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review 2018-08-01 18:14
Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit: Essays on Native American Life Today by Leslie Marmon Silko
Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit - Leslie Marmon Silko

Bold and impassioned, sharp and defiant, Leslie Marmon Silko's essays evoke the spirit and voice of Native Americans. Whether she is exploring the vital importance literature and language play in Native American heritage, illuminating the inseparability of the land and the Native American people, enlivening the ways and wisdom of the old-time people, or exploding in outrage over the government's long-standing, racist treatment of Native Americans, Silko does so with eloquence and power, born from her profound devotion to all that is Native American. 

Amazon.com

 

 

 

In this collection of essays, Silko, a member of the Pueblo Nation, discusses art, symbolism, and overall cultural growth within the Pueblo community. Some of the topics covered in Yellow Woman (the title of the book coming from one of the essays enclosed):

 

ART

 

* Symbolism in Pueblo art, ie. use of squash blossom on pottery designs = possible berringer of death, lightning imagery could mean good fortune, karmaj petals used for their symetry to represent four corners of the earth or four elements  (fire, water, earth, air). Discussion of how some imagery is used to illustrate the earth being simultaneously complex and fragile

 

* "Yellow Woman" an image of Pueblo mythology, a goddess highly regarded for her bravery, strength, calm demeanor during catastrophe, and her "uninhibited sexuality" Rather than relying on violence and destruction to assure victories, "Yellow Woman" bewitches foes simply through her sensuality and self confidence.

 

FAMILY / SOCIETAL STRUCTURE & PREJUDICES

 

* Silko writes that her own family is a blend of Pueblo, Mexican and Caucasian and her own struggles of "not looking right" to any of these groups. She speaks lovingly of her "dark and handsome" great-grandmother who "exuded confidence and strength", but admits that the woman might not have been considered traditionally beautiful by either Caucasians or Pueblo people, which opens up an essay discussion for how beauty, the thing itself, is interpreted by different cultures. Silko notes that facial differences are highly prized among the Pueblo people. 

 

*Discussion of how the idea of gender norms or "mens' work vs. womens' work" doesn't really have a place in Pueblo culture, only a matter of if you are able-bodied enough to get the job done.. so you find women doing construction and men doing basket weaving and child care. People just go where they are needed. 

 

*Historically, Pueblo people were originally fine with sexual fluidity and up until the arrival of the Puritans, openly supported LGBTQ members of the tribe. Also, babies born out of wedlock were not an issue because unplanned or not, the life was honored as life. If not wanted by the biological parents, the newborn was simply given to a barren woman within the tribe to raise. 

 

The discussions on art and culture were interesting but there was something quietly underneath that just had a feel of Silko sometimes talking down to her readers. Some of the essays repeat topics and even certain passages are duplicated verbatim from one essay into another, which I found incredibly disappointing and lazy. I know some of these pieces were previously printed elsewhere, but certain essays she must have been sitting on for a long while. For instance, one that is noted as having been previously published in 1996 -- "Auntie Kie talks about US Presidents and US Policy" -- but within that essay Silko talks about telling her aunt about an upcoming article Silko is to have published, "What Another Four Years Of Ronald Reagan Will Mean to Native Americans" (Reagan announced his Alzheimer's diagnosis in 1994). 

 

So while some of the topics were interesting, I thought the collection as a whole was kind of sloppily put together. Also, if you haven't read any of Silko's fiction, there are spoilers for some of her short stories within these essays.

 

 

 

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review 2018-07-30 11:54
Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake (memoir) by Anna Quindlen
Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake - Anna Quindlen

In this irresistible memoir, Anna Quindlen writes about a woman’s life, from childhood memories to manic motherhood to middle age, using the events of her life to illuminate ours. Considering—and celebrating—everything from marriage, girlfriends, our mothers, parenting, faith, loss, to all the stuff in our closets, and more, Quindlen says for us here what we may wish we could have said ourselves. As she did in her beloved New York Times columns, and in A Short Guide to a Happy Life, Quindlen uses her past, present, and future to explore what matters most to women at different ages.

Amazon.com

 

 

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake is Quindlen's 2012 retrospective of her life after turning 60. Presented through a collection of essays, Quindlen addresses topics from her childhood right through to the "empty-nester" years and everything in between. There's mention of how she didn't start having children until the age of 31 and then tried to write op-ed pieces on aging in her 50s but got some flack from some older readers for not being quite old enough (in their minds) for her to write about such things. Maybe an extra decade will give her the proper amount of cred for geriatric critics?

 

Quindlen explores themes of marriage, female friendship, parenting, trying to age gracefully, personal loss and the subsequent struggles with faith, etc. One topic I made a personal connection with is when she writes on losing a parent when you're still young and how that changes you -- taking health / life more personally and such. Might not be surprising for some readers that within this memoir the topic of death is brought up a fair bit. 

 

Quindlen admits to once being offended by women who CHOOSE a life of domesticity but later realizes that -- brace yourself --- some women might want different things! 

 

There are even a few celebrity stories thrown into the mix. She writes about meeting playwright Tennessee Williams (of A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie fame). Quindlen also discusses how her friendship with actress Meryl Streep came about -- Streep played the lead in the movie adaptation of Quindlen's novel One True Thing. They've been good friends ever since. It was interesting to read that Streep's characteristic way of smiling and speaking softly was something she deliberately developed back in high school! 

 

In her commencement address to the graduating class of Barnard College in 2010, Meryl Streep said that the characterization of the pleasing girl she created in high school was a role she worked on harder than any ever after. Speaking for so many of us, she recalled, "I adjusted my natural temperament, which tends to be slightly bossy, a little opinionated, a little loud, full of pronouncements and high spirits, and I willfully cultivated softness, agreeableness, a breezy natural sort of sweetness, even shyness if you will, which was very, very, very effective on the boys."

 

Maybe I read this at the wrong time in my life, since I'm not in my retirement years just yet. Maybe it's just a matter of Quindlen's style of writing not being quite my thing. This is the third or fourth book of hers I've tried and all have fallen under "just okay" for me. Some of the stories were good, others turned a bit boring, sometimes depressing. In between you run into some "Captain Obvious" style platitudes (but I guess that's how we recognize them as platitudes? lol). 

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review 2017-11-05 17:25
The Waiting Place: Learning To Appreciate Life's Little Delays by Eileen Button
The Waiting Place: Learning to Appreciate Life's Little Delays - Eileen Button

Some of the most priceless gifts can be discovered while waiting for something else.
We all spend precious time just waiting. We wait in traffic, grocery store lines, and carpool circles. We wait to grow up, for true love, and for our children to be born. We even wait to die. But while we work hard at this business of living, life can sometimes feel like one long, boring meeting. Even today, with instant gratification at our techno-laced fingertips, we can’t escape the waiting place. Somehow, in between our texting and tweeting and living and dying, we end up there again and again. In the voice of an old friend or a wise-cracking sister, Eileen Button takes us back to the days of curling irons and camping trips, first loves and final goodbyes, big dreams and bigger reality checks. With heart-breaking candor she calls us to celebrate the tension between what we hope for tomorrow and what we live with today. Chock-full of humor and poignant insights, these stories will make you laugh and cry. They’ll challenge you to enjoy―or at least endure―the now. As Eileen has learned, “To wait is human. To find life in the waiting place, divine.”

Amazon.com

 

 

In this collection of essays, the title inspired by a portion from Dr. Seuss' The Places You Will Go, newspaper columnist Eileen Button takes us into the daily routine of her hectic life and shows up where she found the beauty in the chaos. It took work and dedication, moments of forcing herself to stop and be still, but over time she came to learn how to work past her daily life gripes and see the gifts in the small moments. 

 

"The Waiting Place is for people like me who get stuck in their precious, mundane, gorgeous, absurd lives. It is for those who work hard at the "business of living" only to find that they seem to be caught in one long, boring meeting...It's for those who wake up one day and find themselves repeatedly sighing and thinking 'This is so not the life I dreamed of living.' It's also for those who wonder what is worse: to remain in the day-in, day-out lives they have created or to risk it all and make a change, even if that change results in falling on their faces. The waiting place is never cozy. In fact, when we find ourselves there, most of us try like heck to escape...The following essays breathe life into common (and not so common) waiting places. I hope you find yourself in these pages and conclude, as I have, that some of the most priceless gifts can be discovered while waiting for something else." ~ from Chapter 1

 

Her essays cover pivotal moments throughout her life where epiphanies slipped in under the mundane. Sometimes it wasn't right in the moment, but years later as she reflected on cherished memories. Some of the highlights: reminiscing about fishing trips as a little girl with her father; comical wedding mishaps (that were likely not so comical in the moment lol); recalling the beauty in her grandmother's hands , seeing all the life lived that showed there during family Scrabble games; revisiting her childhood home as an adult and the emotions that stirred up, turning that glass doorknob and taking in the hush of the place. Eileen also recalls lectures her grandmother would give her about her nail-biting habit, something my own grandmother rides me about to this day!

 

Eileen also discusses the struggle that comes with sometimes being defined by your spouse's occupation, in her case being the wife of a Methodist pastor.  She defines various doubts and fears that unexpectedly came along with the position of a pastor's wife as well as the he pressures and expectations that your congregation can put on you. Button reveals that she often feels she has a "dysfunctional, co-dependent" relationship with the church.

 

Additionally, there's the strain of trying to figure out what to do, how to make things work when the household income barely covers the monthly bills (Button recalls the day she swallowed her pride and applied for WIC).

 

"I reach for my daily stack of mail. Today's includes a Rite-Aid weekly flyer, the water bill, and a credit card offer that features three crosses and the message "Jesus Loves You" on the card. The credit card company writes, "Express your faith with every purchase!" There is something deeply wrong with a world in which you can own a credit card with a full color picture of Christ's object of torture printed on it."

 

 

She describes added emotional fatigue worrying over her youngest son, who was born with a condition where the upper and lower portions of the esophagus didn't connect. Speaking of her children, one thing I noticed that I found a little disappointing is how she seems to take pride in fixing meals over playing with her children. I mean, yes, it is definitely admirable that she takes the time to make nourishing meals for them, I was just a little surprised when one essay illustrates how one day her kids genuinely seemed shocked when she finally, grudgingly agrees to fly a kite with them. But it is in this moment that she has one of her revelations which she can now share with readers -- why honest presence is so important to her children! 

 

This collection also touches upon the topic of depression. Button shares moments where she deeply hurt for loved ones who had fallen into immense emotional darkness and her inner aggravation at feeling helpless to save them. Here again, she shares the calming takeaways she eventually came to realize are born in life's harder moments. For readers reaching for this book at a time when they find themselves saying, "This is not the life I signed up for," she offers this to marinate on: "To live is to wait. It's how we wait that makes all the difference." Hang in there long enough, you'll find your way to the brass ring. 

 

As a whole, these essays are so enjoyable largely because Button writes in the tone of a good friend who speaks in soft tones but still makes it clear she's been through the wringer in her day and, at least on some level, knows of what she speaks.  It's also a kick to see her East Coast upbringing infused into her wording:  "wicked dark' "wicked ugly". Her humor balances the heavier bits and I give her bonus points for working in a "Come On Eileen", a nod to my favorite 80s song :-D

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review 2017-10-18 05:53
The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch
The Last Lecture - Randy Pausch,Jeffrey Zaslow

A lot of professors give talks titled "The Last Lecture." Professors are asked to consider their demise and to ruminate on what matters most to them. And while they speak, audiences can't help but mull the same question: What wisdom would we impart to the world if we knew it was our last chance? If we had to vanish tomorrow, what would we want as our legacy? When Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon, was asked to give such a lecture, he didn't have to imagine it as his last, since he had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. But the lecture he gave--"Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams"--wasn't about dying. It was about the importance of overcoming obstacles, of enabling the dreams of others, of seizing every moment (because "time is all you have...and you may find one day that you have less than you think"). It was a summation of everything Randy had come to believe. It was about living.

In this book, Randy Pausch has combined the humor, inspiration and intelligence that made his lecture such a phenomenon and given it an indelible form. 

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

 

"The Last Lecture" idea is one that a number of universities host in which a highly regarded professor is asked to imagine they were just given the news that they were to die soon, then tailor a unique lecture incorporating what advice they would offer or life lessons they've experienced that they'd want to share with others.  Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University as well as a professor of technology at the University of Virginia, was given such a task but in his case he truly was nearing death at the time he offered his lecture. Shortly before giving this lecture, Pausch had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, his doctors notifying him he had mere months of life left. But Pausch points out early on that once he agreed to do the lecture, he didn't want the focus to be on his impending death but instead on how he managed to fulfill his dreams with the time he had been given. 

 

In addition to being a college professor, Pausch was also an award-winning researcher for tech companies such as Adobe, Google, EA (Electronic Arts gaming company) and Walt Disney Imagineers, so he had plenty of life experience to pull from to craft his message! Pausch came from a family that strongly endorsed educating yourself -- go to the library, crack open some reference books, find the answers yourself, go for walks and think on a subject, that sort of thing. His parents also taught him to be tenacious. He writes of first getting established in his technology career during the 1960s-70s and being reminded of Captain Kirk's line in Star Trek: Wrath of Khan"I don't believe in a no-win situation." Pausch's parents' lessons on building a tenacious spirit served him well, spurring him in later years to pay it forward, in a way, when he imparts his own version of the idea to his students: "Brick walls are there not to keep you out, but to teach you how badly you want to get to the other side."

 

The most formidable wall I ever came upon in my life was just five feet, six inches tall, and was absolutely beautiful. But it reduced me to tears, made me reevaluate my entire life and led me to call my father, in a helpless fit, to ask for guidance on how to scale it. 

 

That brick wall was Jai.

 

~ Randy Pausch on first meeting his wife, Jai.

 

Pausch tells of an early experience of trying to get a job with Disney. He desperately wanted a spot on the Imagineers team and had to spend years using that well-worn tenacity before he even got an interview with anyone. As he puts it, they regularly sent him "the nicest go to hell letters ever ". He eventually went on to take a job as a professor at the University of Virginia because, y'know, dreams are great but bills still gotta stay paid! In 1995, while he was working at this university, Pausch heard news of a team of Imagineers struggling with a project to create low-cost virtual reality technology for Disney's Aladdin park attraction. Once again, Pausch found himself regularly contacting Disney offering his knowledge. FINALLY, his efforts payed off and he was patched through to one of the leaders of the Aladdin project. But his work wasn't done. It took Pausch more schmoozing, getting the guy to agree to meet with him over lunch and hear his ideas, before Pausch truly got a foot in the door. 

 

Pausch also admits that it's beneficial to have at least a few "tough love" friends in your life who will give it to you straight, even if the truth hurts. He tells of some of his close friends who would sit him down and tell him at various times when he was being arrogant, brash, tactless, always correcting people yet being stubborn and contrary if he himself was ever corrected. Essentially, they would let him know whenever his sometimes hypocritical nature was driving people away. So Pausch recommends that its important for flaws to be "social rather than moral". 

 

The Last Lecture, as presented here, is a book translation of Pausch's original speech at his college. Pausch's ideas were molded into book form with the help of Wall Street Journal columnist Jeffrey Zaslow, who was present in the audience at the original lecture. Pausch's words got such rave reviews, people immediately clamored for a book form they could gift to friends, family, co-workers, etc. 

 

This book has gotten a flood of rave reviews pretty much since its day of publication. Pausch does offer some nice morsels of inspiration such as:

 

  • *Give yourself permission to dream
  • * Stay humble. "No job is beneath you."
  • * "Experience is what you get when you didn't get what you want."

 

All nice, warm sentiments but IMO Pausch didn't always consume what he was selling others. There were a number of passages here that came off pretty self-congratulatory. To some extent, one can cut the guy some slack, he was nearing death. Still, in my mind, even death shouldn't allow one to go out on too smug a note. There were some things about this guy that just REALLY bugged me. Choosing to do a speaking engagement over being at home for your wife's birthday when you both know you won't get another chance to celebrate? Nope, sorry, not cool. And the whole ranking system he did with his students where everyone was publicly given a rating from worst to greatest and him claiming he was "doing them a favor." Whaa?! I know this book is well loved by many but there were just some things here that screamed "jerk" to me. 

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review 2016-12-14 19:08
Review: What We Do Now
What We Do Now - Valerie Merians,Dennis Loy Johnson

How soon we forget.

 

Or, if you are like me and were too young and clueless to really understand the implications of the 2004 election, how late we learn.

 

Following the election of La Naranja, a meme started circulating (shocking, I know). It was a picture of George W. Bush with his beady-eyed smile, accompanied by big, blocky yellow text: “Miss me yet?” I laughed and may even have agreed when I first saw it, even though I’m pretty sure this originated under Obama and is, quite frankly, insulting. (Despite what a lot of people seem to want to claim about “moving on” and “just accepting” election results, you may be surprised to hear that there was a tremendous amount of backlash to the election of our first black president.) The problem, of course, is that a large quantity of people did miss Bush, Jr. then and decided to do something about it now. They missed an America of religious fanaticism, deceptive economic bubbles, and the us-vs-them mentality of the War on Terror. So we decided to re-elect him in a new, more virulent form—quite possibly with Russia’s help and certainly with media complicity.

 

What We Do Now is an essay collection published by Melville House in direct response to Bush’s reelection. The parallels to this election and current political climate it contains are unnerving. Just as an example: the introduction opens on a story of election despair-inspired suicide—and the crashing of the Canadian immigration website.

 

I was just out of high school in 2004. I remember watching the events of 9/11 in every class just a few years before, but I was politically illiterate. The majority of my family has always been conservative, in degrees varying from quietly moderate to…less quiet and much less moderate. I felt divorced from their views from an early age, though I can’t exactly say why. I’d like to think it was because I’ve always been a voracious reader with wide interests but it’s just a guess.

 

It wasn’t until college that I started really paying attention, and even then that is a relative statement. I’ve still never comfortably affiliated myself with a party. For the sake of transparency, we’ll just go with “liberal,” though I suppose at this point “progressive” is more accurate.

 

I mention this simply for the sake of objectivity, which is not something I brought to this book.

 

What We Do Now is divided into nine sections: Attitude, Plans of Attack, Voting & Election Reform, Media, The Separation of Church & State, The Environment, Economics, International Relations, and Dissent. It’s a slim volume of just barely 200 pages but contains pieces from 24 contributors of varying backgrounds from journalists and politicians to editors and professors. The pieces are connected by their opposition to a Bush presidency and many share common themes but there are also contradictions that highlight the different ideas that take root within any group, no matter how unified in overall vision.

 

This has turned out to be one of those synchronicity-kismet-fate-whatever reads, one that arrived at exactly the time it was needed and could make the greatest impact on me. Perhaps it’s a bit odd that it was intended to be a product of its time, an immediate reaction to an imminent threat twelve years in the past and now feels so astonishingly relevant. Or perhaps that is to be expected since we obviously haven’t learned anything over the last few decades. The issues laid out in many of these essays are resurfacing in our political discourse in nearly identical form: “strong leaders;” racially-biased voter suppression; rust belt rage; Islamophobia; uninspiring candidates; reactionary politics vs. logic; the list goes on. Most of these essays could be repurposed for today with a simple search-and-replace for names and dates. Some of them have proven to be sadly prophetic, predicting our failures as a democracy with painful accuracy.

 

A few examples to demonstrate that no matter how things change, they still stay the same:

 

“We do, indeed, seem to have become a country where moderates, let alone liberals, simply don't stand a blessed chance, where anything other than an angry, intolerant, persecutorial attitude is scorned and mocked by a plentitude of bar bullies gone drunk with power.”

 

“One of the first issues we need to address if we’re going to get out the vote at a level required by a truly participatory democracy is the lack of excitement many people feel for the candidates put forth by our parties.”

 

“For many people, the most pressing issue is the fate of Roe V. Wade and women’s right to choose.”

 

“…America still maintains a segregated Apartheid voting system. Black, Hispanic, and Native American voters are the immediate targets, but all Americans dispossessed by the system are victims…”

 

“More important than any single botched campaign strategy is the overarching failure of the left to understand the role the corporate media plays in shaping public opinion, public policy, and ultimately, political leadership.”

 

How many of these snippets could come directly from a New York Times article or Medium thinkpiece today?

 

And yet. We did make a turnabout for a little while, didn’t we? Obama will go down in history as a truly great president, even with some decided mistakes and all of the roadblocks the obstructionists in congress regularly threw in his path. We can perhaps credit our current situation to the inherent pendulum-swinging tendencies of the two-party system. But we might also be able to give some credit to our ability to rally in times of extremity; the writers in this collection show that Bush’s election taught us some nasty truths about our nation and its divisions and for a time they impacted us enough to bring Obama into office for two terms (something no one would have foreseen when this book was published).

 

While much of my attention was drawn to the parallels with the politics of now, many of the contributors offer predictions and advice for the future. Some of their advice has proven to be a failure (the Democratic party should go even more centrist to capture the moderate Republicans!) and some of it has yet to be put into any kind of measurable practice even now. But I take comfort from it and I hope that this time maybe, just maybe, we might make use of it. Many of the essays offer talking points and advice that will be of great use in the trials to come, especially pieces like “Fighting Words for a Secular America” by Robin Morgan and “Our Mandate: Making Media Matter” by Danny Schecter.

 

Immediately following the current election, many commentators have thrown out the idea that “our country is more divided than ever.” I have a feeling these people make poor history students. Even disregarding, well, THE CIVIL WAR, Reconstruction, the communist witch hunts, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam war, among many other things, just looking a little over a decade into the past at the situation in 2004 shows those divisions have never significantly dissipated. We keep taping over the cracks when we would do better to actually fix them, though how is another matter. My dream would be to take inspiration from the Japanese art form kintsugi* and repair our divisions in a way that keeps them alive in memory but makes them a beautiful reminder of progress and change. The cracks should always be remembered—they just shouldn’t be allowed to break us.

 

 

*The Japanese art of repairing cracked pottery with gold, highlighting rather than concealing the flaw and making the piece one-of-a-kind as well as a reminder that beauty comes from imperfection.

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