Hard Choices by Hillary Rodham Clinton

Hard Choices by Hillary Rodham Clinton

hard choices

Often, I avoid writing book reviews on books that are already saturating the blogs, best seller lists and “must read” lists, as I rarely think I’ll have anything new to add to the litany of literary conversations, as these books tend to be deconstructed to the point of destruction. But, I’ve been compelled by one recent release to weigh in, mostly because it hits rather close to home. Hillary Clinton’s new memoir Hard Choices has been pulled apart, sentence by sentence, as her run for the highest office in America is imminent. Her allies have seen it as a justification of the choices to, at times, work with countries whose governments we oppose on many levels, as a defense of State’s role in the Benghazi attacks and their aftermath and as drawing a strong line in the sand against countries such as China and Syria. On the other hand, her detractors see the publication as nothing more than a chance for some free publicity leading up to the 2012 presidential elections, getting her “side of the story” out to the press and public through book signings and other events that they see as transparently working the electorate.

Regardless of the politics on either side or the dizzying spins pundits of all walks have placed on the book, I think it holds its own as a glimpse inside the US Department of State and what goes on behind those historical handshakes, Secretary-ruling-the-world memes and viral photos from the White House’s Situation Room. Hard Choices lets the average American into the inner workings of our country’s diplomatic corps, from the consular officers who protect our nation’s borders by carefully screening visa applicants to the political officers who report, from on the ground, about changes in official policy as well as the vibe of the general population within their host country.

Growing up in Idaho, the Foreign Service was just that- foreign. I had no idea what it was, and really, I probably couldn’t have even told you it existed. It never came up in any career day or job fair and wasn’t definitely not on my radar until my Peace Corps days. Having a book like Hard Choices top the best seller lists at least puts this small but important part of our national government in the spotlight for the average American citizen.

While the tome is definitely thorough, and at times can feel a bit plodding, readers should set aside their political leanings and read it not so much as Clinton’s personal memoir, but rather as a view into a world that is often kept quite quiet. Partisan judgments aside, Hilary Clinton’s Hard Choices is well-worth the time investment required by the 600 page undertaking, as it shines a spotlight on how our country interacts with others throughout the world, both friend and foe, earning it:

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Avoiding the Elephant (or Donkey) in the Room

Just hours after we as Americans chose our leader for the next four years, am I going to post something political and electoral? No way! I have tried hard to continue to like everyone on my Facebook feed, both those I agree with and those I disagree with when it comes to political topics, so I will try and help  my two and a half readers feel the same way about this blog.  (I have to say, sometimes it was just as hard to like the folks posting on with my same thinking as it was those who see the world through a different lens. A little respect on both sides of the aisle would be nice. And I am ready to go back to a newsfeed filled with pictures of babies and dinner plates rather than any more red/blue,  Republican/Democrat, Yes/No on Props 1 through 3823 or legalize this/criminalize that updates.)

The only election-related comment that I am going to make is that it happened. It happened big in Chengdu with an awesome election-watch party that I was privileged enough to work at. And it is over. So let’s all move forward–that is the goal after all. (At the US Consulate party here in Chengdu, I was tasked with being in charge of our photo station. We had life-sized cardboard cutouts of each candidate, so our guests could get their pictures taken with “the next President of the United States.” That went well, but I’m pretty sure the number of guests who asked to have their picture taken with “the next President of the United States *plus* the blonde girl” checked it at close to 50%.)

So what does one write about when she is desperately trying to ignore the elephant (or donkey) in the room?

Nail fungus!

That’s right. The hot, fasicinating topic of nail fungus. (If you aren’t into such topics, you may want to just skip on ahead to the next blog entry in your Google Reader feed. If you are my older sister, thrilled with all things biologically yucky, read on.)

You see, back in probably April, I noticed that the nail on my left ring finger was peeling away from the nail bed below it. I thought I must have damaged it and that it would grow out and be healthy as time went on.

It didn’t.

When I went home for my mom’s surprise 60th birthday party in early May, I spent a lovely ladies’-afternoon out with one of the most fantastic girls I know, Shannon. Our original plan was to go to a salon for pedicures, but since Shannon decided to turn a corner in her house too soon, stubbing (and breaking!) her pinky toe, our spa day switched to manicures. (Manicures done by none other than an amazing former student of ours, one Ms. Dixie Kent, who is a doll and a half.) At the salon, the techs looked at my nail and suggested I see a dermatologist, which a normal person would have done, but as someone usually only goes to the doctor if death seems a possibility and because I was home for just a few days before shipping out to China, I didn’t make the appointment.

Fast forward five months.

My left-hand ring finger nail has not grown out and reattached as I had hoped. Basically, there is a cavern under my nail. The finger is a little puffy and the part near the cuticle a little red, with some low-level throbbing pain on occasion, but there is no discharge, no smell- nothing really going on.

Then, several Sundays ago, as I sat cross-legged on the floor on my living room, using the coffee table as a manicurist desk, painting my nails like to do each weekend, contemplating if I was going to go with stripes in fall colors to match the season or polka-dots in shades of pink to match my personality,  I noticed that whatever was going on with my left-hand nail had jumped ship and was taking over my right-hand ring fingernail. (Coincidence they are both ring fingers? I have no idea!)

Figuring that the one hand had been suffering from whatever strangeness was going on for more than half a year and now it was spreading, I thought it might be time to get it looked at. I made an appointment with our consulate medical unit to have it looked at. (These are the same lovely ladies who  recently gave me my Japanese encephalitis booster and today added flu vaccination to the needle pricks in my arm, but always with a Garfield bandage to make it worthwhile.)

After examining both nails, the nurse decided a skin scraping was the way to go. Yes, it is exactly what it sounds like. She took a needle and stuck it under my fingernail, scraping some of the skin to look for fungus. I wouldn’t say it was painful per se, but it definitely isn’t something I’d sign up for again. With my gross little skin cells smeared on a glass slide, her educated eye to the microscope detected no fungus.

But, if it isn’t a fungus, what is it? That is the question of the week. With promises to get back to me after a bit of dermatological detective work, I headed home to contemplate the hollowness behind my nails and the possible options for this weekend’s paint job. (Gold with darker tips as Thanksgiving ekes ever nearer or variegated pinks because I always default to pink?)

As the mystery of the odd nail disease continues, as I begin to ponder my nail art options for the upcoming weekend and you wonder why you just read an entire post about my finger deformity, remember, it could have been about the elections. And most days, nail fungus is a better dinner table topic than politics.

 

 

I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had by Tony Danza

I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had by Tony Danza

Schools and teachers are a hot topic in Idaho right now, as the November ballot includes Propositions 1, 2, and 3, which deal with a variety of education related issues. As a registered Idaho voter, former teacher (although hopefully I’ll be back in the game at Thad’s next posting) and concerned constituent, I’ve been watching the battle between the sides rage this entire fall. (You would think being in China would put me out of that loop a bit, but at least the Pro-Props 1,2 and 3 side seem to have found me. In the last three weeks, I’ve gotten nine of the exact same flyer from their group. Nine! The same flyer! My goodness. Whether I agree with the position or not, sending me nine of the exact same piece of literature is going to do little to change my mind folks.)  With schools being on the forefront in many states this season,  I thought it would only be appropriate that I jump back on the book review bandwagon with an education-related review. (It has been a while since I’ve added to my Book Musings category, not because I haven’t been reading, but it has just fallen to the wayside between the move to the other side of the world, a new job, and finding my place in a new community. But, I hereby declare that book reviews, shell-rated and all, are back!)

Tony Danza is not someone I would expect to turn to for insightful thoughts on education reform and the realities of classroom life for teachers, and yet, like with so many things in life, I was pleasantly surprised. In his new book, I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had, he takes on the role of a teacher in a tough, urban school in downtown Philadelphia. After being fired from his latest Hollywood role, that of a daytime talk show host, he was looking for a way to give back to his community and seriously considered the Teach for America program. But, I think the limelight is just bred in to some, and he found a way to mesh his California-career with his Philadelphia upbringing, in the form of a documentary that is filmed over the course of a year teaching high school English.

Skeptical yet? I was at this point! I imagined him going in for a few weeks, doing bit parts and then moving on to the production and selling of his latest film-creation. But, while I do take issue with parts of the gig, after reading the book, I can see how genuinely dedicated he was to his role as a teacher and how touched he was by his students. (He taught a single English class, granted, it was a double period, for a year. He also did some other duties around the school, but the strain that shows from his single class of students needs to be multiplied, as teachers don’t get to plan for, teach and review work for a single class a day.)

Danza faces the realities of many teachers in America today. He must find a way to get his students to embrace great literature when they prefer the crass rhymes of less-than-stellar role models they hear on the radio. He must teach his high school students to communicate effectively, through written and spoken word, when they constantly revert to the LOLs and OMGs of modern-text-talk. On top of this, he learns that teaching a subject area is only half of the battle educators face each day. He soon sees that his kids are lacking in positive role models at home, that they are coming to school hungry and tired and that they don’t dare dream, as they’ve seen too many dreams crash to the ground and die.

I am probably partial to Danza’s newest work because he spends his year in an English classroom, something I am missing right now. But, his book is full of touching moments, but also very real, tough moments. I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had should be on the top of Christmas lists for all the teachers in your life (they will understand and appreciate his perspective),  as well as all of those folks who think a few laptops and online classes are the solution to crowded classrooms and not hiring enough trained, certified and experienced teachers.  I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had  by Tony Danza earns a solid:

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie


If it is drama you crave, Russian history is probably one of the best non-fiction outlets for your desire.  It is filled with love and betrayal, possible marriages and definite assassinations, and intrigue beyond what Hollywood can manufacture. Catherin the Great: Portrait of a Woman covers all of these possibilities, as well as a glance at ancient frenemies, haters, posers and every other modern label for the spectacle-loving folks!

Catherine, originally Sophia, born in 1729, had ties to European nobility through her mother, but it took a summons from Russia for her to ascend to the rank of empress. But such a monumental climb would take years, as well as royal amounts of patience on her part. After her betrothal and eventual wedding to the decidedly undesirable (both in physical and emotional contexts) Peter III, Catherine is forced to bend to the will of her over-bearing mother-in-law and her immature new husband.

After the death of Empress Elizabeth, it quickly becomes apparent that Peter is not fit for the throne. He doesn’t have the intelligence, the interest or stamina one would need to rule a country as large and diverse as Russia in the mid 1700’s. With his true love remaining in his native Europe, Peter aligns himself with countries out of nostalgia rather than through a determination of what is strategically the best for his adopted country. When this mindset of ruling starts to show cracks, it doesn’t take long for the strong-willed Catherine to step in, take control of the court and crown herself Empress Catherine II.

Catherine the Great follows the empire-leader from the time she was a young girl, a mere teenager, called away from her family by the Empress Elizabeth to be the wife of the empress’ nephew and future successor, Peter III, to the stroke that eventually took her life. Throughout these decades, readers are treated to not only Catherine the Great’s political dealings, but her personal triumphs and failures as well.

Massie’s book has an extraordinary amount of detail in it, which is both its top asset, as well as one of the biggest detractions. While I was fascinated with where Catherine (then Sophia) came from and her rise to power and fame, at times the digressions into history, philosophy and personal dalliances became a distraction to her tale. While there is no way to whittle the life of a royal down to a few hundred pages, I feel as though Massie could have edited some of the divergences, which at times rambled down paths that, while illuminating specific points of Russian history, were not necessary for the reader to understand Catherine’ s trek to the throne.

With much of my Russian history being the much more current studies in most curricula today, including the time of USSR and the Cold War, Catherine the Great was a fascinating tale of one woman’s triumph over a deadbeat husband and her rise to the ultimate seat of authority. Robert K. Massie has crafted a biography that reads as smoothly as a work of fiction, drawing the reader in to the tale of the ancient Russian royalty’s inner lives and political leanings. While I believe a bit of editing would have created a more finely tuned tale, Massie’s Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman is a solid biography of a bold woman, earning it: