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Want to get inside Lucy Barton’s head?

lucyAfter waiting many weeks to download My Name is Lucy Barton by Pulitzer prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout, I finally received the book from the library the other day—and read it in an afternoon. At less than two hundred pages it was a quick read but most of the context involved reading between the lines. Written in the first person, Lucy describes a lengthy hospital stay in New York City resulting from complications during a routine operation for appendicitis. Her two young daughters are taken care of at home by their father who has an aversion to hospitals and summons Lucy’s estranged mother to sit by her bedside.

As Lucy describes her mother’s arrival and stoical stay sitting in a chair for five days, eschewing offers of a cot by hospital staff, the two women reach an understanding of their relationship through reminiscences of old neighbours, friends and acquaintances. Missing her own daughters terribly, Lucy attempts to recreate with her own mother the type of affection and intimacy she shares with her little girls. While her mother concedes some emotional ground begrudgingly, their relationship is forever coloured and affected by unspoken and undescribed forms of child abuse Lucy and her siblings endured as children. Their father, a veteran of World War II and the Battle of the Bulge is forever damaged and this in some way permits the children a level of forgiveness for their troubled childhood. The abuse perpetrated by the parents is referred to in vague references but not fully explained and is left to the imagination of the reader. If you enjoy well-written stories of introspection by women about mother-daughter relationships, you’ll find My Name is Lucy Barton to be a worthwhile read.

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MYTH: Men are problem solvers

Remember when the popular book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus stated that the reason men lack empathy for women’s issues is because they’re genetically engineered not to listen sympathetically but to come up with solutions to our problems? Well, that’s bull crap. Ask any woman who’s ever asked her male partner to install a shelf, hang a drapery rod or perform a minor repair around the house and she will confirm that men are problem generators.

"You have no idea how complicated this is going to be!"
“You have no idea how complicated this is going to be!”

A simple request to install a new towel rack can unleash volumes of previously unknown potential hazards. “That’s a concrete wall and I need a special bit for my drill . . . the studs are in the wrong place . . . it’ll never stay up . . .” Then they haul every tool known to Home Depot up from the basement, spread them out across the floor and the moaning begins. We’re subjected to a litany of reasons why the job we’re asking them to do is not only difficult and extremely complicated but very likely, impossible. They insist we have no idea what’s involved!

All being considered, our preferred approach is to hire someone who knows what they’re doing to perform the work. Once, when I casually suggested I wanted our bedroom painted a slightly different colour, the negative reaction was so profound, I simply called a professional painter who came in one morning after my husband had left for the day, carried out the work to perfection with no moaning, complaining or whining, cleaned up, I wrote him a cheque, then he left me with a lovely new bedroom. It was pure bliss. No muss. No fuss.

Why does it have to be so fraught with angst and bad tempers every time we want a simple job done? Ironically, when a potential problem is explained, we’re the ones who often come up with the solution. “If the studs are in the wrong place, what about mounting a two-by-four on the wall where the studs are in the right place and then installing the television bracket on the two-by-four?” But of course, it’s only a good idea if they think of it.

Handy and/or handsome, we still love 'em.
Handy and/or handsome, we still love ’em.

I have friends who have been reduced to tears while undergoing home handyman attempts at odd jobs. It’s not worth jeopardizing your marriage. If you share a home with a Red Green wannabe, once you decide something needs to be done, call in a professional to do the work. Whatever the cost, it’s still cheaper than the value of all the tools he will need to employ and the collateral damage he may inflict. Plus, the job will be done quickly, properly and without tears. No duct tape involved. It’s just that simple.

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Another blow for womankind

My transition from hip, cool Baby Boomer to doddering old lady has been marked by a series of horrifying incidents. The first was when the child in the ticket booth at the movie theatre sold me a senior’s ticket without my asking, and despite the fact that I am obviously barely old enough to drink legally. Then, there was the time the lady at Shoppers Drug Mart gently suggested I might qualify for their seniors’ discount.

cell phone 4The latest blow to my fragile ego came this week when I purchased a new cell phone—not a Smart phone which I’m too stupid to figure out—but a basic, no-frills device designed for infrequent users like me. While I own a cell phone, I rarely use it and have never figured out the rest of the world’s addiction to the eyes-down, thumbs-constantly-engaged lifestyle. My old cell phone died after years of boredom and lack of use, so, I went to Walmart and purchased a new one for $19.95. After removing layers of packaging the size of a bread box, I unveiled my new flip-phone. To my horror, I’d purchased the dummies version which was slightly bigger than my old one, with large numbers that can be read from across a football field.

Hello? Operator?
Hello? Operator?

My new cell phone is a simple device designed for a simple mind. And I like it. Just don’t ask me to text, swipe merchandise for a price check or even activate the voice mail feature. In fact, if you call me on my cell, you’ll probably get no answer as I rarely turn it on. No worries about me talking and texting while driving or having lunch with my Boomer gal pals. But, it’s there in my purse and always charged up in case my car breaks down, or I do. Old things have a tendency to do just that and this old lady may no longer be hip or cool but she is packin’. I’m no dummy. And, thank goodness Walmart still takes good, old-fashioned cash.

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Poking the big auto-makers

bailout1Ford Motor Company was one of the big auto makers that did not accept government handouts when the financial crisis hit eight years ago. Consequently, I now drive a Ford Escape. The logic for the bailouts at the time stated that we could not let the big car companies fail — think of all the lost jobs and the irreversible hit to the economy.  So, we hardworking taxpayers bailed out General Motors, Chrysler and other manufacturers—in effect, rewarding them for bad behaviour and poor management.

Bombardier consistently screws up (click here for the solutions to our problems with Bombardier). The company is poorly managed, seems to have no plan for getting better and continually falls back on empty promises and rainbow-chasing to secure ever more taxpayer dollars from whatever level of government they can rope in. This is another example of bad management being rewarded. Using that logic, perhaps those of us who have overspent our Visa cards and run up thousands of dollars of consumer debt for big screen televisions and vacations should apply to the government for some financial relief.

manager1The competency and creativity of these giant corporations is sadly underwhelming. Why, when the auto makers supposedly employ some of the smartest engineers in the country can they not anticipate customer needs without being poked from behind to do so. We’ve endured decades of dependence on gasoline engines which we know pollute the environment. Safety mechanisms had to be government mandated before manufacturers would incorporate them into their designs. And when their naive business plans failed to deliver, the taxpayers paid the price.

How could all the auto makers be so blind-sided that it has taken Google, Apple and even Tesla to develop and market new concepts for civilian transportation? Perhaps it’s the big fat salaries and benefit packages enjoyed by the executives that killed their imaginations and drive. After all, if they screwed up and managed to get fired, they could live on their golden parachute packages for the rest of their lives. And the oil companies must bear a major share of blame as well.

Where's our "volks wagen" for the future that can still accommodate groceries and a trip to Home Depot?
Where’s our “volks wagen” for the future that can still accommodate groceries and a trip to Home Depot?

Sure, I love my voice-activated GPS and my amber blind-spot alert signal. The touch controls on the steering wheel are lovely and the ability of my husband’s vehicle to tell him to pull over and take a rest if he swerves from his lane are all excellent features, but the progress made by the car industry over the past century could and should have been so much better. Look how much the tech business has accomplished over a mere two decades and how affordable all our gadgets have become. When are the automakers going to put some of that expensive brain power to work on something substantive? Before we know it we’ll be driving cars by Apple and Google while the big auto makers are scratching their heads, sifting through customer survey data to find out what went wrong and begging for more taxpayer bailout money.

Put those great brain to work.
Put those great brains to work.

The world is changing. Perhaps the big automakers should be hiring from Silicon Valley. What becomes of all those brilliant and innovative ideas generated by engineering students in university? Do they simply dissolve once they get permanent jobs in organizations where apathy is the status quo, where they just keep doing variations of the same old thing? There’s so much need for safe, environmentally neutral transportation vehicles for the masses. Thank goodness at least Tesla, Apple and Google grasp that reality. Because, heaven knows, we certainly can’t count on the government or transportation and the auto industry to provide us with cheap, efficient public transit any time soon (click here for my take on public transit). We deserve and should be getting so much better than what they’re offering now.

 

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Grand slam with Tom Rob Smith

While channel surfing a couple of weeks ago, I came across The Graham Norton Show on BBC Canada, a talk-show from the UK which I really enjoy. Among the guests was Noomi Repace promoting her new movie Child 44 based on the book by British author Tom Rob Smith. I’d never heard of the book, the movie or the author but the subject sounded interesting so I downloaded the book from the library.

child44Child 44 is loosely based on the true story of a serial killer of children in Russia in the 1950’s. A public relations problem is created by the fact that in the perfect Communist society of Stalinist Russia, the authorities claim there is no murder. Crime and murders are solely the product of decadent western capitalist living. When war hero and respected MGB agent Leo Demidov is assigned to confirm the case is an accident, he uncovers a series of other murders which appear to be carried out by the same person using the same peculiar methods. What he uncovers about the cases and himself in the process is unnerving. It’s a great murder/mystery and I enjoyed it so much I immediately downloaded another book by the same author.

farm1The Farm, also by Tom Rob Smith reminded me of a lite version of Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series of books. A psychological thriller, the plot follows a retired couple, Chris and his Swedish-born wife, Tilde when they retire to a remote farm in Sweden to pursue a back-to-the-land lifestyle. Having arrived at retirement without sufficient funds to remain in England, they plan to immerse themselves in Swedish rural life and farming, perhaps opening a Bed & Breakfast in their farmhouse to supplement their income. When their son Daniel receives an unexpected and panicked phone-call from his father claiming that his wife Tilde has suffered a mental breakdown with associated delusions, Daniel struggles with what to do since he has his own secrets. Suddenly, his mother returns to England with bizarre stories of horror, murder and intrigue. Daniel is forced to choose between believing his mother or his father in their differing versions of events. Events described in the book are drawn from Smith’s own life.

speech1Then, I discovered that Child 44 was the second part of a trilogy, so I immediately downloaded the second book, The Secret Speech.  This next phase of the story follows Leo through his second career as a police detective responsible for investigating crimes. Russia is thrown into turmoil when Stalin dies and Nikita Khruschev issues a massive denouncement of Stalin’s regime in a speech that is highly critical of Stalin’s abuses of power. The repercussions of the speech include confusion, disbelief, distrust of fellow comrades and chaos.

These books are a departure from what I normally like to read but I found all three intensely engaging. The fact that I read them back to back says a lot and I plan to read more by Tom Rob Smith. His writing will keep you turning the pages to get to the truth, you’ll gain exceptional insights into mid-twentieth century Russia, and you’ll have fun along the way.

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Glad I went to McFarland

Movies about sports aren’t usually my first choice but the opportunity of a night out with a couple of girlfriends with a tankful of Diet Coke and bushel of movie popcorn was just too tempting to resist. The movie we went to see is McFarland USA starring Kevin Costner and I particularly liked the fact it is based on a true story set in 1987.  It’s the story of a high school physical education teacher and football coach who is dismissed from a series of jobs because of anger issues and is forced to relocate to a poor, immigrant town in Southern California that represents everything he does not want for his family. Ironically, their last name is “White”.

The movie is based on a true story and while the premise is predictable it's also encouraging and inspiring.
The movie is based on a true story and while the premise is predictable it’s also uplifting and inspiring.

Driving into the Hispanic farming community of McFarland, the family is confronted with their what appears to be their worst fears—grinding poverty, language barriers, social problems and cultural alienation. The high school students he teaches get up at forty-thirty every morning, hop into the back of a pickup truck to go and pick vegetables to augment the family income before they run to school a few hours later. After school, they repeat the process, in reverse.

Kostner’s character, Jim White once again is dismissed as football coach at his new school but after noticing the running skills of his students he decides to introduce them to the world of competitive cross-country track. He recruits seven students and after training and winning several events, they defy the odds and prove the value of effort.

I don’t want to give the entire story away but I will say the theme reminded me of why I enjoyed Clint Eastwood’s Grand Torino so much. Too often we judge others by unfair stereotypical preconceptions. Fear of what we do not know or lack of understanding is often at the root of prejudice. We need to be reminded of this from time to time. And to count our blessings that hopefully our children and grandchildren don’t have to pick vegetables for three or four hours before and after school every day to keep food on the family table. For all our bounty, we give thanks. This movie was a lovely surprise and is definitely a thumbs-up.

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