Sunday, June 14, 2020

100 Things I Want To Tell My Children And Grandchildren, #36

We’re going to be OK.

As I sit here at my computer reflecting on our world over the first six months of 2020 – the COVID-19 pandemic, the political, religious, and social divisions that are tearing our world apart, I feel guilt and fear. Guilt because I know I am partially to blame for why we are where we are right now, and afraid because I fear I’ll die before we can fix it. 

But those feelings are fleeting, because this isn’t our first rodeo. Earth, America and I have seen rock bottom before and survived, and we will do it again.

My personal grit was inherited from my mom and dad. 

Way before I came along my Dad was a very successful businessman in Oklahoma, but lost it all during the depression. The story goes he gave everything he had to the starving families in Chickasha, Oklahoma. And when he had no more to give, he packed up and moved to Dallas where he open a grocery store (pictured), then to west Texas to become a successful contractor building roads to the oil fields to supply fuel needed during WW II. When my Dad died, there were more than 100 funeral sprays from people all over Texas, and so many “covered dishes” there weren’t enough surfaces in our house to hold them all. In a little town with less than 1,200 people, that speaks to how respected and liked my dad was.

When my mom’s father deserted her and her mother, and her mother was subsequently committed to a mental institution in San Antonio, my mom was raised by her grandmother on a farm north of Dallas. When her grandmother died, as a young teen, mom (pictured) went to live with her uncle, a Judge in Dallas, where she met my dad. She dropped out of school and moved to west Texas with my Dad, where over a period of 29 years, they married (twice, with a short-lived divorce in between), had five kids, and went broke and recovered several times. Mom went back to high school at the age of 40, after having five kids, and completed her college degree – something few west Texas women did back then.

When my dad died mom had to sell everything to pay off all the loans owned for large construction equipment, leaving us nothing. We lived in a tiny little house on less than $300 a month, which we wouldn’t have had if mom hadn’t completed her college degree and become a teacher. 

My low point came when the father of my children and I divorced. I though marriage and love were forever, and I thought I’d never recover, but I did. We all did.  

Our nation and world have grit too. We’ve recovered from civil wars and world wars lasting decades, cancer, many financial devastations, and other pandemics. 911 banded us together as a nation to fight a common enemy, and the COVID-19 pandemic could have had the same effect, but instead it became politicized. 

It seems everything has become so much more politicized and emotional since the elections of Barack Obama and Donald Trump. I've never see so much anger and hatred. We seem on the verge of another civil war, but the battle lines won't be geographic, they'll be political. I believe we are being manipulated through social media, to incite hate, fear and division, and to break down the American bond, to overpower us. 

But just as my mom and dad rose above their challenges, I rose above mine, and our nation and world have risen above many, but not all their challenges, America MUST wake up to the fact that “United we stand, Divided we fall”. 

It may take a while, and more pain and suffering, but we’re going to be OK.

Cluster Critiques

Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators by Ronan Farrow

When a potentially damaging indiscretion occurs with a celebrity or public figure, “fixers” execute what is called “catch and kill”. Catch/pay off parties to the activity, and kill/legally (or illegally) stop the possibility of public disclosure. Ronan Farrow’s book is primarily about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s decades-long, serial rape and sexual harassment of young actresses dependent upon his perceived make-or-break power. 

As a reporter for NBC, Farrow pursued a years-long campaign to bring Weinstein to justice, and probably also to enhance his journalistic career. This book is pretty much the blow-by-blow (no pun intended) of his efforts, which ends with Weinstein’s fall from his throne. 

Farrow’s own family’s scandals involving his father, Woody Allen’s alleged sexual abuse of his adopted daughter are an underlying thread running through this expose. 

Despite Weinstein’s hideous proclivities being common knowledge in the industry, NBC foot-dragging and despicable (but entertaining) legal, investigative and PR hanky-panky shielded him far too long. Seems the only people who didn’t know about Weinstein’s predatory and illegal activities were his friends Meryl Streep and Hillary Clinton. I can't help but wonder if they were exploiting his power for their own purposes and just looking the other way. If so, that’s troubling too.  

Farrow throws in the revolting Matt Lauer story, which according to NBC staff-gossip, everyone knew about – everyone including, Tom Brokaw. Katie Couric, Hoda Kotb and others. No one was innocent. Good book.

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling)

Are our standards different for genre writing then literary fiction? Does the added burden of crafting a mystery or plotting a thriller suck all the creativity out a writer? I’ve slogged through so many mediocre (yet extremely popular) genre books, desperately searching for the magic combination of writing and plot excellence. Of course, when Patricia Highsmith is your benchmark, you’re a pretty harsh critic. What does this have to do with The Cuckoo's Calling. Everything, because I feel like I’ve discovered a new provider of literary mysteries. 

Subtitled “A Strike Novel” in reference to the main character of The Cuckoo's Calling, Cormoran Strike, a British war veteran turned private detective. In Strike, Galbraith smartly creates the lovable roque gals like me are such a sucker for. He’s lost his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, can’t pay his bills, his long-time girlfriend has broken his heart, and he’s sleeping on a cot in his office. Sounds like several of my X’s.

Cuckoo is a super model who’s fall from the balcony of her London penthouse is ruled a suicide by the police – that is until her brother hires Strike to investigate her death. Galbraith plunges Strike into the world of money, high fashion, rock and roll and all their trapping, traps and players – where nothing and no one are as they seem. We know what’s going on and who did what, and then we don’t, essential elements of a good mystery, taking us right up to the final few pages with a better than average surprise ending. If you have a taste for lovable screw-ups, you’ll enjoy Cormoran Strike, and if you like a well-penned mystery, you’ll enjoy The Cuckoo’s Calling.

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson

I didn’t know I was interested in Winston Churchill’s extended family and his various ministerial minions. But then Erik Larson, author of some of the best non-fiction ever written Devil in the White City, Isaac’s Storm, Dead Wake, and In The Garden of Beast, could write about peanut butter and make it spellbinding. His latest, The Splendid and the Vile, set in the early days of WWII, is about Winston Churchill’s wife, and his son and four daughters and their spouses, all of who, like we, have flaws, and yet compose a sweetly close family. It is also about Churchill’s peculiar, though brilliant leadership style conducted within his tight circle of war advisors. For example, he often had conversations and meetings while he sat in his bathtub, or while walking around naked, puffing on his cigar and swigging from his bottomless glass of scotch whisky. This book is also about his desperate struggle to lure America into WW II for relief and support during Adolph Hitler’s relentless, cruel bombing of England - the Blitz. As I read this book in the middle, end of, beginning (not sure) of the COVID-19 pandemic it made me appreciate that things could be worse, and sadly I suspect they will be. If you love history, you’ll be charmed. If not, move on.

The Jetsetters by Amanda Eyre Ward

When asked how she dreamed up The Jetsetters, author Eyre Ward’s first and best-seller novel, she said, “One morning I was sitting in my kitchen while my kids were eating Lucky Charms … and a small voice in my mind said, Amanda, you do not belong in a Texas kitchen in a worn-out, pink bathrobe. You belong on a cruise ship balcony, gazing out at a foreign sea!” 

Dad, a bully, with the circumstances of his death leaves a smear of guilt on the entire family - inspiring a check-list of mild neurosis in the now grown kids – unsettled homosexuality, a failed acting career, and obesity. Mom, writes a saucy romance story, enters it in a writing contest, and wins the first place prize, a cruise for four. She then gently browbeats her three children into coming along. The Jetsetters packs up family disfunction and takes it on a Mediterranean cruise, providing a unique, fun setting for drama, conflict and humor. Mom just wants her kids to rise above their issues, love her, love each other, and love themselves. But can salt air fix that? 

Ward’s writing skills keep the narrative crisp and surprising, and the characters and their issues keep us turning pages. If you’re looking for a light read about people with more flaws than you, but don’t want the burden of heavy emotion and mental aerobics, here’s your book.

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe

Many a sad story has been written about the extended (1960-1998) Catholic vs Protestant “Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. But as is often the case, in the hands of the right writer, even the most exploited and explored historic accounts can take on new life, Such is the case of Say Nothing. The story author Keefe weaves begins with, and frequently reflects back on the “disappearing” of Jean McConville, a young mother in Belfast suspected of conspiring for the wrong side in a neighborhood where taking sides means everything. But the book is substantially the depressing tale of two sisters, Dolours and Marian Price, born into the militant Irish Republic Army (IRA) and suspected in the death of McConville. The account of their horrific, extended incarceration and martyrdom for other related militant activities are simultaneously inspiring and repugnant. Deftly told, Say Nothing is not only an alluring, albeit uncomfortable history lesson, but also feels eerily like a cautionary tale of what happens when religious zealotry turns a nation, neighbors and even families against each other. If you are interested in the history of the Troubles of Northern Ireland, read it. Otherwise, you can check this one off your list.

Full Disclosure by Stormy Daniels

When we judge people we are asking for trouble, whether it is racial and religious prejudice, homophobia, condemnation of adult prostitution, women who make their living dancing in adult clubs and/or performing in pornography. Like a pretty wise guy once said, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”  

In her surprisingly interesting, humorous and well-penned book, Full Disclosure, author and pornographic actress, writer and director Stormy Daniels, reveals her difficult childhood, and eventual adult life in the world of “porn” and “titty-dancing” (to use her unvarnished terms), even confirming - spoiler-alert - there’s nothing real about pornography – it’s monotonous, industrial, and since she’s one of the first women in porn to rise to the level of writer/director/producer, very lucrative. Daniels seems a funny, smart, gal who doesn’t apologize for who she is, and her book, mostly received positive reviews. Yes, she slept with Donald Trump, and talks about it briefly in her book, but is candid in saying it was mutually opportunistic (and pretty gross). Let she who has not slept with someone she wished she hadn’t cast the first stone. You won’t be sorry if you read Full Disclosure.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

100 Things I Want To Tell My Children And Grandchildren, #35

Books Can Change Your Life

I’m probably doing something terribly illegal here, but when I saw the article in today’s New York Times, The Book That Changed My Life, I read every single one of the stories and was so glad.  I was also reminded of the book that changed my life, and I knew I wanted “Books Can Change Your Life” to be my #34 of the 100 Things I Want To Tell My Children And Grandchildren. 

The World’s Great Religions was one of those coffee table Time-Life books so popular during the 50’s, the size and heft of a bag of cement and chocked full of colorful pictures. It talked about the ten or so most highly practiced religions of the world, and as a six-year-old I remember thinking, “Where are the Baptists?” I had no idea that come Sunday morning everyone in the world didn’t put on their best garb, grab the covered dish out of the oven, and head over to their Methodist or Baptist Church for Sunday school then church.

But in the book there were dark-skinned women in iridescent saris, cows being worshiped, rooms full of prostrate praying men and no women, cathedrals draped in gold, men with curls instead of sideburns, and statues with many arms and one foot in the air as though dancing. Who were these people? And who were Allah, Buddha and Shiva? 

In addition to attending the Methodist Church in my little home town, when doing sleep-overs with friends I also went to their churches  - Baptist, Church of Christ, Pentecostal, and Christian. Not sure why, but my Catholic buddies were never allowed to bring me along and I really wanted to go. All that getting down on your knees and the pageantry seemed so glamorous and exciting. 

The common thread of all the services I attended was “We’re right, they’re wrong and they’ll go to hell for it, and you’ll go to hell if you’re not good, but even if you’re not good, but you’re sorry, you’ll be OK”. And there seemed to be a conspicuous lack of scientific proof for any of the various beliefs. 

Significantly due to The World’s Great Religions, I grew to believe that if 8-billion people couldn’t agree, it was beyond me to reconcile. So my religion is just this: Be nice and help others when you can.  

What book changed your life?

Click on "Read More" below for “The Book That Changed My Life from the New York Times

Cluster Critiques

Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations by William H. McRaven

Gal-friend of 35+ years Nan McRaven mentioned I should check out her brother Bill’s most recent book, Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations, and it sounded like a title my husband might enjoy listening to. We were doing our annual “Tour de Family” holiday road trip to drop off/open gifts, and then on to a couple days lying around, eating, drinking and reading at the Hotel Saint George in Marfa, and needed a good audio book to listen to in the car.

I knew William (Bill) McRaven,  a four-star Navy Admiral  in charge of the US Special Operations Command, had organized and overseen the execution of Operation Neptune Spear, the raid that led to the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011, but I learned there were lots of other things about McRaven I didn’t know, like his involvement in the capture of Saddam Hussein and the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips (played by Tom Hanks in the movie, Captain Phillips).

McRaven’s descriptions of Phillips rescue, the capture and interrogation of Hussein, and of the killing of bin Laden are thrilling, specific and well-told. His story about his SEAL training, which consisted of weeding out the weak, indecisive, and uncommitted, took up much of his book, but it also laid the foundation for McRaven’s military and life successes. 

Sea Stories was terrifically entertaining, not just because of the high-profile operations in which McRaven played leadership roles, but also because it was well-written, well-read (audible version) and because McRaven came across, aside from his amazing achievements, as a regular guy who uses profanity when called for, kicks back with a drink to relax, occasionally screws up, and even gets fired from a job.

Sea Stories will end up being on, or at least near the top of, the best books I read in 2019. Read it.

A Texas Goes to Nirvana: Hairy Arm…I mean Hari Ommmm! by Kelly Jackson

I don’t recall how and when I met Kelly Jackson (Author/Yoga Guru/Horsegal) and her sister Sally (Actress/Scouting Agent for Speilberg), but I want to be them when I grow up. They have incredible attitudes and senses of humor, and that will get you further than anything I know. 

Kelly, the younger sister (sorry SalGal), is the author of A Texan Goes To Nirvana about a recently, divorced NYC woman, Wendy, who in a desperate attempt to gather her wits and make a living decides to go to an ashram in Kentucky to get certified to teach yoga. But A Texan Goes To Nirvana isn’t just a divorce-recovery thing. We get our first clue when the receptionist at the Ashram says to Wendy, “We very much look forward to eating you,” and it just gets better, with some espionage and romance thrown in the mix.   

This is a well-written, hilarious book with a fun storyline that you will truly enjoy! Read it.

Call Me God: The Untold Story of the DC Sniper Investigation by Jim Clemente, Tim Clemente, and Peter McDonnell

I couldn’t imagine I would enjoy this book about the infamous DC sniper murders so much, but Call Me God is an excellent example of how good writing and production can elevate a story beyond its seeming potential.  Over 23 days in 2002, two snipers randomly shot and killed 10 and critically injured another three in the DC area, leaving very few clues and escaping unseen. Although the reason for the carnage, and the snipers' insistence they be called “God” isn’t revealed until the end of the book, the pace of the story, pushed by killing nearly every 24 hours - the relentless clock ticking - along with the complexities and intricacies of the investigation (behavioral, ballistics and forensics), make this a fast-paced cliff-hanger you’ll have a hard time putting down. If you like true crime and law enforcement investigations you’ll enjoy Call Me God.

The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West by David McCullough

I have enjoyed David McCullough’s books, favorites being The Path Between the SeasThe Great Bridge, and Johnstown Flood, but I didn’t particularly enjoy The Pioneers. It says it is about the expansion of the Northwest territory between 1787 to 1863, but seemed stuck pretty much on the story of the settling of Marietta, Ohio. I love and read a lot of history, but this book was frequently dry, the characters were hard to keep straight, and I my mind tended to wander. It also seemed strangely missing information about interactions with the native populations in the area. On the positive side, you do learn about several new characters who played pivotal role in the early settlements – and that was a somewhat interesting addition to the shallow and redundant stories and characters usually offered up in historical accounts. I can’t really recommend it.

Before We were Yours: A Novel by Lisa Wingate

Before We were Yours is a fictionalize story based on one of America’s most notorious real-life scandals - in which Georgia Tann, director of a Memphis-based adoption organization, kidnapped and sold children to wealthy families all over the country. Wingate’s story is told from the perspective of two main characters. In 1939, Rill is 12 years old and she and her four younger siblings who are dirt poor but happily living on a Mississippi shanty boat are torn apart when t kidnapped and taken to an orphanage to be sold to the highest bidder. The other character is Avery, born into wealth, but struggling to feel comfortable with the expectations of her family and social circle. When she accidentally stumbles into information that raises questions about the origins of her family members,  and has a chance encounter with an elderly woman who claims to know her, she is compelled into a mystery of twist and turns. The stories of Rill and Avery overlap mysteriously and flawlessly, creating a fast-paced story that keeps the reader engaged. 

Wingate’s skill at imagining and creating very real feeling characters, and her skill at developing empathy for those characters is key to the drive of this story – characters who say things like: 
“I want a pain that has a beginning and an end, not one that goes on forever and cuts all the way to the bone,” and, “It’s funny how what you’re used to seems like it’s right even if it’s bad.” 

In our discussion of Before We were Yours at my book club, some who read the hardcover felt it wasn’t that well written, but those who listened to the audible version felt it was beautifully written, which must be a tribute to the narrator of the audible version.  Several also said  Before We were Yours felt similar to Where the Crawdads Sing, so if you read Crawdads and loved it, you may enjoy Before We were Yours as well. I’m so partial to reading nonfiction, it takes an extraordinary story to impress me.  Before We were Yours impressed me.

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell

I was beginning to think Malcom Gladwell had made so much money off The Tipping PontBlink, and Outliers he didn’t need or want to write again. I was wrong, but it took him six year to get back in the game with Talking to Strangers, which unlike his other writings, felt strangely grim. 

Although full of interesting stories, I was confused by Talking to Strangers. I couldn’t figure out if Gladwell was making the point that people so desperately want to trust each other that they overlook horrible realities, or if he was saying we just misunderstand each other. He references examples of us not being circumspect enough, like Hitler fooling British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain into thinking he wasn’t doing anything wrong, Larry Nassar sexually abusing female gymnasts for years, and the guy who finally busted Bernie Madoff when everybody else still thought he was a great guy.

But then Gladwell says we base our relationships with strangers on what media tells us about them - like, cops kill black people and black people are criminals - with catastrophic outcomes. He delves deeply, and in length, about Sandra Bland, a Black woman, stopped by a cop near the campus of Prairie View A&M University. The interaction between Bland and the cop eventually disintegrates into a physical confrontation and the incarceration of Ms. Bland, who is found hanged in her jail cell the next morning.  Gladwell’s conclusion, Sandra and the cop simply misunderstood each other. 

Do we trust people too much, or not enough? I can’t say I really love the book. Also, since I listened to the audible version I had to listen to a Janelle MonĂ¡e song between chapters, which seemed to have special meaning to the book, but I couldn’t understand the lyrics of the song so it was just irritating.  Gladwell’s storytelling was great as usual, but the point he was trying to make felt obtuse.  Life’s too short and there ae too many good books out there. I’m sort of sorry I spent my time on this one. 

The Book of Gutsy Women by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton

The Clinton’s don’t put out anything but good books – interesting, detailed, well-written etc. but maybe I’ve read too many of them. In spite of the fact that Gutsy Women is not about Hillary or Chelsea, but rather about many of the world’s more obscure and amazing women, each story is prefaced with sort of pithy recounts of Hillary and Chelsea’s connections to those women. I found myself wanting to skip the introductions of the women by Hillary and Chelsea and go straight to the women’s stories. Also, I listened to the audio version of the book and the contrast between Hillary’s booming, almost Barbara Jordan-ish voice, compared to the young-ish and sometimes weirdly paced voice of Chelsea, was very close to annoying. I recommend you read the hardcover or paperback version. You will learn about some inspiring, diverse, gutsy women who exhibited extraordinary courage in the paths they took in life.

Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots by Kate Devlin

I jumped head first (no pun intended) into Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots because I have an insatiable curiosity and was intrigued by the technology and history aspects of sex toys. It started off so well that within 50 pages I’d recommended it to several people. Devlin has a pretty sharp sense of humor, and has done her homework, spanning the history of sexual devices from ancient Greece to current day. And although it would be ridiculous to imagine sex devices haven’t been around forever, it was fun and funny to read about all the early sex toys. Eventually the author breeches the topic of sex robots, and some related issues I wouldn’t have even though of, like what is needed in a sex robot. Does it just need to be a penis or a place to put it, or does it need to appear human, alive, and include artificial intelligence, speech, logic, conversation? 

And then there were the ethical issues associated with sex robots, such as child-sized robots and the impact on women. Would it encourage objectification, or worse, rape? Would robots used in porn and prostitution result in less sex trafficking and exploitation? Would you believe there are already sex doll brothels all around the world?

I have to admit that I lost interest about 2/3 way through when the author seemed to languish too much in the examination of the sociological issues and the people involved, and less in the potential capacities and future of the technology and devices themselves. I finished the book feeling not satisfied. Make of that what you want.

What I’m Reading Now

The Dutch House: A Novel by Ann Patchett (Also wrote the unsurpassed Bel Canto) – A glass mansion, a runaway mom, a distant father, and a mean stepmother. 

Priced Out: The Economic and Ethical Costs of American Heath Care by Uwe E.  Reinhardt and Paul Krugman – Why America’s subpar medical system care cost so much, and what to do about it.

Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators by Ronan Farrow (Mia Farrow and Woody Allen’s Son) - Harvey Weinstein and Black Cube, the mysterious Israeli firm Weinstein hired to conduct blackmail intelligence to protect him from his crimes.

The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir by Samantha Power - A worldly, Irish-American transplant survives an overachieving mom and alcoholic dad to become US Ambassador to the United Nations under President Obama. 

 The Which Way Tree by Elizabeth Crook – In the Texas Hill Country during the Civil War, a young woman tracks down the panther that attacked her family, horrible scared her face, and killed her mother. 

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence by Michael Pollan – Revived clinical interest in psychedelics.

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Kefe – History of Northern Ireland, “the Troubles,” and the people who caused or were caught in the Troubles.

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker –  Intellectualized optimism.

King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild –  The title says it well.

Conviction by Denise Mena – A sunken yacht, a murdered family, and an international conspiracy that gets personal.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

100 Things I Want to Tell My Children and Grandchildren, #34

Famous/Quasi-Famous People I’ve Known or Met

Ann Richards, Governor of Texas

My memories of Ann are so rich and deep I hardly know where to begin. Perhaps the memory for which I am most proud, was the inaugural parade. About 25 Texas Women’s Political Caucus members and I were selling the “A Woman’s Place is in the Dome” t-shirts all along the parade route, and I looked up to see Ann walking down congress to the Capital with a huge procession of supporters alongside and behind her. She yelled out “SueAnn, come here, come join me”. Unfortunately, I had a box full of t-shirts I couldn’t abandon and couldn’t join her, but I was extremely proud of that moment. Proud of Ann for making it into the Governorship, proud of women being so powerfully represented, and proud of the small part I play in all that.

I was President of the Texas Women’s Political Caucus when Ann was appointed State Treasurer and when she ran and won the Texas Governor’s seat. Because of our relationship, my famous graphic designer husband designed several ads for her campaign. She loved to flirt with him, suggesting I should share, to which I jokingly responded that I’m sure we could work something out. This is to say I was fairly involved in her campaign, and was, in fact, a member of her Capital Committee, which was a sort of honorary steering committee.  

We held a fundraiser for her at the National Women’s Political Caucus annual conference in Minneapolis, and the turnout was so overwhelming that we literally had hotel security limiting the number of people who could enter the room because of fire regulations. I had so many women virtually throwing money at me to give to Ann that I began stuffing it into my bra. Later that night at dinner with Ann and a couple of other people, much to our amusement, after I thought I’d already given Ann all the funds we raised at the event, I kept feeling something scratching against my chest, and found another $700, which I pulled out of my bra and handed over to Ann. We laughed so hard. It was a heady time! 

And lastly, is the memory of Texas Women’s Political Caucus float in a parade just prior to Ann’s Election to Governor. The float consisted of an eight-foot-tall replica of the Texas Capital Dome, with a large “A Woman’s Place is in the Dome” sign. We put as many elected women officials as possible, as well as firewomen, policewomen, etc. on the float.  And my 84 year old mom got to ride on that float. She was so proud and excited.

First Lady Hillary Clinton, US Senator, Secretary of State

Although I promoted and supported Hillary Clinton in the bid for the Presidency, I didn’t meet her until June 2015, at a fundraiser at Suzanne and Marc Winkelman’s.  Funny thing happened, when the special security checked my bag I forgot I had a knife in there - I joked and said us Texas girls always carry knives, but I don't think they were amused, and of course they made me remove it from my bag. They were probably keeping an eye on me the entire party too.

When I told Hillary my five-year-old (at the time) granddaughter asked me to ask her what's her favorite thing to do, despite a long line of people patiently waiting to be photographed with her, she replied, "Well you tell your little granddaughter that I love to swim, and I love to play with my dogs. But my most favorite thing to do is to play with my new little granddaughter Charlotte." America is the only industrialized nation yet to elect a woman President/top leader. What are we waiting for? Was Hillary Clinton perfect? No. Who is? If we wait for a woman candidate who is perfect, it will never happen. Are any of the male presidents or male presidential candidates perfect? No. Why do we hold women to a different standard? Women really need to cut each other a little more slack, and they need to stick together. Why? Because the female perspective is important. Not more important, just important.

Click on Read More Below to Continue

100 Things I Want to Tell My Children and Grandchildren, #33

Don’t get married until you’re older.
 (Me at age 18, just a few months before my marriage, and much too young.)

My #33, “Don’t get married until you’re older,” is inspired by my grandchildren reaching the age where they have and/or will start thinking about marriage. As I pondered the issue of what to tell my grandkids about marriage, and whether what I say has any value, a vivid memory popped into my mind.  

It is 1978, and I’m sitting in my sister Dorothy’s car in front of our mother’s house. As I told her why I was unhappy in my marriage and wanted to leave my children’s father, and asked her what she thought I should do, I watched pain unfold across her face and tears fill her eyes, because she too had struggled with her marriage. Then after a minute heavy with both of our disappointments, failures and regrets, she said, “I can tell you what I think you should do, but it won’t matter.  You will do what you want to”. 

She was right. I wasn’t looking for advice, I was looking for validation. 

Having been married several times unsuccessfully I don’t know if that qualifies me to be a good advisor on marriage, or a horrible one, or both. If it were a business decision, we could simply compare the pros and cons, but it’s not, it’s a business decision made under the influence of the most potent mind-altering drug in the world, love.  

Click on Read More Below to Continue

Cluster Critiques

Waters Plantation by Myra Hargrave McIlvain
Five Presidents by Clint Hill and Lisa McCubbin
The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates 
Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman
The Woman's Hour by Elaine Weiss

Waters Plantation by Myra Hargrave McIlvain

I worry about reading and reviewing books written by friends. What if I don't’ like it? What if it isn’t well written. Then what do I do? 

Apparently, I have a knack for picking friends who are great writers, because Very Smart Gals Book Club member and friend, Myra Hargrave McIlvain, author of Waters Plantation, and other award-winning books, like Stein House and The Doctor’s Wife, never disappoints. 

Water Plantation brings together some of the characters in her previous books, tying together the stories of the decades long progression of Texas settlers through the turmoils of Mexican rule, Civil War, and Reconstruction. German Immigrant Amelia Stein, who suffered the loss of family and was trapped in a loveless marriage during her life in historic Indianola, is reunited with the man she fell in love with in New Orleans, and secretly lost a child from, plantation owner, Al Waters. Al, a former slave owner who conceived a son with a Black slave and secretly raised that child as white, struggles painfully as his Harvard Medical schooled son, Toby, returns to Brenham intent on embracing his biracial origins in a community still struggling with racial prejudice and an active Ku Klux Klan. 

McIlvain’s fictions of early Texas history include complicated, relatable characters, full of ambiguities, flaws, spirit and love - people trying to do the right things but not always succeeding – just like us, so, we care about them and feel for them. Waters Plantation is a beautifully told family saga, rich in texture with all the real-life ingredients that fill our everyday lives, and which filled the everyday lives of our Texas ancestors, and made Texas who and what it is today. 

You will enjoy this Texas historical novel. Read it.

Five Presidents: My Extraordinary Journey with Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford by Clint Hill and Lisa McCubbin

Five Presidents is an a-political, unsensationalized, personal, and unique, view into the lives of the American Presidents between the 1950’s and 1970’s - told from the perspective of the (not so) Secret Service Special Protective Detail for the Presidents during that time. Special Agent Clint Hill’s humbly told account is so full of history-making events (he was the agent that jumped on the back of the limo to protect Mrs. Kennedy seconds after John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas), that it has, as one astute reviewer noted, a Forrest Gump feel to it. 

Although I entered into this book mostly driven by a sort of perverse curiosity, I quickly found Mr. Hill’s apparent compassion, authenticity, and dedication quickly changed my interest to that of simply hearing a well-told story about interesting people in interesting circumstances and times – which is at the heart of any good book. 

Read Five Presidents and learn unique information about the lives of some of our Presidents - like Eisenhower played golf and Kennedy swam every afternoon no matter what was going on in the world, and Johnson spent most of his Presidency at his Johnson City ranch.  You will also learn about the quality, sacrifices, and dedication of at least one member of our Secret Service.

You will enjoy Five Presidents. Read it.

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Monday, August 5, 2019

100 Things I Want to Tell My Children and Grandchildren, #32

Books have significantly written my life.

The past two months have been hard. My husband, Crouse, who has a congenital heart condition, has undergone three dangerous but life-saving surgeries, and has suffered three Transient Ischemic Attacks (TIAs, mini-strokes), costing him heart-breaking losses in his capacity to articulate, and some difficulty keeping his balance. For the 30 years Crouse and I have been mates we’ve professed we’d rather die than live diminished physical or mental quality of life. But there’s a powerful will to live default in the human psyche. With each new health challenge, we find ourselves desperately clinging to life, in any form, and being thankful for it.  

We all have life challenges on an almost daily basis, but facing death so closely will make you especially introspective. This week, when not conducting the astoundingly demanding job of advocating for my husband’s hospital care, and keeping up with my work schedule, which is intense, I’ve been reading a book about the Los Angeles Central Library arson in 1986 (see my below review of The Library Book by Susan Orlean), which has made me think a lot about my mom and her books, my books, and how books have been a constant in my life.

Another recent incident inspiring memories of my mother and her love affair with reading was the death of a mother of a childhood friend.  The last time I saw Helen Wright, she and Marie Smithson, mother of another childhood friend were at my mother's funeral, and told me a lovely story about my mom that I’d never heard. My family lived in a small west Texas town surrounded by “oil camps”, which were clusters of homes out in the more remote areas provided to the families of men working in the oil fields. Helen and Marie told me that in the early 1940’s, years before my mother successfully led efforts to get the county to establish a library in our community, she maintained an informal lending library in our home, and loaned books to the oil camp wives who came into town every two weeks to buy groceries.

That triggered other book-related memories. In my childhood home, unlike my friends, I was surrounded by books newspapers and magazines, but I never thought of it as anything extraordinary. Then, when my high school sweetheart took me to his family’s ranch to meet his mom, I fell a little more in love with him when I saw his mom too was living in a home library – books cluttering practically every surface.  

I also recall, as a young bride living on that ranch, seeing an article about Jacqueline Kennedy, post-White House, when she was a consulting editor for Viking Press. There was a photo of her in her Manhattan living room, surrounded by stacks of books. I remember wanting both my beautiful country life and the innately smart people I shared my life with there, AND the Jacqueline Kennedy cosmopolitan lifestyle, surrounded by books and “the intelligentsia” of New York. Although life doesn’t always take you down the path you imagine, and indeed, mine has been circuitous, in a way I have achieved that ideal. My children all live on their family ranches, where I can visit and enjoy the many unique benefits associated with the country lifestyle, in addition to the urbane lifestyle Crouse and I enjoy here in Austin.

The retirement and legacy I hope to live and leave is significantly about books as well. I’ve been buying books for about 20 years, and my plan is to read every one of them again when I retire, and then donate them to my hometown library in honor of my mother. It is also gratifying to know that all three of my children are readers – and doubtless they will pass that on to their children, who will pass it along to theirs. And that is my mother’s legacy, and mine.

In May 1994, John Kennedy Jr. announced his mother’s death to the press, saying she had died, “surrounded by her friends and her family and her books, the people and the things that she loved". Hopefully, someday my children will say that about me too. 

Cluster Critiques

In Pieces by Sally Field

I though Sally Field was possibly the happiest person in the world. She was the girl we all wanted to be. Pretty, funny, happy, a cheerleader.  But in Field’s well-written, yet heart-wrenching autobiography, In Pieces, we are reminded that even famous people are occasionally forced to traipse through the cesspool of life.

Sally and her siblings grew up in a broken home until her semi-famous actress mother married semi-famous stuntman, Jock Mahoney, and Sally, like too many children, had to face a childhood unsuitable for a child. When she became a teen her assent to fame was quick and final, putting her on an unstoppable and treacherous treadmill to maintain celebrity and to vie for better roles. She seemed to always be desperate for money and stability, which is not something I would have imagined for such a famous actress. Maybe actors are just better at acting like they’re doing better than they really are. 

Not that Sally Field didn’t do well as an actress. She did. She won three Emmys and two Oscars, and starred in some great movies, including, “Forrest Gump," Norma Rae”, and my personal favorite, “Steel Magnolias”. She was also Burt Reynold’s lover for years, and remained his very close friend and confidant until he died (the story of which Field tells with touching humanity). But it doesn’t seem life was ever easy for Sally Field.

There was a part of me that felt Field’s story was nothing short of a cellular-level shoulder cry, an off-loading of a lifetime of too many sorrows and challenges, and not enough joy. But there was another part of me that felt Field was doing what she does best, acting. It wasn't that I didn’t believe her dramatic life-story of childhood abuse and exploitation, professional struggles, marriage difficulties, and classic mother-daughter conflicts, but at times, especially since I listened to the audio version of the book, which was read by Sally, I felt she was playing the role of her life, and playing it well.

Sally’s story, In Pieces, was interesting, well written, and in the audible format, well performed. I believe Sally Field is as genuine as she seems. I liked her book, and I like her!

Circe by Madeline Miller

Wow! What a soap opera – a Greek one at that.  Circe is the quasi-family saga of an unfavored daughter of a particularly nasty Greek God and Goddess, and who is condemned to an isolated island for mingling with mortals and dabbling in witchcraft. I have vague recollections of a book about the Greek Gods my mom had around the house when I was a kid, and recognized the names of some of the bit role players in Circe, including Zeus, Minotaur, Icarus, Medea, and Odysseus. What I don’t remember was how ridiculously dysfunctional the characters of Greek Mythology were – or at least according to Madeline Miller anyway. If Circe reflects the original writings, I think the adage, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” must have been coined in reference to Greek Gods. 

I also don’t remember there being so much sex, unless I simply didn’t recognize it as such at my young age. Or maybe mom’s book was the “sanitized” version. Anyway, there’s plenty of it in Circe. There’s loveless, passionate sex, there passionate love sex, infidelity sex, rape and more rape, oh and I almost forgot, there’s even bestiality. 

There’s also gobs of misogyny, hate, cruelty, and just plain bullying between the Gods and Goddesses of greater and lesser status, and marterism, and revenge – LOTS! Oh yes, and sea monsters and turning men who are male chauvinist pigs into literal pigs. 

So, this all sounds like I didn’t like Circe, but I did. Not so much the story, which was just mildly amusing, and a bit sluggish at times, but rather Miller’s writing, which was imaginative and lyrical. Also, the narrator, Perdita Weeks, (audible book) has a beautiful voice and did an exceptional job making Circe probably more interesting then she might have seemed on paper. Here are a few of my favorite passages. 

“He showed me his scars, and in return he let me pretend that I had none.” 

“So many years I had spent as a child sifting his bright features for his thoughts, trying to glimpse among them one that bore my name. But he was a harp with only one string, and the note it played was himself. 

 “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open.” 

If you like clever nuanced writing, and don’t mind that the story drags a bit, you’ll like Circe.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

I love it when I pick out an audio book to listen to on a road-trip and my husband says, “I don’t want to listen to that.  It sounds boring.” Then after being forced to listen to it for a while, upon embarking on a subsequent road trip says, “Why don’t you put back on that book about the library fire”. That’s what happened with The Library Book by Susan Orlean, which is about the 1986 arson of the Los Angeles Central library, which took firefighters more than seven hours to extinguish, destroyed more than 400,000 books and damaged more than 700,000 books. 

Sound boring? Maybe you’d be interested in the crime investigation aspect. Who started the fire? Why? How? I won’t spoil it by telling you much more than there’s a good bit of the book dedicated to the investigation, and I found it all mesmerizing. 

Then there’s the history of libraries in general, and in Los Angeles specifically. I can picture your eyes glazing over right now, and in the hands of most, that history could be sleep inducing. But author Susan Orlean has the enviable skill of turning seemingly mundane topics, like library fires and orchid thieves (reference Orleans fab book-to-movie starring Meryl Streep, The Orchid Thief) into heart-racing, tear-inducing, edge-of-your-seat stories. The sordid, crazy history of Los Angeles, even told in the context of the history of libraries in Los Angeles, was surprisingly intriguing. I loved The Library Book and was sad when it ended.