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Book Review: The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

Do yourself a favor and skip this book.

*SPOILERS AHEAD. SO MANY SPOILERS.*

Having started editing books, I read them differently now. This book started off with one of my least favorite things: a description dump. One of the main characters is sad about her body after baby, and she’s looking at her neighbor’s body and describing her large breasts, nipped in waist, etc. We don’t need to know all that. It doesn’t matter what the neighbor looks like at all. What matters is how the main character (Anne) feels about herself next to the neighbor.

Anne and her husband (Marco) head home after the dinner party to find their front door is open. This matters because to attend the dinner party next door, they’ve left their 6-month old baby at home, alone. They went every half-hour to check on her and had the baby monitor with them. This is when they discover the baby is missing. Her husband pushes her on how much she’s had to drink and suggests that maybe she did it open after all. This is pretty much a non-issue since we know the last person to be in the house is Marco.

The point of view for the story is a mess. The author chose third-party omniscient: The reader knows what everyone is thinking and what everyone has done. When Anne and Marco first discover their baby is missing, she makes it seem like both parents have no idea what’s going on. The problem with this is that several chapters later, Marco reveals that he is the one who orchestrated the kidnapping. Well, the reader should have known that from the beginning.

Let’s talk about all the different things the author tries to have going on:

  1. Marco arranges for the kidnapping of the baby to get money from the in-laws who hate him because his business is failing.
  2. Anne has a history of mental illness, though her husband only knows about the post-partum depression. In fact, she has a history of blackouts, and sometimes gets violent during those blackouts. (In high school she slammed a classmate against the wall because the classmate was making fun of her.) These blackouts are believed to occur because she dissociated when she, at 4 years old, watched her father die of a heart attack.
  3. The next door neighbor, Cynthia, comes on to Marco during the dinner party. It turns out, that Cynthia’s husband, Graham, likes to watch Cynthia have sex with other men. That’s why they find out that Marco is the one who aids in the kidnapping of his own child – there’s a videocamera aimed at the back deck where Cynthia apparently regularly has sex with other men. The camera catches Marco with the baby going into the garage and coming out without her. What’s interesting about this is that there are houses across the lane that can see what happens there.
  4. Richard (Anne’s stepfather) is a nasty old man who likes to exert control over everything especially when it comes to money (that comes from his wife’s family, not from his earnings). We find out that he’s having an affair with Cynthia and wants to leave Anne’s mother for her. But, he needs money to do it, because his business is failing too, so he orchestrates the kidnapping so he can get his wife’s money. He sends his “fixer” to become friendly with Marco and eventually suggests that Marco kidnap his baby to get money from his awful in-laws. Of course, the fixer double-crosses Marco. Richard then kills the fixer, takes the baby and all the money. He’s the hero who gets the baby back after staging another ransom request.
  5. About three-quarters of the way into the book, Anne becomes convinced that she must have killed her baby since she can’t remember what happened during the 11pm feeding. She knows that she’s slapped her daughter in the past when she’s been fussy, so she believes she’s capable of killing her too. She convinces herself that Marco is covering for her by arranging to have the baby taken away during his check on her. Anne takes herself to the police station to confess this. The detective suspects this at first, but as he gets the facts, he knows this version of events isn’t possible.
  6. The book ends with Anne going to Cynthia’s to see how much she knew about the kidnapping, since Anne now knows that Cynthia has been having an affair with her father. Cynthia denies it, and gets nasty enough to say that if she had been involved, she would have killed the baby instead of kidnapping it. The next thing we know is that there are police cars and sirens, and Anne is sitting in her own living room, covered in blood, and holding a knife. I was curious how the police got called since Cynthia’s husband is out of town. Anne claims she has no idea what happened.

Combining this many stories into one is challenging for a skilled, experienced author, let alone for someone’s debut novel. In trying to do too much at once, it feels like nothing is done well. So much of what happens seems irrelevant, underdeveloped, too obvious, or just boring. None of the characters are likable. There’s nothing that keeps you attached to any of the characters; you’re not cheering for any of them.

You also have to wonder why everything is hunky-dory when they get Cora back. Richard gets arrested for his part in the kidnapping and the murder of his fixer, and Marco and Anne go home with their baby. Why in the world would Marco be okay with Anne and the baby, after Anne admits to slapping her? He’s just so relieved he isn’t going to prison? Which is also amazing – there’s no way in the real world you can kidnap a kid, even your own, and walk away from that without a conviction.

It is an easy read; I was able to finish in about 4 or so hours. I read it for a book club, which is probably the only reason I finished it at all. Otherwise I probably would have stopped at the second chapter. I am genuinely confused how this book ended up at the top of any bestseller lists.

If you can skip this one, do it. It’s not at all worth the read.

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Book Review: The Confidence Code

I don’t even remember putting this book on hold at the library, but I’m glad I did. Confidence is an especially tricky issue for women. Obviously, taking an issue this big and generalizing to all women is problematic, but I found much of the book very helpful.

Through interviews with successful women, researchers, and sharing their own experiences, the authors work to define confidence, explain how women and men’s brains differ, the genetic aspects of confidence, and how we can build confidence, even if our genes aren’t helping.

It’s both a relief and sad that all women, even or especially very successful women, struggle with confidence. The prevailing opinion for a while was that women should act like men to project confidence. However, it’s often inauthentic and thus comes across as weak, the opposite effect.

Studies have shown that whether they are actually more competent, men project a greater level of confidence. If a man and a woman are looking at a job description, a man will apply even if he doesn’t meet all of the requirements, while a woman will not. Men are also routinely overconfident; they rate themselves higher than what their tested skills actually show. If men fail at something, they basically say, “Hey, it’s over. Time to move on,” while women will dwell on it forever.

Studies have also shown that companies should be promoting women to higher levels of management. Women are more able to see the global picture, while men are more task-oriented. Women are also more compassionate and understand the individuals on their team better than men do. Trying to act like a confident man often removes this behaviors from the workplace.

The SLC6A4 gene is the serotonin transporter gene. There are three variants: Two short strands (processes serotonin badly, magnifies risk of depression and anxiety), one long strand and one short strand (inefficient serotonin use), and one with two long strands (best use of the hormone).

Other research shows that the correlation between genes and confidence may be as high as 50%. Some researchers disagree, and leave it at 25% (still an incredibly high amount).

The OXTR gene controls the delivery of oxytocin, which researchers feel is linked to confidence, because it acts in the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the center of higher-order thinking skills and executive function. It also keeps the amygdala in check.

Dopamine affects the brain – without it, we are passive, bored, and depressed. It encourages curiosity and risk-taking. Two genes control dopamine: DRD4 and COMT. Variants of these genes encourage “dramatic risk-taking” (DRD4) or cause us to fall to warrior or worrier mode (COMT).

While this all seems crappy if you caught the short end of the stick genetically, environment (nurture) can affect the expression of the genes – whether they’re switched on or off. In a study of monkeys, if a monkey who caught the short end of the stick was nurtured by a great mother, they did exceedingly well as they grew older, more so than the monkeys with “better” genes. That led the researcher to conclude that rather than the genes being determinative, it was more about sensitivity to the environment, rather than vulnerability.

Research also shows that the we can essentially rewire our brains for positivity. Every time we do a an act, our brain creates shortcuts, to operate more efficiently. The more we do the act, the stronger the connection. This can be used to stop negative thoughts from being automatic thoughts. If we focus on consciously drawing the positive, those will become our automatic thoughts.

Ultimately, the authors define confidence as “the stuff that makes us take action.” Confidence is about doing. Nike’s slogan is appropriate here: Just do it. If something goes wrong, use it as an opportunity to grow, rather than a tool to beat yourself up. Just taking action will build confidence. Starting small is a good way to go. As you progress in tasks you can take on things that get increasingly more challenging. Challenge is necessary for confidence-building. It’s conquering something new or gaining mastery that brings about the feeling of confidence.

The biggest takeaway from the book is that there are things we can do to build confidence. Some of us have genes that don’t assist us in the process, but we can overcome those as long as we are committed to working consistently to build confidence.

To get started on the path to building confidence, the authors have a confidence quiz on their website.

I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

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Fuck Your Thoughts and Prayers

Way back when I was in middle school, I was a bit of a math nerd. I participated in Mu Alpha Theta competitions with a team from my school. One of the competitions was at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.

I know people who went to school there. If it were 20 years ago, they would have been on campus when it happened. But, I don’t need a shooting at a school near me to drive the point home that we have a problem.

Depending on how you define “school shooting” there have been either 18 or 7 school shootings this year. For the sake of argument, we’ll go with the 7 because they most closely match incidents that resemble Columbine.

We 48 days into the year and we’ve had SEVEN school shootings. That’s about one shooting per week. There have been school shootings more often I’ve been to the movies this year. There have been school shootings more often than I’ve gone out to dinner this year. There have been more school shootings this year than I’ve had manicures. Think about that. Let it sink in.

We’re also hearing the same bullshit again: This isn’t a gun issue, it’s a mental health issue.

First, it’s both. We have a disturbing tendency to see things as one thing or another, rarely acknowledging the reality that issues are complex. I’m not sure when we stopped seeing things on a continuum. Is it the clickbait world we live in? Maybe that everything is being broken down into 15-second sound bytes? We have to learn to talk about these issues as comprehensively as possible. That means addressing guns and people.

Second, cut the shit about it not being a gun problem. Could the shooter have done what he did with a gun that’s not an AR-15? No. Could he have killed people other ways? Yes, but that’s not the fucking point. Pedophiles can get hard photos of child pornography instead of finding them on the internet. We don’t throw our hands up and say, “Well, he can get the material elsewhere, we’ll just let him surf the web for it.” Just because someone can kill people in a variety of ways doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to do something about it. Guns are easier to obtain than something like explosives and require less skill to operate.

Third, it can’t just be a mental health issue. Lots of people have mental health issues and they aren’t running around shooting up schools (or anything else for that matter). Someone’s mental health may be a contributing factor, but it’s not the factor. He has a history of violent outbursts and has expressed his desire to kill people. This definitely warranted more investigation than was ever done.

What I find interesting is that many people who oppose gun control legislation had no problem with the USA PATRIOT Act. One of our fundamental freedoms is privacy and the Patriot Act absolutely interfered with it. I have a feeling that has to do with them feeling like they were never going to be under suspicion for terrorist activity, but that any changes to gun laws would hurt them. Never mind that children are dying for what would likely amount to very little change for most gun owners.

We aren’t past the time for thoughts and prayers on gun legislation. There was never a time when thoughts and prayers were the answer. It doesn’t make any sense that we continue to avoid legislation on the issue. Doctors don’t write prescriptions for thoughts and prayers. Drunk driving is against the law. It’s harder to get a license to practice cosmetology than it is to buy a gun.

Thoughts and prayers aren’t going to fix our problem. People have been praying for thousands of years and horrible things still happen all over the world. Thinking without action is pointless. We need to DO something. We need to do what is in our power to control. We can’t stop mental health issues, even when someone is on court-ordered medication. We can make it harder for people to buy guns, particularly certain classes of guns.

If legislators won’t do their jobs, we need to help them become unemployed so someone who will enact sensible gun control legislation is in the office.

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Movie Review: Black Panther

Oh holy shit. Black Panther is, without question, my favorite superhero movie.

  1. The actors are amazing. It was a pleasure to watch.
  2. The cinematography and effects are just totally bad ass.
  3. The General is one of the scariest and most powerful women I’ve seen in a general role. She’s amazing.
  4. The music is catchy and suits the movie well.
  5. The story is fantastic. Lots of growth opportunities for all of the characters.
  6. The action scenes are very well done. They don’t take up the whole movie and they’re important when they do happen.
  7. Just, fuck yes.
  8. There are very attractive shirtless men.
  9. There are tons of strong, awesome women.

It was so, so good. I may even go see it again. It reminds a little of how I felt after watching Wonder Woman. Totally motivated for change and seeing it happen.

Go see this movie. Maybe twice.

 

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My Perfect Love is a Lighthouse

I used to describe Mr. Lyndsy as my anchor. Recently though I've been giving some thought to that term. I never meant it negatively. At the time, I was pretty fucking lost in my head. This was before I finally got on antidepressants and had anti-anxiety meds for the bad episodes.

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