Sunday, February 12, 2017

100 Things I Want to Tell My Children And Grandchildren: #24

Forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves.

I've always though that forgiveness was something we give others, and I guess it is.

But even more valuable is the gift we give ourselves when we forgive others.

Hate and anger are heavy, ugly burdens. They consume our energy, make us defensive and unpleasant to be around, and don't make anything better.

Give yourself the gift of forgiving someone else, every day.

It won't necessarily make them better, but it will make you better and that's what we all want isn't it? To be a better person for the people we love?

Cluster Critiques

 Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance

“I related to this book personally,” I said as we walked the ten blocks from my friend’s home to the Capital for the Women’s March in Austin. “Of course you did,” said my friend. “You are a hillbilly.”

I am a hillbilly of sorts if you define hillbilly as country – or what out in West Texas where I grew up we call “redneck,” named for people whose work environment is more outdoor than in. But to a redneck, a hillbilly is from the shallow end of the gene pool, and distinguished by bad teeth, poor grammar, and the lack of at least a high school education. We all classify. Don't we?

The irony here is it could be the culture of disrepair described in Vance’s book, desperate for a voice – any voice - the current administration capitalized on, buoying someone otherwise undignified into a position of power – launching a universal outcry symbolized by the Women’s March.

Author J. D. Vance’s story of ascent from Kentucky Appalachia hillbilly to Yale graduate feels more an anomaly than the achievement of the “American dream.” Although one might think his message is “I got out, so can you,” the story is more along the lines of “It was really bad, but only as bad as the distance from which viewed.” Vance grew up in a terrible environment of poverty, abuse, alcoholism, chaos and insecurity. But it felt normal to him when he was standing in the middle of it.  It only felt abnormal, and gave Vance his perspective, when he slipped away, into the marines, eventually graduating from law school.

I don’t know that there’s an abiding message in Hillbilly Elegy, other than when the disenfranchised crowd gets big enough, revolution is inevitable, regardless of whether the revolution is their solution or only imagines it is. In any case Hillbilly Elegy was an interesting and relatively well-told story about a segment of our society we would just as soon not believe exist. It reminded me of Jeannette Walls jaw-dropping bestseller, Glass Castles, about surviving an unimaginably deprived childhood, but less poetic. Vance’s keen writing skills keep Hillbilly Elegy from being a pity party, and elevate it to “Real Life 101.” Read it.

Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx

About thirty seconds into the audible version of Close Range, I turned off the sound system in our car and said to my husband, “Wow, I’ve missed Annie Proulx! I’d forgotten how well she writes ‘country’.”

Although I’ve only read a few of Proulx’s books, That Ole’ Ace In the Hole, about pig farming in the Texas Panhandle, is one of my favorite books of all time. Her capacity to capture and articulate the “country folk” culture made me feel, possibly for the first time in my life, that a college degree and big words, aren’t necessarily the true measure of intelligence. I’ve known some stunningly smart people who never made it past grade school (like my dad), and some irrationally stupid college graduates (who will remain nameless), and Proulx’s characters confirmed for me that people’s worth isn’t truly known until we truly know them.

Proulx’s The Shipping News won both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, but probably her biggest claim to fame came as a result of the final short story in this Close Range collection, Brokeback Mountain, which when made into a movie, won both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award.

Annie Proulx is one of those writers who’s writing is so poetic you barely care the point she’s making, but she can certainly make her point in very few words. I’ll never forget these two quotes in Brokeback Mountain when two cowboys can’t realize the deep love they have for each other:

I can't make it on a coupla high-altitude fucks once or twice a year! You are too much for me Ennis, you sonofawhoreson bitch! I wish I knew how to quit you.

If you can't fix it, Jack, you gotta stand it.

Last Girl Before Freeway: The Life, Loves, Losses, and Liberation of Joan Rivers by Leslie Bennetts

I never really wanted to like Joan Rivers’ bawdy, acerbic brand of humor, but did appreciate that she and Phyllis Diller were two of the pioneer female comedians who definitively pierced the gender barrier in a standup comedy style dominated by men in their era.  The leading themes in this mostly intriguing biography are (1) Rivers achieved her extreme wealth and fame through a grueling work ethic, a life of sacrifices, and by relentlessly fighting for everything she got; (2) She was a dedicated wife, mother, grandmother, and friend (3) She always had very low self-esteem.

If you’re looking for a blow-by-blow of River’s obsession with plastic surgery you’ll be disappointed. But if you’re interested in what it took to succeed as a female comedian in a culture that fought her every inch of the way, you’ll be totally satisfied; author Bennetts does a commendable job of presenting years of detailed struggle in an amazingly palatable format. One of the things that jumped out at me was what a dedicated friend Rivers was. There were so many testimonials about her loyalty and generosity – not just monetary generosity, but her sensitivity and the time she dedicated to her friendships. That impressed me.

I also enjoyed reading about River’s elaborate parties, (she would rent huge yachts and sail large groups of friends all over the world), and her home decorating style, best described as Louis XIV on crack. There’s a lot of print dedicated to Rivers’ relationship and eventual falling-out with Johnny Carson, and that part although initially fascinating, eventually became tedious. All in all, though, I finished the book with a great deal more respect for Rivers, and if you like biographies of celebrities, you’ll enjoy Last Girl Before Freeway.

I Loved Her in the Movies: Memories of Hollywood's Legendary Actresses by Robert Wagner

I remember slightly swooning as a teenager every time Robert Wagner entered the scene of a movie, and I’ve always thought he was a terrifically handsome guy, so I was interested in what he had to say about the many Hollywood actresses he acted with, dated, and no doubt bedded.  

When it comes to sheer numbers and royalty, Wagner doesn’t let us down. We get his takes on Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, Gloria Swanson, Norma Shearer, Loretta Young, Joan Blondell, Irene Dunne, Rosalind Russell, Dorothy Lamour, Debra Paget, Jean Peters, Linda Darnell, Betty Hutton, Raquel Welch, Glenn Close, and the two actresses he married, Natalie Wood and Jill St. John.

His description of the “charisma of these women on film, why they became stars, and how their specific emotional and dramatic chemistries affected the choices they made as actresses as well as the choices they made as women” was satisfying and interesting. He says up front his book IS NOT a tell-all, and I can assure you it isn’t, Wagner one by one essentially says, over and over again, they were beautiful, they were nice, and he had/has a deep and abiding respect for them. But after a while it begins to take on an eye rolling inspiring, gratuitous disingenuousness. Come on Wagner give us a little spice, a little variety! Who was the best kisser? Who made big mistakes? Who turned you down?  Something! Skip this one.

The Terror Years: From al-Qaeda to the Islamic State by Lawrence Wright

Timing is everything, and Pulitzer Prize Winner Lawrence Wright, as a young journalist and Vietnam War conscientious objector, ended up an “alternative service” teacher at American University in Cairo, setting the foundation for his life-long immersion in, and journalistic expertise on the culture and politics of the Middle East, al-Qaida, the Islamic State, ISIS and terrorism.  

When I began this book I keep feeling like I’d read it before, and soon realized I had. It is a compilation of a number of essays Wright had written for New Yorker, and a good bit was excerpted from his 2006 book The Looming Tower (the Pulitzer winner), which I devoured and which introduced me to a new essential threat I’d never serious entertained before in my lifetime. That didn’t, however, diminish my – well enjoyment doesn’t seem an appropriate characterization of reading about the never-ending horrific battle between religious factions – so let’s just say it didn’t diminish my interest and intrigue and down-right astonishment at the volume and detail of knowledge Wright possesses about that “world”. A world, that before 9-11, seemed remote and of minimal interest, but on 9-11 became “our world.”

A lot of The Terror Years illustrates the flagrant disregard of warnings presented to the FBI and the CIA and the Executive office about threats made to the US, making me wonder if lessons learned there are the reason more recent terrorist activities in America have been single acts as opposed to orchestrated events like 9-11.

Without a doubt, hometown boy Lawrence Wright has a wealth of knowledge and is a very commendable writer. It takes a certain dedication to read non-fiction books that scare the hell out of you, so I can’t exactly say, read it you’ll enjoy it, but I can say it is very good.

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad

Here’s what Julie Klam of the Washington Post said about 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl. “I once met a woman who had no issues with food or her body. Just kidding! I’m sure there are people like that, but none that I know.” 

My body image has finally, recently taken on a more “health” and “a good example for my grandkids” theme, but for most of my life it’s been about how I looked, or more precisely how I thought I looked – viewed of course through the carnival-like house of mirrors created by a world that significantly prizes androgynous, waif-like women; at least until Kim Kardashian made big butts OK as long as they are accompanied by big boobs.

Awad certainly isn’t the first woman to write about body image and weight and how it’s dominated her life, but her book stands out because it is fictionalized, and because Awad has a wicked, albeit dark sense of humor and a striking and endearing writing skill. This author’s stories are all tinged with a cutting sadness that rings painfully true to my and no doubt many other women’s experiences, but we trudge on through her unpleasant experiences because they are validating and roughly comforting. And more often than not, we forget this book is about the humiliating and limiting psychosis of body image and just fall into the rhythm and euphoria of really good writing. Read 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl.

The Best American Series - 2015 and 2016

Every year since 2009 (when I first discovered The Best American Series of Writing) I’ve looked forward with excitement to reading The Best Sports, Science and Nature, Travel, and Food Writing, chosen from thousands of articles in top magazines, newspaper and journals.  

For example, in this year’s Best American Sports Writing 2016, edited by Rick Telander, Chicago Times and Sports Illustrated columnist, I was riveted by Ariel Levy’s Breaking The Waves, about Diana Nyad’s horrific long-distance swims, and Brian Phillips’ Sea of Crisis, about the mysterious world of sumo wrestling.

And although I was aware that actor Andrew McCarthy had achieved some fame as a travel writer, I was surprised to learn he’d edited The Best American Travel Writing 2015, including fabulous articles not intended to sell hotel rooms, but rather to paint the true culture and soul of intriguing, far-flung and not so far-flung destinations, like Kevin Baker’s 21st Century Limited, about American train stations, “once the most magnificent in the world…even in the smallest towns, they tended to be little jewels of craftsmanship,” and then there was the very funny article by Iris Smyles called Ship of Wonks, about her adventures on a cruise for physics buffs.
In The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016, edited by celebrated science writer Amy Stewart, I was stunned by Gabrielle Glaser’s expose on the seedy underbelly of AA in The False Gospel of Alcoholics Anonymous, and Antonia Juhasz fascinating take on the BP disaster in Thirty Million Gallons Under the Sea.

In The Best Food Writing 2015, edited by Holly Hughes, former executive editor of Fodor's travel publications, we learn about the latest food trends, what food looks like in the farthest reaches of the planet, and we revisit the traditions and nostalgia of family meals. I’ll never forget the article about a four-day cooking and eating marathon in France prepared by a group of gourmands.

I could literally (or maybe not so literately) go on and on about how informative and enjoyable these collections are – allowing us the best of writing on captivating topics, without the expense of buying magazine and the hassle of sorting through endless advertisements and less enlightening writing. I hope you’ll check out The Best American Series.

Hometown Gal Makes "HapPea Fries"

I have to give a shout out to Very Smart Gal Suzanne Franks who grew up in my little home town. Her invention, "HapPea Fries", a healthy alternative to fried potatoes, are available in the freezer compartment at Wheatsville Co-Op and Fresh Plus.  Go buy some!

(Excerpted from Suzanne's HapPea Fries website) 
HapPea Fries Founder Suzanne Franks believes in making delicious nutritious™. She was born and raised in Iraan (sounds like IRA-ANN), Texas in the dusty, hot, hot heat of West Texas. Her little town was an hour from the nearest McDonald’s with nothing in between – no other towns, no people, no stores. All that was there in Iraan – population 1,200 – was a Dairy Queen, a soda fountain and a Mexican food restaurant. 

With so few choices, Suzanne’s mom who was raised on a farm became the grocer, restaurateur, grower, harvester (you name it, she did it) for the family. She also taught Suzanne how to bake bread, cook, garden and even how to make mayonnaise.  

Steeped in the lifestyle of homemade, homegrown food, Suzanne developed a passion for tinkering with recipes to transform delicious food into sources of improved nutrition. The better-tasting, better-for-you HapPea® Fries – made with chickpeas instead of potatoes – fully supports making delicious, nutritious.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Best Books Read in 2016

Of the 38 books I finished in 2016, below are the top five in four categories, fiction, non-fiction, biography/autobiography and honorable mention.  I would love to know your 2016 favorites, so please leave a comment. 


(Click on Read More Below for Non-Fiction, Biography/Autobiography & Honorable Mention)

The Sport of Kings: A Novel by C. E. Morgan

The Sport of Kings is not about horseracing, it is about the gravity of pedigree, told within the context of several generations of Kentucky families (from the 1800’s to present day), and centered on a white landowner family and on the descendants of black slaves.

The book begins with Henry Forge Sr. homeschooling his son Henry Jr. on a mindset and culture that persist in our society like an incurable cancer – what Forge characterized as the importance of proper breeding and the superiority of the white man, as evidenced by his family’s heritage. Reading Henry Forge Sr.’s (Morgan’s) many oratories on these topics was simultaneously nauseating and intriguing.

The young Henry Forge becomes so consumed with the issue of lineage he eventually transitions the family corn farm to a horse farm to pursue an almost Frankensteining dedication to creating the perfect racehorse, and his own perfect human offspring.  He marries/mates a woman from the “right” family, and soon they produce a child, Henrietta. But time proves mom is a little too human, signaling to Henry her genes need to be bred out of their daughter to improve the bloodline. And yes, it is as sick as it sounds. Henrietta becomes the perfect pupil and victim of her father’s dogma and the privilege and entitlement that comes with the Forge brand. Although her mother’s humanity eventually surfaces in Henrietta, consistent with the theme for this book, author Morgan (pictured) doesn’t let any good come of it.  

(Click on Read More Below)

A Love Letter to Texas Women by Sarah Bird

In this pretty little gift book, Bird, in her uniquely charming and entertaining style, pays short but sweet tribute to iconic Texas women so recognizable they don’t even need last names, Lady Bird, Ann, Laura, Molly, Barbara, and to the rest of us Texas gals who are members of the noble club of women with unmatched grit and good hair.

Like many of the fabulous women who prop up the Lone Star, Bird wasn’t born in Texas, but she got here as soon as she could - as if there’s a special magnetic force pulling the best of our gender within the bounds of our huge, crazy, wonderful state of mind.

So here’s your unofficial official yellow rose Ms. Bird. Consider yourself Texas-womanized!

What I'm Reading Now

(All book descriptions are from Goodreads)

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
From a former Marine and Yale Law School Graduate, a poignant account of growing up in a poor Appalachian town, that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. Part memoir, part historical and social analysis, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a fascinating consideration of class, culture, and the American dream.

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen
In 2009, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performed at the Super Bowl’s halftime show. The experience was so exhilarating that Bruce decided to write about it. That’s how this extraordinary autobiography began. Over the past seven years, Bruce Springsteen has privately devoted himself to writing the story of his life, bringing to these pages the same honesty, humor, and originality found in his songs.

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly 
Set against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South and the civil rights movement, the never-before-told true story of NASA’s African-American female mathematicians who played a crucial role in America’s space program—and whose contributions have been unheralded, until now.

I Loved Her in the Movies by Robert Wagner
In a career that has spanned more than sixty years Robert Wagner has witnessed the twilight of the Golden Age of Hollywood and the rise of television, becoming a beloved star in both media. During that time he became acquainted, both professionally and socially, with the remarkable women who were the greatest screen personalities of their day. I Loved Her in the Movies is his intimate and revealing account of the charisma of these women on film, why they became stars, and how their specific emotional and dramatic chemistries affected the choices they made as actresses as well as the choices they made as women.

In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi
When the feminist writer learned that her 76-year-old father—long estranged and living in Hungary—had undergone sex reassignment surgery, that investigation would turn personal and urgent. How was this new parent who identified as “a complete woman now” connected to the silent, explosive, and ultimately violent father she had known, the photographer who’d built his career on the alteration of images?

Last Girl Before Freeway: The Life, Loves, Losses, and Liberation of Joan Rivers by Leslie Bennetts
Joan Rivers was more than a legendary comedian; she was an icon and a role model to millions, a fearless pioneer who left a legacy of expanded opportunity when she died in 2014. Her life was a dramatic roller coaster of triumphant highs and devastating lows: the suicide of her husband, her feud with Johnny Carson, her estrangement from her daughter, her many plastic surgeries, her ferocious ambition and her massive insecurities.