Monday, September 6, 2021

Cluster Critiques


Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir

Project Hail Mary is a fun syfy novel with gobs of futuristic technology, quantum physics and space aeronautics narrative, if you like that sort of thing, which I do, as long as it is science-based, logical and doesn’t exploit irrational human fears of  space monsters. Main character, Ryland Grace, a burned out subatomic particles researcher turned junior high science teacher, wakes up in a space ship with no idea how he got there or why. Eventually, he and we grow to understand he’s on a “hail Mary” mission to save the world from a bacteria that is consuming our sun’s energy. Weir is so precise in his science and clever in his plots and dialogue that we (well some of us anyway) love riding with him on his space adventures. Even if you didn’t read his other blockbuster novel, The Martian, I’ll bet you saw and enjoyed the movie. In Project Hail Mary, Ryland meets and befriends a spider-like robot from another civilization similarly devastated by the bacteria eating the sun, resulting in some incongruous, sweet relationship moments between Ryland and his new buddy “Rocky” the robot. I don’t read just any syfy, but Andy Weir is top gun in that genre in my opinion. So, if you’re syfy-curious, start with Project Hail Mary or The Martian.

 

A Question of Color, by  Sara Smith-Beattie

This book is an interesting and partly true late 19th century saga of a young half-Black, half-White man, John, and his half-black half-American Indian wife, Susan, trying to make a life together in the rural south, just a decade past the abolition of slavery and when interracial marriage was still illegal. John poses as American Indian descent to avoid arrest for his marriage to Susan, and they wrestle daily with the challenges of their race, their deception, and another even more threatening secret (no spoiler). Written completely in Ebonics, I was intrigued and even charmed by the unfamiliar language. I was also reminded of how small-town country life, regardless of how different it feels superficially to my big city existence, still reflects the universal dynamics and politics of any society of any size, any place in the world - those being, "my religion and my culture are right, and yours are wrong, we are wise, you are ignorant, we are entitled you are not." The story told in this book is simple, the circumstances are absolutely not, but the human spirit is courageous and John and Susan’s love gets them through seemingly insurmountable challenges. This is not a life-changing or particularly cerebral or well written book, but for whatever reason it kept my attention and I’m glad I read it.

 

The Push: A Novel, by Ashley Audrain

Blyth, a new mom suspects from the beginning there’s something wrong with her young daughter Violet, and soon learns in the most painful way possible for a parent, that Violet is mentally unhinged, conniving, murderous, and brilliant at hiding her persona from everyone but her mom. Motherhood at best is tough. For Blyth, it was a never-ending nightmare of fear and self-doubt perpetrated by her precious little daughter Violet.


This is a well-written psychological thriller, which you’ll only enjoy if you have an exceptional capacity to separate reality from fantasy, to enable you to appreciate good writing and a provocative storyline. If not, you’ll want to skip this dark story. It occurs to me, as I see The Push reaching best-seller level, this book could potentially slow down the universal birth-rate, due to prospective parents, who after reading The Push, fear they might spawn another little Violet. Pretty creepy book, but I personally loved it.


We Need to Talk About Kevin: A Novel, by Lionel Shriver

Speaking of depressing, sad, and absolutely horrifying parenting, The Push is a day at the beach compared to We Need to Talk About Kevin. Furthermore, although Ashley Audrain’s writing was superb, Lionel Shriver’s writing is so piercing and mesmerizing, you almost, but not quite, forget how creepy the story is. Whereas Blyth in The Push was excited to start a family, Eva, the mom in We Need to Talk About Kevin, who tells her story through a series of letters to her clueless husband, really wasn’t, which makes one question whether Kevin, who is so incredibly evil, and like Violet, committed to making the mom’s life a living hell, was the victim of a “bad seed” or influenced by his mom’s disdain for parenting (the old nature/nurture debate). Did Kevin’s incredible evilness evolve because his mom never liked him, or did his mom never like him because he was so evil?  There seems no bottom nor limit of imagination in Kevin’s evil-ness – especially towards his mom. From a very young age he psychologically tortures his mom, even when she visits him when he is a teen serving a prison sentence for horrific crimes I’ll not mention here (no spoiler). Like a bloody wreck on the highway, I couldn’t look away, and the writing is exceptional.


Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals,
 by Caitlin Doughty

Well at this point you’re probably wondering if I have an obsession with the morose but actually I just have an insatiable curiosity, including things people tend to not talk about, like what happens to our body after we die. My favorite book on this topic is Stiff by Mary Roach. The difference between Stiff and Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs is that Mary Roach is a highly respected researcher of many topics (sex, the afterlife, life on Mars, and the alimentary canal, I know bizarre stuff, right?), and Caitlin Doughty is a mortician with a wicked sense of humor and pretty good writing skills who likes to answer cute questions from elementary school children, like “Will my cat eat my eyeballs if I die in my house and no one is there?” This is a silly, simple but entertaining book that will reveal, in addition to the “eyeballs” question (yes, you can trust “Fluffy”), why the dead sometimes make weird noises, grow longer hair and fingernails, and other icky dead-people minutia. I can’t say run out and buy this book, but if you, like me, are obsessed with weird topics, read Mary Roach’s books instead. 

 

The Wreckage of My Presence: Essays, by Casey Wilson

One of my book club members recommended this as an easy, fun beach read, and it was. Casey Wilson, an American actress and screenwriter may be best known for spending a relatively brief stint on Saturday Night Live, but also starred as Penny Hartz in the ABC comedy series Happy Endings for which she was twice nominated to the Critics' Choice Television Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. I found her to be very readable, funny, entertaining and intelligent, and I enjoyed her book. If you want to read about Saturday Night Live, there are better books out there, like Live From New York, by James Andrew Miller, but Casey’s book is about much more than SNL. It’s about following your passion and dreams, overcoming adversity, living life on your terms when you can, and muddling through otherwise. If you like biographies, you’ll enjoy the wreckage of Casey Wilson’s presence.

 

While Justice Sleeps: A Novel, by Stacey Abrams

So many people recommended this book to me that I probably had too high expectations. But enjoying a book, food, music or just about anything is highly contingent upon your mental predisposition, so, maybe my mind just wasn’t a fertile field for While Justice Sleeps. I didn’t really like it. Author Stacey Abrams is a well-known former George state legislator and voting rights activist who is likely to run for governor of Georgia in 2022. She’s also a prolific writer of romance/spy-type novels, some of which have enjoyed success, such as Rules of Engagement


While Justice Sleeps is described as a “legal thriller about a Supreme Court justice whose descent into a coma plunges the court, and the country, into turmoil.” The plot includes a proposed  merger between a U.S. biotech company and an Indian genetics firm - both keen to dabble in sketchy genetic manipulation, and a Supreme Court poised to decide their fate, and a corrupt president, and one of the Justice's bazaar plot to use his law clerk to uncover the culprits. Although I found the core of the plot somewhat clever, and the writing good enough, I was put off by the author lumping all the characters into one of two roles, good or bad. People just aren’t all good or all bad and portraying them as such doesn’t feel authentic, so I’ll just say, if you want to read a pretty good international thriller and aren’t fussy about pigeonholed characters, you’ll probably like While Justice Sleeps


The Vanishing Half: A Novel,
 by
 Brit Bennett

When I read about the tension created when races and cultures clash, I can’t help but exclaim, “Why does it even matter,” and it angers and frustrates me. Of course it is all very complicated, but I think it ties back to our seemingly genetic obsession to be “right” - I’m right, you’re not, and of course fear and ignorance. I don’t think I have experienced the prejudice of race or color, but I have experienced the prejudice of culture, age, gender, education, and geographic origin, and I know what that does to your spirit. So I’m never very comfortable reading about how we judge anyone different than us. However, if reading about prejudice doesn’t agitate you like it does me, I think you will enjoy The Vanishing Half, which is about two very close sisters who grew up in a small Black community, but are considered different from their Black neighbors because of the paleness of their skin. Both sisters leave to pursue lives in the proverbial “anywhere but here,” but when they subsequently go their separate ways, one sister chooses to continue to live as a Black woman, and the other presents herself in her community and marriage family as White. When their paths cross again in an interesting but barely believable situation, a dynamic story line, rich with relatable characters unfolds. The Vanishing Half didn't rock my world. I just thought it was OK.

 

 100 Things I Want To Tell My Children And Grandchildren, #40 

All you will ever have is whatever you are willing to settle for. 

I used to think I didn’t have things and/or life circumstances I wanted because it was someone else’s fault.  Like, if I wanted a nicer car, I couldn't because my job didn’t pay me enough. It was my bosses fault. What are the things you want and tell yourself you can’t have because someone/something is keeping you from having them? For sure we can’t control everything in our lives, but it’s a cheap excuse to blame others and not take responsibility for what we do or do not have.

One of my favorite photos of my kiddos.

Want a nicer car? Get a better job. Can’t get a better job, get a better education. I’m not an expert, but I’m smart enough to know know from my own personal experience that we rationalize not putting forth the effort to solve our own problems by blaming others.


So make a list of what you need and want, and what YOU must do to get what you need and want.  Stop lying to yourself that you can’t have what you want because of someone else. The truth is you’ve not committed to do what it takes to have those things. All you will ever have is whatever you are willing to settle for.

 

I also want to say you may learn that what you thought would make you happy, may not, but being honest with yourself, working to improve yourself, and increasing your self-esteem will always make you a happier, better person.

 

 

Sunday, May 16, 2021

100 Things I Want To Tell My Children And Grandchildren, #39 

Listen to that annoying little voice in the back of your head, the one you don’t want to hear. That’s your smart voice.

 

We don’t make bad decisions because we don’t know what to do. We make bad decisions because we don’t want to do what we know we should do. 

 

Every bad decision I’ve made in my life came as the result of a bad rationalization. 

 

So, listen to that annoying little voice in the back of your head, the one you don’t want to hear. That’s your smart voice.


In appreciation for the view from my home office/living room.


 Best Non-Fiction Read In 2020 


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


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



The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir, by Samantha Power



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






Best Fiction Read In 2020 



A Long Way Home, by Myra McIlvain



Before We were Yours: A Novel, by Lisa Wingate



The End of October: A novel, by Lawrence Wright



The Guest List: A Novel, by Lucy Foley

Cluster Critiques

 

All I Ever Wanted: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Memoir, by Kathy Valentine

Music has been a bright thread woven in and out of my life’s tapestry, but for guitar player, singer, song writer, band member of the Go-Go’s, and Rock and Roll Hall of Fam-er Kathy Valentine, it was all she ever wanted.  Valentine was raised in Austin by a mom of that generation who, in backlash to their parents 1950’s vice-grip morality, encouraged free-will in their children. Valentine's memoir, All I Ever Wanted, provides the resulting, mostly cringeworthy, yet interesting and well-written story of her unguided grope through a way-too brief childhood, and her adult grind from band to band, eventually finding her nirvana and fame writing songs and playing guitar - filling the spaces in between with drugs and alcohol. 

 

On the eve of adulthood Valentine joined the Go-Go's who became the first all-female band to play instruments themselves, write their own songs, and have a number one album, Beauty and the Beat which included "We Got the Beat" and "Our Lips Are Sealed." Unfortunately traveling the world as a celebrity and hanging out with the likes of the Rolling Stones, the Police, Rod Stewart, John Belushi and Rob Lowe magnified rather than fixed Valentine’s addictions. And then there was the devastating blow of the breakup of the Go-Go’s in 1985. Fortunately, grit honed on 30 years of survival steered Valentine back to her center – writing and playing music.


It stands to reason a person capable of codifying life to song stanzas could write a kick ass book – which is exactly what Valentine does in All I Ever Wanted. I look forward to what might spill out of her next.

 

Footnote: I recommend the audio book, as the music sound track is mesmerizing!

 

The Four Winds: A Novel, by Kristin Hannah

Elsa Wolcott, born in the panhandle of Texas on the 1920’s runway to the drought and great depression suffered heart-breaking discrimination and disdain by everyone in her life. Her parents and sisters didn’t like her because she was too thin, unattractive, “she’ll never get a husband,” and sickly. Then when she becomes pregnant by the first man to pay attention to her and must marry into his family, she is resented by her Italian husband and his parents because her pregnancy derailed her child's father's college plans, and also by his parents because she’s not-Italian. Then her eldest daughter grows to resent her when the dad abandons them. 


When the draught peaks and Elsa takes her teen daughter and young son to California to look for migrant labor, conditions become even worse. There’s more discrimination, this time from Californians resentful of the migration of so many drought-demolished farming families. “Get out of here you filthy Okie” was a common derogatory misnomer. The poverty they experienced was gut-wrenching. They lived in a horrific tent-city, surrounded by despair and starving families, walked miles each day to work for large farms that enslaved their workers by crediting against their wages for food from the company store, and by brutally breaking up efforts to unionize.


Although Hanna’s fans seem to enjoy reading about pitiful, victimized female characters living in horrible situations – and for sure Hanna has made a good living writing about them, I like my female characters with more grit and an occasional happy day. The writing is exceptional and the characters are vivid, I just couldn’t get past pitiful Elsa and the relentless sadness of this story.

 


Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art
, by James Nestor

In Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, author James Nestor explores the science of breathing.  I was fascinated by this book while  reading it, and for a couple of days after, but haven’t given it much thought since because, well, breathing is involuntary, and I have too many other more pressing things to think about. 

 

Nestor interviews practitioners of Pranayama, a breathing technique that can “supercharge” your body, Sudarshan Kriya, a “purifying” yoga breathing technique, and Tummo, breathing that, among other things, enables one to become so warm one can melt the snow around themselves. He also consults with archeologists who theorize that as generations of hunter-gatherers (meat-eaters) transitioned to agrarian diets (soft veggies) our jaws weakened and decreased in size causing us to be more prone to mouth breathing – which apparently is a very bad thing. Nestor participates in a really weird experiment to prove this point, breathing only through his mouth for 10 days, resulting in higher blood pressure, sleep apnea, loss of appetite, and a bad mood.


Also according to Nestor, and a lot of other sources, adjusting we way we breath can significantly increase athletic performance, keep us from snoring, and cure all sorts of maladies.  If you have the interest and headspace to change the way you breath, have a go at this book. 


The Code-Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race
, by Walter Isaacson


Walter Isaacson, author of The Code-Breaker as well as several other  personal favorites of mine, Jobs, Leonardo da Vinci, Einstein, and The Innovators, can write no wrong, but I was attracted to Code-Breaker because it is focused on Isaacson’s first a woman subject, Jennifer Doudna, and on genetic editing, a topic that has intrigued me for a long time.

Doudna, an American, and Emmanuelle Charpentier, Frenchwoman, are two of seven women to win the Nobel Award in Chemistry in its 100-year history, and are credited with discovering the CRISPR-CAS9 genome editing tool, called “one of the most significant discoveries in the history of biology,” and critical to many medical opportunities (some very controversial), but most recently as relates to manipulating viruses, such as COVID-19.

 

Doudna, currently the Li Ka Shing Chancellor's Chair Professor in the Department of Chemistry and the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley, grew up in Hilo, Hawaii. She was encouraged by the intellectual pursuits of her academia parents, and when she was in the sixth grade her dad left a copy of James Watson's The Double Helix on her bed, setting her path into molecular biology. In 2016, she was runner up for Time Magazine’s Most Influential Person of the Year.

 

In reference to the “very controversial” comment above, much of this book is dedicated to the ethics of tinkering with genes, sometimes called “Controlled Evolution,” which opens the door to genetic enhancement, such as a higher IQ, athletic prowess, and even changing skin color, but which could also be used to edit out devastating inheritable diseases. What is OK or not when it comes to gene tampering? There’s even the concept that frailties/faults could be the creator of exceptional abilities. Isaacson poses this question. If Steve Jobs hadn’t been such an ass hole, would he have had the capacity to also change the world through technology?  

 

Another issue prevalent in this book is the espionage and competitiveness between biomedical engineers jockeying feverishly to be the first to discover and patent the next big biomedical widget.

 

If you love learning about the mechanics of scientific discovery, the heroinic work of Jennifer Doudna, and the evolution of the science that gave us the COVID-19 vaccine, you’ll love this book. I sure did.

 



Greenlights
, by Matthew McConaughey

I’m one of the few who didn‘t much like this book. It felt like “the gospel according to Matthew,” and another way for him to say “look at me.” 


Maybe I should have read it instead of listening to the audible version, which as he read it sounded like he was acting, and therefore, to me felt unauthentic.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I respect McConaughey's  acting skills and he’s certainly eye candy (although unattractively skinny of late). My favorites of his movies are “A Time to Kill,” “Reign of Fire,” and “U-571.” 

 

McConaughey doesn’t need my approval, but for me, Greenlights was not all right, not all right, not all right.

 


The Glass Hotel: A Novel, by Emily St. John Mandel

Here’s a summary of The Glass Hotel because honestly, although Emily St. John Mandel writes beautifully (Station Eleven is particularly exquisite), I couldn’t make any sense of this book and had a hard time finishing it. Lots of people loved it, and maybe you will too.

 

Vincent is a bartender at the Hotel Caiette, a five-star lodging on the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island. On the night she meets Jonathan Alkaitis, a hooded figure scrawls a message on the lobby’s glass wall: Why don’t you swallow broken glass. High above Manhattan, a greater crime is committed: Alkaitis is running an international Ponzi scheme, moving imaginary sums of money through clients’ accounts. When the financial empire collapses, it obliterates countless fortunes and devastates lives. Vincent, who had been posing as Jonathan’s wife, walks away into the night. Years later, a victim of the fraud is hired to investigate a strange occurrence: a woman has seemingly vanished from the deck of a container ship between ports of call.

 

 

 

 What I’m Reading


Project Hail Mary
, by Andy Weir

A Question of Color, by Sara Smith-Beattie


We Need to Talk About Kevin: A Novel, by Lionel Shriver


The Reversal, by Michael Connelly


Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?, by Caitlin Doughty


Me and White Supremacy, by Layla F. Saad


Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker


Archaeology from Space, by Sarah Parcak



Sunday, November 1, 2020

100 Things I Want To Tell My Children And Grandchildren, #38

Be thankful for what you have.

Yesterday, for the first time in my life, I admitted I was depressed. My mom always said, “ Never say you are depressed.” Her philosophy being, if you don’t say it, you can’t be it.

 

This #38 started out as my take on “Things you think will make you happy, but probably won’t”. Recent poor decisions I’ve made were weighing on me, but when I tried to write about them yesterday I ended up with the literary version of mixing all your paint colors together – a gray-brown ick. By the end of my day I was not just anxious about my questionable decision-making, but also my writing.

 

Finally at 4 pm I gave up, and my husband and I retreated to the terrace for our daily cocktail and cards. After a prolonged period of mental hand-wringing I hesitantly said to my husband, “Today was very depressing for me. I tried so hard to express my feelings in my blog post, but the words just wouldn’t come, and nothing I tried to say came out right”. 

 

My stoic husband, who for 40 years of his adult life had a photographic memory and could carry a conversation on any topic, but who for the last 10 years, due to numerous strokes, has struggled to find words and can barely speak, looked me in the eyes and said, “That’s what every day is like for me”.

 

At that moment, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more ashamed and embarrassed, and I knew immediately what I needed to say to my children and grandchildren, and even more so to myself.

 

Be thankful for what you have.


Cluster Critiques


A Long Way Home
 by Myra McIlvain

Imagine your husband will spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair because you chose to drive drunk. Your now disabled husband makes you pay for that mistake every day through verbal and emotional abuse. You’ve been trying for years to think of a guilt-free escape from the marriage. Now imagine you are in the World Trade Center on 9/11, and as the Trade Center collapses, you spontaneously decide to fake your death, knowing your husband will receive the benefits of your life-insurance. That’s how the central character in McIlvain’s book, A Long Way Home, begins her journey – not to the new life she imagined, but rather to a life even further complicated by deception.

 

McIlvain, a master story-teller, plausibly twines this tasty tale about, Meredith Haggerty, a corporate executive in NYC who uses 9/11 to escape to Mexico. But as so often happens in real life, fate intercedes when Meredith meets a priest and ends up teaching English in a small American border community that is fraught with the complexities and dangers of poverty and illegal immigration.   

 

A Long Way Home intrigues us with forbidden romance, danger, a glimpse into the unique challenges experienced by many Latin families, and a whopper of an ending. Does Meredith really escape her obsessed husband. Has she simply traded one brand of sorrow for another? Can Meredith, or any of us for that matter really define our fates? Or are we all just pawns in the game of life?



The End of October: A novel
 
by Lawrence Wright

So, did God come to Austin author Lawrence Wright in a dream one night and say “Lawrence, here’s a tip”. If not, either Wright is psychic or incredibly lucky, as The End of October, which is a book about a pandemic, was published within weeks of America’s acknowledgement of the reality of  COVID.  

 

I’ve read several of Wright’s other books, The Looming Tower, which is about 9/11 and won a Pulitzer, Going Clear, about Scientology, and God Bless Texas, so I knew Wright was an amazing journalist. But reading about a fictional pandemic in the middle of a real pandemic was super spooky, and incongruously enjoyable.

 

The story is about an American microbiologist, Henry Parsons who at the request of the World Health Organization visits the beginnings of a pandemic in a prison in Indonesia. Soon and quickly, due to the spread of the pandemic, and as Parsons spends months trying to get back home to his family, the world begins to crumble in chillingly familiar ways. Schools are closed, the stock market disintegrates, jobs disappear, violence and disorder prevail, and governments implode. Nothing is normal.

 

If Wright had published this book, and I’d read it in 2019, I’d have been mildly horrified or amused. But by the time I read it in May, when the actual horror of COVID was very real, it felt prophetic and sickeningly believable. So, Lawrence can you please let God know he’s made his point?

 

Camino Winds by John Grisham

I gave up on John Grisham years ago when I felt he was becoming predictable and formulaic, but decided to take a chance on Camino Winds in a recent desperate search for a road trip book. 


Hopefully Grisham wrote this book to capitalize on his fans' loyalty, and to make some money. To think he wrote it because it was a story he enjoyed telling would add insult to injury. It was as close to bad as mediocre can get.


The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir by Samantha Power

The Education of an Idealist is for all the idealist out there, like Barrack Obama, many of my friends, and me. And thank goodness for idealists. Otherwise this would be a boring, right brain, very out of balance - or should I say, even more out of balance - world.

 

Infamously known as the Obama campaign foreign policy advisory who referred in the press to Hillary Clinton as a “monster” and was subsequently ousted, Power eventually returned to the Obama Presidential staff, serving in several positions, including the American Ambassador to the United Nations. 

 

The Education of an Idealist is a lot about Power’s inspiring  commitment to  human rights, but it is also about how Power arrived at her idealism, her upbringing Ireland, and eventual immigration to America to embrace American ideals, and about how she managed to grow up, get educated, and gain credibility as an immigrant, diplomat, woman, mother, and yes, idealist.

 

I suspect Power’s story may be “idealized” (sorry), but as an armchair policy wonk, I relished her engrossing stories of world strife, intrigue, victories, defeats, much of it turning in her hands.  What a life! Oh yes, and as one would expect of the almost perfect Samantha, she’s a wonderful writer. 



All Things Left Wild
 by James Wade

New York City financial analyst and book club member, Suzanne Franks sent me a text saying I should read All Things Left Wild by Austin author James Wade. Without even looking first to see what the book was about I bought and cued it up for an upcoming road trip. Much to my surprise it was a western mystery – two words I’m not sure I’ve ever even seen together!

 

It didn’t take long for me to discover the reason for Suzanne’s recommendation. About 50 pages in, I was hooked into a unique, well-told story, and deeply-mined characters. The setting may have been late 1800’s in the southwest, and the story launched with a failed horse rustling attempt, but because the story focus is the complexities of family and human relationships, it could have been set anywhere, anytime and been just as successful. 

 

Caleb Bentley is on the run with his brother, chased by the rancher whose horses they tried to steal. As the chase plays out, the characters learn about themselves and each other, and we see ourselves and humanity in them and develop empathy and emotional commitment – the key to any good story. 

 

My only negative comment is that the characters occasionally seemed a little too one-sided– too good, too bad – but I forgave that when they were visceral and the writing was tasty (as it mostly was). 


Everyone Knows You Go Home
 by Natalia Sylvester

I have a hard time embracing book topics I don’t believe in, like extraterrestrial beings, or as in Natalia Sylvester’s book, ghost. Actually, although there is a ghost prominent in this book, it isn’t about ghost, it’s about a family’s illegal immigration from Mexico, and how that is played out in several generations’ history and lives – as told by a ghost. 

 

The ghost is Omar, the deceased father of Isabel’s soon to be husband, Martin. Omar appears to Isabel on her and Martin’s wedding day, asking for her help to repair his relationship with Martin and his mother Elda, who’d he’d abandoned when Martin was young. It wasn’t the ghost that bothered me so much. It was the lack of  story “payoff”. I kept waiting for something to be revealed on page 25, page 50, page 100 – something to compel me to keep reading – a nibble, some clues as to where we were headed – but it just never came, and I sort of gave up. Others who finished the book said the payoff came at the very end, but unfortunately, the narrative wasn’t quite interesting enough to keep my attention. Maybe you’ll like it.

 

Sunday, July 26, 2020

In memory of Jane Dixon Swan who died of COVID-19 yesterday, July 25, 2020



I don’t remember Jane Dixon Swan not being in my young life. She was a great friend and person, and although we sort of lost track of each other after high school, we reunited several years ago - and it was as if we'd never been apart - forever friends.

I remember marathon, all summer-long games of Monopoly with Jane and her brother Gary, and when we got bored with Monopoly we’d go to the draw, a dry creek bed just a few hundred yards behind their house on the edge of our little 1,200-person hometown. We’d build forts and play "house" all day long. 

I want to also take a moment to remember Jane’s wonderful mother Inga, who was such a lovely person. She was from Sweden, and I can still hear her calling out to Jane and Gary, with her Swedish accent, “Yane!” Yary!” 

Jane went on to become a teacher and eventually retired as the librarian in Fredericksburg. She was also a grandmother, and last I spoke with her she was loving that wonderful adventure. 

Jane was always a great, easy-going girl and woman and I am very saddened by her death and can't imagine the anxiety her family went through with Jane's COVID, and the grief over the death of their mother, grandmother and sister. 

Rest in Peace Jane. You were loved by many, and will be missed.


100 Things I Want To Tell My Children And Grandchildren, #37



When times are hard, be your best self, not your worst.

I’ve been so angry, tense and scared the last six months – especially the last three months. Just this week, when I tried to turn left across traffic into a gas station and realized, because of a road divider I couldn’t, I screamed “f**k”, and pounded my hand on my steering wheel. My outburst felt irrationally violent, and of late, common. Composing myself, I said to my husband, “I think I’ve said f**k more in the last three month than in the total of my entire life”. Due to numerous strokes, he never says much, but as my constant companion, is forced to witness my more and more frequent anger, and it made me wonder if my kids and grandkids are similarly lashing out at their loved ones in anger and fear during this horribly harsh time. 

So starting today, I’m going to make one small change in my newly acquired, ugly COVID behavior. Each time I want to say f**k. I’m going to think of something I am thankful for – and it can’t always be my husband, kids, grandkids and friends and our health. I’m going to be thankful for my car, a bed to sleep in, good coffee, butter, the view from my home office, books, a beautiful sky, clean water, chocolate, soap, clients, my computer. When you start thinking about all the things you have and take for granted, the list becomes endless. Just making this list made me feel blessed and humble.

Being an adult (even an old one), doesn’t mean you know it all and stop making mistakes. So, what I learned today and what I want to say to my kids and grandkids, is when times are hard, be your best self, not your worst.

Cluster Critiques


With a voracious appetite for learning and a predilection for exceptional writing, my reading compass always spins towards nonfiction and books circulating in the literary mosh pit . That seems to have changed with the onset of COVID-19. I’m stumbling through books I would have previously devoured, like an Andy Warhol biography and Samantha Power’s account of becoming a journalist and eventually President Obama’s US Ambassador to the UN. And of late, I’ve struggled to enjoy some of my favorite writers, like Ann Patchett and Eric Larson. It feels like waking up one day and not being able to stand the taste of chocolate – but then lots of things I couldn’t have imagined have been happening over the past few months. I’ve found myself reading more “escape” books – mysteries, psychological thrillers, and horror. 

Has your taste in books changed with COVID-19? If yes, how?

The Guest List: A Novel by Lucy Foley

Imagine a fairytale wedding in an ancient castle on a mystical island off the northern coast of Ireland. The bride and groom are the picture of physical beauty, romance and business success. Perfect, right? Well, yes, but in the case of The Guest List, it's a perfect nesting-ground for calamity. With almost too many colorful characters shackled together by unforgivable secrets, human frailty, poisonous revenge plots, and yes, murder, Foley artfully spins a tale that metaphorically keeps you on the edge of your seat, guessing and re-guessing who the killer is and who will die. 

The bride receives an anonymous note warning her not to marry her “prince charming”. But from whom? And why? She should toss the note, but she doesn’t and it tightens like a noose around her neck, on the very day she should be the happiest. The maid of honor (sister of the bride) is in nonstop meltdown, the best man and groomsmen digress into obnoxious, juvenile school-days behaviors, the setting and occasion leech-out the worst in everyone, and the owners of the island and castle are hiding something sinister. The tension builds as Foley masterfully see-saws back and forth between the moment of the murder and the buildup in the days before, and it is all terrifically entertaining. Furthermore, the ending is brilliant and completely unexpected.  Read it.
 
If It Bleeds by Stephen King

In If It Bleeds, which is a collection of four novellas, Stephen King characteristically mines the human condition – work, love, death, fear – rubbing our noses in our own frailties, turning ordinary people and issues – cell phones, bullying, media manipulation, untethered ambition -  into VERY disturbing stories. Whether it's subtle or macabre horror, King’s special skill is making us see ourselves in his characters, and making us believe that very scary things can happen to us. What can I say, it’s Stephen King. It’s good, but if you're not a huge Stephen King fan, skip it.

Fair Warning by Michael Connelly

Michael Connelly is one of the few series writers I continue to read because he never disappoints. Some of his books are better than others, but they all are at least pretty good. Fair Warning is one of his best, and features Jack McEvoy, a reporter for a consumer protection website who makes the mistake of a one-night-stand with the wrong gal, who turns up dead – making McEvoy a suspect in her death. Barely evading arrest for her murder, McEvoy is driven to discover the real killer. What begins as a cyberstalking inquiry quickly leads into an intriguing plot involving the black market for DNA (think about that for a minute), and the unbelievable lack of FDA regulation over DNA testing, all of which eventually leads to the capture and conviction of a serial murderer. Fair Warning is a better than average mystery. 

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.