BOOMERBROADcast

Essays, rants and reflections on life after sixty for baby boomers who rocked life in THE sixties. And lots of book reviews too.


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Life is not all political in the Oval Office . . . or is it?


From The Corner of The Oval by Beck Dorey-Stein is not an exposé about the political goings-on behind the  scenes à la Bob Woodward or Michael Wolff. It’s chick lit, for better or worse, and I’m inclined to lean toward better. This memoir is about Dorey-Stein’s five years working at The White House during the Obama administration, including her love affairs prior to and during her time working there and her relationships with fellow employees. As a low-level staffer, she was not privy to confidential meetings with executive staff but she was privileged to accompany the President and his staff on overseas trips, local fund-raisers, family vacations in Hawaii and meetings with foreign leaders.

Dorey-Stein was an under-employed English teacher working several part-time jobs when she spotted an ad for a stenographer on Craig’s List.  Desperate to work at something other than waiting tables, she applied for the job, then blew off the interview. Because part of her past experience included tutoring students at the prestigious Sidwell Friends School attended by Malia Obama, the interviewer followed up and Dorey-Stein was given a second chance to interview.

What she didn’t realize and had not been disclosed in the advertisement was that the job was as a stenographer at The White House, the big one on Pennsylvania Avenue. The job required her to be part of a team that attended every interview, press conference and public speaking event attended by President Barack Obama. His words were recorded and transcribed by stenographers like Dorey-Stein for release to various media sources as well as being kept for historical records. She does have opinions, however. After the Boston Marathon bombing attack, her comments, “You’d think these ‘red-blooded’ conservative congressmen who don’t want equal rights for gays or the right to choose for women would be embarrassed to have the NRA so publicly cupping their balls.” Good one!

Beck Dorey-Stein was there, in the big house, during the saner Obama years.

When she was hired, Stein was advised to “keep her boyfriend” and avoid relationships with secret service agents or fellow employees. Naturally, a young woman in her twenties with raging hormones and a flair for being social found it difficult to adhere to that advice. She was soon romantically involved with a senior member of the executive staff, betraying her boyfriend and her principles. Her new lover, Jason was a chronic and well-known womanizer but she’s already too emotionally involved before she discovers the painful truth about his true colours. Their on-again, off-again affair pulls her under like a drug addiction with no upside other than infrequent good conversation and good sex.

Fans of The West Wing and HBO’s VEEP starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus will love this book. In fact, even if you’re not familiar with those television shows, I think you’ll love it. That’s why it’s a New York Times best-seller. While we learn nothing salacious about White House operations during her tenure, it’s a fascinating read nonetheless. Being a fly-on-the-wall observer at a low level, the author treats us to a rare view of life in the West Wing of The White House. We follow her steps through rooms, corridors and offices, journey along on trips within the United States and internationally aboard Airforce 1 and experience personal exchanges with POTUS through her eyes.

From The Corner of the Oval is a fun beach read about the love affairs and working relationships between Obama-era staffers. You won’t learn any dirty secrets or inside political skullduggery but you will enjoy the observations of an articulate young woman who was there. And her Epilogue is titled, Send in the Clowns. Pour yourself a glass of wine, put your feet up and escape. I’d rate it 7 out of 10.

Click here to order From The Corner of The Oval by Beck Dory-Stein from Amazon.


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Wash your face and get your life together


When I saw Rachel Hollis, author of Girl, Wash Your Face interviewed on CTV’s The Social recently I was impressed by her enthusiasm and energy. But what does a 35-year-old Christian mother of four children with a type A++ personality have in common with me? I wondered the same thing when I started reading her book but soon became so engrossed I couldn’t put it down. I read the entire book in a day. And despite it being less than 300 pages (depending on the font size on your e-reader) I had dozens and dozens of pages bookmarked.

Rachel Hollis grew up in an all-white middle-class small town in California. Her father was a pastor and her life was seemingly typical of 1980s America. Except her father had a hair-trigger temper, her troubled older brother committed suicide at sixteen and she lived in constant fear of disapproval. She focused on doing well in school so she could graduate early and leave her home town. At the age of seventeen (the same age I was when I left home) she moved to Los Angeles where she expected her life to take a positive turn. But our problems have a habit of following us regardless of our geography.

Young women often have a naïve life plan for themselves—love, marriage, babies, living happily ever after. Rachel Hollis was no different. When her plan started to go off the rails, the stress caused physical reactions including Bell’s palsy and vertigo which forced her to reevaluate her entire life. Along the way she made many mistakes and learned valuable lessons which she generously shares with readers.

Each chapter of the book sets out to debunk a common myth that sets women up for disappointment and even failure, starting with the title’s tag line: Stop Believing the Lies About Who You Are So You Can Become Who You were Meant to Be. Hollis begins the first chapter with Lie #1: SOMETHING ELSE WILL MAKE ME HAPPY and each subsequent chapter follows the same theme. She articulates a lie, describes her personal experiences with this misconception and delivers the beef, summing up each chapter with point-form THINGS THAT HELPED ME. . . The book is filled with so many wonderful bon mots:

  • Comparison is the death of joy. (One of my favourites.)
  • Our words have power but our actions shape our lives.
  • Take care of yourself first.
  • When you’re looking for a community of women, look for the ones who want to build each other up instead of tear each other down.
  • Someone else’s opinion of me is none of my business.
  • Bras are the devil’s work.

Rachel Hollis and her husband Dave are the parents of three sons and one daughter.

We’re never too old to learn

One of Hollis’s lessons learned hit me smack in the face the other day at the hairdresser’s. There was a little boy around six or seven years old in the next chair who refused to get his hair cut. Despite the best efforts of his dad and the stylist, the little guy kept whining and wiggling, squirming his way out of the chair. My first reaction was to judge the child as spoiled and the father as indulgent. When baby boomers were children, if we’d have displayed similar behaviour our parent would have simply slammed us into the seat, ordered us to sit still and that would be the end of the discussion. We’d be too terrified to move.

Instead of casting my usual disparaging judgment and shooting the father the evil eye, I considered for a moment that the child might have special needs and challenges. Perhaps he had sensory issues. Maybe the man was a “Big Brother” and the child was from an abusive home and didn’t like being touched. Thanks to Rachel Hollis, I cast the father a sympathetic smile and went back to reading my book. We should never judge the actions of others without knowing their particular back story.

I not only enjoyed this book, I devoured it which proves this old boomer still has room to grow and learn. Rachel Hollis is so inspiring and a perfect illustration of what we can learn from someone we perceive as having nothing in common with us. She admits to being an impatient mother who sometimes yells at her children. She has bad habits like the rest of us (i.e. Diet Coke) and describes how she works on fixing her shortcomings. Her writing, like her personality, is fast, full of relatable personal experiences and surprisingly mature for someone only 35 years old. I can only imagine what lies ahead for this young woman. I’d rate Girl, Wash Your Face 9 out of 10.

Click here to order Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis from Amazon.


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Zadie Smith’s back in my good books


Do male authors explore the complicated relationships between childhood friends to the extent women do? I found myself wondering that as I read Swing Time by Zadie Smith about two girls growing up in the council estates of suburban London. Another author, Elena Ferrante managed to fill four voluminous novels about two close friends growing up in Naples, Italy, post World War II. I devoured all four of Ferrante’s books, one after the other. Female relationships are endlessly fascinating.

After hearing a delightful interview with the British writer Zadie Smith on the radio about her novel NW a few years ago, I bought the book and couldn’t wait to read it. After three tries, I gave up but a couple of weeks ago I picked up her earlier book, Swing Time, which tracks the lives of two bi-racial young girls who bond through a shared love of dancing when they meet at Miss Isobel’s dance class in their neighbourhood community centre. Like the protagonists in Ferrante’s books, Smith’s main characters are soul-mates, competitors, combatants and, most importantly, enduring life-long friends. The title of the book is drawn from their mutual love of classic musicals featuring dancers like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

The narrator comes from a comparatively secure, two-parent home with a loving, conscientious white father who works at the post office. Her driven, feminist, leftist Jamaican mother’s life is devoted to expanding her knowledge of social issues and working on getting a university degree through extended learning programs. Her best friend Tracey has a white mother and a largely absent, ne’er-do-well Jamaican immigrant father, Louie, who appears during brief releases from prison to bestow upheaval on the family.

Both girls love dance and envision their futures in West End musicals. They practise, they improvise, they study the moves and techniques of early dancers and build a fantasy world of their own in their London council estate. Tracey is the more feminine of the two and her body and personality lend themselves to precocious behaviour which ultimately causes a rift in the friendship. As the girls become teenagers, the gap widens.

The main plot line and subplots are interesting to follow as the various colourful characters take shape and grow. Through a series of serendipitous events, the narrator (we never learn her name) lands a job as one of several personal assistants to a major rock star, Aimee, reminiscent of Madonna. While she devotes her life and work to serving Aimee, Tracey pursues her stage career with the two women crossing paths intermittently. Work with Aimee takes our protagonist to a poor village in Africa where the star is building a girls’ school and we are given insights into the political, sociological and economic implications of interfering in a foreign culture, despite all good intentions.

Author Zadie Smith.

Now I can see why Zadie Smith is such an acclaimed writer. Her story lines, characters and writing are interesting. The dialogue captures the working class idiom and psychology of the council estate residents. As with Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan series of books, however, I found Smith perhaps spent too much time on the girls’ early years in school. That slowed down the pace and it was tempting to just skip over those pages. Otherwise, my only complaint is a personal one which I’ve mentioned before. I get confused when authors toggle back and forth in time; it disrupts the rhythm of the story. I prefer things to progress chronologically. After reading Swing Time I decided to once again give NW a try, but the loose, stream-of-consciousness writing and lack of punctuation confused and annoyed me, so I gave up—again. I really enjoyed Swing Time though and give it 7 out of 10.

Click here to order Swing Time by Zadie Smith from Amazon.

Click here to order Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels from Amazon.


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Sharing the joy of reading


Not in my world.

I’m a voracious reader but not a fan of book clubs; I prefer to only read what I truly enjoy and not analyze the bejeezus out of it. Reminds me too much of all those painful high school English classes with Mr. Crowther asking “what did the author mean?”. Good grief! Who but the author really knows what he or she meant. I’m just in it for the fun of reading. I have an extensive spreadsheet summarizing books I want to read—recommendations picked up from friends, The New York Times or The Globe and Mail reviews, magazine reviews and other sources. My detailed ‘To read’ chart includes?

  1. the title of the recommended book
  2. author’s name
  3. a few words describing what the book is about
  4. who or where the recommendation came from
  5. the date when I actually read the book
  6. its rating on a scale of 1-10.

I have to keep track because as soon as I finish a book and move on to the next one, I’m challenged to remember what I just read (which explains why when I was in high school in the olden days, memorizing reams of material for exams was not my forté). Does this level of tracking sound a bit excessive? There are so many books I have to cover in the short time I have left on this earth and I’m not about to waste time on something that doesn’t totally engage me and lift me up.

And she lived happily ever after.

Reading is a cheap and effective way to vicariously travel to foreign countries, experience other cultures, eavesdrop on conversations between fascinating people, engage in a plot for the downfall of a corrupt individual or organization, fall in and out of love, learn about strange events or just simply learn something new, all in the comfort of my LaZgirl. As I said in an earlier blog, the best investment I never made was my library card. What a deal.

Like most bibliophiles, I love the feel, texture and even the smell of a lovely hard-copy old-fashioned linen-covered book, but I’m also a huge fan of e-reading. I’ve gone through many iterations of e-readers and settled on the iPad mini as being my favourite digital reading device. While I’m sitting in Five Guys scarfing down forbidden french fries and Diet Coke, I can hide my face in whatever book I’m currently engrossed in. And nothing beats several books downloaded onto an e-reader for convenience when traveling.

What I like and don’t like

Historical fiction is my favourite genre but I also like:

  • autobiographies and biographies
  • books by and about strong women
  • humour (who doesn’t love David Sedaris?)
  • classical Russian literature including Tolstoy, Chekov and Dostoyevsky (go figure??)
  • some of the current best-sellers.
  • I’m a big fan of Canadian and British female writers.

With all those options, I don’t have time for what I don’t absolutely love. If I start a book and don’t love it within the first couple of chapters, then it gets tossed. This means that many books that were commercially popular or acclaimed by the literary big-wigs did not pass muster. So, when I publish a book review on BOOMERBROADcast, you can be sure it’s a book I enjoyed. There are many books I’ve attempted (sometimes multiple times) to read without success and had to abandon for various reasons:

  • Anything by Ayn Rand. Really?
  • Alice Munro is a Canadian literary goddess. But I find her books boring and tedious. Sorry. Guess I’m just not smart enough.
  • Rachel Cusk also leaves me cold. I’ve tried her Transit Trilogy books three times now, without success.
  • I’m ambivalent about Margaret Atwood. I enjoyed her early writing and Alias Grace, but couldn’t get into her dystopian trips. Although I didn’t enjoy The Handmaid’s Tale when I first read it thirty years ago, I love the television series.
  • The Fifty Shades of Gray series did not make the cut. After the first few pages, I found the writing almost laughable. For those who did enjoy them, more power to you—you’re reading and enjoying yourself which is always a good thing.
  • Surrealism and sci-fi aren’t my thing so I couldn’t get past the first few pages of Harry Potter, anything by Tolkien, or the Twilight series. I’m obviously in the minority about Harry Potter but I did try and as soon as we landed on Track 13½, that was it for me. Moved on.
  • I’ve tried reading Zadie Smith without luck. After about fifty pages of NW I gave up but I may give her another try.
  • I’m very circumspect about anything recommended by Oprah as most of the books she recommends are just plain depressing. When she made a big fuss several years ago about The Secret by Rhonda Byrne I thought I’d give it a whirl because it was about positive thinking. Who couldn’t benefit from a bit of that? Most of the material was copped from other writers and mentors and I felt ripped off. Waste of time. Hated it.

Reading and writing are my two favourite activities, or more accurately, lack of activity. I’ll pick up greasy magazines in the waiting room while I’m getting my oil changed; I’m a magazine junkie. When I enter a bookstore or library I can feel my heartbeat accelerate as I’m confronted with all the marvels on those beautiful shelves. Cereal boxes, picture books, airline safety brochures—put it in front of me and I’ll give it a go. There’s nothing I enjoy more than being engrossed in a good book for hours at a stretch—one of the benefits of being retired.

My personal taste in reading is purely subjective, whittled down after years of trial and error. My friend Alice loves mysteries and fortunately the public library seems to have an endless supply so she’s all set for years to come. Valerie can’t resist a good self-help book and my father, at the age of 92 has just discovered Danielle Steele on his retirement home bookshelves and is enjoying her books. Most of my girlfriends enjoy the same kind of books I do so we trade books and titles constantly. Everyone has their own individual preference in reading material and if you enjoy the same kind of books I do, you probably enjoy my regular reviews. At least I hope you do. I’d love to hear suggestions from readers of BOOMERBROADcast in the “Comments” about books you’ve enjoyed. We’re probably on the same page so let’s share the wealth.


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Take David Sedaris to the beach or cottage this weekend


The only problem with reading a book by David Sedaris is—it ends. I love his humour and whenever I start one of his books, I try to take my time, savouring each word, each sentence, each paragraph in an attempt to make the deliciousness last as long as possible. But inevitably I can’t put it down and before I know it, I’ve reached—The End. I try to deconstruct what makes his writing so brilliant while appearing so simple. He’s sweet but slightly raunchy, honest and endearingly self-deprecating. His latest book, Calypso is a collection of autobiographical essays examining his life from the perspective of late middle-age. All his books have weird titles with the meaning buried in some obscure reference within the book. I’ll let you find this one yourself. The cover is an hommage to a friend who interprets natural plywood as art. It takes all kinds.

Some of the issues he confronts in Calypso include his perceived physical shortcomings, his three-decade relationship with his partner, Hugh, the tragic suicide of one of his sisters, Tiffany, the interesting people he meets while touring to promote his books, and minutae of his daily life with Hugh. Thirty years after the death of his alcoholic mother at the age of 62 from cancer, he’s still strongly affected by the loss.

I particularly enjoyed his descriptions of shopping for eccentric clothing, like a hat shaped like a toilet brush (shades of the chapeau worn by Princess Beatrice at Prince William’s wedding to Kate Middleton?), that he and his sister Gretchen like to buy at a store called Kapital when they’re in Japan. He describes shopping expeditions with his sisters as like being ‘in a pie-eating contest, only with stuff. We often felt sick. Dazed. Bloated. Vulgar. Yet never quite ashamed.’. I know the feeling.

Read any book by David Sedaris and you won’t be disappointed.

Sedaris has a respectful and sometimes fraught relationship with his 92-year-old Trump-loving father. The senior Sedaris refuses to leave the five-bedroom family home despite being unable to maintain it or properly cook for himself. He has a propensity for hoarding and uses a flashlight to find his way around the house at night, thereby saving on electricity. Sound familiar? The challenges faced by the family dealing with a stubborn, aging parent are something most boomers can relate to and Sedaris delivers a humorous perspective on the issue.

Calypso is a joy to read from start to finish. It’s a wonderful escape on a warm summer day or a pick-me-up if you’re feeling down. I’d rate it 9 out of 10.

To order Calypso by David Sedaris from Amazon click here.


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Who doesn’t love a good spy story?


There’s nothing more compelling than a great story about espionage especially when it is written by a real-life former intelligence officer who was part of the C.I.A. for more than thirty years. The movie industry thought so too and produced a movie based on the book “Red Sparrow” by Jason Matthews. Although I have not yet seen it, the movie is rarely as good as the book. Movies can never capture the nuances of the thought processes of the characters or the subtle and delicate intertwining of various plot lines that comprise a book of several hundred pages. Books are infinitely more fascinating even without special effects and big-name movie stars.

When beautiful young Dominika’s ballet career is permanently derailed by a broken foot inflicted by a jealous fellow dancer, her entire life’s plan is erased. At her father’s funeral she is approached by her Uncle Vanya, an unscrupulous General in the SVR (formerly KGB) who makes her an offer she can’t refuse. In return for becoming a special Red Sparrow agent, her mother will be able to stay in her large Moscow government apartment and their lives can proceed as comfortably as before her father’s death. Red Sparrow is the name given to Russian agents, predominantly female but including a few males, who are trained in a so-called ‘whore school’. They are schooled in the finer arts of seduction which produces agents given special assignments requiring them to elicit secrets through old-fashioned pillow talk.

Real life spies operate closer than we think.

Meanwhile, the security of Nate Nash, a young American agent stationed in Moscow is compromised and he’s forced to relocate to Helsinki. Although he’s a relatively junior agent, he is the primary liaison between the CIA and a highly placed Russian double-agent called MARBLE and the Americans want to maintain his relationship with MARBLE (who is incidentally one of the few sympathetic characters in the novel). The Russians are aware of a deep mole in their network and assign Dominika, code-named DIVA to coerce Nate into exposing the Russian traitor. Naturally, a love story develops between the two agents and the plot becomes extremely complicated.

As we work our way through the various plot lines, the reader is educated about the CIA and espionage jargon, dirty tricks and political struggles. We feel like part of the team and I started feeling rather clever when I started to put two and two together, until things didn’t add up to four. I often became impatient with the clumsiness and weakness of Nate and wanted to yell at him to smarten up. But the secondary characters were fascinating and kept me engaged. The story line is current and Vladimir Putin makes periodic fictional appearances.

In real life, the author lived and served as a foreign intelligence agent in countries around the world so he has intimate knowledge of the cities where the action unfolds. He embraces local cultures and includes descriptions of meals enjoyed by the various characters, followed by a recipe at the end of each chapter. This book is part one of a trilogy and I will no doubt be checking out the next two. As I was reading, I was blown away (but not really surprised) by the level of intrigue perpetrated by the CIA and SVR and the overwhelming degree of corruption that exists.

Red Sparrow is a hefty read but well worth it. The author’s technical knowledge is impressive and we’re constantly kept in suspense about where the story will go next. The dialogue is intelligent and at times humorous, and I’m left wondering if there really is such a thing as a Russian “whore school” for secret agents. If I ever meet Jason Matthews I’ll be sure to ask as he’s bound to know for sure. I may even check out the movie starring Jennifer Lawrence, but think I’ll wait ’til it comes on television as it’ll probably be a disappointment after reading the book. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Red Sparrow and give it 8 out of 10.

Click here to order Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews from Amazon.


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David Sedaris’s humour has a raunchy edge


The brilliance of David Sedaris’s writing is his ability to make it look so effortless. Having read most of his books over the past few years, I’m always amazed at how he can take the most seemingly ordinary situation and turn it into something hysterically funny. It’s a skill shared by Jerry Seinfeld—although Sedaris is raunchier. He’s a master of understatement and innocent observation. Growing up in a completely normal North Carolina family that included five siblings (one brother and four sisters) he’s versatile and wonderfully flawed. Sedaris has parlayed his weaknesses and ordinariness (is there such a word?) into a lucrative career as an author and humourist.

In his latest book, Theft By Finding Dairies 1977-2002, David Sedaris edits twenty-five years of entries from his personal diaries into manageable bite-sized excerpts. A large part of his material is drawn from his own experiences doing mundane jobs and his encounters with the peculiar people who pass through his daily life. With a history that includes drug and alcohol abuse, working at a variety of odd jobs including as a painter (not the artistic kind), Santa’s elf at Macy’s in New York, a teacher and part-time cleaning ‘lady’, Sedaris has lived a colourful and varied life. An aficionado of IHOP, he shares numerous stories from years of taking his meals at the famous pancake chain.

Eventually Sedaris met his partner Hugh, got his life together and now owns homes in London, Paris and New York thanks to his successful writing and speaking career. When Hugh bought him his first laptop, it required some adjustment to get used to the modern technology. “On a typewriter, when you run out of things to say, you get up and clean the bathtub. On a computer, you scroll down your list of fonts or make little boxes”. Who among us hasn’t wasted hours playing with useless functions on our laptop or personal devices. It’s those simple observations we can all relate to that make Sedaris’s writing so enjoyable. Fortunately he got the hang of his laptop and provides hours of reading for us to enjoy. I can’t say this is his best book, but it’s certainly fun to read. David Sedaris’s writing is not everyone’s taste but I read everything by him that I can get my hands on. He makes it look so easy and always puts a smile on my face. That’s good enough for me.

To order a book by David Sedaris from Amazon.com, click on book cover below:

 

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