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review 2019-05-05 05:06
Flat Broke with Two Goats
Flat Broke with Two Goats: A Memoir of Appalachia - Jennifer McGaha

This book arrived and I showed it to MT and said "look! our retirement plan arrived!" (referring to the goat part, not the broke part. I hope.)


When I first saw this title I was immediately drawn to it because I wanted to hear from people who'd done what we sometimes talk about doing: leaving urbanity behind for a quieter, more sustainable and slower paced life.  Preferably surrounded by a mix of domesticated animals and nonvenomous wildlife.


But this book ended up being more complicated than that and my review is going to sound a tad ungenerous because of it.  Ungenerous because the complicated bits are well written, and at times riveting, but not what I was looking for.  Look at that title and cover; that cover and title imply a certain level of quirky adventure and maybe a humorous mishap or two while journeying the learning curve of homesteading.


Instead, this is primarily the story of the author and her husband's experience with the Global Financial Crisis and the consequences of living on credit, written by a woman who sounds like she's still very much on the road to emotional recovery.  McGaha's husband - an accountant - didn't pay their personal state or federal income taxes for four years.  By the time she finds out, the IRS and the state have put liens on everything, seized their bank accounts and garnished their wages.  With no choices left, they walked away from their home, and took up residence in an ancient cabin in the North Carolina woods that distant relatives of her husband offered them for a peppercorn rent.  So less quirky and fun than the marketing department would lead you to believe.


The first third of the book covers this downward spiral and it is a cautionary tale and almost the cliche for a great many living in the 1990's.  McGaha doesn't pull any punches about her anger at herself and her husband, nor how bad things got between them.  There's also a horrific but ultimately irrelevant chapter about her brief but terrifying first marriage, told as a flashback.  It's gripping stuff but it honestly has no relevance at all to the rest of the book, especially as we never find out what happened to him, or his relationship with their daughter, if any.


The remainder of the book focuses on their experiences at the cabin; cleaning it up, trying to cope with the transition from city water and sewer to spring fed water tanks and wood burning boilers.  Their encounters with local wildlife of both the venomous and rodent variety, and their first forays into keeping chickens and goats.  Interspersed throughout are flashbacks to her grandparents and ... I don't know what to call them ... daydreams? about her great-grandparents and their connection to the land in Appalachia.  


Again, these 'memoirs' are really well written, but this reader bought a book about being broke and raising goats, not about dreams of the author's Appalachian ancestors.  And while I DID get the stuff about the goats and chickens, I'd have liked more detail; I wanted to know more about the cabin, the chickens, the structures they built; I got a lot about the goats, but the cheese making was brief, as was the soap making.  I can't help but think if there'd been fewer memories, maybe I'd have gotten more of the pertinent details. 


Even though I think there are really two books here - the story of their recovery and altered lifestyle, and a collection of stories/memories/dreams about her ancestors - it is still an incredibly eye-opening, informative read.  So much so that I handed it to MT when I finished and told him to read it, but that he should feel free to skip the disjointed bits.

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review 2019-02-13 08:20
Becoming - Michelle Obama

I have so many disparate thoughts surrounding this book, but one very solid thought about the book itself.  So, the TL;DR version is:  it's excellent.  If you're a hellbent for leather "Republican", stay away from it; you won't enjoy it and it will probably do terrible things for your blood pressure, in much the same way as any new or conflicting idea of your world view might.  Rational conservatives, those with the ability to think their own thoughts and make up their own minds - and gasp - I'm one of those!, will find this woman to be the dignified, thoughtful, intelligent woman and class act that she is, even if, maybe, you may not agree with everything she advocates (though really, she doesn't advocate anything any normal human wouldn't).  Liberals, it goes without saying, have favourable odds of loving the hell out of this memoir of our First Lady.


That was, for me, a pretty provocative opening statement; I generally try to maintain a somewhat neutral facade here, though I'll never deny my personal truths.  I just don't feel it's necessary to wave them like a flag.  But - and this is relevant, so stay with me - my defences are low at the moment and I'm so damned tired of everybody's anger being channeled into tribalism.  "Liberals" pointing fingers at "Conservatives" and tearing strips off the whole lot, tarring them all with the same brush, and "Conservatives" ... when they're not tearing a strip off the "Liberals" and tarring them with the same brush, they're actively letting their inner child out, gleefully being petty and sniggering as they throw mud.  Bunch of damn fools, the entire dammed lot, and honestly, they all deserve one another.


As I said before, I am conservatively bent; I am not deficit inclined, nor am I inclined to embrace a lot of government in general (though there are exceptions - hello banking industry; you, you aren't to be trusted with so much as a plugged nickel).  Neither am I a racist, a bigot, nor an elitist.  I don't hate, nor do I deny poor people; their existence or their right to make a better life.  Anyone who knows me knows all of this, yet I don't think I'm ever getting the tar out of my hair.  I believe in diversity in all things, even diverse opinions.  Even the ones I don't like*.


Now, this is how I make all that relevant - Michelle Obama has written a book that succeeds, and is brilliant, because she does not fling mud; she does not tar anybody**; she writes about her thoughts, her beliefs, her values, her opinions, without ever once throwing judgements on anyone else's.  She does not build herself up by tearing down others, and here I think it's important to point out that she's not Suzy Sunshine and there aren't any unicorns flying out her backside.  I found what she didn't say to be as provocative as what she does say is not; moments when she chooses her words carefully, and where, in my opinion, she manages to convey that which perhaps she feels she can't say.  Though I admit, that might be wishful thinking on my part.


I've always admired President Obama; from the first he struck me as thoughtful, intelligent, and well-balanced with very little ego (or one that thrived on power, anyway), but at the beginning, Michelle was a bit of a non-entity to me.  Mostly because I've never gotten into what any First Lady was doing; she's not in office, has no public mandate, and is therefore of little interest to me.  But Michelle caught my attention with the organic vegetable garden - an initiative I was thrilled to watch unfold and succeed.  I still paid little attention, but every time she appeared on my radar, it was because she was doing something impressive, and doing it with dignity and grace.  By the time his second term ended, I was sorry to see them both go, and I was eager to read this book when it came out, to learn more about this woman who has never done anything but impress me.


A little part of my soul died when she stated for the record her complete disinterest in public office, because these are the kind of people I want running my country.  NOT because of their politics - I like both of them, but their politics are not entirely mine - but because of the people they are.  I don't have to agree with everything my leader does, but I do have to be able to respect him (or her) and their dedication to the process of doing what's best for the people - all the people - of the country.  The Obamas set - or reset - the standard for the highest office in the nation, repairing the damage wrought by so many previous administrations. To bring this back to the book - Becoming gives readers an insight into just how deeply invested they both were - but especially Michelle, since this is her story - in making the most of the incredible opportunities they were given to make positive, lasting change for as many people as they could, while keeping their family not just in tact, but healthy, thriving and close.


A note about her narration:  I'm not going to gush, because the truth is that it was apparent that she was told to read slowly and exactly off the manuscript, which is fair enough.  But I sort of wish she'd have been confident enough to read it in the voice she obviously wrote it in; occasionally that voice would sneak through just enough that I just knew, had she been able to be totally herself, it would have kicked the narration up a notch into absolute perfection.  But that's not a criticism - she did a phenomenal job and for anyone interested in this book who can do audiobooks, I'd highly recommend it, as I think it adds depth to hear her tell her own story.



* Except the current idiot squatting in the White House; he opens his mouth and nothing but methane comes out.


** I loved, loved that the one time Michelle comes close to tarring anyone, it's for the one person who most truly and objectively deserves it.

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review 2018-12-01 11:21
Being Wagner: The Triumph of the Will
Being Wagner: The Triumph of the Will - Simon Callow

I read this as a buddy read with BrokenTune, and was woefully inadequate with the status updates, but thankfully, some sidebar chats with her during and after our read, have helped me clarify my thoughts about this fantastic book enough to write some of them down.


Richard Wagner was, arguably, one of the most influential composers and conductors in the history of classical music.  He changed the face of opera from top to bottom; from the way the music was played, the notes were sung, the lighting, even the shape of the theatre itself.  He made opera dramatic storytelling.  I'm not even sure I can imagine what it was before he turned everything and everyone on their ear.


Richard Wagner was also an unmitigated ass.  Not merely arrogant; not merely selfish; Wagner was self-involved, egotistical, short-sighted, fiscally irresponsible and anti-semitic.  Additionally, he was described as short, stoop-shouldered and afflicted with an  appalling skin condition; we're not talking run-of-the-mill eczema here - words like 'sores' and 'pustules' were used.  I mention the physical challenges here because in spite of all of this - the horrible character flaws and the physical challenges - he was apparently charismatic as hell. The crap he got away with, the abuse people took only to come back for more, the sheer number of people who shelled out money to pay his debts and provide him with housing is mind-boggling.  Not just in Germany, but in Switzerland, Italy and the UK.  All this, and he was not a good person.


I could have probably overlooked the childish selfishness; I could chuckle over his inability to stay out of any riot he crossed paths with.  I might argue (weakly), that the trail of broken relationships he left behind him his whole life were people who knowingly attached themselves to this horrible man.  But the anti-semitism is a deal-breaker.  HIs disparagement of Jews was grossly casual, brutal, unwarranted and irrational.  Worse, it was not a phase he outgrew, but a mania that only became more brutal and irrational with age, even though he continued to work with Jewish conductors, musicians and composers until the end.


So Wagner was both artistically brilliant and a horrible human being.  This fascinating dichotomy is made still more fascinating by Simon Callow's writing.  He masterfully writes this condensed biography with the utmost objectivity, clarity, and just a dash of humor in unexpected places.  I doubt very much I could have read any other book about Wagner without dnf'ing it simply because I wouldn't have been able to swallow Wagner's life, but Callow made it not only palatable, but compelling.


Wagner may have created some of the most powerful music ever written - at least some of the most unforgettable - but his music will forever be tainted for me now that I know the man behind it better.  The real star that came out of this book, for me, is Callow; his writing ... well, take it as read that I'm gushing over it, because it's some of the best biographical writing I've ever read (not that I read a lot, mind you).


If you're interested in Wagner but don't want a long academic biography, you should absolutely investigate this book; it's fair, it's balanced; it's unbiased and it's excellently written.  The 1/2 star I took off was more my shortcoming than his - my eyes glazed over during the descriptions of the operas' stories, because I'm not a fan of opera.  Seriously, ignore that and just check out the book.

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review 2018-10-10 09:39
In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox
In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox - Carol Burnett

After listening to Carol Burnett's other memoir This Time Together, I was interested in checking this one out.


If this is the first of her books you listen to that cover the years during The Carol Burnett Show, you'll likely like this even more than I did.  She narrates the audio herself and does a fantastic job, and the anecdotes she shares are funny or interesting and often both.  It was a bonus that the excerpts from interviews with Tim Conway, Vicki Lawrence and Harvey Korman were actual audio excepts from the interviews conducted by the Television Academy.  


If you've listened to, or read, This Time Together, you'll find some stories (the best ones) overlap; there's enough fresh material in each book to make reading them worthwhile though.

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review 2018-07-25 08:59
Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science‚Äďand the World
Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science-and the World - Rachel Swaby,Lauren Fortgang
Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science-and the World - Rachel Swaby

A collection of short biographies highlighting 52 women who changed science - many of them Nobel prize winners - that most people have probably never heard of.  Or, at least, never heard of in relation to their scientific accomplishments.  


Most everybody of a certain age or with a fondness for old movies knows Hedy Lamar as a siren of Hollywood movies; fewer know she developed and held the patent for the technology that makes wi-fi and cellular phones possible.  Literature and poetry readers will recognise Ada Lovelace as the daughter of Lord Byron but how many of those same readers know her paper on Babbage's Analytical Engine is considered "the most important paper in the history of digital computing before modern times.", or that she wrote the first computer program?  Ever.


All of these women were amazing not only for their accomplishments in a time when women didn't accomplish much beyond home and hearth, and not only because they accomplished these achievements in the most male dominated of all the fields in a male dominated world.  They were amazing because they just did what they wanted to do.  They didn't wail, gnash their teeth, or whine, or cajole.  They just got on with their passions and went around anyone who got in their way.  An astonishing number of them worked for free.  All of them kicked ass.


I shy away from calling these women role models: the biographies here are restricted solely to their scientific accomplishments and for all I know some of these women might have been drunks or addicts or gamblers in their private lives.  Certainly Hedy Lamar had a rather colorful, and often pragmatic, love life (which I've read about elsewhere). I'm not judging Hedy for her choices - personally I say more power to her - but her choices are probably choices I'd rather not see my nieces have to confront.  But they are amazing sources of inspiration for all women interested in STEM subjects.  If these women changed the world in a time when they weren't even legally allowed to vote, imagine what similarly headstrong women today can accomplish (and are)?


My favorite quote is from Nobel prize winning physicist Rosalyn Sussman Yallow, who, along with her partner, identified the differences between humans an bovine insulin and developed radioimmunoassay: the process of measuring hormones by looking at their antibodies.


When asked "How does one get past discrimination?" she replied:

"Personally, I have never been terribly bothered by it ... if I wasn't going to do it on one way, I'd manage to do it another way."


This was an excellent read in audio.  Fortgang's voice is clear and easy to understand and she reads the material naturally and with spirit. 

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