Monday, October 10, 2016


I skipped the second debate.  Instead I changed the channel to TCM to watch Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman.  And maybe that makes me a coward, but the negativity and hate and lack of respect in this election process has made part of my brain shut down.  So an old Universal monster movie, that was easier viewing.

Pastrix isn't what you'd call easier reading, but it's like a balm to soothe temperaments tormented by politics.  (The word pastrix is a derogatory term used for female pastors.)  The timing is exactly right to read a book that says, "Whew, people are good after all." 

Pastrix: the Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint is by Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor in Denver.  Pastrix isn't what you think.  It's not preachy.  Or treacly.  Or written in deep incomprehensible theology.  You won't find mega-churches or squeaky clean, movie star handsome Jesus in this book. 

It's funny.  The first line of the book: "Shit," I thought to myself, "I'm going to be late to New Testament class."

It's also profound.  Bolz-Weber is a recovering alcoholic, an unlikely pastor who is honest and profane and imperfect and best of all, human.  She's like us.  Just because she's a pastor doesn't give her a FastPass to God - she has doubts and questions like everybody else.

She doesn't try to proselytize - this is not a "do this and you'll be saved" kind of book.  It's about love and loss and rejection.  About looking for faith and finding it in places you'd never expect.  Second chances.  Third and four chances. 

If you're feeling overwhelmed these days, pick up Pastrix.  And read about hope. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016


Ketchup is My Favorite Vegetable - say that out loud and I dare you not to smile.  On the cover, a photo of two cute boys who look so much alike they must be brothers.  One has his arm draped over his brother's shoulder and the younger boy is wearing (duh) a Heinz ketchup t-shirt.  And underneath the title, A Family Grows Up with Autism

The book sat on my desk for a few days.  I've known many families affected by autism or special needs children.  Maybe I should just check out the new Harry Potter book instead. 

No, I picked up Ketchup is My Favorite Vegetable and started to read.  And I couldn't put it down.  It's a beautiful book - yes, parts are painful, but Liane Kupferberg Carter writes with elegance, honesty, and humor.  I was amazed at the resilience of her family, their love and perseverance and most of all, Liane's autistic son Mickey, who you follow from birth to young adulthood.  By the end of Mickey's journey you want to shout, "Woo hoo!" 

Sometimes you feel sick when Mickey is bullied or takes a step back in his progress.  Or reading about Liane and her battles (such battles!) with school bureaucracies and finding proper therapies and therapists - she is a wonderful, fierce advocate - I kept thinking of her as Joan of Arc.  But she doesn't pretend to be saintly and that's another lovely thing about her memoir, the idea that life with an autistic child is sometimes overwhelmingly difficult and it's okay to admit that.  But then you take a deep breath and go on. 

One of the things I liked best about Ketchup is My Favorite Vegetable was learning how a family deals with an autistic child who ages out of schools and programs and therapies.  Then what?  What options are available to a young adult with autism?

I cried, but I also cheered.  And you will, too, when you read this book.  Woo hoo, Mickey. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

So You Want to Read About Eugenics?

Sometimes it would be easier if we only read fiction.  Happy fiction, books that take us to a place where we don't have to think.  We can fly, be kings or princesses, fall in love overnight.

Fluff.  Lots and lots of fluff.

Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen is not fluff.  Sadly it is non-fiction - a story of the history of the eugenics movement in the United States and a Supreme Court decision that led to the forced sterilization of a woman who was considered an imbecile - and as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously declared, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

So at twenty-one, Carrie Buck was sterilized.  Were the three generations imbeciles?  Carrie, her mother, and Carrie's daughter Vivian, a product of rape, who was "tested" at eight months and found to be mentally defective?  Most likely not.  But they were poor and had no one to speak up for them.

The eugenics movement wanted to produce better human beings and what better way than by purifying the white race?  Eugenists produced a list of people who should be prevented from reproducing - including criminals, deviants, people with disabilities, including the deaf, blind, epileptics, people in the low range of I.Q. tests, as well as immigrants from non-Nordic countries.  This faux science led to over 60,000 forced sterilizations in the United States. 

And if sterilization couldn't keep the United States pure, the eugenics movement also helped set up immigration restrictions and quotas.  They were in place in the 1930s.  Otto Frank (father of Anne) wrote letters to U.S. officials begging to immigrate.  His letters went unanswered.  Hitler read books by eugenists and used portions in Mein Kampf.  Racial hygiene laws were put into terrible practice in Nazi Germany.  (Holmes's quote about "Three generations of imbeciles..." was used as a defense argument by Nazis at the Nuremberg trials.)

Reading this book wasn't easy.  Almost every page made me angry.  But it's an important subject and if you turn on the news these days, too familiar.  Building a wall.  Genetic modification that can lead to designer babies.

Take a chance on this book.  It may make you uneasy, but sometimes that's a good thing. 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

When a Book Moves You

Moves you isn't exactly right.  When a book blows your mind.  Blows your head off.  Makes you cry, makes you want to start reading it again from the beginning.  When you want to buy copies for your friends and say, "Read this, read this right now, what are you waiting for, I am so not kidding."

Seriously.  I am not kidding, have you started reading it yet?

I finished The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota this afternoon.  Yes, I cried.  Partly because I didn't want it to be over, but also because the ending was so beautiful.

The Year of the Runaways is a novel about a group of immigrants from India who end up in England.  And I don't want to say much more than that -  immigration is a hot button issue and this book isn't about an "issue."  It's about people.  About life and families and dreams and faith.  The writing is simple, but like poetry in its simplicity.  You're transported, you're reminded why you love reading.  Why reading is magic. 

Buy this book.  Or ask me and I'll send you a copy.  But now I'm going to go back to read and savor the last chapter again.     

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Reading a (Mostly) Good Book About a Bad (But Talented) Person

Frank Sinatra wasn't Joseph Stalin bad.  But he was a jerk.  An awful guy.  Insanely arrogant, he treated women horribly - actually he treated everybody pretty badly.  He was a bully, he slept with possibly thousands of women - he married Mia Farrow when he was 51 and she was 21.  Ew.  He liked to provoke fights and punch people (a lot easier to do when you travel with bodyguards - I mean, "friends").  

The mafia stories - did he use "connections" to sever his contract with Tommy Dorsey?  Did he use other connections to get his Academy Award-winning part in From Here to Eternity?  Was he the model for Johnny Fontane in The Godfather films?

Sinatra was a creep.  But also talented and he worked hard at his craft - music meant something to him and when he sings, you can hear that.  After I read part one of James Kaplan's biography, Frank: The Voice, I bought a best of Sinatra CD and even though - duh - I knew he was a great singer, I became more of a fan.  Listen to "I've Got the World on a String" or "Witchcraft."  See what you think.       

I've just finished Kaplan's sequel, Sinatra: The Chairman, and it was a good read in a sort of "National Enquirer" way.  Juicy and filled with gossip, maybe a little too juicy and filled with gossip.  But entertaining.  And I liked reading about the business of recording music - Sinatra's work with Nelson Riddle was especially interesting. 

It's a big fat book, over 900 pages, so I was surprised when it was 1971 and suddenly the book turns into a "Coda" where the last fifteen years of Sinatra's life are very condensed.  Too rushed and unexplored. 

So as a person - not so great.  But as a singer, as an artist - fly me to the moon, Mr. S. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A Dot Ham

In 2004 I bought Alexander Hamilton, the biography by Ron Chernow.  It's a massive book, with 700-plus pages of text and I couldn't wait to read it.  Except - boy, it looked... massive.  So it sat on the shelf.  And sat. 

How interesting could the book be?  Alexander Hamilton - Founding Father, Secretary of the Treasury, his picture is on the ten dollar bill, killed in a duel with Aaron Burr. 

There you go, that's what I knew.  So why was the book so big? 

Years pass.  And suddenly there's a musical about him.  A musical about Alexander Hamilton?  Seriously?  What was I missing?  I bought the Hamilton CD and pulled the dusty book from the shelf. 

After reading Alexander Hamilton, it makes sense people didn't know much about him.  Hamilton wasn't especially popular.  After his early death he lacked a huge fan club to champion the many things he accomplished.  Instead he had people (including Jefferson and John Adams) criticize him and call him a monarchist and an aristocrat and a womanizer.  (Slightly strange coming from Jefferson - an aristocrat who had children with his slave and mistress, Sally Hemings.)

Hamilton wasn't perfect.  Brilliant, yes.  But also arrogant and bad-tempered and often too eager to speak his mind.  He did cheat on his wife and announced his infidelity by publishing a pamphlet, Observations on Certain Documents.  Good idea?  Not so much.

Hamilton's early years in the West Indies are Dickensian before Dickens existed.  His mother's morals were questionable, his paternity a mystery - was his father James Hamilton, black sheep of a wealthy Scottish family or Nevis merchant, Thomas Stevens?  And yet Hamilton manages to make it to New York and have tremendous success - he helped create a new nation, whoa, this orphan boy who came from nothing.  It's one of those books you read and say to yourself, "He did what?  Why didn't I know that?  He did that, too?  You're kidding.  This guy is amazing." 

The book is grand.  You're happy to finish it, but also wildly disappointed because you know whatever you read next won't measure up. 

And now I have to see the musical.  And read the book again.  And see the musical again.  Oh, dear.  This could go on and on. 

Do you understand the meaning of "A Dot Ham?"  If you've seen or heard the musical, you might.  There's a lyric in a song where Burr and Hamilton correspond with each other.  And A. Ham is Hamilton's signature.  Funny - it's the same signature as mine.

Here's a link to a Huffington Post piece I wrote about Hamilton the man, Hamilton the musical, and my hopeful possible genetic connection: