What keeps us humans from seeing the obvious—our smallness and our place on this planet in the context of all that is—and responding rationally? And why do some people see it even though everybody around them does not? These are the questions at the heart of Richard Powers's powerful new novel The Overstory as he attempts to tell us "something [we] need to hear."
This is a book for right now—a time when we face the possibility of the extinction of democracy and the extinction of human life as the planet screams and we ignore it, placing our addiction to consumerism above the right to life of trees and subsequently all living things (including us) who are connected to the lives of trees.
In The Overstory, Powers gives trees, our closest plant relative with whom we share most of our DNA, a voice, a voice that is praying for us to change our ways and let Life live.
Maybe we'll listen; maybe we won't. But for me there is one small consolation: if we don't listen, if we kill ourselves and our environment, life will not end. In the wonderful PBS documentary, Radioactive Wolves of Chernobyl, we get a glimpse into such a future, where twenty-five years after the nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl, scientists have found life flourishing—"a sort of post-atomic Eden, populated by beaver and bison, horses and birds, fish and falcons, and ruled by wolves." (more…)
One night many decades ago when I was working as a legal secretary, one of the partners asked an associate about a brief she was working on—what was its status?
"I typed it," she answered.
I held my breath waiting to hear the partner's response. He did not disappoint me: "You typed it yourself?" he asked pleasantly. And although he made no show of noticing me, I'm sure he heard my strangled laugh and enjoyed it.
"Well, no," answered the associate, blushing deeply. "I mean I had it typed."
"By a secretary," said the partner.
"Yes," she nodded, avoiding my side of the room. (more…)
The new documentary about Mister (Fred) Rogers, Won't You Be My Neighbor?, could not be more timely. Some of the seasoned professionals at the Directors Guild screening last night wept—with longing. Mister Rogers's message was simple: Be Kind. A Presbyterian minister, Fred Rogers never "preached." He just loved. He looked deeply into the eyes of children and said, "I like you just the way you are." He embodied the Golden Rule. He knew that at the core of every person is a small child who wants to be loved and valued as they are. He knew that human beings start in this world filled with a desire to be good.
It is no coincidence that director Morgan Neville received unprecedented support to get this movie into theaters as soon as was humanly possible. The message from everybody who helped—financially and otherwise—was "We need this movie!" And in fact the film ends on questions about what Fred Rogers would do right now, in our current political and cultural tumult. "I think he would try to make it bend," says his widow Joanne. I interpreted that to mean that rather than rail at the reprehensible behavior of President Trump et al., he would look this man deeply in the eyes and try to address the hiding child full of goodness inside. (more…)
James Comey is a very good writer, storyteller, and teacher, so on a literary level (except for one odd plot order choice—the highly dramatic John Ashcroft hospital showdown between Comey and Bush representatives—which I suspect has to do with the need to insert a ton of detailed background information), this book works.
Comey is a man who is in love with the law and justice and has a loathing of bullies. He is a student and practitioner of ethical leadership—which is really the topic of this book. He is a deeply reflective person. Yes, he tries to make himself look good by talking about his noble motives, but, unless he practiced introspection, he could not relay his introspective self-interrogations about his motives and whether something is ego-driven or directed for the higher good. If he were not compelled to know what's honest, he would not have told the story of the time he was the very thing he loathes—a horrible bully. I relate to this introspective inquiry because I do it myself—constantly, relentlessly—and I'm amazed so many other people don't. But I shouldn't be surprised. As Comey writes, "It is painful to stare openly at ourselves, but it is the only way to change the future. (137)" One can only know this pain by experiencing it, so I believe he is committed to this. Also like me, Comey has had a lifelong struggle with his tendency to think he's right—overconfidence—and he has had to learn to check his opinions with others, let in belief-disputing information, and monitor his tendency to be impulsive and arrogant. He freely admits all this, and he sees and admires Obama's enlightened ability to believe in himself yet remain humble enough to learn from others "which doesn't often exist alongside overconfidence. (155)"
I like this guy. I really, really like him. We are made from a lot of the same stuff. (more…)
On the anniversary of publication of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, my friend Karen Troianello posted a Facebook homage to her multiple copies of the book, and it got me thinking about my own multiples (see photo) and the personal reasons I will hang onto them for the rest of my life. And that got me wondering about other people's multiples and reasons for holding them. So I asked.
Boy, are we loyal to books we love. We cherish them like family members. My friend Maureen Phillips who writes delightful stories and poems about fairies calls her multiples "a little family of weirdos who all sit on the shelves together." (Madame Bovary, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Shipping News, A Confederacy of Dunces, the stories and poems of Edgar Allen Poe.) (more…)
Whitewashing, denial, gaslighting, saying black is white, Mad Hatter's Tea Party, 1984 doublespeak—all descriptors of our present condition with a President of the United States who seems to decide what's true with the casualness of a four-year-old playing an "invent-as-you-go" game. But although current events seem extreme, they are not without precedents. After all, we have long denied the facts of America's founding (see What Doris Kearns Goodwin Omitted blog), and we comfort ourselves with all sorts of blatantly untrue Bad Stories (per author Steve Almond).
In her new novel White Houses, Amy Bloom has lovingly exploded the lies of historians about Eleanor Roosevelt and renowned journalist Lorena Hickok, and oh, how exciting it was last night to sit in an audience at The Roosevelt House (where Roosevelt and Hickok first met) and listen to a discussion between Bloom and Blanche Wiesen Cook, historian and author of the Eleanor Roosevelt biography that inspired Bloom's novel. (more…)
This book is staggeringly good. I was familiar with Steve Almond from his short stories, but this is straight journalism at its best (which he teaches at Harvard). (It is clear from Almond's thought processes and messages to students, presented in this volume, that he is a great teacher and seasoned journalist.)
In reviewing, there is a tendency to break down books about politics into bullet-point messages, and I hesitate to do that because it would misrepresent Bad Stories as something much smaller than it is.
So what is it?
Because of Almond's conversational writing style, it is easily readable and offers up documented mind-blowing insights like hors d'oeuvres. Hence, Bad Stories is a huge, readable 237-page revelation of profound insights gleaned from connecting dots that we-the-people largely prefer not to see. (more…)
The reason more than 80 percent of New York City dwellers voted against Donald Trump was because we knew him—his history of pathological lying, his grandiose credit-taking for things he had nothing to do with, his cheating almost everybody who worked for him, his serial misogyny and complete lack of scruples. Mayor Mike Bloomberg said it straight at the Democratic National Convention: "I'm a New Yorker and I know a con when I see one." For people who liked Trump, his charm had to do with the fact that he was an unapologetic con artist who laughed at his own antics (for an example of the old Trump charm and humor at his own expense, listen to the Howard Stern interview about how he reacted to someone else's trauma). The mistake New Yorkers made was thinking that of course everybody could see the act.
I certainly saw it, but I was also so clobbered by the Recession that I saw the rage, desperation, and racism that was throbbing in our culture, and I was terrified that, with his P.T. Barnum instincts, Trump would trump his own plan (to lose) by having the con succeed. Wolff delineates the shock of the turnaround, obliterating the game plan to "win by losing" and become the most famous person in the world, making more money.
All of it is chronicled in Wolff's free-wheeling book, and really there is nothing new about Trump here. But it is somewhat pleasurable to read confirmation of what we knew and saw, reported by somebody who was a self-described "fly on the wall" of the West Wing and has actual tapes of Trump machine insiders speaking the truth. (more…)
Timing is important. There is a time for rage and a time for laughter, and right now rage reigns—as it should. After centuries of suppression, critical mass has been reached, the #MeToo movement has exploded, and male bodies are flying. Time magazine has put it on its cover. It's about time!
Like any other human woman, I have a litany of stories of men abusing their power. I admire the women who have spoken up. I quickly learned that would not work for me: Although I'm a clown, I couldn't laugh. As a child, I wasn't believed; as an adult, there was nobody to speak up to because the abuser was the boss. My M.O. was to cut and run, resulting in what might be politely referred to as an "attachment disorder" and "an eclectic" work résumé.
But I do believe there is another way, and eventually the clowns will have their microphones.
I recently read a "holy cow"-popping, rib-crackingly funny book that gave me a clue about how that might be.
In Paul Beatty's Man Booker-prize-winning, esoteric-reference-riddled novel The Sellout, an outsider black man "leans in" (thank you, Cheryl S.) to prejudices, actually reestablishing segregated schools and slave trade in his small California town of Dickens. (more…)
It's not complicated: "No" means no. "No, I don't want to do that." "No, stop that." "No, I don't think that is funny."
Persistent advances—kissing, groping, or worse—after somebody has made their "No" clear is bullying or assault. End of story.
Good guys can do this. They can get their photos snapped doing it. And rather than defend them as good guys and attack the victims for being "coached" by your opposition, realize they were doing something a woman had clearly rejected.
Talented guys can do this: brilliant actors and directors who have long-dirty reputations in closed industry circles, yet they've gotten away with it and their predation escalates.
Presidents can do this, and they appear to be Teflon-covered. (more…)