Thursday, November 24, 2011

Up the Capitol Steps: A Woman's March to the Governorship

Up the Capitol Steps: A Woman's Guide to the Governorship, by Barbara Roberts
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

A few weeks ago I heard Barbara Roberts on Oregon Public Broadcasting's morning show, Think Out Loud, talking about her new memoir. In her lively, genuine way, she spoke about the highlights of her time as governor and also discussed her upbringing. I knew I wanted to read her book, so I put it on hold at the library.

Roberts is a fascinating woman. Raised primarily in a small Oregon town (Sheridan), she grew up in a blue collar family filled with love and respect. Unlike many women of her generation, she never received the message that she was anything "less than" as a woman. However, even though she was very successful in high school, it never occurred to her (and no one encouraged her) to go on to college. She got married before she graduated from high school, and soon she found herself living and lonely in Texas (married to a soldier) and pregnant.

When her older son Mike was five or six, she began to realize something was wrong...she took him to a specialist, who pronounced him to be "extremely emotionally disturbed" and recommended that he be institutionalized (he is autistic). She refused to accept this label, but because no services were offered (much less required) for these types of kids, she ended up admitting him to a residential school, the Parry Center, where he stayed for three years. When they brought him home, she was able to get him into a special ed program in the Parkrose School District (which was being offered via a three-year grant). When the grant was going to expire, Roberts became a lobbyist to fight for the program to be extended. Oregon was the first state in the country to offer special ed services to kids who need them. A federal law was not passed until four years later. After achieving success, she joined the Parkrose School Board and eventually the Multnomah Community College Board. At the same time as her political ambitions began to grow, her young marriage began falling apart.

Frank and Barbara Roberts sailing
Soon she was a single mother raising two sons and working full-time as a bookkeeper, and working on the school boards at the same time. She got to know Oregon state senator Frank Roberts and soon married him, even though he was 21 years her senior.

She was elected as state representative, then secretary of state, and then finally governor; she was the first democratic secretary of state Oregon had seen in 100 years, and she was the first woman governor in Oregon ever. She came from behind to defeat well-known and popular candidate, Dave Frohnmayer.

What amazed me the most about this book was how much tragedy and angst was behind Roberts' cheerful exterior. Her sister lost a 2-month baby in a car accident. When Roberts became secretary of state, her husband was healthy. By the time she ended her term, he had survived two bouts with cancer and a heart attack and lost use of both legs (because of the chemo damaging a nerve in his spine). Her beloved father died just scant months before she was elected governor. Two and a half years into her governorship, her husband's cancer returned and he was given 1 year to live. He wanted to keep it a secret so he could finish out the legislative session, so they carried on as best as they could without people knowing. He died in the last year of her term. At the same time, her sister was diagnosed with cancer. Later her mother died, her son nearly died in a motorcycle accident, and her beloved best friend died of a brain tumor. Throughout it all, Roberts worked hard and showed a cheerful face to Oregonians. I don't know how she did it.

I couldn't help but think of Barack Obama while reading this book. Like Obama who has been saddled with a failing economy, Roberts was handed two huge burdens on the day she was elected: Ballot Measure 5, which was the first property tax measure to gut Oregon's economy and services, and a split legislature. As she tried to cut spending so that they could pass a budget, she took crap on every side. People blamed her for not getting more done, but she was fighting uphill battles, just like Obama. I won't go into the details of what she accomplished in office, but given the hand she was dealt with, she did many great things as governor.

Current governor John Kitzhaber does not come out very well. Kitzhaber, then the head of the Oregon senate, announced he was challenging Roberts for governor while her husband--and his colleague--was dying of cancer. In his characteristically "icy" way, he announced his decision and didn't stay to discuss it or ask how her husband was doing. He just walked off.

Two other things struck me about this book:
  • Barbara Roberts is unfailingly honest, direct, and ethical. She does not shy away from admitting her mistakes or fighting for a controversial issue...whether if be the Spotted Owl, gay rights, feminism, abortion rights, AIDS, social justice, the death penalty, or any other topic. I admire her honesty and courage in standing up for what she believes in.
  • She did it all without a college degree. After she retires from politics (again)--right now she's serving on the Metro council--she plans to finish her education. Clearly, she is extremely bright, articulate, and a natural leader to accomplish everything she has without a degree.
I was tempted to give the book four stars, because as a woman and a leader, Roberts is inspirational and amazing. But as a book, it is not the highest-quality memoir. Roberts' writing is a bit pedantic, and she uses the passive voice a lot. She also seemed to want to document every detail of her political life, and at times she should have left some of the details (and names) out for the sake of her (non-political junkie) readers.

But I'm glad I read this book. Roberts was a trailblazer in so many ways...from advocating for her special needs son when no one else believing she could be governor and making it happen.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Reading with boys...there must be more to life than battles!

As I was snuggling up with Kieran on the couch this evening, reading The Ruins of Gorlan, the first book in The Ranger's Apprentice series, I began wondering what my reading life would be like if I had girls instead of boys. Last night we finished the last in the Percy Jackson series.

This reading life with boys is filled with battles, heroes, and bravery. Sometimes it's a little quirky, such as the Lemony Snicket series, or focused on the life of a "geek," such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I also read more than my share of Captain Underpants. (Kieran didn't get into those quite as much as Chris, thank God.) I really enjoyed the Boys Against the Girls series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, because then at least half of the characters were girls.

Then of course, there's Harry Potter, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading--both on my own and with the boys. I'm looking forward to reading them all over again with Nicholas. It's been fun to rediscover those stories over and over again with each boy.

I tried to read my childhood favorites Little House on the Prairie and Harriet the Spy with the boys, but they just didn't get into them like I'd hoped they would.

Perhaps I'd end up reading sappy stories about unicorns and princesses...blech. I cringe every time I see an ad for "Pinkalicious," now playing at the Oregon Children's Theater. I'm just not a girly girl like that. Before we had kids, Mike used to joke that if we had a girl, I'd be shoving Ms. Magazine at her while she hid her copies of Cosmo under the mattress. I'll bet he's right. If I had girls, they'd probably be far too girly for my taste!

But I see Mike reviewing great-sounding books for girls on his Middle Grade Mafioso's making me wonder what I'm missing, being stuck in boyland with all of the battles. I'd love to expand my reading-to-the-kids horizons a bit, but you've got to cater to their interests...

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Jesus Boy: Gave up on it.

Jesus Boy, by Preston L. Allen
My rating: 1 out of 5 stars

This book wasn't horrible, but I'm giving it only 1 star because I gave up on it when I was a little more than halfway through. I just didn't care enough about the characters or what would happen to them, and I is too short to read a book you're just not that into. I've done it before and regretted it, so I put the book down.

Jesus Boy is about Elwyn Parker, an African-American teenager in Florida, who is a member of the Church of Our Blessed Redeemer Who Walked Upon the Waters. Elwyn is a devout Christian who, after the object of his affection marries someone else, takes up with Sister Morrisohn, a fellow churchgoer who is 26 years his senior. I have to wonder about the author's upbringing, because he seems to be writing about charismatic Christian culture as if he truly knows. But what's also clear is that he has a dark, deeply cynical view of such right-wing religious types.

One moment they are spouting about sin and the next moment they are going at it like rabbits...not only the 16-year-old and the 42-year-old, but just about everyone is having sex--whether it's incest or extramarital affairs. It just got old after awhile. The author writes a lot of erotica, and I think he was going for the shock value. I'm certainly no bible thumper myself, but Allen really goes overboard on the hypocrisy and shallowness of these characters.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Ruins of Gorlan: Not my typical pick

The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I tend to shy away from fantasy and science fiction, but I read The Ruins of Gorlan (the first in the Ranger's Apprentice series) for my book group. One of the members loves fantasy, and she chose this one as an accessible fantasy series. I had a difficult time getting into the book at first, but it didn't take too long. I get impatient with different (fictional) worlds, lands, and breeds...I'm not sure why. I'm also not particularly drawn into stories filled with constant battles.

My nephew Ryan loves these books and dressed up as the ranger's apprentice this year for Halloween. He was delighted to hear that I would be reading it, and I'm also reading it with Kieran. I decided to read ahead so I'd be prepared for my book group on Wednesday.

Young Will always wanted to be a warrior, but when he reaches the age to be apprenticed to a craftsperson, he is selected to train with a mysterious ranger. Soon he learns the important role of the rangers, or protectors of the kingdom. The exiled Morgarath, Lord of the Mountains of Rain and Night, is gathering his forces for an attack on the kingdom. As typical in fantasy for young people, Will is soon called to apply the skills he has learned as a new apprentice and gets drawn into heroic conflict. The book reminded me a bit of The Lord of the Rings, but I found it to be much more accessible.

I know that Kieran is going to love this book and will want to read more of the series. I decided to give this book three stars because I enjoyed it but wouldn't necessarily read more without Kieran (unlike Harry Potter). Kieran tends to be gung ho about series until the end, when he loses steam. We are 3/4 of the way through the last Percy Jackson book, and now we've started this new book. We also made it nearly all the way through the Lemony Snicket series before he lost interest. We'll see how this one goes!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Hardball: VI, I've missed you

Hardball, by Sara Paretsky
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I wouldn't call myself a lover of detective novels, but I have a few favorite authors: Sujata Massey (who wrote the Rei Shimura series) and Sara Paretsky. I've been reading Paretsky since she wrote her first V.I. Warshawski novel, Indemnity Only, in the early 1980s, and I've read all of them until this one. She took a four-year break between #12 (Fire Sale) and #13 (Hardball), and during that time she wrote a nondetective novel, Bleeding Kansas, which I also enjoyed. Somehow I missed the fact that she's written two more V.I. Warshawski novels in recent years, so I'm catching up now before her next one comes out in January.

Having never been to Chicago, I feel that I almost have a taste of the city by watching "ER" and reading Paretsky. It's clear that she loves her city, gritty and hardboiled as it can be.

In recent books, Paretsky's political stripes have been showing a bit more, which is fine with me because our stripes are similar. She began working as a community organizer in Chicago when Martin Luther King Jr. was there, and that's where she bases this story: in that violent era of racial conflict. She explores themes of subtle and outright racism and even torture through her characters.

V.I. is engaged to find a man who went missing 40 years ago. Soon the case gets much more complicated than she expected, around the time that her clueless young cousin, Petra, shows up. When Petra goes missing after V.I.'s office is ransacked, the search expands to the present day. Soon she begins to uncover deep-seated family secrets and corruption in the Chicago police force.

I found Petra to be far too ridiculous and insensitive, and her father (V.I.'s uncle) was particularly awful. Because I like happy endings, I want V.I. to be romantically involved with someone who is good for her...but how many detectives ever end up happily married or in a successful long-term relationship? It just doesn't work.

I enjoyed this story and the return of V.I. Warshawski, and I look forward to catching up with the series again. Most other detective/mystery authors I get tired of (e.g., Sue Grafton, Patricia Cornwell), but Paretsky always keeps me coming back. She's the great queen of female private investigators!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Drama: An Actor's Education

Drama: An Actor's Education, by John Lithgow
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Third Rock from the Sun

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

As I posted last month on my regular blog, I adore John Lithgow. We saw him perform in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" on Broadway a few years ago, and we both laughed out loud during every episode of "Third Rock from the Sun."

Lithgow had me tearing up during the introduction to his memoir, when he shared a poignant tale about taking care of his elderly father during an illness. His love and admiration for his father, who was a Shakespearean director and teacher, created the impetus for this book and Lithgow's one-man show, Stories by Heart.

He takes us through his actor's life, starting with childhood and up through his recent experiences. Much of the book centered on his formative years as he was just starting out as an actor in plays directed by his father. Articulate and funny, Lithgow is a wonderful storyteller. I could not put this book down.

I found this book especially fascinating given the period of my life, as my 8-year-old is rehearsing for his first professional theater performance. One evening I read the book while waiting in the theater lobby for Kieran while listening to the shouting and singing overhead.

Lithgow actually wanted to be an artist, but acting chose him. This line particularly resonated with me during this time in my family's life: "If you hear enough applause and laughter at a young enough age, you are doomed to become an actor. After my performance as the young damsel-in-distress, my fate was probably sealed."

Even though Kieran's worn out at the moment from play rehearsals five days a week, I have a feeling that his fate will be sealed, too, once he starts performing five shows a weekend beginning next Friday. That applause and laughter will seal his fate.

Another time I cried while reading Lithgow's book was when he shared that he and his first wife had a premature baby who died shortly after birth. I am deeply touched each time I read about someone who has had a preemie or a medically fragile child. "I experienced the first genuine tragedy in my life. Jean gave birth to a son nine weeks early. For a few hours the little boy struggled for life and then gave up the ghost. It was a devastating loss for both of us."

Lithgow wrote about how his father found it too difficult to comfort him. "My mother was deeply comforting. My little sister wept compassionate tears. Actors in the company clasped me in long, heartfelt embraces. I honestly cannot remember my father registering the slightest reaction." I remember people in my own life who could not fathom what to say to us while we endured our own premature baby crisis (even though in our case our baby lived)...or later lived through repeated miscarriages. As our dear friend Doug says, "Grief reorders your address book."

Another thing I admired about this book was that Lithgow did not use names when he had less-than-pleasant reports about any of his theater colleagues. Gracefully, he used pseudonyms to protect people's reputations.

He writes about the mistakes he made...for example, getting married too early and suffering through adolescence in his 30s, leading to the death of his first marriage...and starting up a theater company without knowing what he was doing...and throughout it all, he weaves through the themes of family and lifelong learning and growth.

I would dearly love to see Lithgow on stage again someday. In the meantime, I'll have to satisfy myself with rewatching some of his old movies, and perhaps some of his new roles as well.