Sex and Power

Last night I watched The Favourite, a drama based on actual historical occurrences, and one of the movies nominated for best picture in the Oscar race this year.  It was, on the surface, a weird film. The weirdness had to do with: the fantastical costumes of the 17th century, (men in long, curly wigs with red beauty patches on their cheeks); the recreation of Lordly aristocrats (they seemed to enjoy pummeling a bewigged nude man with apples); and an instance of ballroom dancing (whereby a Lord twirled his partner around his waist aka Dancing with the Stars and then proceeded to crawdad-walk the length of the ballroom).  The fascination of the film though was its theme:  the limits of sex to gain power or to comfort.

Every advertiser knows the power of sex:  sex sells.  You may be reading this blog because you saw the word “sex” in the title.

Frankly, when I was a much younger woman, I, like many women, used my sex appeal to influence.

As a twenty-something living on an isolated desert farm, I dreamed of becoming a journalist and writing for a newspaper.  Without any experience or education in journalism, I wrote seven newspaper columns about a city girl’s life on the farm.  When I marched into the newsroom of our local newspaper with my columns in hand, I had on my prettiest dress and most charming smile. The city news desk editor took notice (I could tell).  He may have liked what I wrote, but I also think he was influenced by what he saw.  A week later I got a call telling me the newspaper was interested in publishing my work.

In the movie, The Favourite, Queen Anne of Great Britain is horribly depressed.  She’s lost her husband and endured 17 failed pregnancies. What is a queen’s value in the 1700’s if not to produce an heir (or even, in Great Britain today—consider how overjoyed everyone is that Prince William’s wife, Kate Middleton, has been reliably fertile).

Queen Anne is easy pickings for the machinations of her assistant, Lady Sarah, and her chamber maid, Abigail, who both vie for Anne’s favor in the hope of gaining power.  They coddle Anne and respond to her every whim, including providing sex.  Ironically, considering Anne’s barren condition, sex appears to be the most effective manipulation.

I was both fascinated and repulsed watching Queen Anne try to comfort herself by eating cake until she vomited into the vomit bucket, or quietly sob as she participated in yet another meaningless sexual experience.

It was like watching someone with an appendix attack try to staunch the pain by riding a roller coaster.  Thrills are not going to solve Anne’s problem.  Sadly, in the film Queen Anne never overcomes her depression, and the aristocratic women prostituting themselves for her end up trapped in that role.  Here’s a movie (or a piece of history) I would gladly rewrite.  In my ending Queen Anne would find something she obviously and desperately needed: a genuine friend.  This person would ask nothing of her—and give nothing to her—except real love.  I’d call it a fairy-tale ending.

Image credit:  The Favourite

DeGrazia, Tony Doerr, and J. R. Simplot

I stood in front of Ted DeGrazia’s painting of Navajo children dancing in a circle, the one that UNICEF picked for their annual Christmas card in 1960, and tried to “feel” the painting. I like art and sometimes art can move me, evoke emotion and stir some ancient memory. I have a reproduction of a watercolor my old boss, Bill Trueba painted that I find absolutely haunting. It’s a picture, a silhouette really, of a man walking city streets at night. Bill brushstrokes loneliness and despair across his canvas in orange, blues and black. For some reason, though DeGrazia is a famous southwest painter and his Navajo children painting-turned-Christmas card sold four million cards, I’ve little attraction for the painting.

Who can understand why some art touches us and not others, or vice-versa? The other evening at a supper party, talk turned to movies likely nominated for the Oscars this year. I said, “I loved watching Roma on Netflix. That’s a beautiful movie.”

Leslie about spit out the water she was drinking. “What? You liked Roma? How could anybody like that movie? What was it about anyways? Does anybody know? I didn’t get it. It just seemed like a lot of family scenes down in Mexico during the 70’s.”

I could have told Leslie that Rotten Tomatoes web site gave Roma a 99% certified “fresh” ranking—but that was too much like telling someone the reason I like banana splits is because everyone else says they’re great–so I said instead:

“Yeah, you’re right Leslie. There’s hardly any plot in Roma. For me it’s more about the setting, the character, the mood of the film. So melancholy: this poor indigenous woman, destined to live her life scrubbing the laundry and tending the children of some other Mexican family, an upper-class, European-looking one.”

Books are another art form I’ve found, that can draw strikingly different reactions depending on the reader. For example, is there an Idaho reader alive, who doesn’t revere Anthony Doerr (our native son) and dote on his Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller, All the Light We Cannot See? I’m going to speak sacrilege here and confess: this Idahoan was not awed by Doerr’s book. Though I think Doerr writes artfully, his book to me was not a work of art. I’ve considered this could be a case of sour grapes. Why didn’t I write such a book? Probably because I don’t have his talent. But I thought, generally-speaking, All the Light We Cannot See was too calculated in its construction. It was like he wrote today’s formula for a literary best-seller: a blind, handicapped girl and something about the Nazis occupation of Europe during WWII. Why didn’t Tony, being from Idaho, write about . . . well . . . an Idaho potato farmer?

Speaking of Idaho potato farmers, I’ll end this little essay on artistic taste by saying that a couple of years ago I took a tour of a Boise home that once belonged to the potato magnate, J. R. Simplot. One piece of art he’d mounted on his walls struck me more than any of the other artwork I saw in his old home. It was a framed poster of sexy Marilyn Monroe wearing a burlap potato sack, circa 1951. I stood in front of the picture for some moments, much like I did DeGrazia’s painting, waiting and wondering. What I concluded was: though the picture didn’t speak to me, it certainly must have to Simplot. Here was a billboard advertising the values of J. R. Simplot, an agribusiness-man in his prime. Thus, I think art can be as they say, many things to many people. Beauty, and what’s not so beautiful, it’s all in the eye of the beholder.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Becoming
by Michelle Obama

The title of Michelle Obama’s book is Becoming, so I was interested to find out how she became all that she became. Despite humble beginnings, Obama became a Harvard Law graduate, a corporate lawyer, a university administrator, and the wife of the president of the United States.

Incredibly, Michelle Obama and I started out in life in similar ways. We both grew up in the Chicagoland area. In fact, my husband and I drove into Chicago after we first married to honeymoon in a motel on Euclid Avenue, probably not far from where young Michelle was skipping Double Dutch on the sidewalk. We both had blue collar, working class parents. Her father was a water pump operator for the city of Chicago and my dad was a truck driver. She lived in a rented 900 square foot apartment, and my parents mortgaged their 900 square feet. I had the advantage of being born white in racist America, but maybe this wasn’t such an advantage. As Obama chronicles it, race and humble beginnings, along with the love and expectations of her parents, were part of the engine that motivated her many accomplishments. She says: “The idea was we (she and her brother Craig) were to transcend, to get ourselves further.”

Obama defines “becoming” as reaching continuously “for a better self,” which was certainly the case in her life. She worked hard, payed attention to detail and always arrived early. She marveled in her book how she could fall in love with such a “breezy,” laid-back kind-of guy as Barack Obama. But appearances can be deceptive, and she soon realized his relaxed manner belied a keen intellect and deep personal ethic. Michelle Obama’s love for her husband is everywhere evident in this autobiography. However, their marriage was not without challenges. She tells about struggles to become pregnant, going to marriage counseling during a rough patch, and the resistance she launched against Barack Obama’s political ambitions. Like any loving wife, she didn’t want to have to share her husband with the world—but I, for one, am so glad she did.

Obama writes her book well. It’s honest, yet optimistic, interesting and wise. And, like any good autobiography, Obama reveals several little known facts about her life. I was surprised to read she had to be schooled in how to speak publicly during her husband’s political campaigns. I’ve always enjoyed listening to her speak on television, but apparently when she first began to advocate for her husband at political rallies, her advisers told her she came across as too strident and harsh. She needed to sound more friendly and open. I also never realized during the 2016 campaign the personal impact of Donald Trump’s race-baiting on the Obama family. The number of death threats increased alarmingly, and Michelle worried for her husband and children’s safety.

Becoming has the distinction of being the best-selling book of the year, and I think I know why. It’s not just the fascinating story of a young woman’s rise, but the story of a better time in our country’s history, a time when we had a strong leader, someone guided by a true moral compass.

Holiday Books by Great Genre Authors

Holiday Books by Favorite Authors to Gift (or not)

                                                                                                 

All three of these authors are great genre, mystery writers and of course, during the holidays publishers pay big to have them produce a yearly offering of suspense for their waiting readers. I’m one of those readers and was happy to buy their latest tales of intrigue this Christmas season. Sadly though, I only thoroughly read and enjoyed one of them. The other two books I either skimmed through portions of, or in the case of one, I completely stopped reading it somewhere in the middle. How could such solid writers go so wrong?

First let’s talk about The Witch Elm. I fully confess that I’m a Tana French groupie. I’ve read every one of her books. In The Witch Elm French introduces us to Toby, a man with a family and a past. Toby comes home from a night of drinking and is mugged in his apartment for unclear reasons. His wounds are slow to heal so he decides to go live with his Uncle Hugo who’s dying of cancer. Then a human skull is found in the trunk of an old elm tree on Uncle Hugo’s property, the Ivy House. The authorities are called and the suspense builds—except it doesn’t really. And that’s a problem.

French, as usual, is viscerally descriptive in The Witch Elm, dressing down a scene or a character like no other: “ . . . stark and runic as black twigs on snow . . .long, buttery streaks of light on dark wood . . . A girl in a floppy red velvet hat . . . Eastern European accent, wrists bending like a dancer’s.” Sometimes with authors like French it’s just a joy to read the way they put words together. But at 528 pages those words need to go somewhere. They have to do something—something big. This was my first French book to put aside without finishing it. I hope it’s my last.

The Reckoning by John Grisham has a fascinating premise. It’s the 1940’s in Clanton, Mississippi when Pete Banning, cotton farmer and war hero, decides he has to kill someone. There’s no way around it. He makes sure his institutionalized wife and his two grown children are well taken of as he fully expects to either die in the electric chair or be sent to prison for life. At first we don’t know who he’ll kill, and when we find out it’s the popular, local Methodist minister that Pete murders, we don’t know why.

We don’t know why Pete decided to kill the minister until the last few chapters. Which is okay. As a reader, I’m willing to enjoy Grisham’s breezy prose and skillful story telling as long as he sticks to one tale. But apparently in an attempt to fully explore the character of Banning and his motives, Grisham digresses mightily from his main story line. For almost a third of the book we find ourselves in the Philippine islands with Banning suffering through the infamous Bataan Death March. I like military history some, but not placed in the middle of a southern Gothic mystery with only a thin thread linking the two. So, I began to skim read. At least I finished the book and found the ending interesting. Why didn’t Grisham use some of his Philippine pages to flesh out his ending more? It would have been such a better read.

I did finish Michael Connelly’s latest book, Dark Sacred Night. Connelly is another wildly popular author of police procedurals, of which I’ve read nearly every one. What usually hooks me on Connelly’s writing is how methodical he is, detailing the crime, the suspects, the scene, and the investigation as performed by his crusty protagonist, Harry Bosch. In this latest novel, Bosch, along with a new Connelly detective, part-time surfer girl Renee Ballard, are attempting to find the murderer in a cold, unsolved case involving a young prostitute who was killed several years ago. Complicating the investigation is that Bosch houses the murder victim’s mother, a drug addict, in order to help her stay clean. Both Bosch and Ballard operate near the fringe of appropriate conduct for police professionals. It’s a slow boiling mystery, but I eventually found myself turning pages faster and faster to see how it all ends. That’s the sign of an enjoyable read.

Where the Crawdads Sing Book Review

Where the Crawdads Sing (novel)
By Delia Owens

A young girl grows up alone in the coastal marshlands of North Carolina, having been abandoned by her family. She can neither read nor write so the sea gulls, shore birds, and swamp creatures become her friends. In order to survive, she learns how to fish and to hunt on the shoreline for mussels, which she sells to the local bait and tackle store. In her desperate loneliness she meets and befriends two boys, Tate, the son of a local shrimper, and Chase, the popular and handsome townie. Then, someone is killed and the local sheriff launches an investigation.

This first novel by Delia Owens is both a soulful romance and intriguing murder mystery. Owens creates a wonderful character in Kya, the swamp girl. Though I love a good romance, I found myself more fascinated by Owen’s convincing description of Kya’s survival, once her drunken and abusive father finally left, in the Carolinian swamps at the age of seven. Ever since reading The Boxcar Children and The Secret Garden (when I wasn’t much older than seven) I’ve enjoyed stories of children discovering and building places for themselves in wilderness areas. Owens obviously knows the North Carolina coastline and the animals that live there.  Her prose is rich and descriptive.

This is definitely a book club pick, a novel with both merit and high entertainment value.

The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix TV series/Shirley Jackson book)

When I was about sixteen years old, I read Shirley Jackson’s book The Haunting of Hill House. Jackson first published her haunted house story in 1953 and then ten years later in 1963, the book was made into a black and white movie starring Julie Harris. Now Netflix has come out with a brand new TV series of The Haunting of Hill House (just in time for Halloween) and I have to say, the screen writers did a remarkable job. The Netflix series is refreshingly, not a slasher/gore, horror movie enslaved to haunted house conventions.  It even has a satisfying, if not happy ending, something increasingly unique to the genre.  But more about the new Netflix series later.  First, I’d like to talk a little about the book.

As a young woman, though I liked to read, I’d never read a scary book before The Haunting of Hill House.  In those days not many popular authors wrote horror, especially a story of a bizarre haunted house with serious co-dependent issues. The Haunting of Hill House made such an impression on me at such an impressionable age, I’ve attributed the occasional haunted house dreams I’ve had all my life to reading this book when I was a girl. I can still quote some of the lines Jackson wrote to describe Hill House. She said the house was “insane” and “whoever walked there, walked alone.”

Prior to The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson’s greatest claim to fame was her 1948 short story, The Lottery. Some may be familiar with this shocking tale because it’s been repeatedly anthologized in high school English textbooks. Still, I think The Haunting of Hill House is Jackson’s signature work. Stephen King, our preeminent teller of scary tales, has paid tribute many times to Shirley Jackson and The Haunting of Hill House.

Before the Netflix series, there were at least two film versions of The Haunting of Hill House, one of those being the atmospheric and frightening 1960’s movie. The Netflix production though, has managed to not only capture the essence of Jackson’s story, but successfully elaborate and enrich it. The original book is about a small group of people led by a psychic researcher, who come to Hill House to investigate rumors that it’s haunted.  In the Netflix version, the group exploring the house is a young family. They’ve bought Hill House to renovate and resell it.

Though the acting is wonderful in the new Netflix series what’s really memorable is the way the filmmakers use flashbacks and time sequence to build the mystery surrounding the house. They juxtapose the older, present-day family members currently struggling with trauma from their Hill House experience, with their much younger selves at the time they lived in Hill House. The opening scene begins in the past with the young father loading his children in the family station wagon in the middle of the night.  He’s desperately trying to leave Hill House before any more family members die.

There’s been lots of haunted house tales since Jackson’s book, but what makes her story and the Netflix series so distinct is how the character of the house is portrayed.  It is both a benign reflection of its inhabitants, and something fearfully predatory.  What does Hill House want and why? Behind both Jackson’s story and the Netflix offering, lies the chilling answer.

The Great Alone Book Review

The Great Alone (novel)
By Kristin Hannah

I’ve never been to Alaska but this book makes me want to visit. Not only does the author do a fine job describing the majestic scenery of Alaska, she’s also able to capture who the regular Alaskan people are, how they live and work in the outback, logging and clearing roads in the short summer, and smoking strips of marinated salmon for the long, bitter winter. How can you not appreciate an author who is observant and sensitive enough to distinguish the difference between a lower-48, night sky (black) and the winter sky of Alaska (a velvet blue with ambient light from the snow-covered terrain). I loved reading Hannah’s prose.

But all that glorious setting and description is just the frosting on the cake. The cake being a wonderfully involving story of a family in the 70’s trying to survive in the Alaskan wilderness. The story is told from the daughter, Leni’s perspective. She’s a lovely, auburn-haired teenager, an only child, trying to survive not only the Alaskan wilderness (“there’s a hundred ways to die in Alaska”), but her troubled parents. Her violent, unstable father, Ernt, is an ex-POW from the Viet Nam war. Leni loves her sweet, chain-smoking mother, but cannot understand why she doesn’t leave her abusive father. Ernt becomes part of the extremist fringe in Alaska, wanting to keep the world away and live “back to the earth.” He wakes Leni up in the middle of the night to train her how to quickly assemble and load her gun in case of government attack.

When Leni discovers love with the son of her father’s worst enemy, Tom Walker, the town patriarch and progressive, I couldn’t help but think of the family conflict in Romeo and Juliet. I’m relieved to report this story takes an entirely different direction than Shakespeare’s tragedy. Leni struggles to adulthood, but finally discovers her own voice and freedom.

I can’t say how much I liked this book. Hannah does all the right things with character development and plot. I stayed up until midnight last night reading. And that, blog readers, is probably the best recommendation and review I can give any book.

Idaho Book Review

Idaho (novel)
By Emily Ruskovich

I wonder if all books entitled with a state name don’t find an automatic audience of thousands of people within that state wanting to read the book. James Michener, an old epic author from the 70’s and 80’s used to title his novels after their state setting: Texas, Hawaii, Alaska. So, as an Idahoan, I approached Emily Ruskovich’s novel with a lot of anticipation. What would she say about our state and how would she characterize the people that live here?

I’m pleased to report Ruskovich writes a sensitive and human story of two women living in a rural area of north Idaho driven by love to the same damaged man, Wade. Wade is a homesteader and day laborer who has some kind of early onset dementia (his disease is never fully explained).

Though Ruskovich writes beautifully and expressively about simple things like a minister leaving a bowl of pears for a prison inmate, this is a brutal, tragic tale of domestic violence. Wade’s wife, Jenny, apparently in a jealous rage, murders their younger daughter, May. It appears to be a crime of passion, but the reader is not sure what happened. With Wade’s forgetfulness and Jenny’s obsessive love, there’s even a lingering question of whether Jenny was actually the murderer. The mystery of that fateful day is further amplified by the disappearance of the older daughter, June, who had a troubled relationship with her younger sister, May. It’s questions like these that propel the narrative along and keep the reader guessing.

Though Ruskovich is a gifted writer with a fascinating story to tell, some readers will be put off with the way the author jumps back and forth in time and between different character perspectives. Interestingly, readers are never privy to Wade’s perspective about what happened to his family. This story could have been too dark, but the ending is satisfying. There is always room for redemption in even the most despairing situation.

The Importance of Great Alpha Waves

 

The Importance of Great Alpha Waves

My adult son, John, came home for a visit and told me, “Ignore anything I say that sounds off—it’s my suppressed-narcissistic-rage talking.”

“You’re what?”

“I’m reading this book, The Divided Mind by John Sarno about how you can be this kind, nice guy on the outside, but inside you’re really pissed. You want to be special and loved and dependent and independent all at the same time. People around you just aren’t giving you what you need.”

We both laughed because someone had created such a big term for what is basically, the human condition. I’d not read the book, but John said it was about psychogenic illness.

“Is that like psychosomatic illness?”

“No. Psychosomatic is like partly in your head. Psychogenic says the illness IS ALL in your head.”

John acted like the book was mildly entertaining, but my interest was piqued because I’ve experienced psychosomatic illness in the past. It could be a family mental health issue. My mother always claimed Aunt Gertrude was a complete hypochondriac. If anyone mentioned an illness they had, Aunt Gertrude had that same illness and worse. Her nerves were shot, her back too, as well as her eyes, ears, and female parts. Miraculously, Gertrude lived into her 70’s.

My psychosomatic illness started probably with the death of my brother when he was ten and I was twelve. But symptoms didn’t show up until I was in a potentially fatal car accident when I was twenty. I only had a mild concussion, but I’d never come that close to death before. Suddenly I realized my body was fallible. For the next year, I found myself in one emergency room after another begging for help. I had heart palpitations, headaches, and vague feelings of pain. I was listening so closely and carefully to my body, every hitch or tremor was evidence of deadly disease. Something had to be wrong with me.

Indeed, I did have a problem but it wasn’t exactly physical. I’d been traumatized by a couple of life events and needed help dealing with the anxiety. The doctors though, put me through a gamut of needless x-rays and blood tests. I even had an electroencephalogram, searching for a possible brain tumor. During the procedure, I remember looking at my reflection in the dusty window of Rockingham Memorial Hospital in Harrisonburg, Virginia. I was sitting at the end of the examining table in a hospital gown, my head strung with wires and electrodes. In the window reflection, I looked like Medusa.

“Well,” the technician told me when I peppered him with questions about the findings of the encephalogram, “I’m not supposed to say anything . . . but I will tell you this: you’ve got great alpha waves.”

Great alpha waves, huh?  I guess that’s a good thing.  So, I took some small comfort in his prognosis, at least until the next wave of anxiety over my health hit me. It wasn’t until I read a book called The Well Body Book by a couple of hippy doctors in the 70’s, that I finally calmed down and started having a little faith in my body. I’ll never forget their discussion of what they called “the three-million year old healer,” your own body’s defenses against disease and illness. They talked about how really rare the bad diseases are, and that most infections are viral and therefore survivable.

That’s the thing about reading, whether it be The Divided Mind or The Well Body Book: reading changes you. Though I read The Well Body Book forty years ago, I can still quote it, and it’s still meaningful to me today. Maybe John will someday say this about The Divided Mind.  Who knows?

Burning Fences Book Review

Burning Fences (a Western memoir)
by Craig Lesley

Imagine a beat-up old trailer sitting off a gravel road in Monument, Oregon not too far from John Day.  Dried grass and weeds grow up around a cable spool used as a table outside the trailer, and a pile of Oly beer cans sit by the front door. This is the home of Craig Lesley’s father Rudell, a crusty trapper and elk hunter who smells like skunk pee, the bait he uses to trap Coyote.

It’s detail and descriptions like this that make Northwest author, Craig Lesley’s memoir so much fun to read. As a North-westerner myself, I’m familiar with the places Lesley grew up in: the Dalles, Madras, and Baker City, Oregon. But Burning Fences is more than just setting and place: Lesley writes a good story too.

After being abandoned as an infant by his father Rudell, Lesley spent much of his growing up years looking for validation from fatherly figures like Vern, his abusive step-father and Oscar, the uncle that owned a sporting goods store. Lesley gets his big chance to reconnect with Rudell, when his father suddenly shows up in his hospital room after Lesley’s been injured in a farm machinery accident.  Rudell’s flippancy, saying his son got hurt, “playing chicken with a mint chopper” says a great deal about who Rudell is and how much he is willing to give to this new father-son relationship.

Yet despite his father’s lack of commitment—or maybe because of it—Lesley confesses that Rudell’s abandonment helped defined his life. “Rudell’s neglect motivated me to raise an alcohol-damaged Indian boy just to show the old man I could succeed as a father where he had fallen down.”

When Wade, Lesley’s foster son, sets fire to Rudell’s fence post pile, Lesley finally recognizes he cannot control either Wade or Rudell’s behavior. Only then is Lesley willing to burn fences and abandon the expectations he’d had of himself and others.