THE MATRIARCH by Susan Page

“At the time of her death she had been largely out of the public eye for a quarter century. What caused her, the wife of a one term president, to be not only heralded as a great first lady but loved?” son, George W. Bush

No matter your political leanings, Barbara Bush seems to have a universal appeal. She is tough and loyal and oh-so relatable.

I must admit I’ve harbored some envy for our 41st First Lady. She’s feisty and strong-willed and it seemed everyone around her admired her for it. As a member of the not-overly-sweet club of women in the world, it seems I prickle those around me more than arouse admiration. How does she do it?, I’ve often wondered. How does one fully embrace the life of familial matriarch while simultaneously speaking her truth, maintaining worldwide appeal?

Journalist and biographer, Susan Page, captured many of the things we adore about Bar (as she was nicknamed.) But the lovely first lady, with the ever-present string of pearls, held nothing back during Page’s interviews with her toward the end of her 92-year life.

Her relationship with Nancy Reagan has been a well-known feud. Backstabbing and public slights – the tawdry things reminiscent of Reagan’s tv career more than political position. Barbara doesn’t mix words in describing their ongoing struggle until the bitter end.

Discussing Nancy was something I assumed would be a part of this biography. But an unexpected part of the book came toward the last half. The difficulties Laura Bush had in developing a relationship with her strongly opinionated mother-in-law. The way in which Barbara interfered (…made helpful suggestions…) with the raising of her many grandchildren. The rules she laid down for each grandchild staying at her house during those summers in Kennebunkport, Maine (ie: Breakfast is served between 5-8am. If you miss it, you make your own.)

Reading about these difficulties didn’t diminish my respect for Barbara Bush, but it did let me off the hook just a little. Strong-spirited women have unique obstacles in life. Sometime those hurdles are cleared elegantly and without distress. But more often than not, feelings are hurt, relationships are broken if not severed, and a wake of turmoil is left behind the words and actions. Barbara suffered these difficulties like anyone else. At times she swallowed her words for the greater good. But many times she let opinions loose and had to suffer the unwelcome consequences and apologies later in life.

In the end, this made her even more relatable to me. She was gregarious and funny. She was also flawed and awkward. Ultimately, her fierce heart for her family came first and foremost. She was a fighting mad mama bear when her husband or children were unfairly crossed.

This biography is a good overview of the life of a first lady straddling the sedate role her generation championed and the opinionated aspects of her basic personality. We all walk through that confusing jungle at times. It’s nice to know the woman with a hearty laugh and a self-deprecating humor, stumbled and angered sometimes, but always loved without reserve.

Five stars.
The Matriarch, by Susan Page

THE AMERICAN SPIRIT by David McCullough

I recently finished this collection of speeches by David McCullough.
His love for history is contagious and reignites my own B.A. in History. His many graduation commencement speeches are all laced with the plea for the graduates to continue to study history. Quoting American historian, Daniel Boorstin:

Trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers.

I have often been frustrated with the way history is taught in public schools. History is not a litany of facts and dates. History is merely a series of contiguous and interlacing stories. Beautiful stories of overcoming threatening odds and even stories of abject failure. But all the stories of history feed into the place and time that we find ourselves in today.

‘What is story?’, McCullough asks his crowd.
Essayist, E. M. Forster elaborates:
If I tell you the king died and then the queen died – that’s a sequence of events.
If I tell you the king died and then the queen died of grief – that’s a story.

In light of the contentious political scene today, I needed a reminder that the American spirit surpasses time and presidencies. I was taken aback, however, at this quote from Margaret Chase Smith, the senator who stood up to Joe McCarthy in the 1940/50’s:

“I speak as a Republican,” she said on that memorable day in the Senate. “I speak as a woman. I speak as a United States Senator. I speak as an American. I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of…fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear.”

In this book of speeches, McCullough pulls heavily from many of the excellent books he has written. I recognized many of the references. Of all the McCullough books I have read, his account of the life of John Adams is by far my favorite. McCullough made me fall in love with our second president and increased my admiration for his long-suffering wife, Abigail. Their love story is amazing to watch unfold through the pages of his biography.

The American Spirit will reignite your love for country, American history, and rhetoric. Or at least that was the effect it had on me…

A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW, by Amor Towles

A very entertaining, albeit somewhat long-winded, novel.

I’ve seen the buzz about this book all over my instagram. I ordered it months ago from Book of the Month, but only recently sat down to give it my full attention.

SYNOPSIS:
In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is accused of being an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal and sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin in Moscow. He’s given a 100 square foot attic room. While his world is drastically reduced, his experiences are vastly expanded around him in this bustling, luxury hotel – located in the midst of tumultuous change in Russia.

MY SUMMARY:
While I am sorely lacking in Russian knowledge, the book kindly led me along in its color and history. While Russian history played a backdrop to the storyline, the real characters took place within the confines of the Metropol. Elegant actresses, humble seamstresses, demonstrative chefs and shy but inquisitive young children. Towles does a brilliant job of creating characters with vastly different backgrounds and personalities, but all intricately linked to our main character, Count Rostov, His Excellency. The Count is genteel and elegant – making this a soothing book to read in the midst of so much ugly politicking in our own current world. His afternoon tea, thoughtful gifts and Old World self-deference was refreshing and endearing.

As with many other storylines in literary history – Eloise, for one – the setting of an elegant hotel will never disappoint. Towles thoroughly…arguably too much at times…develops each character so that their motives and personalities are well known to his readers. There were times he might have lost me, but the storyline kept me in its clutches. And I am so thankful that it did.

Perhaps it is simply because I read it during rainy, wintery days here in California, but A Gentleman in Moscow seems like the perfect cold winter’s day relief.

January reads…

I had a lot of fun in 2018 – the Year of Reading. I read a variety of genres and soared through books each month.

But this year – I’m taking it easy. I’m simply reading when I have an opening for it. People who read 200 books a year… I don’t know how they do it. It really boils down to the fact that when I’m reading, I’m NOT doing other things I also enjoy in my spare time. So 2019 will be a much more relaxed reading year.

That said, I was able to read three books in January:

I have talked about Becoming, an intriguing behind-the-scenes look at Michelle’s early life as well as the progress toward and during the White House.

I have not talked about Reese Witherspoon’s book. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on it but my overall impression was that it was a bit of a ‘throw away’ book. I was raised by a strong Southern woman so the subject was not foreign to me. But the recipes and traditions seemed rather prosaic. The writing style was saccharine and too over-the-top. I love Reese as an actor and admire her work as a producer and an advocate for women. Writing this book might not have been her best work.

And lastly, Harry’s Trees. What a fantastic book. It hooked me quickly and kept me on the line the whole way through. What a beautiful celebration of books and nature and great love.

To every story we bring the story of ourselves.

This book celebrated the freedom of forgiveness. The adventure of reading. The beauty of nature. The cost of holding on to self-perpetuated ‘truths’. The ripples of redemption. And as with every good story, it contained an enchanting touch of magic.

Get a book. Reading solves most things or at least assuages the heart.

I would highly recommend Harry’s Trees.

What did you read in January? Do you have a pile of books to read in February or are you letting them come to you as they will? I’m currently reading A Gentleman in Moscow and am really enjoying the storyline. I mean…how many great stories have happened within the confines of a grand hotel?!

I am forever grateful for the sheer enjoyment of being transported by books. My admiration for writers knows no bounds.

 

BECOMING by Michelle Obama

“No matter your political beliefs…” is a phrase I have come to loathe. It invariably is followed by a veiled political view.

That said, politics can be pushed aside when reading Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming.

The book gives a strong foundation from Michelle’s childhood to the breadth of work she did before ever entering the political spotlight. She and Barack were truly people who came from hard-working families and rose to the highest seat in our country.

But Michelle also dished. She seemed to understand that people want to know what it’s like to have a husband largely absent from family life. What was it like to campaign and hear all the negative things said about your husband?! How did she balance travel and kids and the transition to – and then from – the White House? She describes some of the things found in a presidential motorcade which was TOTALLY interesting to me! Things like, oh, a canon in the car! Or the blood type of the sitting president which travels with him should he ever need a blood transfusion. Whaaaa?!

I listened to this book via Audible. Michelle Obama reads it herself (which was like having her sitting in my living room telling me stories.)

I borrowed the first picture in this post from @becauseofthem because this scenario is what I imagined so often throughout the book. I would get teary-eyed and proud of America but then I would think, ‘What must it be like as a black child seeing their face for the first time in the White House?!’ It made me tear up every time I’d think about the historical moment that we witnessed as Americans together.

Easily a 5 out of 5 stars for this memoir. Michelle doesn’t disappoint when it comes to feelings and struggles she dealt with in the rise of and the creation of a spouse becoming a president and a wife becoming a First Lady.

Very interesting. Highly recommend. ……no matter your political beliefs.

PLENTY LADYLIKE by Claire McCaskill

S U M M A R Y   +   P E R S O N A L   T H O U G H T S :

One of my favorite apps on my phone is the Hoopla app through the Kansas City Public Library. At any given time I am usually reading one physical book and listening to one audio book through either Audible or Hoopla. I just finished a book that I have listened to in the car, while working around our home or at any open opportunity where I can multi-task by listening while also doing something mundane with my hands. I was a late comer to audio books, but I’ve become a big fan of them for some genres – memoirs being my favorite audio book.

Claire McCaskill is a state senator for Missouri. aka: a home girl. Her influence in the Senate has been one of strength as a moderate voice. In particular she has worked hard to eliminate earmarks and financial waste spending due to her previous role as state auditor.

Admittedly, this was particularly interesting to someone from Claire’s homestate of Missouri. She spent a significant amount of time in Kansas City, so it was fun to read of places she mentioned and to know exactly where she was talking about. But overall, it was thrilling to read of the rise and success of a woman. I like to refer to myself as a feminist who also enjoys letting her husband put the gas in her car. That’s to say that I believe there is a balance between feminism and femininity – of which we should not need to apologize for either. So the title ‘Plenty Ladylike’ piqued my interest. I do not believe men and women are ‘equal’ in the most crude definition of the word. But I strongly believe the combination of men and women on any project makes for the most successful and well-rounded outcome.

You can’t use your clout to change the things you’re passionate about unless you have the clout.

In other words, there is no need to feel apologetic about rising to a powerful position when you are working for a greater voice to accomplish the things for which you feel a strong pull. This is how things get done. Whether it’s a local election, a local school position or a community committee – position yourself to do the most good and have the most effective voice for your cause.

I enjoyed reading about the relationship between the female members of the Senate. They regularly meet for dinner – no press or staff allowed. Just a safe place to discuss the unique position they find themselves in: as mothers, wives, senators and all the competing forces that surround those roles. Periodically, the female Supreme Court justices also meet with them. Oh to be a fly on the wall…

While women in high offices is becoming more and more acceptable, and blatant gender bias aren’t as prevalent, there are still passively used phrases that are unique to women in the political arena. McCaskill has been accused from male opponents as not being ladylike enough or that her actions were unbecoming of a woman. While less abrasive than the time in her early political career when a male legislator asked her if she brought her knee pads (?!!!?), these passive phrases are still a way to keep a woman in her place.

Other obstacles women are in the unique position to combat: what their hair looks like, whether they have bags under their eyes or how well their clothes fit. Claire talked of a female colleague who the press pointed out she had worn the same dress in the same month. (Yes, there were times when I also shrieked out-loud in my car at the craziness of our society!Would we even know if a man had re-worn a navy suit twice in one month?! ugh.

McCaskill wrapped up her book with a somewhat new challenge to women, an area where women have not been historically known to participate in. McCaskill wrote of the bargains and security nets women build for themselves and for their future. However, women also need to look at the ways in which we invest in our future by donating our money to charities and political campaigns. This is also a way in which we can make our voices known about the areas in which our souls are stirred and our compassion is awoken.

The term ‘ladylike’ is not a label we need to shirk off or eliminate, but rather to redefine. Standing strong in adversity, being brave enough to speak against a wrong way of thinking, and maintaining the core of who we are (be it in 2″ heels or manure-laden boots) – THAT is what it’s like to be a lady.

I recommend this book to all persons interested in the political trajectory of any candidate – the local elections that lead to national elections, with a few failures and mistakes along the way. In particular, I recommend this book to my local Missourians as they will find even more tidbits of interest throughout the book.

I’ve never met a political candidate I agree with 100%. Such is the case with Claire McCaskill. But I am proud she is representing Missouri and our moderate political ideals. As with McCaskill, Missourians are often more willing to cross party lines when it means coming to an equitable solution.

M Y  R A T I N G : 4.5/5

A U T H O R : Claire McCaskill

P U B L I C A T I O N  D A T E : August 2016

P U B L I S H E R : Simon & Schuster