Madam Secretary: A book that is more than 500 pages

It took a while to read it but I finished Madeleine Albright’s memoir 20 years, to the day, after Madeleine K. Albright was sworn in as the first female Secretary of State–what a day to finish this book! A great read for anyone interested in foreign affairs or #WomenWhoLead!

“Women have to be active listeners and interrupters – but when you interrupt, you have to know what you are talking about.”

“I was taught to strive not because there were any guarantees of success but because the act of striving is in itself the only way to keep faith with life.”

What an accomplished life and this is a woman who was a two time refugee! She is my hero. It makes me want to name my daughter Madeleine.

 

Samantha, Daughter

14/20

 

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Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York: A book that has a place in the title

I seek out a book to satisfy #19: A book with a place in the title. I came across this book listed online when I was hunting down some research material for a novel I’m writing called Ghosting. It’s all about haunting and being haunted and is set in none other than New York City. So, you really can’t find better material to help contextualize than a collection of essays about being haunted by New York, which is essentially what this book was all about: the idea of being a writer in NYC, the build up, the perception, the failure of leaving or the release of escaping.

The thing I really liked about this book was reading a book about writers made me want to write more, with more passion, determination, to apply more gusto to the craft. Another thing  I really liked about it was the irony from one story to the next. Some writers romanticized the grim and squalor while others were disenchanted by it. For some the crumpling of the glitzy illusion of New York, literary center of the world, was devastating. For others, disillusionment wasn’t an option. Escape wasn’t an option. It was like the idea of New York trapped them and they could never truly exist anywhere else.

When I worked on cruise ships I had a banner from Urban Outfitters that said Home is where you are and I would put it up in my cabin wherever I moved. I thought that was comforting. You don’t need to be in a place that you have always identified as home to be home. You are home wherever you go as long as you make it home. Reading some of these essays in Goodbye to All That made me feel almost claustrophobic because it was like they were confined to Manhattan indefinitely. Even when things were ugly and hard, they still held fast to the idea that they needed to be there. Home is where you are doesn’t apply to everyone, I guess. And in the words of Sheryl Crow, “if it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad.”

The back-to-back-to-back recounting of September 11th made it feel sometimes like the book was more about 9/11 than writers loving and leaving New York but I guess that’s par for the course in our post-9/11 world. You can’t have one without the other.

As in any collection, some stories are better than others. That might be why it took me a while to read this book in it’s entirety. We’re naturally drawn to some stories and writing styles more than others. Some stories required me to take a couple runs at them before I came down on the other side, while there were quite a few twinkling gems that left me wanting more, which is what a short story should do: satisfy you but leave you wanting more!

I loved Minnesota Nice by Cheryl Strayed; perhaps because I feel like New Yorkers tend to see any politeness I exhibit as a Canadianism. No one likes to be stereotyped. There was another story about taking off for New Zealand by Ruth Curry that I loved because it reminded me of my own journey to that hemisphere. The juxtaposition between beautiful landscape and an inability to feel the happiness you seem responsible to feel when you’re somewhere to close to paradise, it really hit a cord. I love reading books that are sentimental because life is sentimental, even if you pretend to be super jaded and nonchalant – it’s just the way it is, but (somewhat counter-intuitively) I don’t like to read works that seem cheesy or cliche. There’s an impossible sweet spot between sentimental and cheese, which is exactly where this story fell on that spectrum.

There was also a quote in the book from Lauren Elkin, which was so poignant it required instagraming, as exhibited below.

There were a lot of great stories in this book. There were some good stories. And others I didn’t like at all. I think that’s the point of an anthology. If it gives you a good mixture of perspective you aren’t going to relate to or like all of the essays, but that just means it’s appealing to a wide demographic (because someone else is reading it loving the ones you hated and hating the ones you loved). You’re pushing yourself outside your reading comfort zone a little and that’s right where you are when you discover new things you never knew you would like.

In conclusion, which I use to preface this final paragraph, because like a long sermon I’d like to get your attention back in case you’ve been skimming… This was the perfect book to satisfy #19: A book with a place in the title because the place wasn’t just in the title, the place (New York) was so expertly dissected, developed, dreamed, deconstructed, and deliberately explored in this book. There was just a place in the title, this was a intentional and contemplative study of New York.

Samantha, Daughter

8/20

The Handmaid’s Tale: A New York Times bestseller

To Pete, For all that is meant to be. xo Doris” — that is the inscription inside the cover of this book. I glazed over it when I started reading but once I finished it I was plagued by the meaning hidden-in-plain-sight in that simple inscription. Is Pete her Commander, a loveless pairing? Her Luke, her love that she was torn away from by circumstance? Was he her Nick? Did he sacrifice their relationship so that she might have a real life?

The inscription was as powerful as a mini-book club. I think I bought this book at a library book sale at Alderney Landing, so Doris of the Greater Halifax Area (or Pete, who got rid of the thoughtfully selected book), what did you mean? I need to know.

This book is my New York Times bestseller, but it was so, so much more. To name a few literary awards, this vintage Margaret Atwood received:

And it’s been challenged on high school reading lists from past to present. I don’t blame concerned parents in a way. It is very violent, sexually explicit, and the suicidal tendencies cannot be a positive influence. Nevertheless, exposing young readers to that kind of mind-widening perspective and challenging high schoolers to really think about society and gender inequality is a pretty powerful message.

The Atlantic wrote about this book in March 2015. Yes, 2015, roughly three decades after this novel debuted. The article marveled at how even now we’re not quite ready for such a radical work. Radical is a good word for it. It was mind-blowing to consider that dystopian reality. I don’t even like dystopian fiction and I was fascinated by The Handmaid’s Tale. When they were casting the movie in the late eighties they struggled to secure an actress for the main character, or so I read in the aforementioned Atlantic article, because “many actresses feared the stigma of being associated with such an explicitly feminist work” (The Atlantic, 2015)

Now, how in the world will I find this 1990 movie with it’s inappropriately racy cover? (Promising me that Atwood’s powerful message will be watered down to the very thing that’s keeping The Handmaid’s Tale out of schools.)

Samantha, Daughter

13/20