Book report: We’ve come a long way, baby

51ko3byryDL._SX260_Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is my hero. And if you’ve seen me in the last week or so, I’ve probably mentioned Notorious RBG as an enlightening, inspiring, and very readable book. The authors, Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, made it a pleasure getting to know this intelligent, forthright, hardworking woman who has fought against stereotype and injustice for her entire career.

Young Ruth had doors slammed in her face. Repeatedly. She was once fired for being pregnant. While at Harvard Law School as a young wife and mother, she and the other female students had to repeatedly justify the slots that they’d “taken away” from males. Furthermore, there were “small” slights such as no women’s restrooms in the building and not being allowed into the library’s reading room. Nevertheless, she persisted.

After Ginsburg transferred to Columbia Law School, she graduated tied for first in her class. Still, no firm would hire her. Again, she would be taking a job from a male who had a family to support. When she finally did get a job lecturing at Rutgers, she was paid less because she was a woman. Still, she persisted.

While working with the ACLU,  she won five out of six women’s rights cases she argued before the Supreme Court. Furthermore, she devised a careful, incremental plan for revolutionary goals, fighting against laws that were inherently gender-biased. Some of her earliest cases defended men against unfair regulations that didn’t acknowledge they too could be primary caregivers of their children or parents.  Or the pregnant woman in the military forced to choose between an abortion or a discharge, neither of which she wanted. Or the woman who wasn’t allowed to add her children to her employer-based health insurance because it was assumed only men had dependents. You see, fairness works both ways.

“I think gender discrimination is bad for everyone, it’s bad for men, it’s bad for children. Having the opportunity to be part of that change is tremendously satisfying. Think of how the Constitution begins. ‘We the people of the United States in order to form a more perfect union.’ But we’re still striving for that more perfect union. And one of the perfections is for the ‘we the people’ to include and ever enlarged group.”

“’We the people’” originally left out a lot of people. “’It would not include me,” RBG said, or enslaved people, or Native Americans.’”

Ginsburg established case-law that could then be cited as precedent in future cases.

Learning about Ginsburg’s early fights and her resolve to continue fighting, reminds us that we all owe a huge debt of gratitude to Justice Ginsburg. We could do worse that to emulate her example.

RBG advises women to act like ladies:

“That meant to always conduct yourself civilly, don’t let emotions like anger or envy get in your way…Hold fast to your convictions and your self-respect, be a good teacher, but don’t snap back in anger. Anger, resentment, indulgence in recriminations waste time and sap energy.”

Further advice from the book’s Appendix:

How to Be Like RBG

  •  Work for what you believe in, but pick your battles and don’t burn your bridges.
  • Don’t be afraid to take charge.
  • Think about what you want, then do the work, but then enjoy what makes you happy.
  • Bring along your crew.
  • Have a sense of humor.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is now firmly fixed in my pantheon of cultural heroes. And it’s never too early to learn about this fabulous woman. A Young Readers’ version of this book is now available and I recently purchased one of several picture books about Justice Ginsburg for my granddaughter’s eighth birthday. I hope my Olivia will stand up against injustice when she sees it.

Yes, we’ve come a long way, baby. Due in no small part the Notorious (not to mention Supreme) RBG.

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Book report: Better late than never

bistro 1The Little French Bistro begins with sixty-year-old German tourist, Marianne trying to end her life. She’s been belittled by her insensitive, bullying, and unappreciative husband, Lothar for over forty years. During that time, he’s repeatedly told her she’s weak, silly, and stupid. Worse, she’s believed him. She sees no way out other than to drown herself in the Seine.

While she is rescued, Lothar’s response is less than sympathetic. Marianne escapes, but on her way out of the hospital, she is intrigued by and steals a hand-painted tile of a scene at Kerdruc. That tile leads her to the village on the Brittany Coast where she intends to make good on her intention to end her life. Instead, she rediscovers herself. I guess this could be described as a “coming of age” story, except that Marianne comes of age a bit late.

Some womanly wisdom from author, Nina George.

 

“Every woman is a priestess if she loves life and can work magic on herself and those who are sacred to her. It’s time for women to remind themselves of the powers they have inside. The goddess hates to see abilities go to waste, and women waste their abilities far too often.”
“’People never change!” Marianne retorted. ‘We forget ourselves, and when we rediscover ourselves, we merely imagine that we have changed. That’s not true, though. You can’t change dreams; you can only kill them—and some of us are very good murderers.’”

On the risks of compliance and defiance:

“How many deviations, side roads and senseless detours a woman can take before she finds her own path, and all because she falls into line too early, takes too early the paths of custom and convention, defended by doddering old men and their henchwomen—the mothers who only want the most dutiful outcome for their daughters. And then she wastes an immense amount of time ensuring that she fits the mold! How little time than remains to correct her fate.”
 “Life wasn’t too short: it was too long to waste unduly on non-love, non-laughter and non-decisions. And it began when you first took a risk, failed and realized that you’d survived the failure. With that knowledge, you could risk anything.” “…life as an autonomous woman is not a song. It’s a scream, a war; it’s a daily struggle against the easy option of obeying.”
“Every second can mark a new beginning. Open your eyes and see: the world is out there and it wants you.”
 “She hoped intensely that the generations of women to come would manage better than she had, having been brought up by mothers who didn’t equate love with abnegation.”

On the power of love:

“…maybe friendship was the most patient form of love.”
 “Giving and seeing how a person flourishes and feeds off your love: the amount of power you possess, and the fact that that power makes someone the best they can be.”

I love the themes that it’s never to late to follow your heart and how important it is to show people who you really are, to live an authentic life. As I age, I find these tales of late-in-life transformation quite charming, not to mention hopeful.

While I had read and loved, this author’s Little Paris Bookshop, I had trouble following and getting invested in this book early on. With an entire village full of characters to keep track of, it was hard to know who to care about. Moreover, the omniscient narrator kept changing the point of view which made it challenging for me until I realized what was going on. Nevertheless, this was a Book Club choice, so I stuck with it and was rewarded.  I also learned a bit about the Brittany Coast and the Breton culture I knew nothing of. Recommend.

Book report: Pat Conroy sends great love

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“The choices I didn’t make are almost as ruinous as the ones I did.”

What a lovely gift my good friend Linda gave me for Christmas. A Lowcountry Heart is a fine collection of the last bits of writing by Pat Conroy, who died in the spring of 2016. His friends and family gathered a few of his blog posts, speeches, and letters and put them together in a lovely tribute to this big-hearted, story-loving, low-country man. Since it’s Pat Conroy, and I can’t ever hope to match his words, I’ve just picked a few quotes to share with you.

On teaching:

“Though I’ve never met a teacher who was not happy in retirement, I rarely meet one who thinks that their teaching life was not a grand way to spend a human life.”
“Teaching remains a heroic act to me, and teachers live a necessary and all-important life. We are killing their spirit with unnecessary pressure and expectations that seem forced and destructive to me. Long ago I was one of them. I still regret I was forced to leave them. My entire body of work is because of men and women like them.”
“No one warned me that a teacher could fall so completely in love with his students that graduation seemed like the death of a small civilization.”

On writing:

“…a novel is always a long dream that lives in me for years before I know where to go to hunt it out.”
“It is not long life I wish for—it is to complete what I have to say about the world I found around me from boyhood to old age.”
“It was at the writing desk that I would be made or broken. In every biography of every writer, that was the secret to our kingdom of words. No other measurement counted for anything at all.”

On the veracity of his memoirs:

”None of them will be true word-for-word…It’s some version of the truth, even though I’m telling you right now it’s probably not going to be yours.”
“If a story is not told, it’s the silence around the untold story that ends up killing people. The story can open a secret up to the light.”

He is generous in his praise for other authors and the act of reading widely. Aspiring writers should take note.

On books:

“A great book took me into worlds where I was never supposed to go. I met men whose lives I wished to make my own and men whom I would cheerfully kill. Great writers introduced me to women I wanted to marry and women who would make me run for my life.”

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Conroy’s troubled early life, schooling, and profound sense of place provided all the material he needed to make a career as a novelist. Like many readers, I’m sad there won’t be any more books by him. I really don’t think you can go wrong with any of his books, but these are my favorites. Which ones have you liked best?

Book report: Are you ever too old to change?

britt-marieBritt-Marie was Here

Fredrik Backman

Once again, Swedish author, Fredrik Backman introduces us to a rather cranky, unlikable character and then proceeds to make us care for and empathize with said character. Long-suffering Britt-Marie was the sixty-something “nag-bag” neighbor in My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry. As her story begins, she has at long last left her unfaithful and unappreciative husband. She takes a job at a recreation center in the small, run-down village of Borg, and does what she always does. She cleans. And then cleans again.

Slowly and somewhat reluctantly she becomes acquainted with and invested in the villagers including the town’s cop, the ragged kids who play soccer on a makeshift field, and the wheelchair-bound operator of the town’s pizzeria/post-office/corner shop/garage. Oh, and she confides in the mouse she feeds Snickers and Nutella.

Some of Britt-Marie’s thoughts:

“At a certain age almost all the questions a person asks himself are about one thing: how should you live your life?”

“She wonders how much space a person has left in her soul to change herself, once she gets older. What people does she still have to meet, what will they see in her, and what will they make her see in herself?”

She is puzzled by, but learns to appreciate the passion those around her feel for soccer and what the teams they favor says about them. And she learns about the impact of circumstances and choices on lives, including her own.

“If a human being closes her eyes hard enough and long enough, she can remember all the times she has made a choice in life just for her own sake. And realize, perhaps, that it has never happened. …they have all been for the sake of someone else.”

As in Backman’s other books, there is plenty of food for thought here. It was a slow start for me, but had a very satisfying finish. Both the small Swedish village and Britt-Marie were changed by the end of the book. Perhaps you’d enjoy a few days in Borg yourself.

Book report: The Founding Father without a father

51X4L0OiziL._SY346_Whew. I finally finished the EPIC Alexander Hamilton. Ron Chernow did a masterful job here, however the sheer weight of the 818-page tome made me especially grateful for my Kindle. I started reading it after I’d become obsessed with the soundtrack ofHamilton,” the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical it inspired. I heard Miranda say once that hip-hop was the only genre that could have captured the story, simply because it gets more words per measure.  An example: “The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father / Got a lot farther by working a lot harder / By being a lot smarter / By being a self-starter.”

Years ago I read Gore Vidal’s Burr.  I knew of the legendary duel between these two Founding Fathers. I also remembered the irony of Hamilton being an illegitimate child born in the Virgin Islands. However, somewhere I’d missed (or forgotten) Hamilton’s profound influence on our country’s birth, especially our financial system. And remember the Federalist Papers? Those essays written to promote the ratification of the U.S. Constitution? Yeah, Alexander Hamilton wrote most of them. He was kind of a big deal. And his origin story is pretty compelling as well.

“He embodied an enduring archetype: the obscure immigrant who comes to America, re-creates himself, and succeeds despite a lack of proper birth and breeding.”

“He chose a psychological strategy adopted by many orphans and immigrants: he decided to cut himself off from his past and forge a new identity. He would find a home where he would be accepted for what he did, not for who he was, and where he would no longer labor in the shadow of illegitimacy.”

“Like other founding fathers, Hamilton would have preferred a stately revolution, enacted decorously in courtrooms and parliamentary chambers by gifted orators in powdered wigs. The American Revolution was to succeed because it was undertaken by skeptical men who knew that the same passions that toppled tyrannies could be applied to destructive ends.”

I will admit to skimming through chunks of the middle—I got a bit bogged down in the detail of the political and highly partisan infighting. Nonetheless, it did remind me that our leaders have always fought, always been driven by principle—not to mention ego. No one mentioned here (Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Burr…) is without fault, least of all Hamilton himself.

Hamilton’s life was fraught with tragedy and scandal. He was passionate in all areas of his life Mrs._Elizabeth_Schuyler_Hamiltonand frequently his ego got the better of him. The one stabilizing influence was his wife Eliza Schuyler. From all appearances this was a love match. Eliza stood by him through scandals and long absences. His death left her in debt, still she worked to preserve her husband’s legacy as she built one for herself. Throughout her very long life, she served widows, orphans, and poor children. She established a school and an orphanage. Eliza even gave older orphans jobs in her home and helped one gain admittance into West Point.

Aaron Burr comes off especially poorly.

“For the rest of his life, he never uttered one world of contrition for having killed a man with a wife and seven children and behaved as if Hamilton’s family did not exist.”

If you–or someone on your gift list–loves history, I’d recommend this book. Otherwise, stick with the soundtrack to “Hamilton” and hope that Santa slips a ticket into your stocking (hint, hint).

 

Book report: If you love a curmudgeon, read this book

51dQBC7HcaL._SY346_A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman has been on my cyber nightstand for a long time. Then the Swedish movie popped up on Netflix. When I finished My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by the same author, it showed up as a recommended next read. Finally, the stars aligned and the Kindle version became available at Overdrive from my local library.

Ove (pronounced “Oova”) is a cranky old man, recently widowed and forced into retirement. Throughout the book we see the world through his eyes. Life is bleak and the changing world is filled with idiots. No one knows how to do anything anymore.

Here’s a sample of Ove’s worldview:

“Should one really have a driver’s license if one can’t drive a real car rather than some Japanese robot vehicle, he wonders. Ove doubts whether someone who can’t park a car properly should even be allowed to vote.”

“People didn’t know how to…brew some proper coffee. In the same way as nowadays nobody could write with a pen. Because now it was all computers and espresso machines. And where was the world going if people couldn’t even write or brew a pot of coffee?”

 “People said he was bitter. Maybe they were right. He’d never reflected much on it. People also called him antisocial. Ove assumed this meant he wasn’t overly keen on people. And in this instance he could totally agree with them. More often than not people were out of their minds.”

As the book progresses, we learn Ove’s story is one of sadness, almost from the beginning. Nevertheless, the book is far from depressing because we meet Ove’s neighbors and the Cat Annoyance and see them interact in human and quite humorous ways. We feel empathy for the old grump.

This is a charming book, with many laugh-out-loud moments. I highly recommend you read Ove’s story. Then watch the subtitled movie, perhaps with the curmudgeon you love.

Book Report: Two books that matter

51XL0AHlIvL._SY346_The Book that Matters Most

If, like me, you belong to book club, this book will appeal to you. It centers on a year in which the club’s theme is “The Book that Matters Most.” The members contribute the titles that matter most to them. Although they realize “it’s impossible to pick such a book. When you read a book, and who you are when you read it, makes it matter or not,” they find ten such books. The author cheated; she got to pick ten books that matter to the ten members of the club. Our book club is asked to do the same. How can I choose just one?

Ava, the main character, is facing mid-life after her husband’s affair and their recent divorce.  Her friend Cate invites her to join her book club, she accepts.

“She needed most of all, the comfort of people who wanted nothing more than to sit together and talk about books.

Ava immediately knows which book mattered most to her. It’s one she read as a child, just after her mother died.  The trouble is, it’s been out of print for years. No one can find it. Moreover, Ava has promised an appearance by the author who has disappeared. Or perhaps she never even existed. Then Ava’s troubled twenty-something daughter, Maggie, goes missing in Europe.

Those two compelling mysteries pull the reader through the story.

Perhaps the plot relies a little too much on coincidence for its resolution, but it was certainly enjoyable and worth recommending, if only for the discussion of the books. I’ve read two others by Ann Hood, The Red Thread and The Knitting Circle. I loved both, so I’m adding Hood to my collection of favorite authors named Ann: Ann Patchett, Anne Lamott, Anne Tyler, and Anna Quindlen.

If you had to choose the book that matters most, what would it be? Please comment below.

51Q+SOKe+PL._SY346_My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry

Aaah, where to start. I LOVED this one. Elsa, the seven (almost 8) year-old narrator is the very definition of precocious. And I think author, Fredrik Backman gets her voice just right. While Elsa is adept at looking things up on the Internet and has read a mountain of “quality literature,” her comprehension is still that of a seven-year-old.  For example, her mother is pregnant with a baby who will be Elsa’s half-brother or sister. Until it is explained to her, she believes the baby will be–somehow–half a person. When “gender roles” are mentioned, she thinks they mean “gender trolls.”

Elsa and her Granny live in an apartment house, along with Elsa’s pregnant mom, mom’s boyfriend, and a host of unique, colorful and well-drawn characters who each play a part in the unfolding of this tale. Granny weaves a world of stories to help Elsa navigate the real world. But some question Granny’s suitability as a companion. When we first meet Elsa and her Granny, they are being apprehended by police in the middle of the night after breaking into the zoo.  This happens after they have escaped the hospital where Granny is a patient.  Granny has also been known to deter unwanted visitors by shooting them with a paintball gun from her balcony while wearing only a dressing gown.

Nonetheless, Granny understands the power of stories and what they teach us about real life and real dangers. She tries to prepare Elsa for what is to come.

Some of Granny’s lessons:

“Only different people change the world,” Granny used to say. “No one normal has ever changed a crapping thing.”

“…not all monsters were monsters in the beginning. Some are monsters born of sorrow.”

 “…the real trick of life was that almost no one is entirely a shit and almost no one is entirely not a shit. The hard part of life is keeping as much of the not-a-shit side as one can.”

And what stories teach us:

 “…if there is a dragon at the beginning of the story, the dragon will turn up again before the story is done. She knows everything has to become darker and more horrible before everything works out just fine at the end. Because that is how all of the best stories go.”

“People have to tell their stories…Or they suffocate.”

And the power of chocolate:

“…you can be upset while you’re eating chocolate Santas. But it’s much, much more difficult.”

Since I’m the grandmother to a super-smart seven (almost eight) year-old girl, this one went right to my heart. It’s warm, funny, wisecrack-y, sad, a little dark and scary at times, but ultimately triumphant. I can’t recommend it enough.

If the author sounds familiar, he also wrote A Man Called Ove, which has been on my TBR (To Be read) shelf for months. It may have just moved up. There is a Swedish movie of the book and an American remake in the works starring Tom Hanks.51dQBC7HcaL._SY346_

Ties that Bind: Letting Ms. Kindle read my novel mistake(s)

kindle_2366549bIt’s impossible to say how many drafts Ties that Bind has undergone. It’s been in revision since 2008, when I “finished” 50k words during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Each sentence, each scene, and each chapter has been reviewed and critiqued countless times by me and the very capable–not to mention very patient–members of Lone Mountain Writers. It’s now about 100k.

This past spring, I printed out and read the whole thing cover-to-cover in an attempt to get a sense of how it all hung together. Or didn’t. The result was a hard copy filled with highlights, sticky-notes, and huge sections crossed out. I’ve since made those changes in my manuscript. Nonetheless, I thought it needed (I needed?) one more going-over before letting a few beta readers take a look. (Obsess much?) And no, the MSWord spelling and grammar checks don’t catch everything.

Several people recommended reading it aloud to myself. Good idea, but I have been over this beast so many times, I’ve become “error blind.” I do not read the words that are there. I read the words that I think are there. Silly brain.

Then I remembered that my Kindle Fire has a Text-to-Speech feature. I’d listened to e-books while driving, but never used it with a document. I sent the document (a docx file) to my Kindle Fire. If you haven’t done it before it’s pretty easy with your Kindle’s email address. Find yours under “Settings” and “My Account” on your device.

You know what? It worked!

Ms. Kindle’s voice is female and a little mechanical, but certainly clear enough for my needs. I sat at the computer with the document on the screen and the ear-buds tucked in. I listened and made corrections as the nonjudgmental voice read exactly what was on the page. Bless her heart. She read every single typo, every syntax error, and every other embarrassing “little” thing that I hadn’t picked up in my repeated readings. Some errors were the ghosts of previous drafts–you know, tense or point of view changes.

While I couldn’t see them, I could certainly hear them.

 

Still,  as helpful as Ms. Kindle is, she can’t create the tension that compels a reader to keep turning pages. She can’t make my characters believable or likable. She can’t tell me which scenes and details are necessary and which were merely fun to write. Nor can she do the other thousand and one things to make this creation into a book that someone besides my family will want to read. That’s still up to me.

Stay tuned for further developments.

 

 

Book report: The scars of slavery

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The Underground Railroad

Colson Whitehead

Award winning (Pulitzer and National Book Award) and now I see why.

Whitehead’s railroad is at once metaphorical and real. Each station along its path delivers the young runaway slave, Cora, to a different future. The places range from seemingly benevolent (at least on the surface) to outright hostile. However, danger, brutality, and death are everywhere for the slaves and those who dared to help them.

Cora is relentlessly pursued by Ridgeway, a slave catcher whose views sound eerily familiar.

“In another country they would have been criminals, but this was America.”

“…I prefer the American spirit, the one that called us from the Old World to the new, to conquer and build and civilize. And destroy that what needs to be destroyed. To lift up the lesser races. If not lift up, subjugate, exterminate. Our destiny by divine prescription—the American imperative.

Cora learns to read and educates herself with almanacs and gazettes. But she already knew the injustice of the world.

“The whites came to this land for a fresh start and to escape the tyranny of heir masters…But the ideals they held for themselves, they denied to others.”

The number of slaves grew to accommodate cotton. As their numbers grew, so did fear of an uprising.

“That was Sea Island cotton the slaver had ordered for his rows, but scattered among the seeds were those of violence and death, and that crop grew fast.”

Echoes of that hate and fear are sadly still evident today.

“Here’s one delusion: that we can escape slavery. We can’t. Its scars will never fade.”

And the author offers the teensiest bit of hope.

“The world may be mean, but people don’t have to be, not if they refuse.”

You’re going to think I like everything I read. Not true. After reading this book, I dove right into Jodi Piccoult’s Small Great Things, thinking I could tie the two together. You know, racism then and now. It was so well-written, the anger and hatred so real, so visceral it was painful to read. It hurt my heart. I chose not to read after the first quarter of the book. I had a similar reaction when I read her Handle with Care. It was just too sad. I stopped reading her books.

Nonetheless, when a book is worth sharing, I will. I recommend The Underground Railroad to you.

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Author Colson Whitehead