Book Review: The Genie Who Had Wishes of HIs Own

thegeniewhohadwishesofhisownMargaret Harmon’s 22 21st-century fables provide lessons about Five Starsgreed, hubris, jealousy, pride, procrastination, living through others, idealism, creativity, wasted opportunities, optimism vs pessimism, and the question of just what is success. Some are reminiscent of traditional fairy tales, especially three involving magic lamps and turbaned genies, “The Ingénue and the Genie,” “Freeing the Genie,” and “The Second-best Juggler in the World.” But none have the predictable ending our childhood tales have taught us to expect.

If the fables had morals–and Harmon insists even Aesop’s fables did not originally include morals until the Victorians, who feared children wouldn’t otherwise learn from them, added them–the likely moral of the first would be “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough,” of the second, “Appreciate every opportunity, especially those that benefit others,” and of the third, “Opportunities aren’t guarantees.” Well, those last three words are Harmon’s, from “The Second-best Juggler in the World.” So I’m certain she would agree with me.

While each fable tells an entire story, there are themes that run through many of them. Seizing the opportunity is a theme that applies not only to the three genie tales but also to others. “Two Young Farmers,” “The Snake in the Terrarium,” and my favorite, “The Track Team,” also deal with recognizing an opportunity or creating an opportunity or of missing out on an opportunity. In “The Track Team” Harmon contrasts three team members who agree there is a problem: their team keeps losing. And they agree something must be done. But each chooses a different solution, leaving the reader to decide which of the three is more likely to succeed. “Two Young Farmers” poses a similar situation, though the outcome is unambiguous: one farmer believes perfection must be found first while the other begins with what he is handed and creates his own opportunity.

One of the longest fables, “The Philanthropist,” presents the scariest of images to me. The title implies the central character is a success, having acquired so much wealth he can afford to give it away. But the moral of this fable involves the means more than the ends.

It may be several years yet before I can tell these fables to my pre-school aged grandchildren. I hope Margaret keeps writing fables to add to these by then.

  • Print Length: 226 pages
  • Publisher: Plowshare Media; 1 edition (July 31, 2013)
  • Publication Date: July 31, 2013
  • Genre: Literary Humor, Short Stories, Fairy Tales

Homework: Being Present

A prompt from 13 Steps to Awakening:

Homework

  • Remember the last time you lost control, which caused you a lot of emotional or physical distress, perhaps even resulting in a financial loss. Describe what happened.
    • I have to admit it is very difficult for me to remember a situation that fits this question, not because I am so arrogant as to think it doesn’t apply, but because I feel so badly whenever I lose control that I put the memories into such a deep part of my brain I cannot find or pull them out without great difficulty. This is certainly true for the last time I lost control–those details are in the deepest freeze of my unpleasant memory bank. I know this goes back to my childhood when “losing control” usually involved crying or getting angry, neither of which were acceptable to my parents or those around me. But instead of helping me learn how to express the emotions that led to crying or anger in more acceptable ways, I recall only the remonstrances from adults who told me I should know better. Well, maybe I should have, but I didn’t.
  • Analyze the situation to see when and how you entered deep sleep.
    • I’m clearly still in deep sleep about events that led to tears or anger. I feel I have learned to cover up those emotions, though this is not the healthiest way to deal with them.
  • Write about instances where you caused problems for yourself or for others by not being present and instead relied on your instincts. What happened?
    • It is easier for me to go way back in time because those memories can be explained without so much embarrassment. After all, I’ve learned so much since then.
      1. Several years ago I received a bill for the last video in a series I had received through a monthly subscription. The bills arrived after the video along with the option to check a box indicating whether I wanted the following month’s video or whether I wanted to stop the subscription. The bill arrived two years after I received the video. I no longer lived at the same address as where the video was mailed. In fact, I not longer lived in the same country. As a result, there is good reason to believe that the company that sent the bill for the last one had been trying to send it to me for quite some time between the point at which I received the video and then the bill. Except for the fact that I stopped receiving the videos so they apparently received my notification that I wanted to stop my subscription, and that should have accompanied payment for the final video.

        But this bill came with a mildly threatening letter about the possibility of legal action if I failed to pay the bill. I called the telephone number on the bill to explain that I was sure that I had paid for each of the videos I received and that I didn’t understand why I received a bill for one so much later. The woman on the other end explained that the bill was the result of an audit that uncovered the fact they had no record of my paying for the final video. I objected, though I had to admit that because so much time had passed and I have moved from one country to another and had shredded nearly every bill–paid or otherwise–before packing up from my previous relative. Neither the woman on the other end of the phone line or I behaved in an exemplary manner at the end of the conversation. I was angry that the woman on the other end didn’t seem to pay attention to my circumstances.

        The total cost was likely around $10 and not worth either the time or effort to try to collect two years later–at least in my opinion. But she insisted that I owed the money and insisted that I pay. By this point, both she and I were shouting. I don’t recall who had the last word, but I never paid the cost and I never received notification of legal action. But I still remember how upset I was when I lost my temper with a woman who was simply doing her job.

        How should I have handled the situation? First, I should have given the woman time to explain the situation more fully, in order to make it clear I might not have the whole story. Second, I should have asked questions about the possibility of the payment being made but not applied to the account, to show I understood she and I needed to work together to solve the problem. Third, if I still felt I had paid for all the videos, I should have asked her to call me back or have me call her back in a few days in order for me to gather copies of my checks or other payment method before discussing the situation further. Most importantly, I should have calmed down as soon as I felt the anger begin to rise within me in order to keep working with the woman instead of taking up a position against her.

      2. At another point when I lived in yet another country, I had a minor accident in a parking lot which my husband arranged to get fixed. The day he brought the car back to the house, I drove to the grocery store and on my way out of the parking lot (not the same one), a car behind me honked which I thought indicated the driver was annoyed with how slowly I was driving (in that country honking the car’s horn rarely meant the driver was warning another driver) so I continued backing out and heard the scraping of my car against another parked car. I drove straight home to tell my husband, but he was so angry when he saw the new scrape he jumped to the conclusion that another car had scraped up against my car and I didn’t dare object to tell him I was at fault again. I knew I would tell him the truth, but I didn’t dare do so right then.

        A local employee of the embassy where I worked called the local police and arranged for them to look at the car in order to put together a traffic report, necessary for me to get the car repaired. I had planned to tell the local employee what happened as soon as we arrived in separate cars at the meeting with the police, but I didn’t have time. As soon as the police saw the car, they recognized the scape was not caused by another car driving along the side of my car, but the reverse. The police asked me if that is what happened and I admitted it was so. I turned then to the local employee to explain I didn’t dare tell my husband the truth because he was so angry. The employee had seen my husband’s reaction so I knew he would understand. He did. That evening while my husband and I were at the home of a new colleague for dinner, my husband mentioned the accident at which point I admitted that the accident was my fault, not another driver’s. But the damage had been done. Others among my colleagues thought I had tried to place blame on someone else instead of taking responsibility. The fact that I admitted to the police within 30 minutes of the event was not considered.

        What should I have done? Admit the truth immediately, no matter how angry my husband appeared. If I had done so, I know he would have remained annoyed for a few hours, but his annoyance would have been correctly placed and I would have held responsibility from the beginning. And he would have laughed at my bad luck–or stupidity–either of which would have been preferable to the ill will my silence brought towards me from colleagues.

The above prompt is part of the second of 13 free lessons, developed by Alex Moses, Life Strategist, available on the A Life Answers website, shared with his permission.

Homework: The Value of Time

A prompt from 13 Steps to Awakening:

time by Sean MacEntee, on Flickr
time” (CC BY 2.0) Photo by  Sean MacEntee 
I came across the 13 Steps to Awakening series when the blogger, Alex Moses from A Life Answer, liked one of my book reviews.  The first of the 13 steps included a scenario I found intriguing for a short post.  The lesson also includes homework assignments, which I consider useful mind-stretching exercises as I struggle to sift through my life experiences to decide which are worth including in my memoir. Perhaps more significantly, I believe completing the exercises may help me uncover thoughts and memories that I have tucked away deeply into my sub-conscious in order not to reveal them. If my memoir is authentic, I need to consider telling the whole story, not just the parts that are pretty and look good sitting on a curio shelf.

Homework

  • List all the things you would do if you were to die in the next 30 days. How would your life change for the next 30 days? What would you do differently?
    1. My first thought was that I would use my last 30 days to visit people and places I found meaningful in my life, to say thank you to the people and to view awesome places one more time. But I don’t really need to travel to accomplish either of these goals. Seeing people is possible through Skype or Facetime and the Internet is full of videos of places.
    2. The activities I then focused on are all related to making sure those closest to me have the information they would otherwise turn to me for–user ids and passwords, for example, on the minor end but much more on a more significant end.
    3. Related to #2 above is getting rid of things I have held onto that I know no one else wants. I know there are piles of such things around the house just as there are piles of thoughts in my mind that I should let go of.
    4. By taking the three steps above, my life would be simpler, less complicated.
  • List all activities that you perform on any given day and assign one of the 3 states (feeling joy, feeling pain, being asleep) to each activity. Calculate the percentage of time being spent in each state.
    1. Writing-feeling joy
    2. Preparing meals-feeling joy
    3. Cleaning up-being asleep
    4. Reading-feeling joy
    5. Walking-feeling joy
    6. Playing with grandchildren-feeling JOY
    7. Paying bills-feeling joy (that I can without worry)
    8. Watching TV-being asleep
    9. Checking out social media-feeling both joy and pain
    10. 75% feeling joy, 10% feeling pain, 15% being asleep

The above homework is part of the first of 13 free lessons, developed by Alex Moses, Life Strategist, available on the A Life Answers website, shared with his permission.

Book Review: Leaving Before the Rains Come

Five Starsleavingbeforetherainscome“‘The problem with most people,’ Dad said once, not necessarily implying that I counted as most people, but not discounting the possibility either, ‘is that they want to be alive for as long as possible without having any idea whatsoever how to live.'”

Alexandra Fuller learned from her parents how to live. She has lived enough to write four memoirs and that’s only up to this point. Leaving Before the Rains Come is her fourth. In it she focuses on her marriage and its dissolution, a story that cannot be told completely without reference to her unconventional upbringing and her complicated family. She dissects her family history, uncovering the strengths and weaknesses of all her forebears, especially the women, and wonders how much of what made each of them tick, for better or worse, has been genetically encoded into her history.

“…although we had all lived inarguably interesting lives, few of us could afford exotic travel, and, surrounded by enough unbidden chaos on a daily basis, we didn’t go in search of it in our free time. No one had written much about us or made movies about our adventures, in part because there was no beginning or end to our undertakings, no way of knowing the arc of our narratives. We were less the authors of deliberate derring-do than victims of cosmic accidents, political mishaps, mistaken identities.”

Alexandra Fuller tells complicated stories using the most compelling language, several examples of which I have chosen to include within this review so her words can make the case directly. My words will never succeed better than hers.

Having been raised in Africa, Fuller met her American husband, Charley, in Zambia, where he worked at the time guiding adventure tours. Charley held out the prospect of being adventuresome enough not to be frightened off by her parents as well as offering a solid future 22-year-old Fuller thought she wanted. But instead of staying in Africa as Fuller’s parents did, willing to tough it out no matter what obstacles appeared on the horizon, Charley took Alexandra and their infant daughter to America, where the two tried, but never found balance.

“It wasn’t so much that we weren’t right for one another, but rather the ways in which we were wrong were so intractable and damaging that nothing–however profoundly accidental or deeply deliberate–could fix us. His flaws and my flaws didn’t weave together or tear us apart; they enmeshed us.”

They remained together nearly 20 years, raising three children, one African-born and two born in America. But for all her independence of spirit, Fuller didn’t truly know how to live on her own, and she failed to pay attention to the warnings Charley tried to impress upon her about the fragility of their financial situation. By the time she understood, there seemed to be no way back and no way forward, at least not together.

“It’s not anyone’s job to make another person happy, but the truth is, people can either be very happy or very unhappy together. Happiness or unhappiness isn’t a measure of their love. You can have an intense connection to someone without being a good lifelong mate for him. Love is complicated and difficult that way.”

  • Print Length: 274 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (January 22, 2015)
  • Publication Date: January 22, 2015
  • Genre: Nonfiction, Divorce; Biographies and Memoirs, Women

Book Review: Call the Midwife

callthemidwifeJennifer Worth’s first volume of her trilogyFive Stars covers her transition from nurse at a regimented and hierarchical hospital to midwife in a convent where lay nurses work side-by-side with their cloistered, religious sisters in the docklands of the East End of London in the 1950s. She arrives at Nonnatus House convinced there is no God and suspicious of the motivation of the nuns with whom she lives and works. But through the telling of vignettes about the women she serves, the family members she meets through them, and her colleagues from Nonnatus, she comes to respect the nuns and their religious life, and even sees the hand of God acting in response to their prayers when everything she was taught in medical school would deny the possibility of the outcomes she sees.

I was familiar with Jenny Lee, the author; the three midwives she works with, Trixie, Cynthia, and Chummy; and the sisters at Nonnatus House, Sisters Julienne, Evangelina, and Monica Joan; through the PBS series of the same name. But I missed the earliest episodes and therefore much of the context of life near the London docks right after World War II. I felt as though I held the diaries of these women as I read each of the stories of new life in uncertain times. I am pleased by how true to the characters Jenny describes the PBS versions seem.

And I look forward to locating copies of the second and third volumes of the memoirs of Jennifer Worth.

  • Print Length: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Rep Mti edition (August 29, 2012)
  • Genre: Nonfiction, Women’s Studies, History, Great Britian, Biographies & Memoirs

Value of Time

A prompt from 13 Steps to Awakening:

“Imagine you woke up with a sharp pain this morning. You went to the doctor, they ran a bunch of tests and determined that you have a stage 4 cancer with less than 30 days to live. What thoughts will be going through your head? What would you be doing for the next 30 days?” from Key 1: Value of Time, 13 Steps to Awakening.

When I came across the 13 Steps to Awakening series, I decided to try them out. The first lesson opened with the above exercise, a good prompt for writing a short piece. The lesson includes homework assignments as well, which I hope to complete as I work through the lessons.

The first thought that crossed my mind when considering this scenario is that I would stop spending time alone. And that could mean no longer writing, or at least no longer writing the memoir I’ve been working on for the past year.

From childhood I felt I would be a writer, and my journal entries from my early adult years are full of statements about how I looked forward to including some of the interesting characters I met in my years of living overseas in future writing. But I also felt I needed experience in order to write. So I put the goal on hold and spent my time in search of an interesting life, something worth writing about. I delayed writing, though I have never felt that I stopped living an interesting life; I simply adjusted how much of my time I devoted to experiencing life first and writing about it until I retired and could grab the 8-10 hours per day (my husband would argue those numbers are too low) I had been spending on work.

But no matter how much I want to write, I would prefer to spend time with the people I love and care about, as well as the people who may not know how much impact they have had on my life. Assuming I could still travel, I would spend my final days traveling to see the important people in my life in order to tell each person how important they have been. If my health did not permit travel, I would resort to traveling in my mind and writing letters to those I wanted to see with the message I would have conveyed in person.

The above prompt is part of the first of 13 free lessons, developed by Alex Moses, Life Strategist, available on the A Life Answers website, shared with his permission.

Book Review: Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness

cocktailhourunderthetreeofforgetfulnessCocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness Five Starsis Alexandra Fuller’s second book covering her family’s experience in east Africa. The first, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, which her mother describes as an Awful Book, tells the story from her perspective. In Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, she expands the story to include her grandparents so that the story is told more from her parents’ point of view, even more so from her mother’s point of view.

It covers her mother’s Scottish ancestry; her grandparents’ move from Scotland to Kenya and back to Scotland; her father’s adventures in Canada, Montserrat, and Barbados before he landed in Kenya where within two weeks he met Nicola Huntingford and decided to stay. It covers the Mau Mau rebellion; Ian Smith’s Universal Declaration of Independence of Rhodesia from Britain and the world-wide economic embargo that followed; the Bush War which the nationalists refer to as the Second Chimurenga, the Shona word for rebellion, and which fostered the creation of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), the Mozambique Liberation Army (FRELIMO), and the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO); and the eventual independence and majority rule of Zimbabwe.  It is a quick history lesson on a painful and shameful period in Africa. But it is much more.

The real story in the book is the love story: the love between Tim and Nicola Fuller; the love of Tim and Nicola Fuller for their children; the love of Alexandra for both her parents; the love of all of them, but especially Nicola Fuller, for Africa, though not always the Africa that exists; and most of all it is a story of the love of life illustrated through an independent spirit that kept her parents moving forward, looking for the next challenge in spite of losing children, jobs, farms, and wars.  Alexandra Fuller tells this love story so compellingly, so engagingly, so compassionately for not only her family but also for the native Africans around them. Her introduction to her family made me feel as though she was welcoming me into it. And I felt honored to get to know them all.

  • Print Length: 258 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (August 23, 2011)
  • Publication Date: August 23, 2011
  • Genre: History, Biographies and Memoirs