Review: Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics,  by Lawrence O’Donnell 

34346496[1]I was sixteen in 1968, and I remember being a Gene McCarthy supporter in spite of my inability to vote.  I was anti-war, as were most of my friends, I was pro civil rights, and was discovering my conscience slowly but surely.  I also lived in Chicago and have vivid memories of the bloody protests and the subsequent trial of the “Chicago 7.”  Remembering these things has given me more of a perspective on current events than a younger person might have. I understand protest and confrontation. I understand the need to be involved. I lived through Watergate and I understand the nature of political corruption.

Or I thought I did until I immersed myself in O’Donnell’s account of the events which made Richard Nixon President of the United States, a complex, difficult, often painful process of backroom deals, back-stabbing, and cynical maneuvering by virtually every actor on that stage.  I learned a great deal about history that I thought I knew well, and learned that a great many of the people involved in this drama were far less admirable than I had imagined.  Or maybe I should just say they were more human than they appeared to be at the time.

I would urge you to read this book if you’re at all interested in the people and politics of that era and especially that campaign.  I was fascinated by the portraits of the major players from Johnson, who crippled himself by adhering to a losing strategy in Vietnam to the detriment of his legacy in other areas such as civil rights, Nixon who was a brilliant politician, but who put all that intellect to work in self-serving ways, Bobby Kennedy who was opaque and manipulative, and Eugene McCarthy who was a decent human being but utterly unfit to be president.  They, and the more minor players in this drama, are wonderfully drawn by O’Donnell in this rich narrative.

One thing about this book which both amused and bemused me was O’Donnell’s jabs at Donald Trump, a thread that ran through the book for reasons not immediately clear to me. O’Donnell isn’t a cheap-shot kind of guy.  He’s thoughtful, well-informed, and pretty even-handed, so the connections to Trump should have been provoked by practical reasons, right?

Well it took me long enough to suss them out.  This book isn’t just about 1968 and Nixon, and Vietnam, it’s about the here and now.  The comments about Trump aren’t just jabs, they’re sharp and incisive parallels to the worst of the world in 1968, the things we really should have left behind us, but can’t seem to shake off.  1968 was, after all, the end of the liberal wing of the Republican party. It was the year when the Dixie-crats drew the line in the sand on integration (They were not having it!) the war in Vietnam (Yes, please.) and the role of authoritarianism in government. (They were Law and Order guys right down the line.)  It was the year when southern Democrats stopped being democratic and turned into the moderate wing of the Republican party.

The parallels that O’Donnell draws become quite clear when he discusses Richard Nixon’s greatest crime, which had nothing to do with Watergate.  He colluded with Nguyễn Văn Thiệu to keep South Vietnam out of peace talks until after the election which he expected to win (and did.)  For Nixon, American lives were far less important than his political future. What he did was technically treason, and the only reason he wasn’t called out on it was that Johnson and his advisers felt that win or lose, charging Nixon with treason would do more harm to the country than good. That collusion has clear parallels to the Trump campaign and Russia, though the extent of Trump’s involvement isn’t actually known as of this writing. And the law that made Nixon’s actions treasonous probably don’t apply to the Russia scandal, though again, that’s not wholly clear at this time.

By the end, understanding those parallels between then and now, the deep divisions in this country, the fears and concerns, the push-pull of civil rights, it was heartening to listen to O’Donnell’s epilogue in which he reminds us of the most important thing of all: Our participation in this process is what made a difference.  The anti-war movement saved lives.

Political participation is life and death.

I really recommend this book to anyone who wants to read it as history, as a cautionary tale, as biographical material, or just as a surprisingly exciting story about the ins and outs of politics.  I would cheerfully read anything O’Donnell has written, and would happily listen to his narration of any political history because he was just that good.

 

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Review: Artemis, by Andy Weir

35097545[1]I pre-ordered this as soon as I knew it was being published, all on the strength of The Martian, which I loved. So now I can tell you that Sophomore Slump is a real thing.  Artemis isn’t a bad book, it’s just not a great book.  I’m not sure it’s always a good book, but I’m up and down about that.

As I was beginning it, The Housemate read me a highly critical review by the AV Club.  Most of the review was about how the main character didn’t feel like a woman. I felt that was relatively unimportant, that gender wasn’t an issue in the story as far as I’d read, and honestly I still feel that way.  Weir could have made his protagonist male and changed almost nothing about the narrative. Had this book been about women’s issues, I might have felt short-changed, but as it is, this is a pretty standard thriller, and representation is way down on the list of things one expects from this genre.

However, irony is ironic. When I picked the book up again after hearing the review, I found that it had been close to being right.  Not spot-on, just close.  None of the characters had any depth for me, mostly they were interchangeable plot devices.  Again, that’s standard fare in the genre, so I’m willing to shrug and let it go in spite of the fact that I know Weir can create dimensional characters.  But what flummoxed me was that the action sequences were so dull.  They were highly  technical, and where that worked in The Martian, it does not work here.

I found myself racing through those parts to get to the human interactions, which if they didn’t have the depth I could have hoped for, were at least more interesting than all the tech stuff. I found myself thinking that someone told Weir that “people loved all that technical stuff in The Martian, so maybe you should do it again, and do more of it.” Yeah that worked when it was a single man against the elements and ultimately against technology.  But here?  It’s kind of flat. At least that’s how it felt to me.

So in the end, while I enjoyed parts of it, those parts proved greater than the whole, and I can’t be super enthusiastic the way I was about The Martian. That makes me sad.  It doesn’t mean I won’t read the next thing Andy Weir publishes, but I’m not going to be so quick to pre-order it next time.

Review: Bonfire, by Krysten Ritter

33876540[1]I know Ritter from Jessica Jones where she blew me away with her hardass/badass characterization. I was both surprised and not to find that she also writes, and writes well.  Bonfire is a solid, serviceable thriller which, if a little predictable, still delivers the goods.  I didn’t love it, but I did tear through it in a couple of hours because her writing is smooth as silk, and she knows how to keep a scene moving, and how to create characters who are interesting if not complex.

It’s one of those books about a woman who goes back home again and confronts her miserable past, and the people who were complicit in that misery.  Abby is a damaged creature, reminding me of Rachel from Paula Hawkins The Girl on the Train.  She’s not quite the mess Rachel is, but the longer she stays in Barrens, the more we see the cracks opening up in her. She was a target for the Mean Girls, thanks to their ringleader, Kaycee, who had once been Abby’s friend, or rather had once been what passed for a friend.  Kaycee, who looms over everything in the story, remains almost more of a plot device than a fully-fleshed character.  Late revelations about her home life do help make her feel more real, but in the end, we never entirely understand what made her tick.

I could have done without the romance since it seemed like a false note, but it wasn’t intrusive. There are things about this novel that I find inexplicable, and which feel like loose ends to me.  Because of all those objections I’d probably give it 3.5 stars. But since most review sites don’t let you give fractions of stars, and since this is my 150th book for the year, I’m going to be generous and say 4 stars because I had to finish it, and I did it in two comfortable sittings.

 

Review: The Masked City (The Invisible Library #2) by Genevieve Cogman

28177627[1]There’s something winning about these Invisible Library books.  They’re lightweight, fun to read, filled with magic and action. They are Darn Good Reads.  The Masked City picks up not long after the end of the first book. Irene and her apprentice, Kai, are dancing around a relationship while engaged in library business. Then Kai is kidnapped, and the repercussions include the threat of war between the agents of chaos (the Fae) and agents of order (the Dragons.) Inevitably the real victims will be humans, and Irene is as desperate to prevent this as she is to get Kai back.

With the help of a thinly disguised Sherlock Holmes analog, Irene discovers who is responsible for Kai’s disappearance, and why, and she sets out to rescue him, a quest that will use all of her considerable resources as she ventures into the high chaos world of Venice, a city controlled by the Fae.

The plot of the second book is more focused than the first, and while the spectre of Alberich looms over events, this isn’t just Irene having to fight him again, which is all to the good.  We have new bad guys, and some serious political maneuverings. Cogman ups the ante in pushing Irene to the limits of her abilities, and sets up a confrontation for a future book.

This series is shaping up to be both exciting and amusing, which is a sure-fire combination.

Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

12000020[1]I was warned that this book would make me ugly cry, but I thought “Sure, a young adult book is going to tear me open and jump on my heart.  Sure.”

Dammit, I ugly cried.

This is a strange little love story about two teenage boys who seem to be so different that you have to wonder how they are even friends. And yet it’s clear that from the beginning there’s something between them, some understanding that goes far beyond ordinary friendship. Ari and Dante complete each other. The love they have for each other brings their families together, and helps Ari’s family to heal from the blows life has dealt them.

Their love is magical.

I listened to the audiobook which was narrated by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and he made the characters glow with life. They were so real that as angry as I was with Ari much of the time, my heart broke for him too. As frustrated as I was with his parents, I understood their inability to confront their past. And as odd as I initially found Dante’s parents, I  came to love them.  These characters are fully developed, and in spite of their flaws, they are loveable.

I’m not a huge fan of YA literature, but this book made me wonder if I haven’t been too stand-offish about it.  If this is the stuff kids read these days, then I’m in.  And I’m thrilled to know that the author is writing a sequel.

Three Things

I was texting with Glinda earlier and she told me that she’d cleaned out her freezer.  I texted back: Excellent! Go you! And as I was typing it, I realized that I didn’t have to say that.  I could have just said okay and moved on.  Glinda doesn’t expect a cheering section any more than I do.

But here’s the thing: I wanted to.  I wanted her to feel the way I feel when she cheers me on for getting something accomplished.  And when I realized that, I understood how important it is to have the occasional pat on the back, even if you have to be your own cheering section.  So the first thing is this:

1. Give yourself props.

This includes finding other people who will do it for you.  And if you can’t do that, you’d best take a good hard look at your life.  The corollary to this is that you have to give props to other people.  Don’t expect to suck up other people’s energy and good will unless you give your own freely.

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The second thing is something I touched on in my last house post when I talked about alternative tasks.  I had things I really wanted to accomplish today, but after getting a bread pudding together for breakfast and doing some other things, I ran out of oomph.  I was de-oomphified.  Yesterday I got past this by forcing myself to do a load of wash, but today I knew that I wasn’t going to get anywhere.  It just wasn’t going to happen.  So I did some alternative tasks.

I did some research on how to lower our cable bill, folded my laundry and put it away, and then indulged my fancy by putting together a lamp from Ikea and hanging it over my bed.  What this taught me was

2. Anything that makes you happy or gives you satisfaction is a legit task.

If that means you spend an hour stringing holiday lights around your bedroom, then so be it.  You’ve accomplished something, so GO YOU!  (An added plus is that I’ve increased my reading light dramatically this week.  Go me!)

DRÖMSYN Wall lamp, white
DRÖMSYN Wall lamp, white

BTW, the lamp actually looks like this, but it’s hard to see when it’s on.  $9.99 at your local Ikea store.

And finally, something it’s taken me years to understand viscerally.  I never used to make my bed.  I always thought, “Well, why bother?  I’m just going to get back in it tonight.” And while that’s true, it’s one of those things that you don’t realize weighs on you until you consciously choose to do the task, and feel the difference it makes in a room, and inside your head.

No, I’m not kidding.  It feels different.  Try it.  Make your bed, then walk past your bedroom later and look in.  Doesn’t that look nice?  Doesn’t it make you feel like you’re on top of one important thing in your life?  So the third thing:

3. Make your damn bed.

And I know you probably won’t do it every day, especially if you suffer from depression. But on the days when you are up and about, make the effort to straighten the covers and plump up the pillows.  That’s all.  Just make it look planned, and I promise you that it will make you smile.

Small things can make a big difference.  Honest.

The Art of To-Do

My friend, Karen, taught me about making lists.  At the top of every list, she writes “Make list.” then crosses it out once she finishes.  That’s freakin’ brilliant, isn’t it?  One thing down already!  I’m not good with written listicles though, preferring digital.  I use Google Keep for a lot of things, and share lists with Glinda.  That’s where we keep records of our fluid finances, things we need for the house and garden, and where I keep my grocery lists.

But for To-Do lists?  Not as comprehensive as I’d like.  I’ve tried AnyDo, and hated it.  Then I tried SplenDo and loved it until it whoopsed ALL my lists.  All of them *poof* into the ether.  Okay fine, SplenDo, you just see if I ever trust you again.  Microsoft To Do was recommended, and it seemed pretty good until it started changing the due dates on all my tasks.  It wasn’t bad enough that it kept switching my laundry day from Friday to Thursday, but it started making Thursday the due day for everything.

Yeah, well the point is not to kill myself on a single day anymore.  See, I have this must-do-everything-all-at-once mentality when it comes to cleaning.  Everything goes to hell in a handcart for months and then I expect I can fix it all in a day or two.  And on top of that, cleaning off a counter isn’t good enough for me, I have to move everything off, scrub it, wash everything that was moved, then put it all back before I feel as if I’ve done the job.  And since I physically can’t accomplish all that the way I used to, I just choose not to do it at all.

Something had to give.

Just recently I’ve realized that the things I thought were so important that I had to keep them forever and ever really aren’t that important at all, hence the Swedish Death Cleaning.  But the frustration I felt over how long it was taking (Did it get this way in a day?  No?  Well why would it take just a day or two to get fixed?) would weigh on me, pushing me to do more and more, which is a recipe for disaster when you have both physical and emotional limits.

515YNPGSl7L[1]In the last week I’ve had three strokes of luck.  First, Bill pointed me toward Unfuck Your Habitat.com a place for people like me… like most of us (Karen put your hands over your ears, hon) who are neatness impaired. (Honestly I don’t mind being reasonably messy, but I do mind that my house still looks like I just moved in even though I’ve been here for nearly 10 years.)  Anyway, the point is that this site gets people like me. Here’s one of the most repeated bits of info:

Laundry and Dishes Have Three Steps

1. Wash
2. Dry
3. PUT IT AWAY, GODDAMMIT

 

I  am a triple threat.  I can avoid all three of these in an endless chain of kitchen and laundry room chaos. The author (there’s a book too!) Rachel Hoffman, understands that we don’t all have the same capacity. She suggests a 20/10 regime, i.e., you clean for 20 minutes and knock off for 10.  If you have some kind of disability, try cleaning for 5 and recovering for 15.  If it seems too easy or you have a task that really requires you put a bit more time in all at once, try 45/15.  The point is that you have a set stopping time so you don’t kill yourself trying to clean out the Augean stables in a day.

The second bit of good fortune is that a friend needed boxes for packing things.  Anyone who’s been here recently will know how many damn boxes I had lying around, waiting for me to get off my ass and take them out to the recycling bins. I did her a favor, she did me a huge favor.  That’s a big-ass task that just got substantially smaller.

And the third thing is discovering Wunderlist which I love (and of course Microsoft plans to kill it eventually.) Used in tandem with the Unfuck Your Habitat system it helps me to do as much as I’m able to in the course of a day without killing myself.  I make lists in Wunderlist, lots of them.  Daily tasks, weekly and bi-weekly ones, monthly ones, yearly ones.  I also have a list of one-offs, and specific lists for specific goals like Holiday tasks, what needs doing in the basement, and so on.

I pretty much have to get through all the daily tasks, but they’re not terribly onerous. However if I find I’m not doing well for whatever reason, I do have a lot of tasks that I can substitute for the ones on the Today list. If I don’t wash my linens today, I can always wash them tomorrow, right?  The point is to get something done.  It doesn’t matter if it’s small, getting even one small thing done keeps me feeling as if I’m working the program. And it’s one more thing that gets done that wouldn’t get done if I’d just given up.

So here’s my best advice:

  1. Be accountable to yourself: Make lists of everything you can think of that you want to accomplish and divide them into categories.  It doesn’t matter what those categories are just be clear on what needs to be done, and when you want to accomplish it.  List everything you know needs doing no matter how small. On my list I have a note to cover the holes in the utility closet with duct tape. That’ll take all of five minutes. I’ll do it when I feel I can’t do anything else.
  2. Be realistic: Don’t try to do everything at once. Throw in a load of laundry then have a cup of tea. Scrub the floor then go read a book for a few minutes. I promise you you’ll get more done this way than if you ran around for three hours and then collapsed for the rest of the day.
  3. Be flexible: If you simply cannot face doing a specific task on a specific day, plan an alternate task like rearranging a bookshelf.  Just get something done. Once you do you may find the energy for the original task. I’ve retooled my days a number of times this week and accomplished more than I expected.
  4. Be proud of yourself: Before and after pictures will make you realize how much you’ve gotten done. Either way, pay attention to what you’ve accomplished.  It’s not nothing.
  5. Be determined: If you fall off the horse, get back on as soon as you can. The only way you can be defeated is if you just give up.

Review: The Inexplicable Universe: Unsolved Mysteries, by Neil deGrasse Tyson

15810697[1]I think my brain is going to explode.

No, not really.  In spite of this being some deeply confusing stuff, Dr. Tyson always manages to keep it to a level where, if I don’t understand it in a technical way, I get the idea he’s trying to get across.  From the tiniest particles to the size of the universe, Neil deGrasse Tyson, tackles the stuff we don’t know put beautifully in the context of what we do know.

Along the way he speculates on things like multi-universes, the action of a spinning black hole (on paper, you could survive it but either way, it’s a one-way trip), particles which exist beyond the speed of light, and a whole heap of other things that kept me riveted for the approximately seven hours of this course. I was left wishing that it had been twice as long, and it may end up being an audiobook that I revisit during my planned re-reads next year.

Good science writing is clear and concise, and it helps the reader/listener to grasp the gestalt of the work.  This is hella good science writing.

Review: Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History, by Katy Tur

0062684922.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_[1]I’ve been around for a long time and I’ve seen a lot of presidential campaigns, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything as insane and disheartening as Donald Trump’s campaign to become President of the United States and his subsequent victory. With that in mind, I decided to let Katy Tur immerse me in the whys and wherefores of his campaign in hope of understanding how a reality TV star with no political experience at all could bamboozle enough people into voting for him that he managed to beat out many more competent politicians.

Tur covered Trump’s campaign from the beginning, watching not just the candidate but the crowds that came to hear him speak, and she came to believe first, that he could win and then that he would win.  She’s still not convinced that he wanted the job at all, but what she saw by watching his fans was that they saw a man who was “one of them,” a man who famously said of the job after a few months in office that he had no idea it was that hard to be President.

She also saw him pander to a huge number of disaffected people who were looking for someone to blame for the fact that their lives weren’t what they’d been promised.  They needed someone to blame for crime, for disappearing jobs, lack of access to health care, and even for their failing relationships.  And Trump delivered.  Blame the brown people, blame women, blame politicians especially Obama, blame judges, and especially blame The Media. Tur got a lot of that during the campaign.  Trump singled her out, and as a result she was shouted at, sent death threats, and even spit on.  To her credit she doesn’t tar all Trump supporters with that particular brush, but she does recognize that the seething violence under the surface of his rallies is a direct result of his choices.

Tur is made of tougher stuff than I am.  When she describes Trump kissing her cheek, she is understandably worried about how her bosses will react.  My response was to cringe at the thought of those lips.  She copes with a nearly endless string of lies by saving verbatim files of everything he said in public to herself so she could fact check them. My response was to mutter “Shut up, shut up shut up!” from between clenched teeth every time she quoted another lie.  Tur is a born news-person, I’m simply a citizen. But we both live a post-Trump world, so her experiences, as horrifying as I found many of them, are like maps through the maze of the Crazy.

Thank God for Katy Tur and others like her.

Swedish Death Cleaning, weekend edition

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Yessir, yessir, three bags full.

I was using SplendDo for task lists because if I make a checklist with an alarm, it annoys me into getting things done.  Yes, I could lie and say I did it, but innate honesty keeps me from doing that.  Because who am I kidding, right?  Well this afternoon I checked the app and lo, all my lists were gone.  Oh yes, all my lists, alarms, repeat tasks, it was all gone. After a bit of tooth-gnashing I’m now using Microsoft To-Do which, if I am not as sold on it as SplenDo, does offer me some extra features like being able to add and edit tasks on my computer.

I figured that you couldn’t begin to appreciate the scope of this task without photos so…

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This is where I’m currently focusing my efforts. The shelves hold photos and other keepsakes that I have to sort through.  The amount of sorting and tossing I’ve already done is probably something you can’t even imagine, so I’ll just say that the three bags in the photo above, and the two boxes on the chair to the left are all garbage, and all those big boxes?  Full of stuff that needs sorting.

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More stuff that needs a home. Most of it I’m keeping.  Below: A relatively clean and organized space.  I made sure I could put away the stuff for the cats, and the things that didn’t need a lot of sorting or cleaning upfront.  It’s a useful little corner.IMG_20171105_144643

The cat room is my first order of business because that’s where a whole lot of stuff will be stored.  The next step will be the dining room which has been more of a storage facility than anything else.  Yes, this embarrases me, and that’s a good thing. Maybe it’ll get me moving on cleaning it out.

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There’s an ancient desktop computer in there somewhere.
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Newer pile of crap.
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Hard to believe I’ve already been working over here.

I learned that one of my friends has also embraced the Swedish Death Cleaning concept, and is busily sorting and tossing.  I’m guessing that she is wondering, as I am: “Where did all this crap come from??”

In my case, at least, I have no memory of a lot of it.  There was a point in time when I was not in my right mind, and spent a lot of money on things I hoped would make my life better.  They didn’t.  And now I have to face all of it, cut my losses, and move on.

Swedish Death Cleaning… fun times!