Book Review: The Grace Year By Kim Liggett

I love a good book about a misogynist religious dystopia. For real. It’s one of my favorite genres. I think it’s because I read The Handmaid’s Tale when I was about 13 and it made an indelible impression on me.

I also love speculative fiction where people have magical powers. That’s why the description of The Grace Year by Kim Liggett first caught my eye. It’s a story about a highly religious society that sent their 16 year old girls into the wilderness for a year to release their magic before returning to get married.

Dystopia, misogyny, religion, and magic all in one book? What’s not to love about that?

Turns out I loved nearly everything about the book. I blazed through it in under 24 hours then got sad because it was over.

The book takes place in a primitive world that has vaguely Scandinavian overtones. The closed-off society the protagonist Tierney James lives in follows a religion with a Christian vibe, but more Puritan than Evangelical. Women who disobey are often sentenced to death. Women who do obey can become wives when they turn 16. Or, if they’re not chosen as brides, they go become laborers or are cast out to become prostitutes in the encampment outside of the walls of the main society.

But first, the girls must be dispatched to an island to release their magic in a year-long ordeal that is shrouded in secrecy. Women never speak of their grace years so the girls only know that they are being sent away and may not survive to return.

That’s all I can tell you about this story without spoiling the rest of the book.

From the outset or the story, Tierney is a likable character who is buffeted by the forces of her society. Each time she thinks she can wrest back some control of her life, she is dragged back to heel by someone or something stronger than she is. She’s easy to root for and readers will enjoy her earnest desire to not make her fellow female exiles her rivals. For all her good intentions, she isn’t a Mary Sue who’s too sweet for the circumstances. Tierney is no optimist and she knows when to cut her losses and look out for number one.

Tierney’s grace year experience manages not to drag into tediousness, even as she has to literally struggle to stay alive in a hostile environment. Liggett manages to convey the urgency of the fight against the wilderness without lingering over the minutia of the skills for survival.

The supporting characters have depth and complexity as well, leaving all the relationships in the book equally deep and satisfying to experience.

One element of this book that struck a chord in me was the idea that change is a legacy process that happens over generations, handed from mother to daughter. Liggett doesn’t tell the story of a revolution here, however satisfying it might have been to see Tierney burn it all down. While the ending is indisputably hopeful, it is also an ending only of Tierney’s grace year story, not the end of the change for the world she inhabits.

This is the kind of book, which like The Handmaid’s Tale, could shape a young woman’s view of the world and literature. Read it yourself and share it with younger readers as well.

Book Review: Pelosi by Molly Ball

Pelosi by Molly Ball

First, I need to share a couple of points just for full transparency. My husband is acquainted with the author of this book and he and I were able to join a Zoom book launch party when it first came out.

But the fact that I drank wine on my couch while Molly Ball answered questions about her writing process isn’t the reason I loved this Pelosi; it’s because it confirmed everything I have believed to be true about Nancy Pelosi and I am JUST SO GLAD someone is laying it all out in plain language.

It’s impossible to follow Congress and not have a sense of Pelosi’s history. Ball takes readers back to Baltimore and the Democratic machine her family ran in the city of Nancy D’Allesandro’s childhood. She was witness to both the overt power of her father’s political offices and her mother’s more discreet behind-the-scenes operations as a Democratic party organizer.

Both of those experiences informed how Pelosi would rise through Democratic politics to become the most powerful woman in American history.

She used the backroom networking skills she learned from her mother and put them to work as a fundraiser for Democrats in California. That took her on a road to hyper-local politics (the board of a library) to state politics (California Party chair) to Congress, just like her father before her.

Pelosi entered politics in spite of being a woman, not because of it. She wasn’t there to stake out power for the sake proving that women can thrive in the boys club of Washington. She had a constituency to serve and that was always her focus. But she also never forgot that being a woman made her “other” in the Capitol and making sure her colleagues didn’t dismiss her was a constant struggle. She recalled being at a dinner with several other Representatives and all the men in the room were discussing their wives experiences with childbirth. They all chuckled and shared stories and never once asked the women at the table – all of whom had given birth themselves – to weigh in. Pelosi tolerated that in social situations much better than in Committee or on the Floor of the House, where she never backed down.

The Pelosi this book describes is very much like the image of Pelosi I have always carried. I observed her from the vantage point of an advocacy professional in the early Obama years and I admired how deftly she managed her caucus during the crafting of the Affordable Care Act. She was negotiating a bill with a lot of competing priorities in a highly charged political environment. It was a challenge for any leader but this challenge was made more difficult by the loss of a bargaining chip: earmarks. Congressional leaders used to be able to buy votes from Members by promising funding for pet projects back at home. That practice fell out of favor after years of being called nothing but pork, which left Pelosi shepherding a bill through Congress without any way to reward her members for taking tough votes.

But, unlike Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan who would follow her in leadership, Ball describes all the ways that Pelosi had spent her career forging personal relationships with the Democrats in the House. They all could speak her her attention to their needs, her capacity to listen, her assistance at fundraising, and the hand-written cards she sent for birthdays, marriages, and deaths. Those relationships were what positioned Pelosi to manage the ups and downs of a nascent law that was as despised as it was needed.

Ball points out that Pelosi’s successes and skills only became truly evident when they were compared to the disastrous Speakerships of her two successors. Boehner and Ryan fought against intransigent Tea Party insurgents and Trumpist separatists. Over and over again, they barely got bills passed and usually only managed passage by offering concessions to Democrats so that Pelosi would deliver the votes in the final hours. Seldom has a minority leader been able to get as much as Pelosi could get for her own priorities.

The book takes us through the first two years of the Trump presidency and Pelosi’s re-asscention to the Speaker’s chair. By now, her strength and calm are familiar hallmarks in an otherwise chaotic Washington. We all think of Pelosi in her red coat, stalking out of the White House as Trump seethes or of her standing in a room of men, the only woman to breach the halls of power. Where in past years, her effectiveness was questions, now there is little dispute that she may be the greatest Congressional leader of a generation.

This is the book to read if you have ever wondered why Democrats keep turning back to this tiny, elegant woman for leadership, if you have ever been tempted to underestimate her, or if you have ever wondered what it takes to thrive in the cutthroat atmosphere of Congress. I highly recommend it, just as I have always highly praised Pelosi herself.

Book Review: Too Much And Never Enough: How My Family Created The World’s Most Dangerous Man by Mary L. Trump

Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man by Mary L. Trump

I’ve read a lot of political books over the past few years so I have a feel for what to expect. Usually, authors of these profiles come to praise Caesar or to bury him. Mary Trump is really doing neither. In Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, the niece of Donald Trump, who has been largely estranged from her uncle for decades, doesn’t have anything good to say about him but neither is she doing a hatchet job on Trump the man or Trump the president. It seems like what she really wants to do is explain why he is the way he is.

In so doing, she has written a terribly sad family history.

Mary Trump is is the second child of Donald Trump’s late brother Freddy. She grew up within bike-riding distance of her grandparents house, which was the hub of all things Trump before Donald took Manhattan. As a child, she spent plenty of time there, observing her extended family in all their cold, striving glory. This book is her story of what it was like being in the Trump inner circle and what it was like being forced out of the family as well.

I think we all knew that the level of dysfunction in the Trump family would be noteworthy. You can’t log onto Twitter without seeing someone speculating about how little Fred Trump Sr. loved his kids and how desperate for approval the living Trumps are today. Mary Trump has two levels of expertise in discussing the real nitty-gritty of that. Not only did she bear witness to her grandfather’s stranglehold on the professional and emotional lives of her parents, aunts, and uncles but she later went on to study clinical psychology. She can retroactively diagnose the behaviors she saw.

She doesn’t shy away from diagnosing her grandfather as a sociopath. She flat out says he had no real emotional life and his only goals were wealth and success. She details how he expected his boy children to model themselves after him and woe betide the son who couldn’t live up to those expectations. His girl children he largely left to the care of their mother, whom he left uncared for despite her chronic health problems. The only thing he ever tended with any attention was his property development and management business.

I won’t rehash the events of the book but I will say Mary Trump’s recollections are proof positive that cold, detached parenting leads to children with warped senses of self. Most of the Trump siblings have terrible self esteem issues. (The author’s father never felt like a success and he died at 42 due to health problems related to his alcoholism.) Not Donald, though. His self esteem was artificially inflated by his father’s calculated decision to use him as the spokeperson for their shared business ventures. Fred Trump Sr. knew his son’s only real skill was getting media attention but he pretended to everyone that Donald was also good at actual business. He created the myth of Donald the Dealmaker.

The fact that Donald can’t deal-make his way out of a paper bag was irrelevant. The myth took on a life of its own and grew so large that we all ended up with an attention-seeking, approval-addicted, bumbling fool of a failure in the White House.

The book, which is a slim 225 pages, isn’t salacious. This isn’t a walk down tabloid memory lane. Mary Trump is very careful to tell only the stories she knows from experience or from reliable sources, such as her own mother. She does an outstanding job of protecting the privacy of her other family members. Even when she mentions relatives she only discusses them within the context of the story she is telling. She doesn’t speculate and she doesn’t gossip. She only refers to the big scandals of the family to give the reader a sense of time; we can tell where we are in history by the name of the wife Donald brings to holiday dinners.

This book reminded me of a book I read about Rosemary Kennedy, the Kennedy sister who was cognitively disabled from birth and was eventually shattered by a lobotomy. Joe Kennedy was arguably as bad a father as Fred Trump Sr. but he had a sense of service to the world that the Trumps never embraced. He encouraged military service in his children, even though it eventually killed some of them, and pushed others to political service on an outward platform of helping individuals. His daughters were charitable in their own right, such as Eunice Kennedy Shriver founding the Special Olympics.

Basically, as fucked up as the Kennedys were, some good came from their existence in the world. So far, the progeny of Fred Trump Sr. have only existed to enrich themselves and sow discord among others.

Too Much and Never Enough is a good book and worth reading if you want to understand why Donald Trump thought he deserved to be president. If only it was also a manual for getting him out of the White House.

It Is Time To Riot

There have been so many moments in recent history when we all ask “Why aren’t there riots in the street to protest this?”

The answer was always that we all have too much too lose by stopping what we’re doing to riot. We stood to lose our jobs and our employer sponsored-health care. We stood to lose childcare and social standing. We stood to lose financial security and freedom. 

But now many of us don’t stand to lose those things. We have lost them to a global pandemic. And as we are forced to come to terms with all we have lost – our security, our income, our health, members of our families and communities – as we do that, he drumbeat of racism and political and corporate abuse of workers carries on. 

We can see with our own eyes that corporations, the wealthy, the government, and the police will not help us in our time of need. In fact, they may knowingly and willfully do us harm.  We are the ones being asked to change everything while they change nothing. Not one thing. 

We may have foolishly, optimistically hoped that this moment of global crisis would have spurred the ruling elites in America to dip into their coffers of wealth and power and extend a helping hand to the laboring class that supports them. But instead of seeing even a glimmer of that, we saw a cop place his knee on the neck of a man and crush the life out of him. 

We have nothing left to lose and everything to protest. 

People are in the streets finally because the betrayal from those to whom we entrusted our health, safety, and security is finally just too much. They have demonstrated once and for all that they are beyond redemption. We no longer feel obligated to protect their property because they are not protecting us. 

In fact, we see all to clearly that they are the ones from whom we need protection. 

The man passing a counterfeit $20 bill is not the cause of of all that is wrong in America. He is what happens when all the real $20 bills are in the pockets of the mega-rich, stockholders, and political elites who feel no obligation to redistribute a single cent to those left starving in the wake of a plague. 

Americans are not willing to blame the wrong people any more. At last, we are blaming the ones at fault. 

It didn’t have to come to this. Activists and advocates have begged for change. Lobbied for change. Sung for change. Written for change. Danced for change. Made art for change. Marched for change. The change never came. 

The advent of the coronavirus is our reckoning. When we faced a universal crisis that demanded change for the survival of the species, the silence from those who control American resources was all the answer we got. 

Now they get torches and pitchforks and angry mobs. 

Photo by Rosa Pineda – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=90812924

Stronger Together: Parents Need To Team Up For Better Workplaces

Did I just quote Hillary Clinton’s 2016 slogan? Yes, I did. Because Hillary is smart.

In 2016, Hillary didn’t predict that we’d be entering our third month of a pandemic and that the economy would be in free fall, but if she had, she would have said we are stronger if we address the issues together.

In particular, parents should band together to figure out how to get workplaces better aligned with their needs.

Looking back on my last office job, I recall a time that a childless coworker complained that another coworker had to leave in the middle of something to go pick up a child from daycare. What the childless coworker didn’t fully grasp was that the daycare was going to close. The child had to be removed from the premises because the premises were shutting down for the night. Daycare isn’t like a parking meter where you pop a quarter in and extend the time. The parent didn’t have a choice about picking up the child.

Someone explained that to the childless person and their complaining stopped. All it took was a quick clarification.

In the current environment for schools, daycares, and after-school care, we are in that situation. They are closed. Our children have been removed from the premises. Outside childcare is not an option for millions of families right now. Someone needs to explain that to the folks at work.

Correction: someoneS need to explain that to folks at work.

Working parents need to connect with other parents in their workplaces to talk about what’s going on with school and childcare. And parents need to work as a team to request that management make accommodations to their hours so that children can be cared for and so adults can do their work. The logistics of work need to change and parents are in a position to ask for those changes.

This is where the “stronger together” thing comes in; one parent asking their boss for a favor is a weak baragining position. A committee of parents presenting a proposal on behalf of all the parents in the company is stronger and likelier to lead to a favorable outcome.

If you think this sounds like collective bargaining and the ground work for a union, you’re right! I would love it if this situation led to workers unionizing to negotiate non-traditional scheduling and better work/family balance. But let’s not move too fast. We’ll scare the capitalists and they’ll say no before anyone even asks a question.

For now, it is in everyone’s best interest to establish new work patterns that allow for economic security as well as security for families who need to care for young children. I can’t speak to how that will work in different workplaces and different communities but I do know that there won’t be changes unless parents, as a group, come forward to ask for them.

Connect with your colleagues and start on the path to a more family friendly workplace. You will be stronger together.

Photo credit: Hillary for America – https://www.facebook.com/RhodeIslandforHillary/photos, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63937611

All Feminism Is Local

I clicked on the Baltimore Sun today.

I’m usually a Washington Post reader. In part that’s because I live right outside DC and the Post is my local paper. I can read it for the coverage of issues that relate directly to my county as well as for their reporting on national and world affairs. In the before-times I sucked up Post articles like they were oxygen.

But lately, I prefer the Baltimore Sun because it will tell me what’s going on in my state, without the distraction of knife’s edge analysis of what Nancy Pelosi is doing at any given moment.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Nancy Pelosi. But I need to know about the logistics of the new testing site the governor just authorized.

My world has grown so much smaller in these months since we all retreated to our homes to wait out the virus. I used to spent hours every week scrutinizing Congressional affairs and national election polling news. The arena of national politics is like my NFL or NBA and I study the game film like an aspiring coach.

But complete contracture of life has included my scope of attention. The borders of my interest have shrunk. I care about politics as much as ever but I’ve gone local. The arena that matters to me the most right now is my school district. I need that entity to be there for me and my family right now and I’ve become laser focused on the school board primary happening now.

I can’t pay attention to whatever jackhole think Donald Trump is saying when he struts in front of the mic. He’s too big for my field of vision. And he’s useless to me. He can’t do a thing to improve me life.

But I sure as hell can get on Facebook to remind my friends and neighbors that there’s this one guy running for school board on a platform made completely of racist dogwhistles and NO NO NO DO NOT VOTE FOR STEPHEN AUSTIN, DO YOU HEAR ME? I’m serious. He’s the dude who started that group to whine about the school boundary study and he kicked me out of it because I criticized the people who yelled at an 8th grader who presented at a town hall. He sucks and don’t vote for him.

This is where I am now. Crouched in my den like a trapped honeybadger, snapping at anyone who tries to invade my tiny slice of territory.

Maybe someday I’ll regain the focus I used to have on macro issues like reproductive justice and intersectional social justice but right now I can only see the landscape right in front of me.

But that’s ok. School improvment and equity in education are intersectional feminist issues, too. All politics are local and all feminism can be local, too.

PS: I voted for incumbent Shebra Evans in District 4 and chose Lynne Harris for the at-large slot after MoCo Students for Change endorsed her. I trust students to understand what is good for schools and I will follow their lead.

Photo By en:User:Jaganath – This file was transferred from English Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37862386

Why You Should Wear A Mask

I can’t believe we are having a full-blown culture war over covering our mouths and noses during a pandemic.

OK, I kind of can. I do remember how at the beginning of this thing people started hoarding masks and everyone screamed about how masks won’t help and we should leave them for the professionals. So, we all got the idea in our heads that masks were the wrong approach.

Now the science has flipped and the latest word is that masks will help, but they won’t help you. Instead, the masks will help the person standing next to you.

All the science speak about nano-particles and how small a virus really is is apparently true and a fabric mask won’t stop the virus from crawling onto your face. (Can RNA crawl? I don’t know. Let’s pretend it can.) If someone sneezes a gust of corona-breath at you, your mask isn’t going to save you.

Alas.

But if the sneezer is wearing a mask that holds the corona-breath closer to their face? Well, now we’re talking.

The latest models say that wearing a mask reduces spread of the virus by carriers. And we all have to assume we are carriers, since there is such a long incubation stage of the disease. We can have it without knowing it. Allegedly, if 80% of us started wearing masks all the time in public, we would cause the transmission rate from our own mouths and noses to plummet.

This of it this way: wear a mask for the same reason a surgeon wears a mask.

These doctors aren’t wearing masks because they are worried that a brain tumor or an inflamed gallbladder is going to leap up from the patient and infect them. They’re doing it so they don’t sneeze into the surgical wound. The masks aren’t about protecting them, they are about protecting you, the person lying helpless on the table.

Or to put it another way, the mask is your sneeze guard.

The little plexiglass window over the salad bar isn’t to keep the lettuce from jumping up and lodging itself in your nose. But it will keep you from coughing on the lettuce and contaminating it for the next person in line.

Basically, wearing a mask is a weird and uncomfortable thing that you have to do to help someone other than yourself. Unlike wearing Spanx, which is arguably weirder and more uncomfortable, but is all about improving the appearance of yourself. I get that it’s easier to resign yourself to discomfort when it has an appreciable effect on your own life, whereas it’s harder to put yourself out for others but…c’mon. For once we should all suck it up and be good neighbors.

This virus is crazy. People can walk around for days or weeks without symptoms and they spread the ubiquitous little spiky demons wherever they go. You could be one of those people and not even know it! And if you were and coughed on a shelf at Target? Boom. You’ve risked someone else’s life.

Wear the mask and keep your germs to yourself. Please.

Mona Lisa photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Surgery photo by Vidal Balielo Jr. from Pexels

Salad bar photo by 玄史生 – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41167887

Feminism and Mental Fog

I feel like I’m failing as a feminist.

Don’t over-read that statement. I don’t feel like I’m failing in general. In fact, in some areas of my life I am kicking some serious ass. Against all odds, this period of isolation and the chaotic learning environment have been amazing for my ADHD kids. We’ve all risen to this very weird occasion and we’re enjoying one another immensely.

It helps that our material needs are met. I have daily guilt over that. No, not guilt. More of a gnawing sense that I should be doing more for my community – the parts of my community that don’t live in my house.

I want to give myself a break because keeping a family fed and happy right now is an accomplishment. But then I remember that three months ago I was devoting hours every week to grassroots work for the Warren campaign and writing every day about social justice issues. And it’s not like I left the house much even before this all happened. I work from home. My daily excursions occur within a mile radius of where I live. I did my stuff from the chair I’m sitting in right now.

Why aren’t I doing more now?

I feel like my brain is swatched in cotton batting and I can’t push it away enough to formulate a plan for getting involved in some kind of socially distant social action. Most days I cant even compose pithy tweets. I gawp at posts from my friends online who are organizing grocery gift card distribution networks and writing books about reproductive justice. FFS, why can’t I pull it together and do some of that?

The answer, of course, it that I have ADHD and depression and we’re in the middle of a global pandemic. Something in my brain had to give and what gave was my SJW functions.

I desperately hope that this desire to rejoin the world of activism is the first step in actually doing some activism. But for now I am following the impulse to nest and giving money to good causes, even if I can’t give time or energy right now.

I know that’s limousine liberalism, armchair activism but it’s what I can do right now. And I have to be ok with that.

Ahmaud Arbery

LeBron James said it. White men hunt black people. It’s been going on for 400 years. We used to call it the slave trade. Then we called it the KKK. Now it’s gun culture doing the hunting.

I have said before that if you own guns for “self defense” that is really code for hunting people. You carry your gun, waiting for a person to do the thing that identifies them to you as your prey.

You say all you are doing is being prepared to address a threat but I don’t believe you. I believe you are HOPING a person will make a gesture that you can pretend is a threat so you can live out your sick lifelong dream of killing a person and calling yourself a hero for doing it.

For these two men in Georgia, the simple act of being a black man in the space they considered their own identified Ahmaud Arbrey as prey and they hunted him accordingly.

American racism and gun culture are indelibly intertwined. They both kill without remorse. Ahmaud Arbery is just the latest victim.

Thoughts On Joe Biden’s Assault Allegations

If I were sitting on a jury and told to come to a verdict based on the evidence presented so far, I would have to acquit. There is too much reasonable doubt to do otherwise. I realize this does not mean that the events didn’t happen as alleged. It just means that the evidence is insufficient to prove it. 

If Reade did, in fact, report this to the Senate ethics office as she claims now, the Obama campaign would have known about it while vetting Biden as a potential VP. It would likely have disqualified him from consideration. Obama jettisoned Tom Daschle for HHS Sec over withholding information on a financial disclosure. He would not have chosen a second-in-command with an outstanding assault allegation. Again, that does not mean the assault didn’t happen as alleged. It simply means there is reasonable doubt about the paper trail Reade claims to have left.

Joe Biden has a long and documented history of hugging and kissing women without their consent. However, those gestures have always taken place in public and, in the case of kissing, are not forcible kisses to the mouth but weird, awkward cheek or top-of-head kisses. These actions are disrespectful and inappropriate. However, from what I have observed of this behavior, it doesn’t appear to be the kind acts of sexual entitlement we have seen with men like Matt Lauer or Bill Clinton. It’s a more of a condescending paternalism. 

No women other than Reade have ever accused Biden of anything even similar to what she alleges. There is no pattern emerging. In other cases, such as that of Al Franken or Anthony Weiner, the pattern was unmistakable. If what Reade says happened did happen, it seems to be an isolated incident.

I concede that there is a possibility that something humiliating and traumatic transpired between Joe Biden and Tara Reade. I have no idea if it was what she says it was. I have no idea if Biden would even remember the event in the kind of stark relief Reade would remember it because it’s likely that a powerful man would view every event differently than a less powerful woman would. 

I will not engage in public scrutiny of Reade’s character. That isn’t at issue. 

I know exactly why Joe Biden and his team would lie about this if he is guilty. I don’t know why Tara Reade would lie about this if he is not guilty. I have opinions about it but they are rank speculation and I will keep them to myself. 

There is no such thing as a man who is not a threat to the rights and safety of women. Every man on every ballot has the power to make women less safe. That is also true of elected women but they have a shorter history of doing harm to women than male politicians in America do. 

On balance, Joe Biden will do less harm to women than Donald Trump has already done and will continue to do. Joe Biden has also made affirmative attempts to do right by women. Donald Trump never has. 

I will be voting for Joe Biden in November. 

Photo credit: Official White House Photo by David Lienemann