Tag Archives For: nonfiction

19 Apr, 2017

Revolution for Dummies

/ posted in: Reading Revolution for Dummies Revolution for Dummies: Laughing through the Arab Spring by Bassem Youssef
Published by Dey Street Books on March 21st 2017
Genres: Nonfiction, Personal Memoirs
Pages: 304
Format: Audiobook
Source: Audible
Goodreads
Setting: Egypt
Length: 7:12

"The Jon Stewart of the Arabic World"—the creator of The Program, the most popular television show in Egypt’s history—chronicles his transformation from heart surgeon to political satirist, and offers crucial insight into the Arab Spring, the Egyptian Revolution, and the turmoil roiling the modern Middle East, all of which inspired the documentary about his life, Tickling Giants.
Bassem Youssef’s incendiary satirical news program, Al-Bernameg (The Program), chronicled the events of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, and the rise of Mubarak’s successor, Mohamed Morsi. Youssef not only captured his nation’s dissent but stamped it with his own brand of humorous political criticism, in which the Egyptian government became the prime laughing stock.


Bassem Youssef was an Egyptian cardiac surgeon trying to find a way to move out of Egypt in 2011.  He was not politically active until the Arab Spring protests.  A friend wanted to have a YouTube series discussing politics and he convinced Bassem to star in it mostly because he wouldn’t have to pay him.  Suddenly, the series that they filmed in Bassem’s bathroom was an internet hit.   Over the next few years they moved to TV and then to larger networks.  The show was a hit.  However, making fun of politicians in Egypt isn’t the safest life choice.

In a few years he rose from obscurity to being the most famous entertainer in Egypt to being forced to flee the country.

I loved this audiobook.  I had never heard of Bassem Youssef before although he had been on The Daily Show and other U.S. TV shows. He says that he isn’t able to explain Egyptian or Islamic politics well but then explains them in an easy to understand manner.  Now I understand who most of the players are and a little bit about what their goals are.  His goal was to make fun of them all.

This is a scary book to read because you see so many parallels between Egypt and the path that the United States is on now.  In fact, he came to the U.S. just in time to document the rise of Trump.  Like Trevor Noah, he points out that Trump follows the same line of thinking as the African dictators.  He talks about how people can convince themselves that everything is fine when everything is falling apart around them.

He shows how media can be manipulated to show whatever ‘truth’ the government wants you to believe.

Speaking satirical truth to power cost him his relationship with his family and his ability to go back to his country.  His wife stayed with him but he isn’t really sure why.  After all, she married a surgeon who a few months later decided that he was going to be a comedian in the country where it is illegal to make fun of the president and it went downhill from there.

There is a new documentary on the festival circuit called Tickling Giants about his life.  I want to see it to be able to see many of the sketches that he describes in the audio book.

He is a huge fan of Jon Stewart.  They ended up meeting and collaborating.  (Or as it was charged in Egypt, he was recruited by Jon Stewart to work for the CIA.)  Here’s Jon Stewart’s take on things the first time Bassem got in trouble.

If you want to understand more about the Arab Spring and the aftermath, this is a great book. If you want to know what resistance can look like, listen to this book.  He narrates it himself and does a great job telling his story.

About Bassem Youssef

Bassem Raafat Muhammad Youssef is an Egyptian comedian, writer, producer, physician, media critic, and television host. He hosted Al-Bernameg, a satirical news program, from 2011 to 2014.

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Audiobooks
  • Books Set in the Middle East
  • POC authors
11 Apr, 2017

Epic Measures

/ posted in: Reading Epic Measures Epic Measures: One Doctor. Seven Billion Patients. by Jeremy N. Smith
Published by Harper Wave on April 7th 2015
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Nonfiction
Pages: 352
Format: Paperback
Source: Book Tour, From author/publisher
Goodreads

Moneyball meets medicine in this remarkable chronicle of one of the greatest scientific quests of our time—the groundbreaking program to answer the most essential question for humanity: how do we live and die?—and the visionary mastermind behind it.
Medical doctor and economist Christopher Murray began the Global Burden of Disease studies to gain a truer understanding of how we live and how we die. While it is one of the largest scientific projects ever attempted—as breathtaking as the first moon landing or the Human Genome Project—the questions it answers are meaningful for every one of us: What are the world’s health problems? Who do they hurt? How much? Where? Why?
Murray argues that the ideal existence isn’t simply the longest but the one lived well and with the least illness. Until we can accurately measure how people live and die, we cannot understand what makes us sick or do much to improve it. Challenging the accepted wisdom of the WHO and the UN, the charismatic and controversial health maverick has made enemies—and some influential friends, including Bill Gates who gave Murray a $100 million grant.
In Epic Measures, journalist Jeremy N. Smith offers an intimate look at Murray and his groundbreaking work. From ranking countries’ healthcare systems (the U.S. is 37th) to unearthing the shocking reality that world governments are funding developing countries at only 30% of the potential maximum efficiency when it comes to health, Epic Measures introduces a visionary leader whose unwavering determination to improve global health standards has already changed the way the world addresses issues of health and wellness, sets policy, and distributes funding.


Christopher Murray is originally from New Zealand but he grew up around the world.  His parents ran a clinic in west Africa for a year.  The clinic was so understaffed when they got there that Chris and his older siblings had to do a lot of the care.  During their time there the family noticed that malnourished people who were fed got sick from malaria.  They found out that the virus requires iron to thrive.  When people are starving they don’t have the iron stores for their bodies to support the virus.  When they are refed, they are again good hosts for the disease.  The family published their findings in Lancet.  This led to Chris’ lifelong interest in scientific research – especially research into whether or not conventional wisdom is correct.

At the World Health Organization, he found that a lot of the health data used to make policy decisions was based on numbers that were made up.  He worked with another researcher to develop a formula that figured out the true cost of disease in each country.  He also took into consideration not just the deaths from that disease but the damage done from a disease causing less than optimal health in the population.  I also appreciated his focus on adult health statistics and not just childhood disease.

Using this data lets countries and NGOs decide where the most effective places to put their money are.  Does it help more people to treat malaria or diarrhea?  If you can only vaccinate for one is it better to give polio vaccine or measles?  Measles kills more people but if you survive it you are fine.  Polio doesn’t kill as many people but survivors have more disability.  These are the kinds of questions that they try to answer.

I found the subject matter interesting but the book got bogged down in a lot of interdepartmental politics in the middle.  It picks up again at the end with ideas for living a better life based on the findings of the Global Burden of Disease study.  If you are interested in the real life applications of science and mathematics, this is a great book for you.

Tuesday, March 28th: Lit and Life
Thursday, March 30th: bookchickdi
Tuesday, April 4th: Sapphire Ng
Wednesday, April 5th: Readaholic Zone
Thursday, April 6th: Man of La Book
Monday, April 10th: Doing Dewey
Tuesday, April 11th: Based on a True Story
Wednesday, April 12th: Kissin Blue Karen
Friday, April 14th: Read Till Dawn
Friday, April 14th: Jathan & Heather

Purchase Links

HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Backlist Books
04 Apr, 2017

My Own Country

/ posted in: Reading My Own Country My Own Country: A Doctor's Story by Abraham Verghese
on April 25, 1995
Genres: Nonfiction, Personal Memoirs
Pages: 432
Format: Paperback
Source: Library
Goodreads
Setting: Tennessee

Nestled in the Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee, the town of Johnson City saw its first AIDS patient in August 1985. Working in Johnson City was Abraham Verghese, a young Indian doctor specializing in infectious diseases who became, by necessity, the local AIDS expert. Out of his experience comes a startling, ultimately uplifting portrait of the American heartland.


I have been coming across books in the most roundabout ways recently.  For March’s 6 Degrees of Separation post I needed a book set in Ethiopia.  I thought of Cutting for Stone which I’ve never read so I wasn’t absolutely sure that’s where it was set.  I looked it up on Goodreads and saw that the author wrote this book about his life in Tennessee.  Was I actually mixing up Ethiopia and Tennessee in my mind?  Not exactly.  He was in rural east Tennessee at about the same time I was in school there.  That intrigued me.

In the late 1980s he finished his residency as an infectious disease specialist in Boston.  He decided to take a job in Tennessee for the slower pace and better quality of life.  He planned to split his time between a VA nursing home/hospital and a small public hospital.

At the same time he moved to Tennessee, the first AIDS cases were appearing in the area.  He had seen AIDS patients in Boston.  His experience in infectious disease made him the logical doctor for people to refer patients to in the area.  At this point there was no real treatment.  All he could do was monitor their blood counts and support them through their secondary diseases.  At first the community of AIDS patients was small and he spent a lot of time going into their homes and getting to know them and their families.

The initial patients he saw were gay men who had moved away from the area in order to lead more open lives in big cities.  Now they were sick and were coming home for help from their families.  There was a huge stigma.  AIDS was a curse handed down for sinful behavior in a lot of the minds of the people of the area.  Even the local gay community didn’t think it was in their local group.  Many nurses refused to work with the patients.  Some protested even offering them treatment in the hospital at all since it was ultimately futile.

Dr. Verghese had to confront his own bigotry.  He was uncomfortable at first with gay men.  He later concerned that he was showing preferential treatment to an elderly couple who had been infected by the husband’s blood transfusion.  Was he falling into the “innocent victim” mentality towards AIDS?  How did he feel about the man with AIDS-related dementia who had infected both his wife and her sister?

Even though this book was written in 1995, I would recommend it for anyone interested in medical history.  This is an account of the front lines of an AIDS epidemic as it moved into an area.  He is a very empathetic and compassionate writer who gave so much of himself to the patients that he ended up destroying his own marriage.

 

About Abraham Verghese

Born of Indian parents who were teachers in Ethiopia, he grew up near Addis Ababa and began his medical training there. When Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed, he completed his training at Madras Medical College and went to the United States for his residency as one of many foreign medical graduates.

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Backlist Books
  • Books Set in North America
  • POC authors
28 Mar, 2017

Life’s That Way

/ posted in: EntertainmentReading Life’s That Way Life's That Way: A Memoir by Jim Beaver
on April 16, 2009
Genres: Nonfiction, Personal Memoirs
Pages: 303
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Goodreads
Setting: California

In August 2003, Jim Beaver, a character actor, and his wife Cecily learned what they thought was the worst news possible- their daughter Maddie was autistic. Then six weeks later the roof fell in-Cecily was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer.

Jim immediately began writing a nightly e-mail as a way to keep more than one hundred family and friends up to date about Cecily's condition. Soon four thousand people a day, from all around the world, were receiving them. Initially a cathartic exercise for Jim, the prose turned into an unforgettable journey for his readers.


I came to this book in a roundabout way.  In Lauren Graham’s memoir she talks about a friend of hers writing a book.  I looked that book up on goodreads.  I scrolled down to the comments to see if anyone else liked it.  One of the first comments mentioned that he was also friends with the author.  I looked over at the icon and saw Jim Beaver’s picture.

jimbeaver

My first thought was, “Bobby Fisher wrote a book?”  I know that he is not the character that he played on Supernatural but the idea was intriguing. I wanted to read it.

Towards the end of 2003, Beaver and his wife Cecily Adams’s 2 year old daughter Maddie had stopped talking and was having melt downs.  She was diagnosed as autistic.  They were also in the process of building their dream house.  They had moved out of their current house and into a rental until their house was finished.  His father was slowly slipping into advanced dementia.  Then Cecily was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.

A few days after the diagnosis, he sat down and wrote a group email to family and friends explaining what was going on with Cecily.  He started writing nightly updates to the group.  People started forwarding his emails to other people who didn’t even know him.  I didn’t understand why until I read the book.

The book is a sampling of the emails.  They don’t cover every day of the time he wrote from the day of her diagnosis until 1 year later.  The emails themselves haven’t been edited though.  This is a day by day account of what it is like to watch your spouse die of cancer and what grieving looks like in real time.

That may sound incredibly depressing to read but it isn’t.  It is sad but not depressing.  He notes the many kindnesses that their friends showed them.  He especially talks about the people involved with That 70s Show, where Cecily was working as a casting director.  They came over and decorated the house for Christmas for them.  One woman who Cecily just knew hated her cleaned their house for them.  He talks about what was helpful and what wasn’t.  This is a great book for anyone who ever wanted to help someone but didn’t know what to do.

He’s an amazing writer.  He was incredibly open about what he was feeling each day.  He talks about his fears – of losing his wife, of having to go away to jobs to earn money while his wife was sick, of dealing with a child who was already in crisis.  He talks of the joys along the way.  He talks about grief hitting you unaware just when you thought you were starting to function again.  He remembers his life with his wife –both the good and the bad.

This is a hopeful book about what you can endure if you have to even if you don’t want to.  It helps to have a great support structure of friends and family around you like he did.  I kept thinking that he must be a great guy to have friends like these.

About Jim Beaver

im Beaver is an actor, playwright, and film historian. Best known as Ellsworth on HBO’s Emmy-award winning series Deadwood and as Bobby Singer on Supernatural, he has also starred in such series as Harper’s Island, John from Cincinnati, and Thunder Alley and appeared in nearly forty motion pictures. He lives with his daughter Madeline in Los Angeles.

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Backlist Books
  • Books Set in North America
27 Mar, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy

/ posted in: Reading Hillbilly Elegy Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
Published by Harper on June 28th 2016
Genres: Nonfiction, Personal Memoirs
Pages: 272
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Goodreads
Setting: Ohio

Vance’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love.” They got married and moved north from Kentucky to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. Their grandchild (the author) graduated from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving upward mobility for their family. But Vance cautions that is only the short version.
At times funny, disturbing, and deeply moving, this is a family history that is also a troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large portion of this country.


Wow.  I read this book in one sitting.  I spent the whole time nodding my head.  I got out of bed to start writing this to make of the thoughts flying around my brain.  Before reading the book I had heard that it was controversial.  After reading it I have no idea why.

This is the story of most of the people I know.

I’ve often summed up my husband and I like this:

  • My husband is what happens when you educate a hillbilly.
  • I’m what happens when two educated hillbillies breed.

In my life I’ve lived in Western Pennsylvania, East Tennessee, Central Ohio, and Northeast Ohio.  I don’t wander far from Appalachia.  Most white people I know have roots somewhere deeper in Appalachia.  I had never considered that the reason for this was a migration north of people from coal mining country to the industrial centers farther north in the 40s and 50s even though that fits part of my family history.

“It was not simply that the Appalachian migrants, as rural strangers ‘out of place’ in the city, were upsetting to Midwestern, urban whites.  Rather, these migrants disrupted a broad set of assumptions held by northern whites about how white people appeared, spoke, and behaved…the disturbing aspect of hillbillies was their racialness.  Ostensibly, there were of the same racial order (whites) as those who dominated economic, political, and social power in local and national arenas.  But hillbillies shared many regional characteristics with the southern blacks arriving in Detroit.”

 

One of the author’s central points is that one of the major problems facing people in these areas is a lack of imagination.  I may be an overly educated person but all my coworkers are not.  Most are high school graduates who never imagined going on to do any college or ever leaving their hometowns.  If no one you know ever leaves, how can someone even imagine that it is an option?  There needs to be people to model what healthy relationships look like or what steps you take to go to college in order for someone to aspire to that.  The author talks a lot about the very small worldview people have.  I keep threatening to buy a world map and teach geography lessons to my coworkers between appointments at work because not only can they not identify some cities as belonging in certain states, they can’t identify certain names as belonging to real states.  They’ve never been there so why would they care?  They just shrug.

“It’s not like parents and teachers never mention hard work.  Nor do they walk around loudly proclaiming that they expect their children to turn out poorly.  These attitudes lurk below the surface, less in what people say than in how they act.  One of our neighbors was a lifetime welfare recipient, but in between asking my grandmother to borrow her car or offering to trade food stamps for cash at a premium, she’d blather on about the importance of industriousness.  ‘So many people abuse the system, it’s impossible for the hardworking people to get the help they need,’ she’d say.  This was the construct she’d built in her head:  Most of the beneficiaries of the system were extravagant moochers, but she–despite never having worked a day in her life–was an obvious exception.”

 

Oh yes.  I love that one.  I know people who have used every government program out there who expound at length about immigrants coming here and getting benefits that “hard working” Americans don’t get.  I also found the discussion in the book about how people overestimate how many hours they work because they think they are more industrious than they are fascinating.  If they are working so hard (in their minds) and aren’t getting ahead, obviously someone is out to get them.  I think this is a big part of the reason why I hate the terms ‘working class’ and ‘working man’.  It is like the rest of us magically make a living by waving our hands and the money rains down from on high.

The author’s story is rough. His mother was a drug addict with a never ending stream of boyfriends.  He found stability in his Memaw.  That wasn’t a given because she was an incredibly unstable person who didn’t model healthy living to her daughter.  She got herself together in her later years and was able to help her grandson.

I understood his story completely.  Everything that happens to him has happened to someone I know.  It hasn’t all happened to the same person but there was nothing in his story that I haven’t heard at least once from someone in casual conversation.  I kept pointing out parallels to my husband’s life to him.  There is a passage at the end where he talks about his non-hillbilly wife being shocked that he had several bank accounts spread out in different banks.  He attributes that to a childhood habit of spreading out his money in several hiding places so no one in his house could steal it all at once.  I just handed the book over to the husband at that point.  One of the ‘in case of death’ paperwork things I keep meaning to do is to get him to write down all the banks he has accounts in.  I’m not talking multiple accounts in a few local banks.  I’m talking about small accounts in multiple states that he can’t bring himself to close.

Some of the major criticisms of this book is the idea that the author hates poor people.  They accuse him of saying that he worked hard and got out so everyone should be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and do it too.  I feel like this a lot too.  I look at people and think, “You have all the opportunities in the world available to you.  You have people who are begging to help you and you just don’t care.”  Maybe that isn’t the case in other poor communities but it is true here.  Kids graduate having never given a thought to what they want to do with their lives.  It isn’t because no one ever asked.  It is just pessimism and lethargy.  I don’t know how else to explain it.  They are smart and capable of doing more than scraping to survive in dead end jobs but it never seems to occur to them that there is more possible in life.

You see this dynamic in the author’s life.  He acknowledges that he had good schools with caring teachers who couldn’t help him learn because he was too preoccupied with the chaos of his home life.  His high school was poorly rated but he considered that to be at least partially due to a lack of student caring.  He talks about good teachers there too.  He talks about the programs that are available to help kids go to school but the pessimism of people may make them assume that there is no help available so they don’t look for them.  The insularity of the group means that no one talks about family problems (until they are over) so people aren’t getting help.  People are suspicious of outsiders so they don’t believe anything an outsider tells them.  Change and hope need to come from inside the community.   

It seems like a lot of people wanted this book to explain Trump voters to them.  It has been touted as the book to read to understand “those people.”  They are criticizing it for not explaining them.  It doesn’t try to.  This is his story.  It doesn’t have a political bent to it.  It was written before the current election.  People need to stop projecting what they want this book to be and see it for what it is.

 

 

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Books Set in North America
22 Mar, 2017

Writings on the Wall

/ posted in: Reading Writings on the Wall Writings on the Wall: Searching for a New Equality Beyond Black and White by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Raymond Obstfeld
Published by Time on August 23rd 2016
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 256
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Goodreads

Since retiring from professional basketball as the NBA's all-time leading scorer, six-time MVP, and Hall of Fame inductee, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has become a lauded observer of culture and society, a New York Times bestselling author, and a regular contributor to The Washington Post, TIME magazine and TIME.com.
He now brings that keen insight to the fore in Writings on the Wall: Searching for a New Equality Beyond Black and White, his most incisive and important work of non-fiction in years. He uses his unique blend of erudition, street smarts and authentic experience in essays on the country's seemingly irreconcilable partisan divide - both racial and political, parenthood, and his own experiences as an athlete, African-American, and a Muslim. The book is not just a collection of expositions; he also offers keen assessments of and solutions to problems such as racism in sports while speaking candidly about his experiences on the court and off.


This is the first book by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar that I have read.  I didn’t even know that he was an author until last year at BEA when he was there.  I didn’t try to get a ticket to his signing but I was working my way through a crowd at one point and ended up standing right beside him.  The crowd was actually his line.  I now know that I’m the same height as Kareem when he is sitting in a chair.

“One thing all that history has taught me is the dangers of the uninformed, quickly formed and ill-informed opinion.  Passionate defense of bad logic is the main cause of most of the world’s misery.”

 

That is the main theme of this book.  Don’t be lazy.  Learn about issues.  Look at all the sides before coming to a conclusion.  Be willing to change your mind as you learn more.

Politics

“When I was a child, I remember adults complaining that voting often came down to selecting the lesser of two evils.  I still hear that today.  But while it feels cathartic to blame elected officials and demonize them for their many failings, the sad truth is that we voters are the real villains in this story.  Our profound laziness and unyielding arrogance as voters have allowed our system to become polluted by hucksters, egomaniacs, dimwits and mack-daddy pimps willing to rent out their stable of votes.”

I started out wanting to underline everything in this book.  Kareem has a strong point of view on many issues.  He explains them well, often using pop culture references to get his point across.  I think the broad scope of the book wore me down by the end.  It started to feel like, “And another thing I’m mad about is…”  I think this book would be better read by dipping in and out of chapters over a longer period of time instead of reading it straight through in order to get it back to the library.  That being said, I think this is a book that is very worth reading.  He ties in his own life experience as a person who has lived most of his life in the public eye, including during his conversion to Islam.  I will look into some of his other books also after reading this one.

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Books Set in North America
  • POC authors
15 Mar, 2017

Why I Left, Why I Stayed

/ posted in: General Why I Left, Why I Stayed Why I Left, Why I Stayed: Conversations on Christianity Between an Evangelical Father and His Humanist Son by Tony Campolo, Bart Campolo
Published by HarperOne on February 21st 2017
Genres: Nonfiction, Personal Memoirs
Pages: 176
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Goodreads

Bestselling Christian author, activist, and scholar Tony Campolo and his son Bart, an avowed Humanist, debate their spiritual differences and explore similarities involving faith, belief, and hope that they share.
Over a Thanksgiving dinner, fifty-year-old Bart Campolo announced to his Evangelical pastor father, Tony Campolo, that after a lifetime immersed in the Christian faith, he no longer believed in God. The revelation shook the Campolo family dynamic and forced father and son to each reconsider his own personal journey of faith—dual spiritual investigations into theology, faith, and Humanism that eventually led Bart and Tony back to one another.


The last time I read a book by Tony Campolo I ended up in a police manhunt so I was a little concerned about picking up this one.  I had heard about Bart Campolo leaving Christianity and working as a Humanist chaplain.  It was big news in the Christian community.  Either it was seen as proof that you can escape your upbringing or it was seen as proof that the Campolos had always been too liberal anyway so obviously they are going to go astray.

This book comes from the discussions that they had after Bart came out as not believing in God.  The book is written in alternating chapters with each man expressing their point of view on a particular topic.

The first thing that surprised me was a preface chapter written by Peggy Campolo, Tony’s wife and Bart’s mom.  She talks about how she didn’t identify with Christianity during the early years of the Tony’s ministry while her kids were growing up.  She has since become a believer and seems to feel a lot of guilt.  She thinks that if she was a Christian while Bart was growing up then he wouldn’t have left as an adult.  This is typical of the baggage that gets put on parents if the children leave a religion.

I was frustrated while reading Tony’s chapters.  Because Bart has now lived on both sides of the debate, he is able to discuss options openly.  Tony freely states that he has never known a life where he wasn’t certain of the presence of God in his life.  It is obvious that he sees Bart as a wandering child who he hopes gets back to the right path.  In the meantime he not really listening to what he has to say.  He just seems to be patting him on the head as he speaks and then saying, “Oh, you don’t mean that.”

“For the Christian parents of positive secular humanists like Bart, however, I have some advice:  Take every opportunity to affirm and encourage your children whenever they say or do something that reflects your Kingdom values, and let them know that you see a direct connection between their behavior and the love of God, even if they don’t.  Doing so demonstrates that you notice and appreciate your kids’ goodness while maintaining your own understanding of its ultimate source, and also opens up opportunities for you to talk about what gets lost when God drops out of the picture.”

 

Obviously he is still hung up on the idea that you can’t be a good person if you don’t have a God dictating what is right and what is wrong.  Bart does a good job discussing why this isn’t true.  Too bad his father wasn’t listening.

Tony also talks a lot about guilt.  He doesn’t understand how people without God handle all their guilt.  He says he lies awake at night feeling guilty about all the harm he does until he is able to let God take the guilt away from him.  I don’t think most people have those kinds of guilty feelings.  Has he ever considered that maybe the guilt comes from following a religion that teaches that you are a horrible person?

The idea behind this book was to help families have conversations about some members leaving Christianity.  I don’t think this book fosters productive conversation because it felt to me like the humanist was explaining over and over and the Christian was just waiting for him to see things the “right” way again.  This might be better for people who need to talk to Christians.  Bart gives answers to a lot of the questions that he’s been asked.  It could help to have some well thought out answers on hand for the common questions.

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Books Set in North America
24 Feb, 2017

The Magnolia Story

/ posted in: Reading The Magnolia Story The Magnolia Story Published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing on October 18th 2016
Genres: Biography & Autobiography
Pages: 208
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Goodreads
Setting: Texas

Are you ready to see your fixer upper?
These famous words are now synonymous with the dynamic husband-and-wife team Chip and Joanna Gaines, stars of HGTV’s Fixer Upper.

The Magnolia Story is the first book from Chip and Joanna, offering their fans a detailed look at their life together. From the very first renovation project they ever tackled together, to the project that nearly cost them everything; from the childhood memories that shaped them, to the twists and turns that led them to the life they share on the farm today.

 


Chip and Joanna Gaines first met when he stopped by her father’s tire store.  Then he was 45 minutes late for their first date with no explanation.  He didn’t have a plan for what to do either.  This should have made her lose interest in him but he talked to her about his plans for buying and renovating small houses.  She was intrigued.

I’ve always been interested in that too.  In fact we are working on that ourselves now too.  But there is one huge difference.  As Chip got more and more houses and started eyeing bigger projects, he started taking on large amounts of debt.  As an advocate of trying to be debt-free, that made me cringe.  It seemed like he had either no idea of the financial risks that he was taking or he just didn’t care.  He talks at one point about Joanna thinking they were broke when they had $1000.  He didn’t think they were broke until there was no money left at all.  Seriously, this would stressful to read if you didn’t know the ending.  I feel like the message here could be interpreted as, “Go wild.  Go crazy in debt.  It’ll be ok.  Someone will come along and fix it for you like magic.”

Don’t do that.

Sure, they bumped along for a while in small houses that they would fix up and then rent out.  They did a lot of work to build up their various businesses.  But a lot of the original capital came from family money and they got bailed out by rich friends after they messed up their credit.  So while I think that this is supposed to read like a rags to riches tale of entrepreneurship, there is always the reminder that there were fairly well off parents in the background who weren’t going to let them crash and burn completely.

I did enjoy the story of their multi-day audition for HGTV that was horrible until they got into a fight over Chip buying a houseboat that didn’t float.

This was a quick read that gives you a glimpse of the back story of a popular TV show.  It fleshes out the people involved a little more.  I think that Chip comes across as more self-centered and irresponsible than he does on TV.  He makes a lot of reckless decisions without consulting his wife that he then expects her to deal with.  She goes along eventually and makes it sound like it is all fine with her but there is a bit of a brittle edge to her story telling sometimes.  I just want to ask her, “Girl, you have an emergency fund in your name only for you and all those babies, right?  Because this man is going to do something catastrophic sometime.”

 

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • POC authors
23 Feb, 2017

Celebrity Memoir Edition

/ posted in: Reading Celebrity Memoir Edition Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick
Published by Touchstone on November 15th 2016
Genres: Nonfiction, Personal Memoirs
Pages: 271
Format: Audiobook
Source: Library
Goodreads

Even before she made a name for herself on the silver screen starring in films like Pitch Perfect, Up in the Air, Twilight, and Into the Woods, Anna Kendrick was unusually small, weird, and “10 percent defiant.”
At the ripe age of thirteen, she had already resolved to “keep the crazy inside my head where it belonged. Forever. But here’s the thing about crazy: It. Wants. Out.” In Scrappy Little Nobody, she invites readers inside her brain, sharing extraordinary and charmingly ordinary stories with candor and winningly wry observations.
With her razor-sharp wit, Anna recounts the absurdities she’s experienced on her way to and from the heart of pop culture as only she can—from her unusual path to the performing arts (Vanilla Ice and baggy neon pants may have played a role) to her double life as a middle-school student who also starred on Broadway to her initial “dating experiments” (including only liking boys who didn’t like her back) to reviewing a binder full of butt doubles to her struggle to live like an adult woman instead of a perpetual “man-child.”

 


I’m not a big fan of celebrity memoirs.  I’m also not a big fan of memoirs written by people in their 20s.  So why would I listen to this audiobook?

I took a chance on it because I figured that Anna Kendrick’s public persona is funny so maybe the book would be too.  I was right.

This isn’t a straight biography.  Her life isn’t told in strict chronological order.  This is more a series of stories that illustrates different points in her life.  I hadn’t realized that she was in a Broadway musical as a kid.  She talks about her life in California before she could get a job.  You find out what changes when you get famous and what doesn’t.  You find out how Twilight films pay for your life while you are doing press for the film that got you an Oscar nomination but didn’t pay much.

I recommend this one on audio to hear her read it.  This book also has the best book group discussion questions ever.

If you want a fun, short book about the ups and downs of show business with a large dose of anxiety thrown in, this is the book for you.


Celebrity Memoir Edition Talking as Fast as I Can: From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls, and Everything in Between by Lauren Graham
Published by Ballantine Books on November 29th 2016
Pages: 224
Goodreads

In this collection of personal essays, the beloved star of Gilmore Girls and Parenthood reveals stories about life, love, and working as a woman in Hollywood—along with behind-the-scenes dispatches from the set of the new Gilmore Girls, where she plays the fast-talking Lorelai Gilmore once again.
In Talking as Fast as I Can, Lauren Graham hits pause for a moment and looks back on her life, sharing laugh-out-loud stories about growing up, starting out as an actress, and, years later, sitting in her trailer on the Parenthood set and asking herself, “Did you, um, make it?” She opens up about the challenges of being single in Hollywood (“Strangers were worried about me; that’s how long I was single!”), the time she was asked to audition her butt for a role, and her experience being a judge on Project Runway.

Despite my protestations that I don’t like celebrity memoirs, I listened to another one.

I never realized that they talked fast on Gilmore Girls until I read a review of the series. I figured that’s just how people talked. (Likewise, I found out that they speak in Chinese on Firefly long after I watched the whole series.  I’m slow on the uptake.)

But when I started this audiobook on my standard 1.5 times the speed setting on my iPod, it was quick.  I learned to listen fast enough for it though after a minute or so.  If you thought the show was quick, you may want to slow this audiobook down.

Like Anna Kendrick, I didn’t know anything about Lauren Graham outside her roles.  This is also not a straight chronological memoir but a series of thoughts on different points in her life.  She talks about being on shows with younger cast members led her to feeling old and giving advice that isn’t always appreciated.  For example, are you sure that’s a body part you want to pierce and/or post a picture of on the internet?

She talks about moving into writing from acting.  This part can sound a little too much like an advertisement to buy her novel.

I wish for the audiobook they had described the photos that she is referring to in the book instead of just saying, “See photo 16 for how I looked that day.”  Not helpful.

Overall, this was a fast (4 hour) listen and fun if you are a fan.  If you haven’t watched Gilmore Girls, skip it because you’ll get confused.  There is a lot of talking about a scene here or there and if you haven’t got a basic familiarity with the show, it would be boring.

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Audiobooks
22 Feb, 2017

Being Mortal

/ posted in: ReadingWork Being Mortal Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
Published by Metropolitan Books on October 7th 2014
Genres: Medical, Nonfiction
Pages: 282
Format: Audiobook, Paperback
Source: Library, Owned
Goodreads

Medicine has triumphed in modern times, transforming birth, injury, and infectious disease from harrowing to manageable. But in the inevitable condition of aging and death, the goals of medicine seem too frequently to run counter to the interest of the human spirit. Nursing homes, preoccupied with safety, pin patients into railed beds and wheelchairs. Hospitals isolate the dying, checking for vital signs long after the goals of cure have become moot. Doctors, committed to extending life, continue to carry out devastating procedures that in the end extend suffering.

I find the discussion of end of life matters fascinating.  I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been asked if I’m not scared about what will happen when I’m old since I’ve chosen not to have children.  That never seemed like a good enough reason to have kids since there is no guarantee that your children will outlive you or be physically/mentally able to take care of you in your old age.

Regardless of your number of offspring, I think everyone is nervous about what will happen with age.  No one wants to lose their independence.  That is the point of this book.  The author looks at several programs that aim to let people continue to live a good life as they age and then have a good death.

I was encouraged by reading about all kinds of different ways that people are rethinking elder care.  I have a dream of a community of cottages for old introverts where you check in once a day so everyone knows that you are still alive and there is a movie playing every night in case you want a group activity where you don’t have to talk to anyone.  No one has quite made that yet but there were some that I wouldn’t mind.

One of the major concerns in allowing a more independent old age is safety.  If you want people to be totally safe, then you can’t let them walk around and make (possibly poor) decisions for themselves.  Children of elderly people tend to value their safety over their happiness.  This leads them to make decisions about care that take away options from the parent.

Has anyone made progress with good deaths?  I still think that the way humans approach death is pretty horrific.  I’m coming to this discussion from my perspective as a veterinarian.  We’re all about palliative care until there is a poor quality of life and then euthanasia so there is no suffering.  The author discusses increasing access to hospice care earlier in the patient’s care to decrease extreme medical interventions that are required of hospitals but don’t ultimately aid the patient.  That’s good but then every story of a “good” death he cites ends with several days of the patient being on all kinds of pain medication so they drift in and out of consciousness.  They may not be in pain but what is the point?  They are past communication.  The families are holding vigils waiting for them to let go.  It seems to me that an overdose at this point is so much kinder.

I hear this all the time during euthanasias.  People start to talk about their relatives’ deaths and how they wish they could have helped them in this way so they didn’t have those last few days.  I understand slippery slope arguments but it just seems like common sense to me.

The author also discussed different personality types of doctors and how they help and hurt decision making.  There are authoritarians who tell the patient what to do without much discussion.  There are doctors who give the patient all their options and let them decide what to do.  I’m the latter one.  We were trained to do this in school.  It can confuse clients because they get overwhelmed.  They then counter with, “What would you do?”  We aren’t supposed to answer that question.  It isn’t a fair one anyway. We aren’t in the same situation.  I could do things at home that you might not be able to.  I might tolerate inconveniences more or less than you do.  The author talks about how he learned to give more opinions about how different choices might affect their lives.  I’ve started to do this too some.  I think it has helped some people.

He also recommends having end of life discussions with your family members before decisions need to be made.  Then if you are in an emergency situation where you can’t talk to them about it, you know what to do.

What would be your ideal way to live out your last few years?

 

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Audiobooks
  • Backlist Books
  • POC authors
21 Feb, 2017

Every Patient Tells a Story

/ posted in: Reading Every Patient Tells a Story Every Patient Tells a Story by Lisa Sanders
Published by Broadway Books on 2010-09
Genres: Medical, Diagnosis
Pages: 276
Format: Paperback
Source: Owned
Goodreads

Never in human history have doctors had the knowledge, the tools, and the skills that they have today to diagnose illness and disease. And yet mistakes are made, diagnoses missed, symptoms or tests misunderstood. In this high-tech world of modern medicine, Sanders shows us that knowledge, while essential, is not sufficient to unravel the complexities of illness. She presents an unflinching look inside the detective story that marks nearly every illness–the diagnosis–revealing the combination of uncertainty and intrigue that doctors face when confronting patients who are sick or dying. Through dramatic stories of patients with baffling symptoms, Sanders portrays the absolute necessity and surprising difficulties of getting the patient’s story, the challenges of the physical exam, the pitfalls of doctor-to-doctor communication, the vagaries of tests, and the near calamity of diagnostic errors.


It always amazes me whenever I have an encounter with human medicine that they rarely do a physical exam outside of an ER.  I’ve been to primary care appointments that consist of talking about symptoms and then ordering tests.  This book discusses the decline in the role of hands on contact with patients and what doctors are missing because of it.

As a veterinarian, physical exam is sometimes all we have.  I’d love to run all the tests that human doctors do in order to get the information that they have but that isn’t always financially feasible.  On the other hand I get phone calls from people who have an over-inflated confidence in my clairvoyance.  “Doctor, my dog isn’t eating.  What’s wrong with him?”

The answer in my head every time – “How the $%#@ should I know?  Put him on the phone and let me ask him.”

What I actually say – “That can be a sign of a lot of different illnesses.  I really need to see him to start to figure out what is wrong.”

There is also a lot of information here about taking a good history.  This can be hard because people are ashamed to tell the truth or they misinterpret things and present them as facts that aren’t actually true.  I had a person in last week who seemed very confident in his knowledge about his dog until you actually listened to what he was saying.  Every sentence was complete and utter medical nonsense but it was presented with such conviction that I found myself thinking momentarily that maybe I was wrong and you can see bacteria with the naked eye.  The opposite of this is the person (very common) who waits to tell you the key piece of information that will unlock the puzzle until you have put your stethoscope in your ears.  I have all my assistants trained to tell me everything anyone says while I’m listening to a heart as soon as I take the stethoscope out.  It is always important.

In addition to the author’s discussions about not interrupting patients while getting a history, I will add my favorite history taking advice.  Ask the children.  They see things and they love to have information that adults don’t.  They aren’t shy about sharing it either.

Me, looking at a vomiting dog:  “Did he eat anything unusual that you know of?”

Mom:  “No, he doesn’t do that.”

Kid:  “He ate my Barbie’s arm off yesterday and Daddy’s has been feeding him Slim Jims every day.  We aren’t supposed to tell.”

I don’t know how many domestic disputes have been started by kids coming clean in the vet’s office.

If you aren’t a medical person, this book is still interesting because it contains a lot of medical mysteries.  The author was a consultant for the T.V. show House and writes a column about medical mysteries so she has lots of stories to tell.  I was particularly proud that I knew the answer to the first one in the book.  It had been drilled into me in vet school.  I’ve never seen it in real life but I always think of it.  I’m glad I finally found a use for that piece of knowledge.

 

 

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Backlist Books
16 Feb, 2017

Lights Out

/ posted in: Reading Lights Out Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath by Ted Koppel
Published by Crown on October 27th 2015
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 279
Format: Paperback
Source: From author/publisher
Goodreads

Imagine a blackout lasting not days, but weeks or months. Tens of millions of people over several states are affected. For those without access to a generator, there is no running water, no sewage, no refrigeration or light. Food and medical supplies are dwindling. Devices we rely on have gone dark. Banks no longer function, looting is widespread, and law and order are being tested as never before.
It isn’t just a scenario. A well-designed attack on just one of the nation’s three electric power grids could cripple much of our infrastructure—and in the age of cyberwarfare, a laptop has become the only necessary weapon. Several nations hostile to the United States could launch such an assault at any time. In fact, as a former chief scientist of the NSA reveals, China and Russia have already penetrated the grid. And a cybersecurity advisor to President Obama believes that independent actors—from “hacktivists” to terrorists—have the capability as well. “It’s not a question of if,” says Centcom Commander General Lloyd Austin, “it’s a question of when.”

I was excited to order Lights Out, a book about the possible aftermath of a catastrophic attack on the U.S. power grid, but once it arrived I was reluctant to read it.  Why?  Possibly for the same reasons as many officials have for not addressing this threat.  I want to pretend it can’t happen.
I was pretty sure that if I read this book that I would turn into some type of disaster prepper.  I already asked for a generator for Christmas (I didn’t get it).  The idea of having electricity fail permanently seems like a horror movie for me.  It would be a horror movie for everyone.
The book outlines ways that the grid is vulnerable and ways that it has already been attacked.  It also has interviews with several people and groups who are preparing for disasters in varying ways.  No one seems to be totally prepared though and the book ends with the acknowledgement that we will never be ready.
I will be rereading the preparation chapters again with some notes about things I can start to do to prepare myself for even minor emergencies like power loss due to blizzards.  My goal of off the grid living is far away but this book made me even more serious about wanting to live that way.

I used to live in rural areas where losing power for up to a few days wasn’t an abnormal occurrence.  Now I live in the city where it very rarely happens.  It happened this week.  It was almost bedtime anyway so I just went to bed but as I was lying there I had a few minutes of panic.  What if this was it?  What if this was the time it was never going to come back on?  Would I look back on my thoughts while laying in bed like a movie voiceover – “These were the last few hours of living in the world they knew….”  Should I get up and check the internet on my phone to see if there was a catastrophe?  Should I save the power on my phone instead?  I knew reading this book would mess with my head.  (It came back on in less than 2 hours.)

I need a generator and solar panels.

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Backlist Books
08 Feb, 2017

On The Noodle Road

/ posted in: Reading On The Noodle Road On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome, with Love and Pasta by Jen Lin-Liu
Published by Riverhead Books on July 25th 2013
Genres: Cooking, Nonfiction
Pages: 388
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Goodreads
Setting: China, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kzyrgystan, Iran, Turkey, Greece, Italy

Feasting her way through an Italian honeymoon, Jen Lin-Liu was struck by culinary echoes of the delicacies she ate and cooked back in China, where she’d lived for more than a decade. Who really invented the noodle? she wondered, like many before her. But also: How had food and culture moved along the Silk Road, the ancient trade route linking Asia to Europe—and what could still be felt of those long-ago migrations?
The journey takes Lin-Liu into the private kitchens where the headscarves come off and women not only knead and simmer but also confess and confide. The thin rounds of dough stuffed with meat that are dumplings in Beijing evolve into manti in Turkey—their tiny size the measure of a bride’s worth—and end as tortellini in Italy. And as she stirs and samples, listening to the women talk about their lives and longings, Lin-Liu gains a new appreciation of her own marriage, learning to savor the sweetness of love freely chosen.


A travel book about noodles?  I had to read this book as soon as I heard of it.  Add in the fact that in 2017 I’m trying to read more Asian authors and books set in Central Asia and this book was perfect for me.  It took me forever to read it though.  I think I found this book so soothing that I would fall asleep after a few pages.  It wasn’t boring.  It just relaxed me.

The author is a Chinese-American journalist who lives in Beijing with her white American husband.  She owns a cooking school.  While most people in the west think of rice when they think of staple dishes of China, noodles are more common in the cuisine of northern China.  She decides to follow the path of the Silk Road to see how noodles spread between China and Italy.  Who invented them?

First of all, the old story about Marco Polo discovering noodles in Asia and bringing them to Italy is not true.  The true history of noodles turns out to be very difficult to figure out.  The author travels from China through central Asia and into Iran and Turkey interviewing chefs and home cooks.  She is taught to cook dishes that amaze her and dishes that she learns to dread like plov, a central Asian rice dish that she was fed at every meal.  I thought plov sounded really good if you left out all the dead animal parts that she kept being served.  For a book that was supposed to be about noodles, it was very heavy on the meat.  She had sheep killed in her honor and a lot of time was spent sourcing and waxing poetic over pork in Muslim countries.

There is also a lot of discussion about relationships and the role of women in society.  At the time she started this trip, the author was recently married and was considering whether or not to have children.  She is very conflicted about what her role should be in her marriage.  Both she and her husband travel for work.  Can they keep doing that?  Should they stay in China?  Does being married automatically mean giving up her independence?  She spends part of the trip traveling alone and part of it with her husband.  She talks to women as they cook about what their relationships are like. She realizes that her love of homemade noodles means that someone has to spend all that time making them. Younger women with jobs outside the house tend not to learn those skills.

I-was-beginning-to

This book does have many recipes if you would like to try making different types of noodles and dishes featuring noodles. It even has recipes for plov. It won’t give you the answer though to where the noodle originated. That answer is lost in time.

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Audiobooks
  • Backlist Books
  • Books Set in Asia
  • Foodies Read 2017
  • POC authors
06 Feb, 2017

Beneath The Surface

/ posted in: Enviromentalist Wacko PostsReading Beneath The Surface Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish by John Hargrove, Howard Chua-Eoan
Published by St. Martin's Press on March 24th 2015
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Nonfiction, Personal Memoirs, Science
Pages: 264
Format: Audiobook
Source: Library
Goodreads
Setting: United States

Over the course of two decades, John Hargrove worked with 20 different whales on two continents and at two of SeaWorld's U.S. facilities. For Hargrove, becoming an orca trainer fulfilled a childhood dream. However, as his experience with the whales deepened, Hargrove came to doubt that their needs could ever be met in captivity. When two fellow trainers were killed by orcas in marine parks, Hargrove decided that SeaWorld's wildly popular programs were both detrimental to the whales and ultimately unsafe for trainers.
After leaving SeaWorld, Hargrove became one of the stars of the controversial documentary Blackfish. The outcry over the treatment of SeaWorld's orca has now expanded beyond the outlines sketched by the award-winning documentary, with Hargrove contributing his expertise to an advocacy movement that is convincing both federal and state governments to act.

As I listened to this book written by a former orca trainer at Sea World, the analogy that kept coming to mind was alien abduction.  Humans have taken orcas out of their natural environment by force.  They are made to live in cells with others of their species with whom they do not share a language.  Several died before the exact requirements for keeping them were figured out.  Humans control when they eat, when they play, and when they are bred.  Humans separate them from their offspring even though we know orcas have complex matriarchal families.

This is a fitting analogy because eventually the author discusses it too.  Seen in this light, it is impossible to justify the practice of using whales and dolphins for entertainment.

The author started as a true believer in Sea World.  From the age of 6 he dedicated his life to becoming an orca trainer.  He loved the whales.  He believed that some of the whales cared for him too.  But he came to realize that no matter how close the relationship between whale and trainer was, at the end of the day he was still their prison guard.  It is only natural that an intelligent creature kept under these conditions will try to fight back.

The book opens with the detailed account of his attack by a whale.  He is clear that the whale chose to let him live.  His break with Sea World came after the 2009 and 2010 deaths of trainers.  In each instance Sea World’s public statements blamed the trainers for making mistakes.  After studying the incidents it was clear to him that they did not and that Sea World was lying to hide the fact that this aggression was a result of psychological stress to the whales.

He discusses many types of aggression and health problems that result from captivity.  One telling story concerns the baby whales.  They swim nonstop for several months after birth.  This is because in the wild orcas never stop moving.  They have to learn to stop and float still in the tiny Sea World pools.

Since the animals are not able to released, he discusses options for how to care for the current whales in a more humane way.

Even if you’ve seen Blackfish, I’d recommend this book to get a better idea about the lives of the whales from someone who has lived on both sides of the issue.

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Audiobooks
  • Backlist Books
  • LBGTQ authors/characters
02 Feb, 2017

Black Titan – The Story of A.G. Gaston

/ posted in: Reading Black Titan – The Story of A.G. Gaston Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins, Elizabeth Gardner Hines
on December 2003
Genres: 20th Century, Biography & Autobiography, Civil Rights, History, Nonfiction
Pages: 330
Format: eBook
Source: Owned
Goodreads
Setting: Alabama

The grandson of slaves, born into poverty in 1892 in the Deep South, A. G. Gaston died more than a century later with a fortune worth well over $130 million and a business empire spanning communications, real estate, and insurance. Gaston was, by any measure, a heroic figure whose wealth and influence bore comparison to J. P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie. Here, for the first time, is the story of the life of this extraordinary pioneer, told by his niece and grandniece, the award-winning television journalist Carol Jenkins and her daughter Elizabeth Gardner Hines.


I had never heard of A.G. Gaston before this book showed up on Book Bub last year.  I’m glad I found out about him.  He had a remarkable life.

A.G. Gaston’s grandparents were slaves.  His grandfather worked with horses and his grandmother was an accomplished cook.  These were considered “privileged” positions.  When slavery ended they stayed on working for the family that previously owned them.  His grandmother taught his mother to cook and she also earned a living working for wealthy white families as a live-in cook and as a sought after caterer.  This put A.G. in contact with wealth at a young age.

When he was young there were two broad schools of thought about black advancement.  Booker T. Washington believed that black people should stay where they were and work hard to advance economically before looking for social equality.  W.E.B. DuBois believed in fighting for social equality and letting the “talented tenth” of black elites raise up the rest of the community.  A.G. Gaston spent his life firmly in Booker T. Washington’s camp.

After serving in WWI, he returned to Alabama and couldn’t find a good job.  He had to take work in the mines.  He saw widows begging for money to pay for their miner husbands’ funerals.  He started a burial insurance business.  From there he bought funeral homes.  Eventually he started a bank for black people and a business training school.

He was in his seventies and wealthy when the civil rights movement game to Birmingham.  He owned the only black hotel so Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference set up shop there.  I got the impression that he thought they were young radical whippersnappers.  He argued for moderation.  He wanted to negotiate instead of marching.  But, he was the person that repeatedly bailed them out of jail – whether they wanted bailed out or not.  He also argued vehemently against involving children in the marches and then secured the bond for the release of all the children jailed.  People spoke of him as being too deferential to the white businessmen, especially if they didn’t know that he was bankrolling a lot of the protests.

His hotel was bombed.   His house was bombed.  (He said he couldn’t be sure if it was white or black people who wanted to bomb his house.)  Bombs were set at other of his properties but were found before they went off.  He let the marchers on the way to Selma camp on one of farms one night.  He was even kidnapped.

After the protests moved away from Birmingham, he stayed and continued to serve the community.  He was a philanthropist.  Eventually he sold his business empire to his employees for a tenth of its worth to maintain local black control.

A.G. Gaston died at the age of 103.  His story is amazing.  He should definitely be better known.
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Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Backlist Books
  • POC authors
23 Dec, 2016

Hidden Figures

/ posted in: Reading Hidden Figures Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on December 6th 2016
Genres: 20th Century, Biography & Autobiography, Civil Rights, History, Nonfiction
Pages: 368
Format: Paperback
Source: Book Tour, From author/publisher
Goodreads

“Set against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South and the civil rights movement, the never-before-told true story of NASA’s African-American female mathematicians who played a crucial role in America’s space program—and whose contributions have been unheralded, until now.
Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of professionals worked as “Human Computers,” calculating the flight paths that would enable these historic achievements. Among these were a coterie of bright, talented African-American women. Segregated from their white counterparts by Jim Crow laws, these “colored computers,” as they were known, used slide rules, adding machines, and pencil and paper to support America’s fledgling aeronautics industry, and helped write the equations that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.
Drawing on the oral histories of scores of these “computers,” personal recollections, interviews with NASA executives and engineers, archival documents, correspondence, and reporting from the era, Hidden Figures recalls America’s greatest adventure and NASA’s groundbreaking successes through the experiences of five spunky, courageous, intelligent, determined, and patriotic women: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Christine Darden, and Gloria Champine.
Moving from World War II through NASA’s golden age, touching on the civil rights era, the Space Race, the Cold War, and the women’s rights movement, Hidden Figures interweaves a rich history of scientific achievement and technological innovation with the intimate stories of five women whose work forever changed the world—and whose lives show how out of one of America’s most painful histories came one of its proudest moments.”


In the 1940s airplanes were being studied in Virginia. Wind tunnels were built to evaluate minute changes in plane design in an effort to help win WWII. Large amounts of data were being collected. In order to process the numbers female mathematicians called computers where hired do crunch the numbers. Because Virginia was a segregated state, the women were kept in two areas. The East Computers were white and the West Computers were black.

A job as a computer was a step up for women with advanced degrees whose only hope for a job before this was teaching. This book covers the years from World War II to the beginning of the space age when Langley’s operations moved to Houston.

The author’s father had worked at Langley. The author grew up knowing several of the women but did not realize what they had done for space research. Most of the women were uncredited although several managed to get papers published over the years.

Eventually, women were absorbed into the labs that they had been supporting and the East and West Computer sections shut down. As machines became able to calculate faster than they could, they had to adapt to survive. Some moved more into research. Others became computer programmers to teach the machines the jobs that they previously did.

Among the women’s contributions were:

  • Calculating the time and location for a rocket to take off in order to have the capsule splash down near the Navy ships waiting to rescue the astronaut.
  • Calculating all the variables involved in getting the lunar landing module off the moon and able to meet up with the orbiting ship for the return to Earth.
  • Imagining the need for and then designing response scenarios for a systems malfunction like what happened on Apollo 13.

The scientific achievements of the black women profiled in this book were set against the backdrop of segregation and discrimination that they faced when they weren’t at work.  A good companion book to this would be Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County about the shut down of all schools by a county that did not want to integrate them. Many of these very educated women were from this area and/or had families affected by the shut down of the schools.

I enjoyed this book.  I’m looking forward to seeing the movie also even though it appears that it will be focusing mostly on the John Glenn orbital flight.  Read the book to find out the whole story.

Purchase Links

HarperCollins
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About Margot Lee Shetterly

margot-lee-shetterly-ap-photo-by-aran-shetterly Margot Lee Shetterly grew up in Hampton, Virginia, where she knew many of the
women in Hidden Figures. She is an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow and the
recipient of a Virginia Foundation for the Humanities grant for her research on
women in computing. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Find out more about Margot at her website and connect with her on Twitter.

16 Dec, 2016

Marching Powder

/ posted in: Reading Marching Powder Marching Powder: A True Story of Friendship, Cocaine, and South America's Strangest Jail by Rusty Young, Thomas McFadden
Published by St. Martin's Griffin on May 1st 2004
Genres: Nonfiction, Personal Memoirs
Pages: 400
Format: Paperback
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon (affiliate link)
Goodreads
Setting: Bolivia

“Rusty Young was backpacking in South America when he heard about Thomas McFadden, a convicted English drug trafficker who ran tours inside Bolivia’s notorious San Pedro prison. Intrigued, the young Australian journalist went to La Paz and joined one of Thomas’s illegal tours. They formed an instant friendship and then became partners in an attempt to record Thomas’s experiences in the jail. Rusty bribed the guards to allow him to stay and for the next three months he lived inside the prison, sharing a cell with Thomas and recording one of the strangest and most compelling prison stories of all time.”


Thomas McFadden was a cocaine smuggler.   When he was double crossed by the Bolivian officials that he had bribed for safe passage, he ended up in San Pedro.  San Pedro was an unusual prison.  You needed to pay an entrance fee to be allowed inside.  Thomas had had all his money taken by the police so he was already in trouble.  He also needed to prove that a black native English speaker was British and not an American spy.

Once inside no services were provided.  You weren’t assigned a cell or given meals.  Cells needed to be purchased. Meals were bought in restaurants run out of cells or prisoners cooked in their own kitchens.  Ingredients were bought from women who ran stores out of their husbands’ cells.

Women and children lived in the prison with their husbands and fathers.  They were free to leave every day to go to work or school.

There were five neighborhoods in the prison.  The most exclusive had an entrance outside the main prison gates.  That was were the politicians and drug lords lived.  Thomas couldn’t afford that.  By getting money wired from friends he was able to eventually buy a cell in one of the two nicer neighborhoods inside.  These had gates that closed at 9 PM to keep the bad people out.  When you buy a cell, there was a real estate transfer that was recorded in the neighborhood logs.  You got a deed.  It could be mortgaged if needed.  Some people were speculators who bought several cells.  They rented them out or used extra cells to run businesses.  Thomas’ business was giving tours.  He was the best tour guide and word of mouth in the back packing community made him famous.

Cocaine production was a major industry in the prison.  The best cocaine in Bolivia was made there.  That was what a lot of the tourists came for.  Some stayed for months.

I had never imagined that a prison would be run like this.  Thomas was here for several years in the 1990s.  His story of learning to adapt and thrive in this environment is intriguing.  His attempts to move through the Bolivian legal system are frustrating.  This is a story that you haven’t read before.

14 Dec, 2016

Nujeen: One Girl’s Incredible Journey from War-torn Syria in a Wheelchair

/ posted in: Reading Nujeen: One Girl’s Incredible Journey from War-torn Syria in a Wheelchair Nujeen: One Girl's Incredible Journey from War-torn Syria in a Wheelchair by Nujeen Mustafa, Christina Lamb
Published by Harper Wave on October 11th 2016
Genres: Nonfiction, Personal Memoirs
Pages: 304
Format: Audiobook
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon (affiliate link)
Goodreads
Setting: Syria

“Prize-winning journalist and the co-author of smash New York Times bestseller I Am Malala, Christina Lamb, now tells the inspiring true story of another remarkable young hero: Nujeen Mustafa, a teenager born with cerebral palsy, whose harrowing journey from war-ravaged Syria to Germany in a wheelchair is a breathtaking tale of fortitude, grit, and hope that lends a face to the greatest humanitarian issue of our time, the Syrian refugee crisis.
For millions around the globe, sixteen-year-old Nujeen Mustafa embodies the best of the human spirit. Confined to a wheelchair because of her cerebral palsy and denied formal schooling in Syria because of her illness, Nujeen taught herself English by watching American soap operas. When her small town became the epicenter of the brutal fight between ISIS militants and US-backed Kurdish troops in 2014, she and her family were forced to flee.”


I finished this audiobook a few days ago just as the news was coming out about the Syrian government retaking Aleppo.  If you don’t have a good understanding of the causes of the conflict in Syria or the history of the Kurds, read this book.

Nujeen’s family was well off.  Her siblings are all older than she is.  One is a director living in Germany.  The rest were university students or graduates.  She was unable to go to school because of her cerebral palsy.  They lived in a fifth floor apartment with no elevator so she almost never left the house.  She learned by watching TV.  She is very smart.  She taught herself English by watching Days of Our Lives.

When the rebellion against Assad started, life didn’t change too much for her family.  They didn’t think it would because they lived in such a safe city – Aleppo.  Her sister joined in the protests at her university until the regime’s response became too violent.  Eventually they moved to their other house in Manbij.

They got used to the hardships.  When her brother visited from Germany, he was horrified at their living conditions and what they were now accepting as normal.  They started to make plans to leave.

Her insistence that live didn’t change that much for them and that no one thought that anything bad could happen in a city as safe as Aleppo was upsetting.  I kept thinking that someday we’ll be telling this story about the U.S.  I had to sit this audiobook aside for a bit because it was making me really depressed.  I listened to it on the way to work one morning and was on the verge of tears all day.  I finished it by listening to it in large sections on the way to and from large family gatherings so I didn’t have time to dwell as soon as I finished listening.

“We will just be numbers while the tyrant is engraved in history.”  Nujeen wondering why history only remembers the names of the dictators and not their victims.

 

The family first left for Turkey and then the children headed on to Europe.  I would love to hear this story from her sister Nasreen’s perspective.  Nujeen was a teenager who had never left the house.  Nasreen was in charge of her.  It sounds like she drove poor Nasreen to distraction with her excitement about being out in the world.  Nasreen was trying to get them through hostile countries and Nujeen was bubbling over with how exciting it all was.  She did realize that there were times that Nasreen just wanted her to shut up.

They went through Turkey and then took an inflatable boat illegally to Greece.  Whether or not to take her wheelchair on the boat was a major point of contention.  They made the trip on the same day as three-year-old Aylan Kurdi drowned trying the trip from farther down the coast.  From there they moved country to country to Germany to meet their brother just as the countries in Europe were starting to close their borders to refugees.

Nujeen talks about how her status as an English speaking refugee in a wheelchair led to a lot of interviews.  One of them made its way into this John Oliver piece.

I enjoyed Nujeen’s story because she is a very smart and very sassy teenager.  That comes through in the writing.  She’s funny.  I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to put a human face on the humanitarian crisis.

12 Dec, 2016

Becoming Nicole

/ posted in: Reading Becoming Nicole Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family by Amy Ellis Nutt
Published by Random House on October 20th 2015
Pages: 279
Format: Audiobook
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon (affiliate link)
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Setting: Maine

“The inspiring true story of a transgender girl, her identical twin brother, and an ordinary American family’s extraordinary journey to understand, nurture, and celebrate the uniqueness in us all, from the Pulitzer Prize–winning science reporter for The Washington Post.”


Wayne and Kelly Maines adopted identical twin boys at birth.  They were named Jonas and Wyatt.  Starting around age 2, Wyatt started showing a strong preference for stereotypically female toys, clothes, and activities.  He started asking about why people thought he was a boy.

I did enjoy the discussion of prenatal development that attempt to explain how identical twins can turn out so differently.  Different positioning in utero can influence the availability of hormones to each twin, for example.

Mrs. Maines accepted what Wyatt was trying to tell her at an early age but Mr. Maines did not.

This section of the book was frustrating for me to listen to because there seemed to be so much misogyny involved.  It seemed like the reason that Mr. Maines fought this for so long and so hard is that he had a hard time with a son of his preferring female things over male things.  The book talks about how he wanted to play sports and hunt with his sons.  Well, a girl child could do those things also.  That was never mentioned.  It was either there was going to be a rough-and-tumble boy or a sweet little princess girl.  For a book about trans issues, the discussion of gender roles seemed very inflexible.

Wyatt’s classmates didn’t have a problem with any of this through elementary school.  When it came time for middle school, the decision was made after talking to teachers, doctors, and counselors to have a legal name change to Nicole and to let her wear feminine clothing to school.  This more public acknowledgement of Nicole’s transgender identity started to become controversial.

A Maine anti-LGBT group got involved in protesting against her.  A grandfather of another student in the school told his grandson that if he ever saw Nicole go into the girls’ bathroom, he was to follow her in there because he had every right to be in there too.

It always comes down to the bathrooms.  Why is that?

bathroom-453420_640

It makes me wonder if I’ve been using public restrooms wrong this whole time.  Are we supposed to be getting naked and cavorting around the stalls?  What do people imagine is going on?

man-161245_640

Amazingly, the “logic” always seems to go like this:

  1. Letting transgender people use the bathroom they identify with is the same as letting any random person choose any bathroom they feel like going into on any given day.
  2. So, cis heterosexual men will take advantage of this opportunity to go into women’s restroom where (we must presume) they are imagining naked women lining up for their perusal.
  3.  This will lead to rape.

So, if I’m following the logic correctly, all we can fix all this and still let transgender people go to the bathroom in peace.  All we need to do is:

  1. Make cis heterosexual psychosexually disturbed men use a private restroom of their own — and —-
  2. Teach these same men not to rape people

Problem solved!  Notice that nowhere in here are transgender people a public hazard AT ALL.

Anyway, instead of using my logic, the school district banned Nicole from the girl’s restroom and made her be monitored by an adult at all times.  This was supposed to be for her safety to keep the other student who was harassing her away but it punished her instead of dealing with his harassment.  After trying to work out a solution, the Maines moved and filed suit against the district.

The lawsuit worked its way up to the Maine Supreme Court where they finally won a ruling that kids in school in Maine are allowed to use a restroom that conforms to their gender identity.


I finished this audiobook a few days before HBO released The Trans List, which includes an interview with Nicole.  In this trailer, she is youngest woman who is talking about bathrooms.  I watched the documentary.  It is very good.  It is only an hour long so if you have access to it you should definitely watch.

 

29 Nov, 2016

The Piano Shop on the Left Bank

/ posted in: Reading The Piano Shop on the Left Bank The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier by Thad Carhart
Published by Random House Trade Paperbacks on March 12th 2002
Genres: History, Nonfiction, Personal Memoirs
Pages: 268
Format: Audiobook
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon (affiliate link)
Goodreads
Setting: France

“Walking his two young children to school every morning, Thad Carhart passes an unassuming little storefront in his Paris neighborhood. Intrigued by its simple sign — Desforges Pianos — he enters, only to have his way barred by the shop’s imperious owner. Unable to stifle his curiosity, he finally lands the proper introduction, and a world previously hidden is brought into view. Luc, the atelier’s master, proves an indispensable guide to the history and art of the piano. Intertwined with the story of a musical friendship are reflections on how pianos work, their glorious history, and stories of the people who care for them, from amateur pianists to the craftsmen who make the mechanism sing.”


This book starts out with a mystery.  How does a small shop that repairs pianos survive in a neighborhood that isn’t around any other music stores?  The author is an American living in France, is fluent in French, and played the piano as a child.  He uses the excuse of asking if they know of any place to find a used piano to get into the store.  He is turned away for weeks with the excuse that they will let him know if they hear of any used pianos. Finally, a new worker, Luc, lets him know that he needs an introduction from a current customer to be allowed in the store.  Once he gains that password he is let into the back of the store where they keep an ever rotating collection of used pianos.  Luc takes on the task of finding the perfect used piano for the author’s family.

In between the story of learning how to be accepted in a very French establishment, the author tells the history of the piano.  We hear about trying to pick up the piano again as an adult.  He introduces us to people trying to make the most perfect piano possible.  He compares learning the piano as a child in France with the lessons that he continued to take when his family moved back to America.  He also discovers all the musicians that inhabit the world around him.

This is a quiet book that had a fascinating amount of history in it.  I learned more about how pianos work here than in years of music lessons.

 

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