Dec 18

Five Top Nonfiction Books 2017: Selected Quotes

Below are selected quotes from five top nonfiction books of 2017 (from various “best” lists):

Life is never perfect. We all live some form of Option B. Sheryl Sandberg

Resilience is the strength and speed of our response to adversity—and we can build it. It isn’t about having a backbone. It’s about strengthening the muscles around our backbone. Sheryl Sandberg

We plant the seeds of resilience in the ways we process negative events. After spending decades studying how people deal with setbacks, psychologist Martin Seligman found that three P’s can stunt recovery: (1) personalization—the belief that we are at fault; (2) pervasiveness—the belief that an event will affect all areas of our life; and (3) permanence—the belief that the aftershocks of the event will last forever. Sheryl Sandberg

One of the most important things I’ve learned is how deeply you can keep loving someone after they die. You may not be able to hold them or talk to them, and you may even date or love someone else, but you can still love them every bit as much. Playwright Robert Woodruff Anderson captured it perfectly: “Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship.” Sheryl Sandberg

All over the world, there is cultural pressure to conceal negative emotions. In China and Japan, the ideal emotional state is calm and composed. In the United States, we like excitement (OMG!) and enthusiasm (LOL!). As psychologist David Caruso observes, “American culture demands that the answer to the question ‘How are you?’ is not just ‘Good.’… We need to be ‘Awesome.’” Caruso adds, “There’s this relentless drive to mask the expression of our true underlying feelings.” Admitting that you’re having a rough time is “almost inappropriate.” Sheryl Sandberg

Modern life seems set up so that we can avoid loneliness at all costs, but maybe it’s worthwhile to face it occasionally. The further we push aloneness away, the less we are able to cope with it, and the more terrifying it gets. Some philosophers believe that loneliness is the only true feeling there is. Michael Finkel

As a woman, as a fat woman, I am not supposed to take up space. And yet, as a feminist, I am encouraged to believe I can take up space. I live in a contradictory space where I should try to take up space but not too much of it, and not in the wrong way, where the wrong way is any way where my body is concerned. Roxane Gay

It is a powerful lie to equate thinness with self-worth. Roxane Gay

There is no cowardice in removing yourself from a wildly unhealthy and unwinnable situation…You don’t have to be available to everyone. You can stop. Scaachi Koul

The great irony of growing up is that it’s often once you leave your parents’ home that you understand them the most. You get less angry; they get less anxious. Scaachi Koul

Kindness toward others and radical kindness to ourselves buy us a shot at a warm and generous heart, which is the greatest prize of all. Anne Lamott

Dec 06

“Three Billboards”: Female-Centric, Female-Reviewed

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, aptly called both “sorrowful and savagely funny” by Rolling Stone in its 10-best list for 2017, has one of the best story lines and some of the most interesting and complex characters and performances I’ve seen in a long time.

Most importantly, it has Frances McDormand in the lead. And in honor of rare female-centric films such as Three Billboards, I’ve decided to let this movie post be female-reviewer-centric as well.

Watch this trailer, which sets up the Three Billboards premise (and colorful language) really well:

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times, describes the basic plot of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri:

[McDormand] plays Mildred Hayes, a no-nonsense woman (she dresses, every day, in a navy-blue jumpsuit; the sort worn by plumbers or mechanics) who’s out for revenge. ‘I’m Angela Hayes’ mother,’ she says, in a voice so low you could jump over it. Her daughter, seven months ago, was raped and murdered by an unknown assailant; Mildred, frozen in clenched-jaw heartbreak, needs to know who to blame.

Mildred pays for three empty billboards to make the following statements:

    • “Raped While Dying.”
    • ″And Still No Arrests?”
    • ″How Come, Chief Willoughby?”

More about Mildred’s process, as expressed by Manohla Dargis, New York Times:

The billboards turn that grief into a weapon, a means of taking on the law and assorted men — a threatening stranger, a vigilante dentist and an abusive ex (John Hawkes) — who collectively suggest another wall that has closed Mildred in.

Dana Stevens, Slate, adds to our understanding of Mildred:

…(T)hough Mildred makes many choices that are reprehensible or downright dangerous, McDormand never fails to convince us of the fundamental decency of this woman, a tragic heroine struggling to find even the tiniest scrap of meaning in a comically awful world…Mildred is a tough person to be around…there are moments late in the movie when she commits acts that push at the limits of audience sympathy and goodwill. But McDormand, at age 60 one of our most gifted and least calculating actresses, fearlessly challenges us to love her character anyway.

How does the police department deal with Mildred? Kate Taylor, Globe and Mail: “The decent Willoughby (another finely crafted portrait of sympathetic masculinity from [Woody] Harrelson) tries to pacify her and rein in the most vicious of his officers, the explosively racist Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell in full psychopath mode.”

April Wolfe, LA Weeklyaddresses dynamics that ultimately may leave some viewers dissatisfied:

[Director] McDonagh painstakingly humanizes a character who we find has unapologetically tortured a black man in police custody. And then Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri seems to ask audiences to forgive and forget wrongs like police violence, domestic abuse and sexual assault without demonstrating a full understanding of the centuries-long toll these crimes have taken on victims in real life.

There’s another problematic issue too. The Globe and Mail’s Taylor: “If the film fails to solve Dixon’s emotional puzzle, another one that remains troubling is Mildred’s relationship with her teenage son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), the only remnant of her family and link to her motherhood, yet apparently an afterthought in her crazed planning.”

Nevertheless, this is a movie, one with overall positive reviews, that makes you mull such things over. In closing:

...(T)here’s no better time than right now for a high-profile movie led by a meaty, complicated female character — and no better actress than McDormand to take it on. And you can put that on a billboard. Jocelyn Noveck, Associated Press, regarding Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

…just the bitter pill the times call for, offered with a loving cup to make it go down just a bit easier. Ann Hornaday, Washington Post

…a cathartic wail against the zeitgeist of rape culture and state brutality. It’s a rallying cry, a right hook to the jaw, and wow, does it ever hurt so good. Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service

Jun 26

“My Mourning Year”: Therapist’s Own Grief Process

Andrew Marshall is best known for his self-help books, but his memoir demonstrates that mental health, even for experts in the field of psychology, is a universal struggle. Failed counseling sessions, spontaneous vacations, and romantic dates are all attempts Marshall makes in order to move past “the black holes of Thom.” Zane DeZeeuw, Lambda Literary, reviewing My Mourning Year

Although known in the United Kingdom as a top-notch couples therapist and author of 18 self-help books, Andrew Marshall‘s My Mourning Year: A Memoir of Bereavement, Discovery and Hope, about the death 20 years ago of his partner, may be his best writing, according to Zane DeZeeuw, Lambda Literary.

My Mourning Year is an almost unedited version of the diary he kept following Thom’s death. “He does not offer steps or guidance for how to navigate the mourning process; instead, Marshall uses his experience as anecdotal evidence that a person can survive and learn to live again after being affected by a tragedy.”

As Marshall explains in a Telegraph article, “When my partner Thom died 20 years ago, he was just 43 and I was only 37. I did not have the first idea how to cope with the grief that enveloped me.”

By publishing such a personal book, going against the usual privacy he’s maintained throughout his career, Marshall states, “I want to show that there is no right or wrong way to grieve and everybody – even therapists – make mistakes.”

One significant point Marshall makes in My Mourning Year (and I will continue to quote from Telegraph) is that “Bereavement has the knack of finding the fault lines in your life and blowing them apart. It exposed that my parents were not entirely comfortable with me being gay and I was not comfortable with their polite but distant way of showing they cared.” He needed to take some space from them.

And, adds Marshall, “the most important message of all: grief does not work to a conventional clock. Sometimes it feels like 20 months since Thom died and I still find new things to mourn. (Just recently, I wept about never getting to know him as an old man.) At other times, Thom’s death seems so long ago that it happened to someone else – perhaps because I’m not the same man I was 20 years ago.”

In the aftermath of Thom’s death there were certain things that failed to make Marshall feel better: a rebound relationship, for example—also counseling, it turns out. He actually tried it twice. This “was particularly upsetting because up to then, I’d thought of therapy as the holy grail. The problem was partly me. Just as doctors are terrible patients, therapists make terrible clients.”

(My own take on that latter statement is that it’s overly generalized and certainly not always true. I’ll accept, of course, that he is a therapist and that he feels he made a terrible client.)

Some of the things that did help Marshall’s grief process included the catharsis involved in attending theater, learning to be assertive about specific needs, taking a course in something new to him, and a one-year death anniversary dinner shared with close friends.

Eventually, moreover, he mended the rift with his parents that Thom’s death had provoked. Too, he was able to love again:

Bereavement is a wake-up call that none of us immortal. So I worked hard on improving my relationship with my parents and they have not only learnt to accept me but came to my wedding, two years ago, with joy in their hearts.
Perhaps this is the reality of mourning: you never get over the loss, but if you allow it to open you up to new experiences, you can transform your life into something that might be different, but still rewarding and meaningful.

Feb 24

“No Good Card for This”: Empathy to the Rescue

Uhh…wow. Let me know if there’s anything I can do? “Most of us, most of the time” when receiving word that a loved one is suffering, say authors Emily McDowell and Dr. Kelsey Crowe, There’s No Good Card for This

It’s indeed a common line. And not so helpful.

We often say the wrong things to people who are suffering and/or grieving, something Emily McDowell‘s popular line of “Empathy Cards” has aimed to improve upon. Some examples of her cards’ captions:

When life gives you lemons I won’t tell you a story about my cousin’s friend who died of lemons.

I promise never to refer to your illness as a “journey.”

Unless someone takes you on a cruise.

The Five Stages of Grief:

Crying in public

Crying in the car

Crying alone while watching TV

Crying at work

Crying when you’re a little drunk

Combine McDowell’s humorous caring sentiments with the skills of Dr. Kelsey Crowe‘s “Empathy Bootcamps” and you’ve now got a book—There Is No Good Card for This: What to Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love—teaching us how to be there for loved ones in need.

Both McDowell and Crowe are cancer survivors; each understands first-hand how others struggle to do or say the right thing. McDowell, on the standard sympathy cards not cutting it for her. “You still appreciate humor, you are still a whole person. There wasn’t really anything in greeting card world that allowed for that” (Ashley Strickland, CNN).

The “Empathy” line McDowell eventually created are “cards for the relationships we really have.” And these have struck a major chord with buyers.

McDowell decided she’d like to help people even further, so she sought an expert to help her craft a book that’s “whiskey for the wounded” versus chicken soup for the soul (Siran Babayan, Los Angeles Weekly).

One of the key ways to figure out what to say to someone, McDowell tells NPR, comes from listening.

…I think a lot of what we go into in the book is that we operate under the assumption that we need to find the right words, and the good news is that Oprah can’t even do that. Nobody can do that. And so you kind of are off the hook in that really all you need to say is, ‘I’m here,’ and ‘I’m thinking about you,’ and ‘How are you doing today?’ and then let the person talk.

As Alex Ronan (Slate) observes, being able to offer the right kind of listening isn’t a strong suit for many. So the authors offer some guidance, including a piece called “What Kind of Non-Listener Are You?”

For example, the Epidemiologist non-listener ‘asks a lot of clarifying, fact-based questions before learning how someone is feeling’ while the Sage ‘gives wise perspective and advice…when it wasn’t asked for’ and the Optimist ‘always offers a bright-sided perspective.’

Strickland of CNN summarizes other significant points of There Is No Good Card for This, which I’m totally paraphrasing below:

  • Avoid doing nothing. Offer something specific you can do versus the standard and not so helpful “let me know if there’s anything I can do.”
  • Take the time to carefully consider what it is you really can offer.
  • Try to learn about the process of grief.
  • Avoid making it about yourself.
  • Problem-solving isn’t the goal here.
  • People appreciate such simple gestures as listening and texting.
Dec 23

“Manchester by the Sea”: Parenting Unexpected

Manchester by the Sea, featuring the highly praised performance of Casey Affleck, is the “best movie of the year,” states Rex Reed, New York Observer. And as of this writing it’s a rarely seen 8.5 on IMDB and 97% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Although I found it to be longish, slowish, and above all utterly sad—the latter of which was repeatedly attested to by Affleck himself in his recent and humorous SNL monologue—it’s certainly worth seeing.

Basic info about Manchester by the Sea from A.A. Dowd, AVClub:

Casey Affleck, in the great internal performance of his career, plays Lee Chandler, a withdrawn handyman scraping by in Quincy, a suburb of Boston. Lee is the kind of miserable bastard who’d rather sucker-punch a stranger at the bar than go home with the beautiful woman trying to pick him up. Who is this broken man? What eats at his heart and swims behind his eyes? The questions hang like storm clouds over the early scenes, a solitary life told in odd jobs and punchlines: Lee shoveling snow, Lee screwing in a lightbulb, Lee unclogging a toilet for a tenant who has the hots for him. Frances Ha editor Jennifer Lame gives this opening passage a certain comic pop, until a phone call sends Lee racing to his hometown of Manchester By The Sea—but not fast enough to say goodbye to his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), who’s just died of the degenerative heart condition he’s been afflicted with for years…

Lee becomes legal guardian to his 16-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). April Wolfe, Village Voice:

That prompts a string of flashback sequences, where Lee seems an altogether different man; he’s jovial, physically affectionate, has a wife (Michelle Williams) and three kids. The impact is immediate — we now understand that something has happened to make him so cold, and it certainly cannot be good…

Rex Reed, New York Observer, regarding Patrick:

It’s wrenching to observe the values of a boy too young for a driver’s license, sensitive, witty and highly intelligent enough to cope with his father’s death and the challenging alternative of living with a neurotic, estranged mother (Gretchen Mol) who lives in Connecticut with her emotionally blocked and religiously obsessed second husband (Matthew Broderick).

The Trailer for Manchester by the Sea

Various Themes

A.O. Scott, New York Times: “It’s a masculine melodrama that doubles as a fable of social catastrophe…”

Matt Zoller Seitzrogerebert.com:

It’s a story about the complexity of forgiveness—not just forgiving other people who’ve caused you pain, but forgiving yourself for inflicting pain on others. It’s a story about parenting, of the biological, foster and improvised kind. And it’s a portrait of a tightly knit community that depends mainly on one industry, fishing, and that has evolved certain ways of speaking, thinking, and feeling.

A.A. DowdAVClub: “Are there experiences so crushing that they ruin you forever? That’s the big question Lonergan asks, and we wait hopefully for a charitable answer.”

Selected Reviews

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times: “…heartbreaking yet somehow heartening, a film that just wallops you with its honesty, its authenticity and its access to despair.”

Rex Reed, New York Observer: “…a triumphant exploration of the way real people think and feel about grief, loss, love and survival that will stick in your gut and cling to your heart long after the final frame fades to black.”

Andrew Lapin, NPR:

a sprawling work that revels in its messiness, because being uncertain and uncomfortable and not knowing whether to laugh or cry when something happens is the real grist of humanity. One of the film’s final lines is ‘Do we have to talk about this now?’ But that’s what Manchester captures so beautifully about life: it’s a series of difficult conversations we’d rather avoid, about death and family and responsibility, and the ones that matter are with the people we love, or once loved, or will learn to love someday…