Friday, January 31, 2020

"A Very Stable Genius" by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig

I finished reading "A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump's Testing of America" earlier today -- just as the U.S. Senate voted not to hear further evidence or witnesses in the president's impeachment trial.

Authors Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig are both Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters at the Washington Post. (A tidbit I gleaned from the last sentence of the acknowledgements at the book's end: apparently Rucker was a competitive figure skater in his youth!!)  Their book covers the first 2.5 years of Donald Trump's presidency (more or less chronologically), ending with the public release of the Mueller report. The epilogue briefly covers the infamous Zelensky telephone call and the beginnings of impeachment proceedings. It's similar to both "Fire and Fury" by Michael Wolff and Bob Woodward's "Fear" -- both of which I've read & reviewed on this blog -- with behind-the-scenes insider insights gleaned from interviews more than 200 sources. (Some are named, some not. It's pretty easy in some cases to guess who they talked to.) 

The New York Times review called it "a comic horror story," and yes, sometimes it's hard to know whether to laugh or cry over its revelations.  "It’s as if the president, as patient zero, had bitten an aide and slowly, bite by bite, an entire nation had lost its wits and its compass," the NYT says. 

The most infamous stories from the book have been well reported -- but there were still plenty of anecdotes and insights to keep me turning the pages.  It's easy reading in terms of the quality of the writing and reporting -- perhaps not so easy in terms of reliving the Trump presidency, incident by mind-numbing incident. Anyone who goes to work for this White House must know, on some level, what they're getting into, which makes it hard to feel too sorry for them -- but I'll admit there's part of me that winced as I read about the behind-the-scenes chaos they had/have to endure every day.  Talk about toxic work environments...!  

There's a quote in the epilogue that struck me as particularly relevant to the moment (especially as I watched the Senate vote down the prospect of hearing further testimony): 
"We haven't seen anything like this in my lifetime. He appears to be daring the rest of the political system to stop him -- and if it doesn't, he'll go further," William A. Galston, a senior fellow in governance at the Brookings Institution, told The Washington Post's Robert Costa.  
"What we're discovering is that the Constitution is not a mechanism that runs by itself," Galston added. "Ultimately, we are a government of men and not law. The law has no force without people who are willing to enforce it." (p. 416) 
Between reading this book and following the Senate trial, I must admit I'm feeling rather pessimistic right now about the future for my southern neighbours (and, by extension, the rest of us) -- certainly (at minimum) for as long as Trump remains president. I hope history proves me wrong. 

Four stars on Goodreads. 

(Time for a lighter read next, I think...!) 

This was Book #5 read in 2020 to date, bringing me to 17% of my 2020 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 30 books. I am (for the moment, anyway...!) 3 books ahead of schedule to meet my goal. :)

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

"The cycle continues"

I was at a store in the mall earlier today that mostly caters to people younger & skinnier than me (cough) -- and the choice of music on the sound system generally reflects that. Imagine my annoyance when I realized that the repetitive refrain I was hearing was going something like this:
We'll go to school and get married and start a family
and they'll go to school and get married and start a family
the cycle continues....
We'll go to school and get married and start a family
and they'll go to school and get married and start a family
the cycle continues... 
On & on & on the refrain went. "The cycle continues? Not for everyone!" I thought with an eyeroll. I couldn't get out of there fast enough.

Imagine my surprise when I Googled the lyrics to write (complain) about them in my blog -- and read the entire thing. Context is everything, people, and I was hasty to judge.  (I obviously wasn't listening very well either!)  The song was by a "neo-soul and contemporary jazz" singer and songwriter from the U.K. named Ego Ella May.  It's still not the kind of music I'm really into -- but I feel like I owe her an apology.  ;)  Just read (YouTube video also embedded below):

Girls Don't Always Sing About Boys

Verse 1
Girls don't always sing about boys
What if I wanna talk about suffering,
in the earth
the ocean plastic happenings?
Would anybody listen at all
if i don't parade in a bra- only
to get my point across

I don't always think about boys
but I hear love is the only thing worth fighting for
as well as loving the same sex
sanitary kits for homelessness
Grenfell, mental health for all..

We'll go to school and get married and start a family
and they'll go to school and get married and start a family
the cycle continues,
when we don't question what we're into x2

Verse 2
Girl's don't always sing about boys
even though it's what sells and what's relatable
I mean, who doesn't wanna cry?
To a song about getting your heart broke
cos she'll sing all the words that you never spoke
or couldn't

I can't always think about boys
Cos I've been reading about:
air pollution, sustainable fashion,
learnt behaviours, why it all happens
so I guess, I'll raise the issues
with a nice beat behind me
singing it sweet so you'll still buy me
as I rethink the norm like...

We'll go to school and get married and start a family
and they'll go to school and get married and start a family
the cycle continues,
when we don't question what we're into x2

released November 22, 2019
All lyrics by Ego Ella May

Monday, January 27, 2020

#MicroblogMondays: This diamond ring(s)

I recently took my anniversary ring (which I got for our 25th wedding anniversary) to the local outlet of the jewelry chain where we'd purchased it for the semi-annual cleaning & inspection required by the insurance policy we bought along with the ring. While I was there, I screwed up my courage and asked for a quote on getting my engagement & wedding rings (a matching set) resized.

For the past year (maybe two, maybe longer), I've been wearing my rings on the little finger of my left hand, because I could no longer wedge them onto my ring finger. (Well, maybe I could, but I stopped trying after getting them uncomfortably stuck one too many times.) I've added a couple of dress/pant sizes since I got married almost (gulp) 35 years ago;  I guess it stands to reason that my ring size has increased as well. (Sigh.)

I knew it was the logical thing to do. But handing the rings over to the clerk and watching her put them into a little plastic bag to send away was an emotional moment. And even though I haven't been wearing my rings around the house as much since I started having trouble putting them on, my left hand felt weirdly bare and lightweight after I left them at the store and walked away.

I posted about this on Facebook & got mostly sympathetic replies -- although one (divorced) friend/former coworker wisecracked, "Feeling single?  LOL." (I did not respond.)

Anyway -- I was told it would take two to three weeks for the work to be done, but I got a call after one week and one day that the rings were ready for pickup. We went to the mall the next day and the rings are now happily back on the proper finger of my left hand, where they belong. The bands are a little wider than they used to be at the back, but they fit perfectly now, and I don't think they've looked this shiny and bright and sparkling since the day we bought them in the spring of 1985 (at a long-gone independent jewelry store in downtown Winnipeg).

Ours was not the classic down-on-one-knee proposal, let alone the staged and photographed social media event that proposals these days seem to have become -- it was almost more of a mutual agreement than a question that we'd get married, once we'd both finished school.  I told my dh-to-be that I didn't care if I got an engagement ring the night before the wedding -- but I did want a ring, lol.  He was in Toronto and I was in Manitoba for most of the year leading up to our wedding -- so I wound up going on a solo ring-scouting mission, and we went to get the one I liked when he came, a few months before our wedding, for the weekend marriage prep course required by the minister who was marrying us. I had a lot of fun looking and trying on prospective rings -- much to the bemusement of the store clerks who asked if I had a groom to go with the ring. We weren't sure the store would accept an out-of-province personal cheque, and the limit on dh's student credit card was nowhere near high enough to cover the cost -- he didn't want to be carrying around that much cash -- and there were no debit cards back then, of course -- so he wound up paying for the rings (as well as a gold wedding band for himself) with travellers cheques, lol.

I'm glad to have them back where they belong. :)

You can find more of this week's #MicroblogMondays posts here.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

"Uncanny Valley" by Anna Wiener

I am a late Baby Boomer (or early Gen-Xer, depending on your generational definitions). I grew up in an analog world. We had a black-and-white television set until I was 12, and its rabbit ears only pulled in one channel -- the CBC -- until we moved closer to the city and the U.S.-Canada border, when I was 13 (then we got six -- seven, you counted the French channel, which we never did). I was 15 when my cousins got a new game that you actually played on your television set, called Pong. My journalism school class was the first to use computers to type, save & file our stories. I didn't get a personal computer or go online until 1996, when I was 35 years old.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that I come from a completely different time and place than Anna Wiener, barely 30 years old, who has written about her experiences working in Silicon Valley in "Uncanny Valley:  A Memoir."  (Maybe it's the name, but I envision Anna Kendrick playing her in a future movie adaptation.)

"Uncanny Valley" gives old(er) people like me a glimpse into the strange new world where college dropouts become millionaires or billionaires before their 30th birthdays, all while wearing hoodies, pumped up on energy drinks, caffeine and snacks (all paid for by the office), working whatever hours they feel like and communicating by text (even with the guy sitting across the desk from you). Completely different than my own experiences, working 28 years at the Bay Street (think Wall Street) head office of a major Canadian bank, which was & still is about as "old-school corporate" as you can get.

And yet there was a lot I could relate to in Wiener's story: being older than your bosses & coworkers (although Wiener was still just in her mid-20s herself!!), the male-dominated corporate culture, the sexism, the meetings that go nowhere... the language!!
People said things like "co-execute" and "upleveling"; they used "ask" and "attach" and "fail" as nouns. They joked about "adulting." ... Sometimes it felt like everyone was speaking a different language -- or the same language with radically different rules. There was no common lexicon. Instead, people used a sort of nonlanguage, which was neither beautiful nor especially efficient: a mash-up of business-speak with athletic and wartime metaphors, inflated with self-importance. Calls to action;  front lines and trenches; blitzscaling. Companies didn't fail, they died. We didn't compete, we went to war.  (pp. 92-93) 
Mostly, I could relate to Wiener herself -- an English major who worked in publishing in New York City before making the leap to the west coast tech world:  her love of books, her concerns about privacy, her wariness of ride-sharing apps and getting into strangers' cars, her eagerness to be liked and valued by her bosses and colleagues, her growing cynicism and disillusionment. 
I was frustrated because I felt stuck, and I was resentful because I was stuck in an industry that was chipping away at so many things I cared about. I did not want to be an ingrate, but I had trouble seeing why writing support emails for a venture-funded startup should offer more economic stability and reward than creative work or civic contributions. (p. 195) 
Some Goodreads reviewers have said they thought the writing was good, but they were bored with reading Silicon Valley memoirs. This was the first one I've read, and I thought it was pretty good. There's not much here that's ultimately new or surprising, if you've been reading the news, but it's a well written look at Silicon Valley startup culture. It's doesn't paint a pretty picture of the place, but it provides a lot of food for thought.  Four (4) stars on Goodreads.

This was Book #4 read in 2020 to date, bringing me to 13% of my 2020 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 30 books. I am (for the moment, anyway...!) 3 books ahead of schedule to meet my goal. :)

Friday, January 24, 2020

Odds & ends

  • I've been feeling a bit "blah" this week -- and then I heard an ad on the radio proclaiming that this past Monday was "Blue Monday." (Previous posts about Blue Monday & some background on the subject here.) I guess that explains it (or at least some of it...!).  
    • The forecast for this upcoming weekend includes yet MORE snow -- for the third weekend in a row. I hope it's not too bad tomorrow -- we have tickets for a lecture and major exhibit opening at the local art gallery where we have a membership, and I've really been looking forward to it. 
  • Dh, at the supermarket, picking up a package of diapers for Great-Nephew that we saw on sale at a good price:  "I like buying diapers. It makes me feel... NORMAL.  Like any other dad or grandpa." (This made me smile -- and broke my heart at the same time.)   
  • Katy at Chasing Creation has been hosting monthly webinars on a variety of childless-not-by-choice topics. The most recent, "Embracing a Life Without Kids," is aimed at people who are trying to decide if childless living is for them, and features Tia Gendusa of Infertile AF, Jobi Tyson of Tutum Global, and Melissa Jones of Live Childfree. Even if (like me) you've been living childless/free for quite a while, it's worth watching!
  • I've sometimes joked about embracing my inner quitter when I walked away from further infertility treatments. (See my posts tagged as "the Q word.")  So I was interested to see the New York Times recently published a feature called "I Quit," featuring 21 stories about people who walked away -- from their job, their band, the presidential race, sex and more. Lots of interesting reading (I'm still working my way through all the articles!). 

Monday, January 20, 2020

#MicroblogMondays: Small pleasures & annoying things

Small pleasures: 
  • Visiting our adorable little Great-Nephew this weekend and getting to see him sneeze (!) and smile (he has dimples!). 
  • Clear blue sky & sunshine today, after a dump of 17 cm of snow (6-7 inches) on Saturday. 
    • Being thankful that I don't live in Newfoundland, where they had hurricane-force winds and 80-90 cm (about 32-35 inches) of snow on Friday (!). 
  • Binge-watching 11 hours of figure skating on TV this weekend (!) (Canadian national championships) and seeing some talented youngsters claim spots on the podium for the first time. 
  • Lindor chocolate on sale at the grocery store. :) 
  • Getting a good start on my 2020 Goodreads Reading Challenge. 
Annoying things: 
  • (Blue skies & sunshine today aside) Grey, overcast, COLD weather lately. (Yep, it's January...) 
  • Pulling up all the blankets on the bed at night because I'm cold... and then having to throw them off because I'm sweltering.  :p  (Lather, rinse, repeat...) 
  • Not having our condo's driveway/parking lot plowed out until around 10 p.m. on Saturday night, about 12 hours (!) after it started snowing (& the main road outside wasn't much better). Isn't this what we pay condo fees and property taxes for?? 
  • Playing telephone tag with the hospital/breast screening centre, trying to get a routine mammogram booked. 

You can find more of this week's #MicroblogMondays posts here

Sunday, January 19, 2020

"Impeach" by Neal Katyal

"Impeach: The Case Against Donald Trump" by Neal Katyal was a timely read. I picked it up in early/mid-January, a few weeks after the U.S. House of Representatives voted to impeach President Donald Trump, and finished it just as the articles of impeachment were delivered to the Senate for the forthcoming trial. 

Katyal is a former acting solicitor general of the United States, a leading Supreme Court lawyer, and a professor of law at Georgetown University where, his bio states, he has taught impeachment 29 times. So this is a subject with which he is quite familiar.

As the subtitle suggests, Katyal outlines a clear case for impeachment of the current president in this book, and why he believes it is necessary. But it's worth a read even if you disagree (?!) with him on that point, because it's a highly readable, concise little primer on the subject generally (just 158 pages of text, 214 if you include the appendix). Katyal delves into the history and constitutional background of impeachment, why the founders of the United States chose to include it in the constitution, how it's been used in the past (most notably during the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton), and how it works. He concludes with recommendations of laws that Congress could & should pass to prevent future abuses of presidential power. There's also an appendix of documents pertaining to the Trump impeachment (including the whistleblower complaint of August 2019, and the summary of the July 25th call between President Trump and President Zelenskyy of Ukraine).

Four stars on Goodreads.

This was Book #3 read in 2020 to date, bringing me to 10% of my 2020 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 30 books. I am (for the moment, anyway...!) 2 books ahead of schedule to meet my goal. :)

Monday, January 13, 2020

#MicroblogMondays: Birthday odds & ends

  • Yesterday was my birthday.  (I turned -- big gulp -- 59!)  The weather called for heavy rain turning to freezing rain &/or snow over Saturday night/Sunday, and the restaurant I wanted to eat at isn't open Sundays (private parties only), so we went out for a birthday dinner on Saturday night. 
    • I had a huge plate of pasta (with oil, garlic, rapini & parmesan) & brought almost half of it home with me. (Saved room for a gigantic slice of tiramisu, which I shared with dh.) I'll be having the rest for dinner tonight! 
    • We wound up sitting next to an older woman & younger woman and couldn't help overhearing their conversation with the waitress...!  The older woman was the younger woman's future mother-in-law (!);  her son (the groom) was on his bachelor party weekend in Niagara Falls. The bride-to-be looked pretty young, but she already has THREE children, and is pregnant with a FOURTH.  Her MIL-to-be was praising her to the waitress and saying what a good mom she is. All I could think was, "I have to listen to this on my birthday??"  Oh well....
    • Sunday afternoon, we went to see the movie "1917." Not as gory as you might expect, but VERY intense. Beautifully, beautifully filmed (visually stunning) and acted. It won some Golden Globes and has been (deservedly) nominated for 10 Oscars.  
    • I said to dh, "Next year, the beach!"  Seems like I am always saying that -- but next year I am going to try to make that happen. ;)  Having an early/mid-January birthday sucks sometimes, because it is so overshadowed by Christmas. (Also, my mother's birthday is also in early January, about a week before mine.)  It's like November through December is all about Christmas -- and then Christmas ends & suddenly it's January and, oh yeah, it's my birthday, and there's no time left (not always the money either...!) to plan anything too out of the ordinary. (Plus anytime I do try to do something, it seems like the weather doesn't co-operate...!) 
  • I didn't realize it at the time I hit "publish," but my "Holiday reading" post was post #1600 on this blog!  That's a lot of posting, even when spread out over 12 years!  (On average, 133 posts per year! -- not bad!) 
  • Last March, I posted that I'd heard that a "Mad About You" sequel was in the works. The reboot finally showed up on Canadian TV (CTV's Comedy Channel) last week (the first two episodes, back to back), after showing on Spectrum Originals in the U.S. last fall. 
    • I was a big fan of the original show, which ran from 1992 to 1999, and wrote about it and the parallels to my own life in this 2011 post
    • In this latest version, baby Mabel is all grown up and off to college and living in a dorm -- specifically at NYU, a few blocks away from home.  Nevertheless, her parents -- and Jamie especially -- are suffering a lot of angst over their empty nest.   
    • I had mixed feelings. It was fun to see the old characters and listen to the witty banter and drool over their lovely apartment again.  I did laugh at some of the aging jokes... I could relate!  But the helicopter parenting/empty nest stuff? -- not so much. I hear enough of that in real life!  
  • On a slightly related note, I saw on Facebook that a reboot/sequel to "thirtysomething" is now in the works. "thirtysomething" ran from 1987 to 1991. I was a fairly recent newlywed then, in my mid-20s/turning 30 myself, with hopes of someday having a little girl as adorable as Hope & Michael's baby Janie.  
    • No doubt I will be watching...! But seriously, though -- has Hollywood run completely out of original programming ideas??  Sometimes it seems that way...
You can find more of this week's #MicroblogMondays posts here

Friday, January 10, 2020

"The Dutch House" by Ann Patchett

I think I may have first heard about "The Dutch House" by Ann Patchett from Modern Mrs. Darcy -- and then my former boss mentioned in an email that she took it with her to read on a trip to St. Lucia this fall. I asked her how it was, and she said it was good. 

Then I saw it on sale at the local mega-bookstore (where it's a "Heather's Pick"-- a guaranteed good read) and I decided to pick it up on our first visit back from Christmas holidays. I had Ronan Farrow's "Catch and Kill" in mind for my next read -- but the girl in the red coat on the cover was calling to me. ;)  I guess I was craving a good fiction read. Once I started it, I found it very hard to put down, and found myself racing through the final 1/3 of the book. 

"The Dutch House" of the title is an enormous house in the suburbs of Philadelphia, built by a tobacco magnate and bought, complete with furniture and full closets, after the Second World War by Cyril Conroy, a rising real estate tycoon, as a surprise for his wife, Elna. 

One of the themes that runs throughout the book is that actions, no matter how well intended, can have unintended/unforeseen consequences. Instead of bringing the family together in triumph, the house becomes their undoing. Unnerved by the house and the family's sudden wealth, Elna leaves Cyril and their two young children, Maeve and Danny (the book's narrator). The siblings' bond is strengthened by their mutual loathing of their stepmother, Andrea, who throws them both out of the house and back into poverty after Cyril's death.  Over the decades that follow, the memories of the house, and the desire for revenge, remain an obsession for the siblings. Night after night, they park in front of the house;  over and over again, they retell old stories and talk about what they've lost. “We had made a fetish out of our misfortune, fallen in love with it,” Danny observes.

On the face of it, this is a simple book (the New York Times review calls it "a modern fairy tale"), but it's actually quite complex and multilayered, with some wonderfully drawn characters.  It's about families, and how patterns of behaviour repeat themselves over time and from generation to generation. It's about holding grudges, and the power of forgiveness.  It's about memory and the passage of time, and about how even the closest siblings can experience growing up in the same family very differently. 

The NYT review quotes Patchett from a 2016 profile in The Guardian, saying “I’ve been writing the same book my whole life -- that you’re in one family, and all of a sudden, you’re in another family and it’s not your choice and you can’t get out.” Isn't that so true? The family we grew up in, the family of our childhood memories, is not the same family we wind up with.  Families -- even the ones that remain relatively intact, avoiding divorce and early death -- morph and change as we all change over time. Says Danny:  "We overlay the present onto the past. We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we're not seeing it as the people we were, we're seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered."

I found the ending just a wee bit unrealistic... but it did not detract from the overall power of the story or my enjoyment of it. This was the first book I've read by Ann Patchett. I don't think it will be the last. Five stars. :)  I think it would make a great book club read! 

*** *** *** 

I flagged this passage with a Post-It note... I think CNBCers, married or not, will relate:    
What I didn't appreciate was that Celeste took such issue with Maeve not coming into the city, when Maeve coming to be with us was the last thing she wanted. "She's too busy with her important job in frozen vegetables to come here for the day? She expects you to drop everything -- your business, your family -- and run to her when she calls?"   
...What was never said but was perfectly clear was that Maeve had no husband, no children, and so her time was less valuable. (p. 238)
This was Book #2 read in 2020 to date, bringing me to 7% of my 2020 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 30 books. I am (for the moment, anyway...!) 2 books ahead of schedule to meet my goal. :)

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

The road less travelled....

Hmmmmm.... What do you think?  (I have some thoughts of my own, but would love to hear yours!)

"Between Friends," Saturday, January 4, 2020 

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

"Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy" by Anne Boyd Rioux

"Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters"  by Anne Boyd Rioux was in my TBR pile for a while, but got moved up in anticipation of the new movie version of "Little Women," starring Saoirse Ronan as Jo, Emma Watson as Meg and Laura Dern as Marmee. I was still in the middle of reading it when I went to see the movie this past weekend with my SIL.

I'll get back to the movie shortly... first, the book!

I probably would have read this book eventually even without the prompt of the new movie, because "Little Women" is one of those books I read as a child that has always stayed with me.  I got an abridged version as a gift on my 6th or 7th birthday -- read the full thing later, several times (although not in quite a while now) -- and I sometimes wonder if Jo March was my original inspiration for wanting to be a writer.

"Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy" is, as the subtitle says, a collection of essays about the phenomenon of "Little Women" and why it still matters, 150 years after it was first published (in 1868). Rioux explores how Alcott came to write "Little Women,"  how closely it reflected her own life (and how it didn't) and how the book (and its subsequent sequels) was initially received by both critics and audiences around the world.  She looks at how the book has gained new life through stage, screen (movies & TV) and radio adaptations, how each version differed from its predecessors and how they were received.  There are chapters on on the book's lasting cultural and literary impact, and on differing readers' interpretations of the novel.  There's an absolutely fascinating chapter called "Can Boys Read 'Little Women'?" (echoing some recent articles I read asking why men aren't going to see the latest film version). Of course they CAN, but they generally DON'T and Rioux delves into the reasons why. She also writes about what the book has to say about the female experience and how girls grow up into women (then and now), and how "Little Women" continues to have an impact on girls' stories today ("Harry Potter"'s Hermione, "The Hunger Games," "Gossip Girl" and "Gilmore Girls" and Lena Dunham's "Girls" are among the modern female-focused stories discussed that were influenced to some extent by "Little Women").

If you're a fan of "Little Women" (as I am) or the subject of women in literature generally, you will enjoy this book.  I did, and I gave it four stars on Goodreads.

*** *** ***

Now, about the movie!  I've seen quite a few of the many filmed versions of "Little Women," in full or in part, most recently the one that aired about a year ago on PBS, with Maya Hawke -- daughter of Ethan Hawke & Uma Thurman (!) -- as Jo. That one was pretty good, and the 1994 version with Winona Ryder as Jo and Christian Bale as Laurie is probably my favourite -- but this one ranks right up there, and definitely deserves the critical praise it's getting. It's beautifully filmed and acted. One  small quibble -- I was glad I was familiar with the story, because it's not a straightforward linear retelling -- the screenwriter chose to jump back & forth in time with the story, and that might be slightly confusing if you're completely new to it. (Take Kleenex.)

Now I want to re-read "Little Women" again...!

This was Book #1 read in 2020, bringing me to 3% of my 2020 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 30 books. I am (for the moment, anyway...!) 1 book ahead of schedule to meet my goal. :)

Monday, January 6, 2020

#MicroblogMondays: The battle of the Christmas tree lights

One more Christmas-related post that I wanted to write down for posterity while it's still fresh in my mind (even if it's not exactly a micro-post)... ;)

If you think I'm a stickler for tradition when it comes to Christmas, you ought to meet my mother (I come by it honestly, lol).  My mother has always wanted the main Christmas tree in the house -- the one in the living room, where we open our presents on Christmas Eve and our stockings on Christmas morning -- to look like the old-fashioned ones from when she was a kid (& when I was a kid). (It's an artificial tree -- we always used to have real ones, until the year Mom started sneezing when the tree was brought in. Out it went, and that was the last time we had a real tree...!)  Most of the ornaments we use on that tree date back to the early years of my parents' marriage and my childhood in the early/mid-1960s -- a set of creamy balls covered in what looks like onionskin with little gold stars on them; red and green teardrops, purchased at the drugstore in a small town where we lived in Saskatchewan (1966-69) -- 99 cents for a box of six (the price tags are still on the boxes);  a battered red and silver aluminium star at the top; ropes of silver tinsel; and silver icicles, painstakingly hung from the tree branches in single strands. (They're difficult to find these days, so Mom takes them all OFF the tree every year and saves them for next Christmas.)  And big, old-fashioned, opaque coloured (incandescent) lights with foil reflectors. (But NOT yellow/gold lights. Mom hates them, and we've always had to swap them out for red, green or blue.)

Unfortunately, the lights Mom loves, while not quite as old as I am (!), are nevertheless getting to be pretty ancient. I'm sure they've had them at least as long as they've lived in this house -- which is now (gulp) 35 years.  This was brought home to me a few years ago when I plugged in one of the strings of lights to test them out before putting them on the tree (decorating the tree is usually left for me to do when I get there, partly to help out and partly because I love doing it) -- and a huge spark flew out of the electric outlet. I yanked the cord out and refused to have further anything to do with it. We made do with the remaining two strings of lights, running them back & forth across the front of the tree, instead of wrapping them all the way around (the tree sits in a corner of the living room, so the lack of lights in back is not too noticeable).

But more and more of the lights on those two remaining strings weren't working, and even when we tried to replace the bulbs, the new bulbs wouldn't work either. One bulb just went around & around in the socket without "catching" and tightening.  I started arguing that, tradition or not, the old lights had to go.  And every year I'd arrive, and we'd bring out the tree decorations, and the old lights would still be there, and the arguments would begin anew.

This year, I told my mother that if she wanted those lights on the tree, I would (reluctantly) put them up, but SHE could plug them in to test them and to turn them on & off. A full-blown family argument ensued. My sister has long agreed with me, and both her boyfriend & dh also agreed that the old lights were unsafe and needed to be replaced. (My dad, for the most part, stayed out of it!) My sister & I made a unilateral decision to go uptown to see what new lights we could find. (The town my parents live in, with a population of fewer than 3,000 people, boasts two small hardware stores.)

Of course, the strings of old-fashioned, large, opaque coloured incandescent bulbs my mother loves are in short supply these days. (Yes, it might be possible to find them on the Internet, but at this point, we didn't have time to wait for online delivery.)  At one store, we found coloured incandescent light strings, albeit with larger bulbs and designed for outdoors. At another, we found coloured LED bulbs, slightly smaller but more energy efficient and also cooler to the touch when plugged in. We took them home & tried them both out. The incandescents were almost blindingly brighter than the old ones, and they were also hot to the touch. The LEDs were slightly more opaque than the incandescents, and because they were slightly smaller lights, there were more of them on the string = more lights on the tree. The incandescents were too large (& hot) for the old reflectors to go on them -- but the reflectors fit perfectly over the LED bulbs -- and because the LEDs are cool to the touch, the old reflectors are far safer to put on them.

That clinched it. We didn't have quite enough reflectors to put on all the LEDs, so I focused on putting them on the bulbs at the front of the tree, and on the reds, greens and blues (thus downplaying the yellow & orange-y ones that Mom dislikes, which were difficult to swap out).

Mom was pretty pissed off at my sister & me when we left on our shopping trip -- but even she had to admit the new lights looked pretty good, especially once the reflectors were on.  Can you spot the difference?

Christmas tree with scary old lights, 2018.

Christmas tree with new LED lights, 2019.

You can find more of this week's #MicroblogMondays posts here

Sunday, January 5, 2020


Melissa at Stirrup Queens has reminded us that it's International Blog Delurking Week. :)  I've taken part, on & off over the 12 years I've been blogging (related posts now tagged here), and it's always fun to see old friends, occasional commenters and previously silent lurkers come out of the woodwork to say hello. 

So -- come out, come out, wherever you are -- say hello (at least) and, if you like, tell me/us something about yourself. As always, I'm curious -- how did you find me, & how long have you been reading (if you remember)?

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Post-Christmas odds & ends

  • Back from Christmas holidays & slowly getting back to normal. It wasn't a bad Christmas overall, but every time I visit, I am more and more acutely aware that my parents are rapidly aging. (And so am I, to put it bluntly...!)  
    • My angst around Christmas these days is not so much around my lack of children (because I've always had the comfort of returning to my childhood Christmas traditions with my family of origin) but more the knowledge that once my parents are gone, so will my holiday comfort zone, and then there will be some very dramatic changes to come... Many people make the break from their childhood Christmas celebrations and start their own when they get married and start families of their own... I never really have, and while I am glad I've had that comfort zone, especially in the wake of loss & permanent childlessness, I can see that it's going to be all the harder when the time finally comes to let go... 
  • My mom went over to the neighbours' house after Christmas to see their visiting grandchildren. She asked if I wanted to come with her. I said no. She kept showing me photos of her friends' grandchildren & great-great grandchildren on Facebook the entire time we were there. Most of the time, I really don't need or want to see that stuff. I might know her friends, but I don't really know most of their kids -- & I don't need the constant reminders of my failure on that front... :p  (although I'm sure she didn't intend it to be taken that way). 
  • We were having coffee at BIL's when we got back home, and he was talking about how we need some girls in the family... "Who's going to take care of us when we get older? These guys [his two sons/our nephews]??"  I thought, "You have two wonderful sons, and two beautiful daughters-in-law, and now an adorable grandson -- and YOU'RE worried about who's going to take care of YOU??  Who's going to take care of dh & me??"   I love my brother-in-law, but it was one of those thoughtless things that people with kids say without really thinking about who they're talking to. Eyeroll. (I mentioned it to dh after we left, and he said, "I knew you were going to say that!"  lol) 
  • I am slowly catching up on writing and posting all the blog posts I had half-written and mulled over in my head, and am sllllooooowwwwwllly catching up on my blog reading & commenting too. 
  • Mind-blowing meme on Facebook: 2050 is now as far away as 2020 was from 1990. (And my age then will be... oh, never mind...!) 

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Right now

Right now... (an occasional meme, alternating from time to time with "The Current")

Reading:  I read 5 books in December (all reviewed on this blog -- follow the links):
I completed my Goodreads 2019 Reading Challenge back in July, and finished the year with a total of 50 (!) books -- more than double (26 more than) my goal of 24 (208%).  :)

My goal for 2020 will be modestly higher, at 30 books.

There was no library book club meeting in December, but our January discussion (later this month) will be "The Alice Network" by Kate Quinn, which I read & reviewed earlier this year here.  And my D.E. Stevenson group will be starting its discussion of "Mrs. Tim Flies Home" (which I read in November and reviewed here) next week.

Current read(s):   Just started "Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why it Still Matters" by Anne Boyd Rioux. :)  Hoping to see the new movie version of the book shortly!

(Some) recent purchases/additions to the TBR pile (that I haven't read yet):
Watching:  We went to see "Ford vs Ferrari" earlier in December. I'm generally not interested in car racing, but Christian Bale was in it, and he's been great in everything I've ever seen him in (here included).  Matt Damon is also in it, and also very good. Both dh & I enjoyed the movie overall!

We also went to see "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker" on New Year's Day -- a great way to start the new year.  :)  I can't believe I have been following the saga of the Skywalker family for the better part of my life -- 43 years, since the first, iconic movie came out when I was 16!! -- and that this is the end, at least of that storyline. It was an emotional experience -- I tend to start reaching for the Kleenex as soon as I see those words, "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...." (much to dh's amusement) -- and, for the most part, it was a satisfying wrap-up to the series.

We watched "Ad Astra" on New Year's Eve at BIL & SIL's on pay-per-view.  BIL picked it because it was about astronauts, & while it starred Brad Pitt & had other great visuals (lol) it was, we all sadly agreed, a bit of a snoozefest.

On television, I still haven't had time to get into Season 3 of "The Crown."

I've been wanting to see "Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice" ever since I heard about it, and finally got to see it on CNN on New Year's Day. They've been heavily promoting it, and I'm a little sick of the ads :p  but I don't think I'll ever get tired of Ronstadt's music -- whether it's her early country stuff, the rock & roll & even new wave stuff of my youth, her musical partnership with Emmylou Harris & Dolly Parton, operetta ("The Pirates of Penzance" on Broadway), her standards albums (she was one of the first rock stars, if not THE first to try doing this) or the albums of Spanish-language folk songs she recorded in tribute to her Mexican heritage. It's so heartbreaking that she's no longer able to sing (at least to her satisfaction -- the end of the program showed her singing quite passable, if not very powerful, harmonies with her cousin & nephew) -- but what a legacy!  (I was amused to read the reactions to the show on Twitter, and see just how many younger people had no idea of the breadth of her accomplishments, or that she was essentially responsible for bringing the Eagles together, or that she & California Governor Jerry Brown were an item back in the 1970s.)

Listening:  I have LOTS of podcasts to catch up on...!

Following:  My Kobo wishlist... I try to check in on it every other day or so, if not every day. You never know when one of the books you want will be on sale (usually for one day only!).  (I've been trying to buy more e-books vs paper lately, given our limited storage space, although I still prefer paper. I've also been buying e-replacements for some of my paper books when I see them on sale for $2.99 or $4.99, etc.  There are some books, though, that I will always keep in paper!)

Drinking/Eating:  New Year's Eve dinner was takeout Chinese food (ordered earlier in the week to get ahead of the rush) at BIL's.  The kids took Great-Nephew over to see his other grandmother, so it was just the four of us, plus SIL's elderly father, and the dog, who was royally spoiled in the absence of his human brother (I am sure he has been feeling somewhat neglected these days!).  ;)  Still eating way too much leftover Christmas chocolate, but can't bring myself to waste perfectly good chocolate and throw it out wholesale...!

Buying (besides books, lol):  Most of December's purchases were Christmas gift-related. And we haven't really been shopping since we got back home (other than for groceries... we did stop at the bookstore -- all hardcovers were on sale 30% off -- but the lineups were HORRENDOUS, so we actually decided to pass!).

(But, see "Wearing," below.)

Wearing:  Just before Christmas, I bought myself a study new pair of "sensible" black shoes (Earth Origins) for everyday walking around.  I've had a similar pair of Clarks for several years now that have served me very well (I wore them while walking around in New York City, six years ago, and didn't develop a single blister, lol), but the heels, treads and inner cushioning are all quite worn down, and they're pretty scuffed up. I figured it was time for something new.

Trying: To wrap my head around the fact that I'll be 59 (!!) very soon!  (eeeeeekkkkkk....)

Wanting: To do something nice/special for my birthday. Just not sure what it will be.

Procrastinating: On taking down the (artificial, pre-lit) Christmas tree & decorations. Love having the tree lights on -- an extra bit of light and cheer amid the winter dark & gloom. Both dh & I were too tired this week to tackle it. I'm half Ukrainian, and Ukrainian Christmas is Jan. 7th, so I've always felt I'm justified in leaving things up until then, lol.  Also, my mother tells me the Swedes have a tradition called "Little Christmas" (also known as Knut's Day), which wraps up the Christmas season on Jan. 13th. That's the day when Swedes traditionally take down their Christmas trees and eat up any leftover Christmas goodies! (I am also part Swedish... as well as part Irish.)

Enjoying:  Setting up my new planner/datebook for 2020. I have used a Filofax organizer & "week on two pages" calendar inserts for more than 20 years, and use different coloured pens for different  things (appointments & reminders, birthdays & anniversaries, incoming deposits & bills to be paid, mail sent & received, phone calls made, etc.). Works for me!

Loving: Sleeping on my own mattress & pillow again!  (It's not bad at Mom & Dad's, but there's nothing like your own bed, right?)

Feeling: Tired and disoriented and still trying to get back into a regular routine, post-Christmas vacation. I love holidays & vacations, but they always throw me off -- and having a holiday (New Year's Day) right in the middle of the week doesn't help (even though I'm retired). I have had no idea what day of the week it's been for most of the week...!

Holiday reading

I had a pretty busy Christmas holiday with my family, but I managed to finish three books while I was there, before the end of 2019!

I started reading "It's Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration is Doing to America"
by David Cay Johnston a few days before we headed west.  Published in January 2018, one year after Trump took office, it's a meticulous look at the political "termites" (as Johnston calls them) who have infested the U.S. government under Trump administration, and are hollowing it out from the inside, and the profound negative impact they are having on America and Americans. (And that was after just one year... how much worse have things gotten since then??)  Each chapter deals with a different aspect of Trump's impact on the U.S. government and public policy, including the infamous wall on the U.S./Mexico border, climate change, education, kleptocracy, and much more.

Johnston is an investigative journalist who has been writing about Trump since 1988.  The book is well organized and well documented, clearly written and easy to follow.  I gave it four stars on Goodreads. (Your opinion will likely differ if you are a fan of the current president.)

*** *** ***

I enjoy Amanda Carpenter's commentary as a talking head on CNN.  Her politics are very different than mine -- she's a Republican who worked for both Jim DeMint and Ted Cruz (!) -- but when it comes to Donald Trump, we are in total agreement.

Thus I was compelled to find & read her book "Gaslighting America: Why We Love It When Trump Lies to Us."

Carpenter demonstrates that, while some of his opponents continue to expect Trump's outrageous lies, fabrications and conspiracy theories to bring him down, they are instead propelling his success. She's not the first to describe Trump's strategy as "gaslighting" -- a type of psychological manipulation commonly used by sociopaths and narcissists, designed to confuse and destabilize, which leads victims to question their own perceptions of reality. (Do you feel like Trump is driving you crazy?  That's the point, Carpenter says.)

Impressively, however, Carpenter has analyzed Trump's gaslighting and identified the five steps he consistently uses to do it.  She then provides ample examples of how he's successfully used this formula, both as a candidate and as president, to sideline his opponents, control the narrative and advance his agenda. Trump isn't the first president to use gaslighting as a strategy -- both Richard Nixon & Bill Clinton employed it, Carpenter says -- but Trump has taken it to a whole new level.

The steps are:

1.  Stake a claim:  Trump stakes out political territory -- an issue or action -- that no one else is willing to occupy (and that will ensure a media frenzy), and takes over the news cycle. (Example:  "President Obama was not born in the United States.")

2. Advance and deny:  Trump casts the issue into the public realm and advances the story, but denies responsibility for doing so. He does this by talking about what other people are (supposedly) saying or thinking. If pressed for sources, he'll point to YouTube videos, tabloids, tweets and unverifiable Internet news stories. ("People are saying...").

3.  Create suspense:  Trump creates suspense by announcing to the media that more information is coming soon. (It never does.)  ("We'll see..." and "In two weeks" are frequent Trump catchphrases.)

4. Discredit the opponent:  Trump attacks the motives and/or personal character of anyone who challenges him, often by using demeaning nicknames ("Lyin' Ted,"  "Little Marco,"  etc.).

5.  Declare victory -- under any circumstances, whether or not he's actually successful.  By doing this, he effectively buries the issue.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Depressingly (but realistically), Carpenter says we're stuck with Trump and his gaslighting.
Doesn't matter if he's impeached, if he's censured, or if he loses his 2020 re-election in a landslide;  he's not going to go away. 
Don't believe me? Close your eyes and try picturing Donald Trump going gently into retired life to spend the rest of his days quietly playing golf and enjoying his two scoops of ice cream after dinner at the country club each night. Ha! I couldn't even write that without laughing. Trump has never been content to fade into the background. There is no way, short of a straitjacket, ball gag, and padded room, that Trump is giving up the power and influence he has gained since becoming president. (pp. 185-186) 
But she concludes with some welcome advice and tips on what we can do to cope (and stay sane).  Just recognizing what Trump is doing (by reading this book, of course...!) is a good start.

The book is less impressive/more annoying when Carpenter's partisan colours are on display -- when she's singing the praises of Ted Cruz, for example (!), or showing her disdain for Hillary Clinton & the Democrats.

Nevertheless, this is still a worthwhile read. I gave it four stars on Goodreads.

*** *** ***

I remember reading a very positive newspaper article about
"Out of Grief, Singing: A Memoir of Motherhood and Loss" by Charlene Diehl. It seemed to me like it wasn't that long ago, but when I checked, this book was published back in 2010! -- parts of it appeared earlier in the journal Prairie Fire.  I had forgotten about it until it popped up on a list of suggestions for my Kobo e-reader recently, at a very reasonable price.

It's not a long book. I started reading it shortly after buckling my seatbelt on the plane that was taking me back to Toronto after spending Christmas in Manitoba with my family.  I read 90% of it on the 2+ hour flight, and finished it later that evening back at our condo.

A bit of Googling revealed that Diehl is the same age I am, and a fellow Manitoban. (I wonder whether we have any friends in common...!) The place names laced through her story -- Winnipeg, Brandon, Boissevain (as well as Waterloo and McMaster Hospital in Hamilton, in Ontario) -- and her evocative descriptions of the Prairie landscapes I know & love so well -- connected me further to her story -- which is, of course, similar to mine in many ways (albeit different in others).

The book (as the subtitle suggests) is about how Diehl came to terms with the loss (in November 1995) of her daughter, Chloe, who was born by emergency C-section at 28 weeks after Diehl was diagnosed with pre-ecclampsia, and died six days later in a NICU.  Diehl continued to struggle with high blood pressure and after effects of her epidural for some time afterward, and then had to have surgery for gallstones (!), all while mourning the loss of her daughter.

It is absolutely beautifully written. There is something about Diehl's lyrical prose (the use of the present tense, possibly? or perhaps the strong sense of place?) that reminded me of Jackie Shannon Hollis's book, "This Particular Happiness" (read & reviewed here).  And, of course, the subject matter was all too familiar to me, bringing back many memories, as well as NICU stories from the parents who attended our pregnancy & infant loss support group. Reading about how Diehl's mother flew to her side in the Ontario hospital -- just as mine did, less than three years later (and having just left her & my father behind, earlier that morning) -- had me quietly sobbing and wiping tears away, and the tears continued to roll down my face as I read further into the book. (I'm sure the woman sitting beside me thought I was nuts.)

It's a beautiful book, and I recommend it highly for anyone who has experienced such a loss, or who wants to understand more about it. Five stars on Goodreads.

These were books #48, #49 and #50 that I read in 2019, bringing me to 208% (!!) of my 2019 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 24 books.  I completed my challenge for the year in July, read 26 books beyond my goal (more than double) -- and surpassed my reading total for 2018 by 23 books.  :)  On to 2020!!  My new Goodreads Challenge goal for this year will be 30 books (2.5 per month).  

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Decade in review

I must admit, I hadn't really considered that we were at the end of a decade until I started seeing all of these "decade in review" and "then and now" reflection posts popping up in my social media feeds (in addition to all the usual year-end posts). One big difference between the start of this decade and now the end of it, I suppose, is the creeping presence of social media itself (and smartphones -- the first iPhone was released in 2007). (Although we'd had cellphones for quite a while, dh & I didn't get smartphones until 2016.)  I had only just joined Facebook in late 2009 -- I don't think Instagram had even been invented yet! -- so nobody tended to think a lot about these kinds of things, at least not in the same kind of shareable way.  I had already been online for almost 15 years, and I WAS blogging by then. I am grateful that I have more than a full decade of blog posts to look back on.

One young guy of my acquaintance posted on Facebook about how in 2009 he & his wife were awaiting the birth of their first child;  they now have four (!) plus a recently-acquired puppy. I don't have any such accomplishments to brag about, and in many ways -- certainly in that respect -- my life and who I am has not changed a lot. I am, and will always be, a childless bereaved mother. My grief  over my stillborn daughter (August 1998) was still quite raw when the millennium dawned in January 2000;  by January 2010, we had only just stopped facilitating the pregnancy loss support group we had attended as clients.

When the millennium began in 2000, we were heading for a consultation with a reproductive endocrinologist in February.  A year & a half later, we were done, our dreams of having a family dashed to pieces.  The 2000s were the decade in which I gradually came to terms with the fact that motherhood was not going to happen for me;  that hasn't and will not change.  I continued to hope for a miracle pregnancy for much of the 2000s/through my early/mid-40s -- but once I crossed the threshold of the 2010s and my 50s, I knew for certain I was not going to have a child. Moreover, I no longer wanted a child by that point in my life, much as I had once wished for one. I knew that ship had sailed. 

But even though I had left most of the drama of infertility & loss behind me by the start of the last decade, I guess I have still experienced some pretty major life changes and upheavals over the past 10 years. In January 2010, I was turning 49 (!).  Dh & I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary in July and took a week's vacation in Nova Scotia that fall as a present to ourselves. (My parents celebrated their 50th that same July, and we gave them a big party to mark the occasion.) At work, our department's longtime senior VP had recently moved on to another position, and the new SVP, while a very nice person, began making some major changes. My immediate boss, whom I'd worked for over the past 15+ years, saw the writing on the wall and decided to retire that spring.  The upheaval continued over the next four years for both me & dh, as the company we both worked for transitioned to new leadership. He lost his job in April 2013 and I lost mine in July 2014.  

The young people around us -- including our two wonderful nephews, and Parents' Neighbours' Daughter -- grew up, finished their education, found jobs and partners and got married, and started having families of their own.  Our peers started becoming empty nesters, and then grandparents. We said goodbye to my wonderful father-in-law, and I watched my own two parents -- who had me when they were 20 & 21, and were always the youngest parents in the room! -- begin to age more and more noticeably.  My mother was already retired when the last decade began;  my father sold his business but continued to work part-time until his 80th birthday this past summer. It's been a decade of transitions for them too, with more changes certain to come. They will mark their 60th wedding anniversary this summer. 

At dh's prodding, four years ago, we dramatically downsized our possessions and sold our home of 26 years -- the house we'd hoped would be a home to our children, the children that never arrived -- and moved across the metropolitan area into a two-bedroom condo, closer to BIL and his family. Downsizing and relocation -- on top of the lingering effects of stillbirth & infertility, permanent involuntary childlessness, aging without children, dealing with aging parents, job loss and retirement -- all of these have been somewhat traumatic and disorienting experiences. (I was not particularly happy to move - but for the most part, I am now glad we did it, and that we did it NOW, as opposed to later.)  Each time something major has happened, I've found myself re-evaluating who I am and what I'm going to do with the rest of my life. I still haven't found any conclusive answers.  

In a few weeks, I will celebrate my (gulp) 59th birthday.  60 (double GULP) is not that far away.  (And in another 10 years from now, I'll be.... oh, never mind...!)  If the past 10 years (or 20... or 50!) have taught me anything, it's that time goes by way, WAY too quickly. It's easy to fall into a rut and/or let things drift.  

But I've also learned that while it's good to have plans & goals, things happen in life that we can/will never expect or foresee -- and so it's also good to develop some flexibility and resilience.  

And that even though my life is nothing like what I thought it might be when I was 20 -- it's still a pretty good life, and I am a very fortunate girl.  (Can I still say "girl" when I'm so close to 60??) 

On to the 2020s!