Sunday, April 24, 2022

100 Things I Want To Tell My Children And Grandchildren, #42 

This photo is in memory and honor of my 

beautiful, eldest sister, Gloria. I miss you.

You are going to make tons of mistakes. Sometimes dozens a day. That’s doesn’t mean you don’t make tons of good decisions. Sometimes dozens a day.


No one ever told me I was going to make mistakes in life, but that most would probably be OK. So, I’ve always sort of felt like a failure. 

It wasn’t until last night (more years into my life than I want to admit), in the middle of one of my almost daily self-flagellations, I realized I don’t just make a lot of bad decisions and mistakes, I also make a lot of good decisions.

All in all, looking through my also perpetually positive (or maybe rationalization) lens, I’m a terrifically successful (and very fortunate) person!


So, just yesterday, here are the good and bad decisions I made - and I challenge you to do the same:


Bad Decisions

Worked more than half of a Saturday

Ate a too-high carb breakfast, and ate it too fast

Spent too much money on a manicure and pedicure

Didn’t assert myself to get the manicurist I really wanted, and settled for a less-skilled person

Didn’t exercise

Didn’t shower

Ate too much for dinner and ate too fast

Ate a high-calorie dessert

Spent too much money on groceries


Good Decisions

Stepped up to help a client with a tricky problem

Got ahead of schedule on another deadline project

Made my hubby’s favorite breakfast

Treated myself to a relaxing manicure and pedicure

Spent some quality time with my hubby - doing some things with him I don’t particularly enjoy, but which he does

Ate healthy sushi for dinner rather than something higher-calorie

Purchased some expensive but high-quality groceries

Treated myself to a favorite dessert

Didn’t spend too much of my day obsessing over my children’s and grandchildren’s wellbeing


So I just want to let my kids and grandkids know it’s OK to make bad decisions and mistakes (as long as they aren’t life-threatening or hurt someone else). Try not to  beat yourself up too much. Just try to make the good decisions list longer than the bad decisions list, and learn from your mistakes.  


Cluster Critiques 4-25-22


The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb 

The Violin Conspiracy is a better than average mystery about a celebrated concert musician, Ray McMillian, whose violin is stolen. What make this book interesting is how the author uses the violin and the other characters (yes, the violin is a character in this book) to make what could be a simple “who-done-it” into a pretty entertaining story. 


Ray always wanted to be a professional musician, but that didn’t fit well within his family-culture, and that story, and the story of the violin, where it came from, and how the violin’s history is interwoven into Ray’s family's history, is enjoyable. I won’t divulge more about that because I don’t want to ruin the mystery. 


One complaint - Slocumb relentlessly portrays Ray’s mother and one other character in the book as horrible people with not a single redeeming feature. Authors, please stop giving us one-note characters!! People are not all bad or all good, they are complicated damn it!


OK, got that off my chest. The Violin Conspiracy isn’t a literary triumph or award winner, but it tells an interesting story, is an unusual mystery, and has a better than average ending. Read it.   


The Boys: A Memoir of Hollywood and Family by Ron Howard and Clint Howard

Who isn’t intrigued with Ron Howard’s history - a little red-haired boy growing up in idyllic Mayberry, USA. Oh wait, that’s Opie, the character played by Ron Howard on The Andy Griffith Show, which aired between 1960 and 1968. 

Oh, you weren’t born until after 1968?  Well then, maybe you remember Ron as Richie Cunningham in Happy Days (1974-1984). 

No?  How about these movies, Cocoon (2 academy awards), Parenthood, Apollo 13 (2 academy awards), A Beautiful Mind (4 academy awards), The Da Vinci Code, Rush, In the Heart of the Sea, Solo: A Star Wars Story, and many more blockbusters, all of which he directed, and some of which he produced and/or wrote. 


Ron Howard has led an illustrious career, starting when he was five years old, and is still going strong. But this book isn’t so much about his career as it is about his astonishingly “normal” family and home life (mom and dad were not very successful actors) and how that all functioned around his constant work-schedule. It is also about his very close relationship with his less-famous, yet surprisingly interesting younger brother Clint, who although never directed or produced movies or won any awards, played characters in 126 movies and 75 TV shows. Clint’s most prominent roles were in 1967-1969 in the very popular TV series Gentle Ben, and the made for TV The Red Pony, in which he starred with Henry Fonda and Mareen O’Hara. 


This book was entertaining to me because I could relate to Ron Howard’s TV and movie history, and because it gave a glimpse into his family and professional life, from both his and his brother’s perspective. If you are not big on bio’s skip this one, but if you admire Ron Howard and like to read bio's, you’ll enjoy The Boys.

When the Moon Is Low: A Novel by Nadia Hashimi 

All during, and for weeks after I finished reading this book I grew teary-eyed every time I saw the American flag, and said to myself probably once a day, “Thank God all of my family members live in America.” 


So horrifying is this story of one family’s escape from a newly Taliban-captured Kabul, Afghanistan it was painful to read. The mom, Fereiba, and her arranged-marriage husband Mahmoud, have a happy, modest but comfortable life in Kabul  as educators. Then everything changes. Targeted by the Taliban, the dad is taken into captivity and an unknown fate, and Fereiba and her three children set out on an almost unbelievable and dangerous journey to join family in London. Preyed upon by human-traffickers, the family becomes separated and are faced with bottomless challenges and despair. Fereiba and her young teenage son, Saleem, end up separated and alone in different countries, trying to survive - neither having any idea if their loved ones are alive, or even where they are. I couldn’t help but relate this to families torn apart by immigration to our own country.


The contrast between the author’s incredibly exquisite narrative, and the horrific story she tells, was one of the most unforgettable things about this lovely and agonizing book. The other was the indelible family love it portrays, and which resonated so clearly for me. 


Treat yourself to this beautiful book, but go into it knowing it is a scary, painful story about a very different culture trying to survive in what feels like a very different world.


Pancho Villa’s Saddle at the Cadillac Bar by Wanda Garner Cash

Laredo, TX was an especially prosperous, bustling community during most of the 1900’s and the Cadillac Bar just across the border in Nuevo Laredo, a very popular “see and be seen” Texas destination. Or so says Wanda Garner Cash, author of Pancho Villa’s Saddle at the Cadillac Bar, and based on her book, and much I’ve learned and heard since reading her book, it was. Actually, although I wasn’t in Laredo or the Cadillac Bar during the height of their popularity, I’m happy to say I did enjoy several fun weekends during the late 1990’s at the beautiful La Pasada hotel in Laredo, cocktails and dinners at the Cadillac Bar, and hours of shopping at Marti’s, and Russell Deutsch Jewelry in Nuevo Laredo.

The story starts in 1924 when Garner Cash’s grandfather, “Mayo” Bessan and his very young new bride came to Laredo and brought with them the ambiance, food and drink recipes from famed New Orleans eating and drinking establishments, many of which had recently become shuttered by Prohibition. Over the years, the Cadillac Bar became a favored meetup for “jet-setting” movie and sports stars as well as bus-loads of Austin Junior Leaguers. People flocked there from all over the US. One of the attractions of the restaurant, other than the famous Ramos Gin Fizz, was Pancho Villa’s Saddle, which now resides in Wanda Garner Cash’s living room! 


A crushing 1954 flood nearly destroyed the Cadillac Bar, but the author’s father rebuilt it to its previous glory, eventually turning it over to the long-time employees to run in 1979. Then in the 2000’s when drug cartel violence broke out in the area, tourists all but stopped traveling to Laredo and the Cadillac Bar limped along until it closed in 2010. 


There are so many great stories in this little book, and recipes in the back, so I recommend you add it to your collection or check it out of your fav library. I might not have read this book had it not been a book club selection - and I’m so glad it was, and I did. 

Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law, by Mary Roach

I always look forward to Mary Roach’s next whacky book.  She’s written about what happens to bodies post-death, Stiff, little known facts about the military, Grunt, what life in space might be like, Packing for Mars, sex and science, Bonk, and my personal favorite, Gulp: Adventures in the Alimentary Canal. Hey, it’s not just me, she has 423,451 rating on!


So now with Fuzz, we learn about law-breaking animals and killer-nature, and how us Homo Sapiens-types are challenged to deal with them. From the >1,900 moose killed on highways and train tracks to the thousands of bear home invasions, and hundreds of people killed all over the world by wild tigers, elephants, snakes etc. Did you know more than 100 people are killed by falling trees each year? Fuzz is about the crossroads of human behavior and wildlife biology, and there are an astonishing number of people out there trying to get a handle on it all - “animal-attack forensics investigators, human-elephant conflict specialists, bear managers, and ‘danger tree’ faller blasters.”


The best part is that Roach (despite her unfortunate last name) is a super fun and funny writer. Sort of the Bill Bryson of kooky topics. Read it if you love learning about new weird things.  


The Lincoln Highway, by Amor Towles

I wanted so desperately to love this new book by Amor Towles. How could I not? His Gentleman in Moscow and Rules of Civility are two of my all-time favorite books. I just kept trying, but found my mind wandering each time I tried, and I’m sort of freaking out about it. 


Emmett is an 18-year-old boy recently released from prison for accidentally killing a bully in a fistfight. His dad has just died and his mom ran away from home years ago. So, with a trail of postcards from his mom, from along the Lincoln Highway (the first trans-American highway from NYC to Lincoln Park in San Francisco), Emmett decides he and his 8-year-old brother Billy should head out west to find her. However, the trip gets sidetracked by a colorful (and to me annoying) cast of characters I just couldn’t seem to care about. I wanted Emmett and Billy to find their mother, and was angry with all the other characters slowing them down. Then Emmett and Billy finally got back on the road for San Francisco, and the book ended without them finding their mom. So, I was disappointed.


Everyone and their dogs seem to love this book so you may too! Maybe I’ll try it again later.


The Light Years, by Chris Rush 

This book was exhausting and depressing. It was also a beautifully written kaleidoscope of a story. I loved it. I hated it.


Raised in a well-to-do family on the east coast by one of those self-loathing fathers who can only tolerate their nothingness by bringing everyone down with them, and a mother who has completely cast out her feelings because that is the only way she can get up and face the world each day, it’s no wonder Chris Rush and his siblings end up being a bunch of druggies pin-balling from one disaster to another. 


I was so angry at everyone in this book, I wanted to scream at them, “Stop rationalizing your stupidity and get your shit together.” But I guess when you have no role model for having shit together, at least you have an excuse. Druggies posing as profits though, that burned my butter.


Chris Rush goes from what seems like the bottom to an even unimagined deeper bottom in each new chapter of the book. Doing acid at the age of 12, to getting thrown own of school for selling drugs at 14, to living on drugs on the side of a mountain at 18, to selling more drugs and getting beat to hell by hardened criminals, and on and on.


I alternately wanted to beat Rush over the head with his book, and to cradle him in my arms and thank him for his beautiful life’s narrative. Mostly, I’m just glad he survived.


Read it, but know it’s harsh, hard, ugly, and lovely.


Sunday, February 6, 2022

Cluster Critiques


Aquanaut, by Rick Stanton

In mid-December when one of my book clubs was collecting recommendations from members for best books of 2021, I received an email from Tracy LaQuey Parker recommending Aquanaut, which is about the rescue of the 12 young soccer team members and their coach from the Tham Luang cave in Thailand, written by Rick Stanton, one of two British cave divers who conducted the rescue. 

Tracy said, “I was just messaging with Rick Stanton last night. He and Ron Howard had just watched Howard’s movie about the rescue, Thirteen Lives,’ and said the diving scenes were really good, and that Viggo Mortensen did a good job playing him.”  Tracy had met Stanton at the Telluride Film Festival. (Stanton and Tracy are pictured below in Telluride). 

I pre-ordered the audible version of Aquanaut and made that our 2022 holiday road trip book. Not only was the story of the rescues enthralling, but Stanton fills in with his many other hair-raising stories of cave diving rescues around the world. “When there is an incident in a difficult underwater cave that is beyond the reach of most cave divers, I’m typically called directly to help,” says Stanton.

I’m a sucker for death-defying tales and uncommon topics - like the perils of cave diving - but it was the author’s character which came out vividly in this book that caught my attention. He so unapologetically lives life on his terms, (even dissing Elon Musk’s awkward attempts to help with the rescue), and he is very precise and passionate about the ethics and accuracy of his craft. I couldn’t relate to much else about him, but I found his focus intriguing.


Despite the fact that I knew the kids would be rescued from the cave, Stanton’s telling of the rescue made me feel the story could tragically change with one judgement error or an unforeseen problem, and that made me feel like I was in the story, which for me is such an important hallmark of a good book. Read or listen to Aquanaut. You can also view the exceptional documentary, The Rescue, on Disney+.


The Martian, by Andy Weir


It had been years since I read  The Martian by Andy Weir, but I enjoyed his more recent book, Hail Mary so much that I thought I’d enjoy re-reading The Martian. I didn’t. 


You are probably familiar with The Martian from the movie starring Matt Damon, and is about an astronaut stranded on Mars. I’m not sure if Andy Weir’s writing is best in small doses, or if it was Wil Wheaton’s (of Star Trek fame) over-animated reading of the Audible version, but everything about the book began to grate on my nerves about half way through. Both books are good, but if you’ve a low-tolerance for writing “sameness” (same tone, pace, characters, vocabulary, phrasing, etc), which I apparently do, I recommend you just read Weir’s Hail Mary and walk away. I wish I had. 


I hate it when authors disappoint me, and what a terrifying prospect that must be for them. The terror of disappointing their readers!


On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society
, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman


One of my sons is intrigued by military history – a topic for which I have no stomach because I cannot seem to reconcile killing over philosophical differences. Don’t get me wrong, I am extremely appreciative of the military personnel who have and continue to work behind the scenes to keep my family safe and our country the home of democracy. But when my son told me he was reading a book by an ex-military person who had dedicated much of his life to investigating how soldiers are able to kill (or not), and that his research indicated that up until Vietnam, comparatively few soldiers actually killed, or even pulled the triggers of their guns – I knew I had to know more on this topic.


Apparently soldiers, especially during the Civil War, which has the most recent documentation pre-WWI, were so reluctant to kill enemy soldiers across from them in battle they would fake rifle recoil, rather than admit their fear of killing another person, and/or purposely aim above the heads of enemy soldiers rather than kill them. Grossman, the author, quotes almost unbelievable “kill-ratios” (the huge number of bullets expended in relation to the number of few enemy killed) – not just in the Civil War, but also in WWI, WWII and Korea. This was a big problem for the military, which finally figured out that training soldiers to shoot at bulls-eye type targets was their mistake. So they changed their training to use targets shaped like humans – to better desensitize soldiers to shooting at other soldiers - and adopted many other protocols and psychological techniques, and when they did that, beginning with the Vietnam war, the kill-ratio was vastly improved (if one can conscientiously claim that to be an improvement).  

The information presented in On Killing is controversial, and significantly based on challenged research by Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall (see below excerpt from Marshall's Wikipedia page.)

"His most famous work was Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command, which claimed fewer than 25% of men in combat actually fired their weapons at the enemy. While the data used to support this has been challenged, his conclusion that a significant number of soldiers do not fire their weapons in combat has been verified by multiple studies performed by other armies, going back to the 18th century."

Grossman also touches on the psychologically impact on soldiers returning from the Vietnam war to an unappreciative country, talks about PTSD, and suggests that video games' desensitize killing, but those discussions were much more superficial and thus more of a distraction than informative.

I'm sure there are many books about what goes on in the mind of a soldier (or anyone) when called on or faced with the need to kill another human, but this is the first I've read, and it provided such a different perspective and gave me more context for my own personal struggles with the issue of war. 


Billy Summers, by Stephen King


I listen to Stephen King books mostly because my hubby loves him, and I admit I have a few Stephen King favorites myself (The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordan and Full Dark – No Stars), and Billy Summers started off with promising potential – rich characters, vivid descriptions, deep thoughts.


Billy Summers is a master assassin, researching his job methodically, plotting every nano-second, covering every possible contingency, and although we know he’s a killer, we like Billy because he only kills despicable villains. We like him because he’s writing a book about himself and it’s a good story. Clever huh? A book within a book.  We also like Billy because he’s retiring. This hit is his last, and we’re so happy for him. And then everything changes, and not for the better. 


Billy sort of accidentally rescues a girl who has been raped and left for dead. And then, well, I really don’t know because I metaphorically slept through the last 250 pages of the book. I vaguely recall it turning into the story of a young girl with daddy issues falling for an older man struggling to retain his "macho," wrapped in a superficial, convoluted story line. Oh Stephen, Et tu! 


Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty,
 by Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe


I vividly recall meeting a woman 25-or so years ago who, when I asked what she did for a living said, “I manage my assets.” I must have had a blank expression on my face when I replied, “Oh, that’s nice.” I had no idea what she meant.  At that time I didn’t have any assets. The bank owned my house and car, and I had little savings.  It wasn’t until much later in my life that I came to realize that people who inherit or earn large sums of money become burdened with the not so simple task of hanging onto that money. 


The Vanderbilt “Dynasty,” the topic of this biography by CNN journalist and Vanderbilt heir Anderson Cooper (his mom was Gloria Vanderbilt), was created by Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, an American business magnate who built his wealth in railroads and shipping and is considered the second richest man in American history EVER (depending on the source/adjusted to current time). For those who must know John D, Rockefeller is the undisputed #1 richest man in American history. 


If you can get past the conspicuous consumption and entitlement issues revealed in this well-penned biography, there are some fun and interesting stories about what jaw-dropping American wealth looked like during the first half of the 20th Century. The Vanderbilt’s and other aristocratic American families threw lavish “one-upmanship” parties costing more than $6,000,000, had ambitions as shallow as “dressing well” and “spending money beautifully,” and literally got away with murder. 

But the sad undercurrent of Anderson’s book is that money can’t buy you love or fix everything. A long line of Vanderbilt’s failed miserably at managing their assets, and by the time the dynasty reached Cooper’s end of the lineage, there was literally nothing left. 


Some people are offended by the wealth of the Vanderbilt’s (Musk’s, Bezos’, Gates’, Zuckerberg’s, Buffet’s etc.), but I question what gives us the right to say how much money is OK, and how much is too much. America was founded on the principle that people have the right to make money. Our constitution was created by a bunch of small business owners who didn't want to pay taxes to the King of England. Capitalism is woven into the fabric of the American DNA.


If you’re a wealth voyeur, smug socialist, or just like biographies, you will probably enjoy this book. I did.


Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics,
 by Dolly Parton


I’m pretty sure Dolly Parton has a better chance being elected President of the United States than Kamala Harris, or any woman, but not as good a chance as practically anyone with a penis. Wow, I’ll catch some flak for that statement, but here’s my real point. Everyone loves Dolly Parton, because she has the courage to be her unique self without offending anyone, and that is indeed an incredibly rare and valuable human attribute.


In Songteller Parton through long, live interviews (this is not a traditional written memoir) gives us a glimpse into the milestones of her life. I say glimpse and milestones because Dolly skips over periods of her life, touching lightly on her childhood, how she writes (one of the more interesting aspects of this book), and her beginnings in and progression through the music industry. 


In fact, you can learn more about Dolly on her Wiki page, so don’t go into this biography thinking you’ll discover the “real” Dolly. She’d be the first to admit there’s not much real about her other than her personality and character.  But you’ll enjoy the ride anyway because we all love listening to Dolly Parton sing, talk, laugh, anything really. One thing that jumped out at me was how much time she spent talking about her relationship with country music icon, Porter Wagner who recruited her into the Grand Ole Opry. Dolly said again and again they were just business partners and close friends – which of course made me think there’s much more to that story, and maybe the flawless Dolly is human after all.  


Songteller overflows with what we love most about Dolly Parton – her beautiful singing, endearing colloquialisms, and pure, unique Dolly-ism. Listen to the audible version. 


Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, 
by Patrick Radden Keefe


We all embrace and tell the story we can live with, justifying questionable decisions and actions so we can sleep at night. Where is the line in the sand that differentiates justification and abomination? Well, that’s why we have congress to create the rules, the supreme court to further define those rules, and why attorney’s make a lot of money. 


Empire of Pain is about a family of ambitious brothers, the Sacklers, who according to their story, built their massive wealth on relieving people’s pain, or, according to author Patrick Keef’s story, a greedy family’s unconscionable capitalization on pain-killer addiction . 


According to Keef, and hundreds of successful lawsuits, by aggressively marketing OxyContin, despite knowing how addictive and dangerous the drug was, the Sacklers and their company, Purdue Pharma, are responsible for half a million Americans deaths from overdoses and the tragedies of millions more addicted to the drug. The Sacklers claim they created quality of life for many more millions who suffer from pain.


I couldn’t help reflecting on the impacts of alcohol and cigarettes, which have over centuries, killed many more people, and yet I can think of no particular, singular family to which the responsibility of those deaths have been pinned. Rather, over the past 50 years American regulatory agencies have advised us “Smoking may be hazardous to your health” and “Don't drink and drive.” I have to wonder if our nation’s more recent access to mass communication has changed substance abuse from a medical and/or moral issue into a lynch mob solution. I’m not saying let the Sacklers off the hook, I’m saying why not prosecute/persecute equally - and the FDA sure needs to be held accountable! They approved the distribution of OxyContin. 


In addition to a good bit of history about the drug industry, and the inspiring (yet sordid) story of how the Sacklers scrabbled their way from poverty to extreme wealth, this book is an interesting, behind the curtain look at the prestige Sackler family members enjoyed in the society and art world, who also embraced the story that served them, accepting millions of dollars and art donations from the Sacklers. 


Empire of Pain is less about the sketchy underbelly of the pharmaceutical industry, and more about one major player, the Sacklers, who unlike many drug cartel kingpins relieved of their wealth and serving prison sentences, are vacationing in the Maldives and still have most of the $13,000,000,000 they made off the backs of people with OxyContin addiction.


 100 Things I Want To Tell My Children And Grandchildren, #41

(This photo, just sent to me by a niece, and which I'd never seen before, made me miss my sisters and mom so much, L-R, Dorothy, Mom, Gloria, me and Honey)

10 Things You Should Know About Someone Before You Consider Marrying Them

1.      Do they have a history of substance abuse?

Maybe you already know the answer to this question and are in denial because you love them. Regardless, a relationship/marriage will suffer from, and may not survive substance abuse, because addiction is almost always stronger than anything, including love. If you don’t know, ask his/her friends/family. Ask them to please be honest and frank with you because they are not going to want to say anything bad about someone they care about. If there is the slightest pause before they answer you, or if they laugh it off, you probably already have your answer. 


2.     Is there a history of physical and/or psychological abuse with them or in their family?  

Children learn from their parents, and if physical/psychological abuse is common in the home, the child may also adopt those behaviors. If the person you are considering marrying has already “blown-up” with you, or been abusive with you – even if it was just one time, that behavior will probably escalate under the pressures of bills, work, children and marriage. 


3.      Are they financially irresponsible? 

Financial problems are the #1 cause of marital discord. If the person you are considering marrying has demonstrated financial irresponsibility, frequently runs out of money, tends to borrow money from you or others, misses paying bills, or has any significant debt, this is a pattern that will probably not change, and will most assuredly cause problems in a marriage. Even if you are financially responsible and make a good living, is your spouse going to have low self-esteem because of their lack of ability to contribute equally to the financial demands of a household, or resent you for your financial acuity – or are you going to resent them?


4.     Do they take responsibility for their mistakes?

People who blame everything that goes wrong in their life on someone/something else will never improve on or learn from their poor decision-making and behaviors. Not only will negativity dominate their life, it will dominate yours as well, which is a huge drain on a relationship.


5.      Do they and/or their family have a history of discord?  

I’ve seen so many families fall apart when assets are at stake. We never seem to learn that money comes and goes (mostly goes) and NEVER really buys happiness. In strong families, family members are the only people in the world who will “take a bullet” for you.  Some families have nothing but toxic, hateful relationships, and you do not want to become a part of that. 


6.     Do they have serious hereditary medical problems?

It’s kind to think health shouldn’t matter, but is it kind to subject your progeny to devastating medical problems? At least consider getting a DNA test to rule out the probability of serious inherited medical problems, or perhaps adopting children or getting a healthy sperm/egg donor if there are genetic propensities and you want to have children.


7.     Are they industrious and reasonably ambitious?

Do they willingly and reliable work/create? It’s not so much about how much money someone makes, as long as what they make adequately supports a lifestyle that is comfortable to you both, but if the person you are considering marrying hates working, consistently complains about having to work, misses work, and changes jobs frequently, they are probably never going to have a healthy sense of personal accomplishment and/or self-esteem, which will negatively affect the marriage and/or relationship. 


8.     Do they have a healthy self-esteem? 

I’m not sure what constitutes a “healthy” self-esteem, but I do know when people have low-self-esteem they tend to try to bring everyone around them down to lessen the contrast between their worth and the worth of others. Furthermore, people with low self-esteem look for affirmation where ever they can – sometime in very damaging ways – infidelity being a prime way. Low self-esteem also often leads to substance abuse, which may provide temporary, albeit further damaging relief.


9.     Do they ask/expect you to give up things that are important to you?

If you feel pushed into giving up something in a relationship, you will eventually resent it. Same goes the other way around. If you expect your partner to give up things they love, they will eventually resent that expectation. Resentment is a hard thing to get around in relationships.


10.  What are their expectations about marriage, sex, children, work, finances, where to live, vacations, holidays, family…. EVERYTHING! Talk over everything, and if you feel the slightest pain over anything you hear, you better talk it over extensively because marriage magnifies every possible problem. 


Not that there’s anything wrong with marriage. It can be a supportive, comfortable, exciting, enjoyable partnership. But eventually you’re not going to have sex every day, or you’re going to pick up too many pairs of underwear off the bathroom floor, or your partner is going to tell you they hate your mother, and when you arrive at that point in your relationship, sensitive, deal-breaking issues become serious. 


Talk it all over now. Live with someone for at least two years, then make a list of pros on one side of the page and cons on the other, and make an intelligent, honest decision – because you will live with the consequences. 


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,
 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.