Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Book Review: I Am Livia by Phyllis T. Smith

More than 15 years ago, I stood in the middle of the massive ruins of Circus Maximus, awed by the age of the stones, by the incontrovertible proof that people like me had lived and raced, cheered and entertained, and sometimes died there two thousand years ago.  My semester abroad in Europe opened my eyes in many ways, but in particular I started to feel a connection with earlier, even ancient, generations.  They seemed more real, more human, more three-dimensional than the shallow stereotypes I had gleaned from history textbooks.

In I Am Livia, Phyllis T. Smith has created a compelling titular character based on the most sympathetic interpretation possible from the scant historical record.  Not saying it's inaccurate, necessarily, but it's clear that she admires Livia and wants her readers to do the same, and in large part she succeeds.  As she mentions in her author's note at the end, "Livia has gotten bad press.  Rumor has a way even now of attaching to women who break the conventional mold, and it certainly did in ancient Rome."

Livia is the eldest daughter of a well-to-do family of Roman citizens.  She is married off at a young age to Tiberius Nero, one of her father's colleagues, in an effort to strengthen their bonds during a perilous period of political intrigue, widespread suspicion and conspiracies.  Despite a strong grasp on politics, almost a prescience, her opinions and input are routinely ignored and she has a devastating glimpse into her future.  "I saw my fate. I would not be fifteen forever, but I always would be a woman.  I imagine spending all my years having my words discounted."

I knew vaguely of the limitations on women during ancient Rome, but seeing the effects on Livia's life made them very real.  For example, women had no hope of gaining custody of their children if they divorced.  Children belonged to their father automatically, meaning that Livia had no choice but to leave her children behind when she left her first husband to marry Octavianus.  Fortunately, they remained on good terms (likely because Tiberius Nero didn't want to irritate such a powerful man as his ex-wife's new husband) and she was able to still visit and spend a great deal of time with her children, but this would not have been the case for most women.

Over and over again, the only way for Livia - and other women in the story - to affect real change on her environment is to influence the powerful men around her.  It's that awful old saying in action: "the man may be the head of the family, but the woman is the neck and can move the head wherever she wants".  Blech.

As time goes on, however, Livia proves her worth to Octavianus and she begins to amass real power.  In a brilliant move, she offers to supervise his mail and distribute it appropriately, delegating smaller tasks to others and bringing only the most important matters to him directly.  This one "unofficial role of authority in his government" gives Livia the ability to streamline his daily tasks, help determine his priorities, and demonstrate her value.
"Suppose the gods decided what I needed now was to marry an extraordinarily intelligent wife?  I think they're fully capable of arranging that, don't you?" He spoke earnestly, not as if he meant to flatter me but almost as if her were talking to himself.
If he had written me a dozen poems rhapsodizing about my eyes, my hair, and my dulcet voice, it would have meant far less to me.  It is a joy to be appreciated for the thing you want to be appreciated for.  To be appreciated as a woman, and also to be appreciated as a creature with a mind--what more could I have wanted?
I found in Livia a woman who used her significant gifts and talents to the best advantage possible in a time when they easily could have gone unused and unrecognized.  She suffered deprivations and enjoyed luxuries as her fortunes turned; she lost dear friends and faced down dangerous enemies.  She exercised the power she had to protect her loved ones and for the good of Rome.

Now that my sympathies for this remarkable woman have been awakened by this fictionalized account of her life, it's time to go read some non-fiction and learn more about her.

I Am Livia
by Phyllis T. Smith
ISBN: 9781477848821
Buy it from Amazon here: (paperbackebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Book Review: The Care and Management of Lies by Jacqueline Winspear

Jacqueline Winspear's first non-Maisie Dobbs novel is set in an earlier time period than that series: during World War I.  At the heart of The Care and Management of Lies is the relationship between two women, Kezia and Thea, who have been close friends since they were young girls.  Life has set them on divergent paths - Kezia marries Thea's brother, Tom, and settles into the domestic life of running a farm while Thea moves to the city and becomes deeply involved in the suffrage movement.

And then the war comes.

The war forces both Kezia and Thea to grow and change in ways they had not expected.  When Tom signs up and is sent to France, Thea has to manage the farm on her own.  Her letters to Tom are filled with delectable descriptions of fantastical meals to make his mouth water and assure him that all is well at home, though they are certainly facing deprivations.  Kezia, an avowed pacifist and suffragette, determines to join up as well and serve in the medical corps rather than risk being charged with sedition or treason for her pacifist activism.

As Kezia and Thea struggle with their new challenges, they feel keenly the distance between them, both physically and philosophically.  Mismatched expectations and different desires for their lives have pulled them apart, but they are still drawn to each other by shared memories and their now familial bond.  Each sees in the other a path her life could have taken, and their relationship is tinged with both grudging admiration and hints of regret.
Kezia hated to see Thea so impassioned, so taken; it was as if she were in pain.  She had seen it so many times over the years--Thea, always standing for something, whether it was small children who came to school without food in their bellies, of London's women of the night, many just girls, and most of them with little choice in how they could earn their keep  Kezia wanted to bring Thea out of herself, to stop her fretting about things she couldn't change in the world.  She wanted them to sit down together and share their confidences, as they had years ago.
And later:
Kezia thought about Thea.  Or, if she were to distinguish her thoughts with more accuracy, she considered how Thea was changing.  It was as if Thea were becoming more defined, so that when Kezia saw her friend in her mind's eye, she saw her still, as in a photograph, only someone had taken a black pen and traced around her frame, outlining her, making her stand out.  At then, limb by limb, button by button, and now the shoes, the ears, the hat, each part of Thea was becoming bolder and sharper.  There was no part of Thea that might disappear...When Thea was acquiring more definition, she felt as if she, Kezia, were fading at the edges, drawing back into herself,..It was as if, when she looked at her body, she would see herself vanishing--disappearing.  Had she ever been defined?
I love the varied perspectives, the context in which Winspear places these characters to react to unfolding events.  She points out, for example, that "Londoners and county folk" had different response to news of the war, that the poorer classes had "seen their share of death at home" as younger siblings died in infancy, mothers died in childbirth, friends died in accidents or illness.  She allows her characters to grow and change as the war goes on, too.  When a young German soldier, captured and sent to England for the duration of the war, is assigned to work on her farm, Thea and others in the country slowly warm to the idea that Germans - the enemy - are human, too.  "I know I should hate him," one of the farmhands starts before commenting on the boy's loss - his brother had been killed in France - and relief at no longer being on the front lies.  Their common humanity overcame the suspicion and hate prevalent in war.

Beautifully written, achingly human, The Care and Management of Lies is a worthy novel of The Great War.

The Care and Management of Lies
by Jacqueline Winspear
ISBN: 9780062220509
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcoverpaperbackebookaudiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Friday Four, Part 93


My husband just surprised me with tickets to a benefit concert for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital featuring Maddie & Tae and Kelsea Ballerini on Saturday, December 13!  Tickets are only $10 and it goes to a good cause if anyone wants to join us to hear some young up-and-comers that are singing some great country music.


And here's Kelsea Ballerini's single:


I love TED talks.  This one - presented by a Long Island EMT - is only 5 minutes long, but really touched me with his stories of sitting with the dying.  Make sure you have tissues close by!


This.  I want this for Christmas.

Photo credit

With this as a close second.

Photo credit
"Good for sodium watchers since the salt shaker has bad aim."  (Hee hee!)

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Friday Four, Part 92


A while back I checked Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature out of the library.  I was interested in its premise that violence has declined and we are today living in the most peaceful time of history.  Unfortunately, I didn't get very far into the tome (800 pages of tiiiiiiny print) and couldn't renew it because of the long list of requests, but the statistics I've seen and what I've read from other sources is compelling.  Someday I'll get back to the book and finish it off.

I don't know about you, but I hear a considerable amount of doom and gloom about how bad the world is and how it's trajectory is going downhill fast.  There are definitely horrible things going on all over, but this week I saw this article titled "It's a cold, hard fact: our world is becoming a better place" and I appreciated the perspective.

Life expectancies, literacy and education are way up, violence and poverty are down. Democracy is gaining ground all over the world.  Of course, there's still a lot of work to be done, but it's good to be reminded that there are wonderful reasons to be optimistic.  (Make sure you click through to the "Our World in Data" presentation with all the data.  It's fascinating!)


Speaking of our changing world, I linked to this presentation by BYU history professor Craig Harline almost a year ago, but I love it so much I'm going to link to it again!  "What Happened to My Bellbottoms?" traces the process of change throughout history, particularly with things that were previously thought to be immutable, and how earlier generations react to the changes that occur in younger generations.  I especially appreciate his perspective on change from an LDS angle:
Speaking as a historian, change seems to be one constant we can count on. Speaking as a believer, maybe that's the way it should be. How dull it would be and how little we would learn if the point of life was only to jump through hoops already set up for us rather than for us to help create life. There's nothing wrong with having a system of right and wrong, obviously, and old systems should be casually discarded just because they're old. There's nothing even wrong in liking our particular system or disagreeing with others over what changes should occur, but seeing the big picture of change over time should make us more inclined to disagree humbly with an attitude that we might be wrong and others right rather than with so much certainty that we're right...

Mormons don't officially believe in inerrancy and change doesn't necessarily mean errancy anyway. In fact, the belief in continuing revelation could make Mormons in theory more radical believers in change than most others. But even to us change can feel threatening as was evident in probably our two most radical changes: the ending of polygamy and the priesthood ban.
Professor Harline goes on to tell his personal experiences with the priesthood ban as well as President Spencer W. Kimball's process toward issuing the second Official Declaration extending priesthood and temple blessings to worthy members of African descent.
President Kimball was the hero in this whole matter not because he stood up for his beliefs but because even at his age he reconsidered them.  Unlike the cardinal who wouldn't look through Galileo's telescope, President Kimball was willing to look and to ask.  He later wrote about the incident, 'Revelations will probably never come unless they are desired.'
Really a fabulous talk.  Take 45 minutes to listen it!


My ebook copy of Altered Perceptions from Robison Wells's indiegogo project just arrived!  I'm glad to have been able to contribute to a worthy effort and I can't wait to dig in!


On Monday, the New York Times published an article about the essays that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been posting on for the past year or so.  I had several people ask for my take on both the NY Times article and on the essays themselves, so if you'd like to read what I have to say, go check out my post at SpokaneFAVS.

Of course, there's a whole lot more to say and discuss on each of the essays than I could fit in a blog post of reasonable length, but I think the key with all of them is to read, study, learn, pray, ponder, and - most of all - be patient and kind with yourself and with others.  Reactions to these often difficult topics run the gamut and everyone's emotions - both positive and negative - are valid and deserve to be treated with respect.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Friday Four, Part 91

I read a lot of very interesting articles on various topics over the past few weeks, so I've linked to several of them here for this Friday Four.


School (usually) looks a little different now...Photo credit
In this article, a woman who had been teaching for 14 years got a job as a "High School Learning Coach" charged with helping "teachers and administrators to improve student learning outcomes."  As part of her orientation, she shadowed two high school students - a sophomore and a senior - for a day each, completing all the same work as the students: sitting in class, making notes, doing homework, taking tests.  She ended up with three "takeaways" and several changes she would make in her classroom based on her observations - like mandatory mid-class stretches, starting every class with time for questions from the students, and instituting a "no sarcasm" rule.  Read her entire write-up of the experience here.


I loved this photo essay by a "self-described male feminist" in Africa.  His aim is to "change the narrative around African women where they are often portrayed as victims of circumstance".  He photographed dozens of beautiful, strong, resilient women from Africa (including Leymah Gbowee, a woman I greatly admire) in different settings.  Women as business owners, activists, students, mothers, writers, leaders.


This brief article on NPR outlines recent findings about ADHD that really make sense to me and jive with my experience raising a son with ADHD.
The researchers used two different databases looking at the connections in brains of 576 children with ADHD and normally developing children. In particular, the scientists assessed 907 known points across the brain and calculated how strongly linked each unique pair was in both groups of children.
They found that one neural network in particular lagged behind when it came to children with ADHD. This area, called the default network, is responsible for your stream of consciousness, or daydreaming. It turns on when you're not actively engaged in tasks and turns off when you're busy.
"The default network is maturing very rapidly between youth and adulthood," says Sripada. "It's neither a hero nor villain — you need to be able to turn it on appropriately and turn it off appropriately." Without this ability, researchers suspect that children can't focus on tasks or think further into the future. Their daydreaming network interrupts the area of their brain working on tasks, causing a loss of attention.
It's a pet peeve of mine when people think that either a) ADHD isn't a "real" condition, or b) that it's just an excuse for badly behaved kids or lazy parents, or c) that kids with ADHD can "act normal" if only they have enough willpower.  I love reading about the science that explains what happens in the brain of a person with ADHD and using that to figure out how to better help my son cope and thrive.


And I'll finish off with a couple of collections of quotes I liked.

This first one includes excerpts from female authors either explaining what feminism is in their own words or a quote that demonstrates their view of women.  I particularly like the quotes from Claire Messud and Adrienne Rich, and the story J.K. Rowling tells.

And this collection is of feminist quotes with a hint of humor.  I like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's quote about intimidating men (#2), Rebecca West's roundabout definition of a feminist (#4), and Amy Poehler's quote which rounds out the list nicely at #15.  But Anne Hathaway's takes the cake for me:
A man told me that for a woman, I was very opinionated.
I said, ‘For a man, you’re kind of ignorant.’
As one of those "opinionated" women, I have to say "Thanks, Anne!"  I might have to steal that line some time...

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Friday Four, Part 90


First of all...

Happy Halloween!


Disney characters seem to be a perennial favorite for Halloween costumes, don't they?  Elsa from Frozen is a big one this year, for sure.  I love this (minor) reimagining of Disney princesses with something approaching normal waistlines!


Continuing along with the Disney princess theme, check out this tongue-in-cheek method of using Disney princess movies to indoctrinate your toddler as a feminist.  Start 'em young, I say! ;)  I like step 4:
Praise Belle for her love of reading, but segue into a discussion about the Stockholm syndrome as it relates to women, and how that might shed insight into the phenomenon of women who stay in toxic relationships.

And then, on the flip side, I really like how this article, "Disney Princesses Are My (Imperfect) Feminist Role Models", looks for - and finds - the feminist messages in Disney movies.  Brings to mind that quote paraphrased from Voltaire: "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good."
Taken as a whole, the Disney princess line offers a surprisingly diverse view of the female experience, ranging from the traditionally feminine Cinderella to the more traditionally masculine Mulan. These women are powerful, strong, and rational, but they are also emotional and sensitive. Most importantly, they are the main characters in their own stories. Too few well-written female characters can claim the same thing.
Perhaps the most important skill parents can teach their children is how to consume media critically. The generation-spanning Disney princess line is full of successes and failures when it comes to female representation. That makes it the perfect starting point for conversations about history, gender roles, and representation. With a little parental guidance, children can learn to separate the positive qualities of these female characters (kindness, empathy, bravery, intelligence, ingenuity) from the gender stereotypes they promote. And that’s an invaluable skill for young girls (and boys) to learn.

Lots of good food for thought in that article, including both the problematic and progressive aspects of Disney princesses.  It's definitely worth a look...

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Book Reviews: The Black Cauldron and The Castle of Llyr by Lloyd Alexander

Lloyd Alexander's saga, begun in The Book of Three, continues in these two books.  Life has been getting busier, so again each of these books took a good two months for us to get through reading aloud, and required some recapping and reminding each time we managed to pick them up.

The Black Cauldron was one of my favorites of the series growing up, likely because of the high action plot and possibly because of the animated Disney version.  (Though even in those tender years I recognized that the book was way better than the film and bristled at the changes made to adapt the story to the screen.)  My boys had a similar response, having seen the movie a while ago.  I think having a general idea of the storyline beforehand helped them stayed focused especially through the breaks in our reading. 

Gurgi is a favorite, of course, and in an incredibly magnanimous statement, the boys allowed that my "Gurgi voice" has improved as the series has gone on.  High praise, indeed.

Ellidyr, the proud youngest son of a noble, joins the quest for the Black Cauldron and rubs Taran wrong from their first interaction, but he also provided some great material for conversations with my sons about people's motivations for rude behavior, the importance of withholding judgment until you know all the facts, and how people who make bad choices - even really bad choices sometimes - can make good ones, too.  This was particularly evident when contrasting Ellidyr with Morgant whose trajectory leads in the opposite direction.

As for The Castle of Llyr, it's the most Eilonwy-centered of the books, which I appreciate.  However, on this reading through I was disappointed to feel that she is presented as almost a caricature of herself yet again, at least until the final chapters.  Taran's feelings for Eilonwy are more apparent to both him and the reader - and less interesting to my boys than just about any other aspect of the story.

Glew is an interesting addition to the cast of characters and my boys were very interested to meet him and learn his story.  And that of Llyan as well.  I love the changes in Achren and am excited to re-read the next books as that journey continues.

The Black Cauldron
by Lloyd Alexander
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

The Castle of Llyr
by Lloyd Alexander
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcoverpaperbackebookaudiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).