Sunday, February 28, 2016

Being Nixon: A Man Divided

by Evan Thomas
Random House     2015
619 pages     Biography

When my husband and I began reading Being Nixon by Evan Thomas, he said that he wanted to understand why Nixon would allow something as "stupid" as Watergate to happen. When we finished the book this morning, he said the same thing. "I never could understand why Nixon let something so stupid to happen." I asked if he didn't learn anything about Nixon in the 3 months we had spent reading this book out loud to each other. And then he responded that he had come to see that Nixon's paranoia and lack of self-understanding had allowed an ugly and arrogant atmosphere to permeate the White House which enabled his minions to engage in dastardly acts. 

Being Nixon attempts to explain, both historically and psychologically, the life of Richard Nixon, the 37th President of the United States. It is a one-volume, full-life biography and tells stories and anecdotes that reveal Nixon to be an extremely complex man. The book is over 600 pages long, but there was little repetition and a never-ending supply of insight that was fascinating to two adults who lived through the entire era covered by the book. My husband and I kept our phones handy so that we could look up the time line and the incidents to refresh our memories. 

My husband reminisced about sitting behind Eisenhower and Nixon in 1956 at the Republican National Convention where he served as a junior page. He remembered the photograph that was taken of him shaking Nixon's hand at a campaign rally in 1960. (We tried to find the photograph, but it is buried in generations of memorabilia). 

Watergate is, of course, the watershed moment in the career of Richard Nixon, and Thomas attempts to show the personality characteristics that defined the man and led to this moment—from a childhood where he didn't fit to his role as an elder statesman after he left the White House. Of course, in a biography, the perspective of the author can't help but find its way into the narrative, and Thomas's self-described goal is to understand the complex makeup of the man who wanted to have "peace at the center" of his life, but more often he was "subject to episodes of venting and lashing out." Thomas tells us that Nixon was never comfortable socially and was hopelessly, helplessly awkward. 

Thomas says that what he hoped to accomplish with his biography was to understand what it was like "to actually be Nixon." Most reviewers agree that he mostly accomplishes his goal. The Chicago Tribune reviewer concludes that Being Nixon is a biography of "eloquence and breadth." I have to agree. My husband and I learned a lot about a time period in the life of our country and in our lives—things that we probably missed because we were busy creating families and molding careers.

I also actually learned some, but not enough, about being Pat Nixon, and I didn't particularly like what I saw. Thomas indicates that Pat was very supportive but very distant from her husband. I could not get over the fact that when Nixon decided to resign, he made the decision without conferring with his family, and when he told his daughters what he planned to do, he had them go and tell their mother. Her response was "But why?" Yet, Thomas tells us that Nixon was attentive to his wife, and she to him. Not sure that was the case.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

50 Plus! Critical Career Decisions for the Rest of Your Life

by Robert L. Dilenschneider

Citadel Press     2015

222 pages     Self-Help

I am definitely 50 plus and have never stopped working. The book, 50 Plus! deals with the new phenomenon of mid-career and older workers who are faced with making job changes in the midst of a rapidly changing economy.

Let me start my look at this book by telling a story that matches Dilenschneider's theme. My father was vice president of a clothing manufacturing company that went bankrupt when he was in his early 50s. Now, with no pension, he had to find a job until he could qualify for Social Security. After panicking and suffering from a stomach cancer caused by the stress of the bankruptcy, he began to look around his small city for another job. He had always been active in the community, particularly the Lion's Club. The director of the local blind resource center was in his club and was moving out of the city. My dad had been on the Board of Directors for the center. He was a natural pick to be the new director, and he spent the last ten years of his career in a job that made him extremely happy and productive. In other words, he parlayed his volunteer work into a rewarding second career.

Dilenschneider offers valuable advice for mid-career people who either are seeking a change, exploring options, or are forced to find a new job. One chapter deals with creating a new image, including hair, clothing and demeanor. Another chapter explores the idea of becoming a consultant. He also discusses self-promotion and winning interviews, and helps older workers navigate the new technology tools that can help to find a new job. The final chapter discusses what Dilenschneider knows best, public relations. In this chapter, he helps the older worker understand how public relations works as well as how and why a mid career person should understand public relations.

As is often the case, the Wall Street Journal seems to know what I am reading, and on Tuesday, Feb. 23, a front page article discussed the large numbers of women who are working past age 65. In the past 20 years, the number of older female workers went from one in twelve to one in seven. It is expected that by 2024, the number of older women in the workforce will be about one in five or about 6.5 million workers. One cause of this later life work is career satisfaction and good health, but a more pressing cause is women who worry that they are approaching old age with more debt, less savings and with fewer pensions. 

50 Plus is a valuable and timely self-help book that should be on the reading list of all mid-career people. 

Here is an article about the book on the Huffington Post written by the author.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Between the World and Me

by Ta'Nehisi Coates
Spiegel & Grau     2015
152 pages     Nonfiction

One of my daughter's good friends in high school was the lone black girl in their class. She was the daughter of professionals, and they lived a suburban life and attended our highly regarded high school. Obviously, her family had moved to our community for the same reasons we had--for the outstanding schools. After several years of friendship with her family, I felt brave enough to ask her mother why they had chosen to bring their black family to an all white community and school. She responded, "Because I know how to teach my children to live with prejudice. I don't know how to help them be successful in an all-black, underachieving environment." We were there for the same reason--to give our children every advantage we could.

Between the World and Me is a love letter from a father to his son, explaining what Ta-Nehisi Coates knows of the world and what his hopes, dreams, worries and fears are for his black son. He eloquently explains why it is difficult to be Black and why there are so many challenges to have a black body.

Much has been written about Between the World and Me by Coates, and as a White more-than-middle aged woman, there is little insight that I can add to what I believe to be a book of tremendous importance. Eminently readable and broadly poetic, the book is expressive of emotions that I will never feel--except to note that I can relate profoundly to the fierce love Coates' expresses for his son as he tries to tell him how to live in the world. This is what we all do--try to help our children negotiate the world.

I remember telling my children that although they were very attractive people, they could not expect their looks to get them through life. Looks might help them get a foot in the door of life, but it would take much more skill, intelligence, education, and drive to make their marks. Coates remarks that he knows that his son is intelligent, but that his job "in the little time we have left together, is to match that intelligence with wisdom." That is what we can offer our children--some wisdom.

The other insight that I related to extremely well was the idea of each person's uniqueness and the need for each of us to value that uniqueness. Over the weekend, we traveled to my hometown of Duluth Minnesota in below zero temperatures to attend a university production with my nephew in the lead role. We are so very proud of him. He is a singularly unique young man, and we drove 600 miles to celebrate that uniqueness. Ultimately, that is what Coates is pleading with his readers to do--to celebrate the uniqueness of each child, regardless of race, class, or intellectual ability. We must never diminish a child in any way or relegate them to the scrap heap of life. A body is much more than what we see. Each body is to be valued.

I was particularly impressed with the reviews of Between the World and Me in The New York Times and The New Yorker.. Of course, the book has won many awards, including The National Book Award. Additionally, it is my church's all-church read this spring. My book club will be discussing it on Thursday.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Newsmakers

By Lis Wiehl (with Sebastian Stuart)

Thomas Nelson         2016
352 pages     Thriller

Lis Wiehl is a multi-faceted woman—author, legal authority, pundit, and newscaster. Erica Sparks, perhaps mimicking the author, is the protagonist of a new series of thrillers Wiehl has created. She also has three other series with women protagonists.

Erica Sparks is an investigative journalist who becomes the major star of a developing, television news network run by a megalomaniac billionaire. The Newsmakers is an introduction to the character and her first investigation.

Erica is handpicked by the owner of GNN (Global News Network) to be nurtured as the host of an hour news show, ala Erin Burnett of CNN. Erica is a beautiful, talented and determined woman, but she is flawed. Her tortured childhood keeps overcoming her resolve; a failed marriage and alcoholism cloud her judgment; and her loss of custody of her daughter haunts her every action. She is determined to overcome all these challenges with the new opportunity GNN and its owner are offering her. Besides that, the network is offering her boatloads of money. Almost immediately, a huge story lands in her lap—and then another one. It is almost too good to be true. Is she a newsmaker, or is she a news-MAKER?

The Newsmakers has several things going for it. First, Erica is an interesting character. She is feisty and determined. She has great investigative instincts and marvelous survival instincts. She is flawed enough that the reader doesn’t idealize her. Additionally, the setting of the book, a major news network, gives the reader some insight into the inner workings of something that the average person only sees from the final perspective—the news show as it appears on our home TV screen. Finally, the conclusion is heart stopping (although completely far-fetched).
There are also things that I didn’t like about the book. Although the plot is compelling, there is something contrived about it. It could be that the very short chapters didn’t give me a chance to relate to the characters and the action. It was easy to close the book after a couple of chapters and not return until the next evening at bedtime. I didn’t really get involved until the last few chapters of the book. Also, the book is written in the third person. I think that this device is what kept me from identifying with any of the characters. Not sure, but I noticed that a lot of Goodreads readers didn’t like that aspect of the book, either.

Finally, The Newsmakers isn’t very good literature. Thrillers can be, and have been, written well, so that the reader can relate to the plot on a literary, as well as an action, standpoint. This book has none of that. It is completely plot driven. The publisher is a Christian publishing house, and I don’t know how much that has to do with the clean and redemptive nature of the novel, but I think that may have something to do with the character development, in particular.

All in all, The Newsmakers is great as diversion—I could read it on the couch while my husband was flipping channels and not be distracted. There is some benefit in that. The fireplace is in that room.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe

by Alexander McCall Smith
Pantheon Books     2014
227 pages     Mystery

Sometimes you just want comfort reading!

I was reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me on my vacation in Florida last week, but it was so rich and dense that I didn't want to be challenged on the airplane trip home. What to read?

AAH! The Number One Ladies Detective series is comfort reading! It is comfortable because it makes you smile, because the cases to be solved are solveable, and because everything gets settled in the end. Also, if you have a small stretch of available time, you can read a Ladies Detective series book in one sitting. I had The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe on my Kindle. I sighed and delved right in.

Precious Ramotswe warms your heart. Her philosophical musings are so dear and so practical. Here's an example "There was not all that much that one person could do; it was not possible for one woman to hold back the tide of greed and self-centredness that seemed to be sweeping across the world, but she would do whatever lay within her powers to do."

Another great quote: "There was no point in thinking of the bottom when one wanted to get to the top." I do so love Precious!

In book #15 of the series, The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe, Mme Ramotswe and Mme Makutsi, the lady detectives, are working on a rather difficult case (as difficult as their cases are) and Mme Makutsi is also opening a diner-style restaurant, The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe. Things are not going well on the case or at the cafe, and the problems are compounded because Charlie, the former apprentice mechanic, has come to work for them as an assistant secretary.  It isn't necessary to say any more about the plot—or the non-plot as the case may be. Suffice it to say that nothing much happens and that is perfectly fine with the reader.

Alexander McCall Smith is a unique voice in the world of cozy mysteries. Botswana is an unlikely setting, but it is one Smith knows very well. He lived there for many years and understands the culture. Along with comfort reading, philosophical lessons, and minor character development, we learn a bit about the culture of this unique African country with every reading. 

I have read several books in the series, and I can recommend them for when you need something comfortable.  Here are my postings for  Tea Time for the Traditionally Built and The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party.