisco Cantú writes well, seemingly without a specific agenda - to simply tell the story of his odyssey through the miasma of Mexican immigration.

What I’m Reading

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen by Sarah Bird

"Here's the first thing you need to know about Miss Cathy Williams: I am the daughter of a daughter of queen and my mama never let me forget it." 

Available Sept. 2018     BookPeople     Kirkus Review 

God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State by Lawrence Wright

I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara

A Long Way from Home by Peter Carey

The Pisces: A Novel by Melissa Broder       

The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm

King Zeno: A Novel by Nathaniel Rich

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

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 page-flipping story about an irresistibly cool guy.

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.