Monday, February 23, 2015

A Fighting Chance by Elizabeth Warren

A Solid 3.5.

Take aways, in no particular order: (1) How many successful women neither had a divorce nor lived apart from the husbands?  SHEESH!  Not exactly inspiring reading. (2) CONGRESS! It's kind of like House of Cards, but without the deaths.  I hope. It's depressing. (3) INEQUALITY! I liked the bit where she talked about how, in real wages, food and clothing prices have gone down enough that even though people are buying iphones, their real dollars spent are fairly constant. What is not constant are wages, which have been flat. (4) Foreclosures. I like that she has a heart, and is not willing to condemn folks just because they are broke. (5) Kids. It's nice that her kids were not the same, and she speaks to having some difficulty with her son without actually belittling him. Having kids is stressful, and to ignore it from one's professional life always seems like a hole. And YES! I have a double standard for men and women. Most women I know are involved in their kids lives, whereas I have worked for or with several men who seem to know as much about raising children as raising distant cousins. So sue me.

I listened to the audiobook. She was engaging for the listener.

The River of Doubt

My interest in reading Millard's River of Doubt sprang directly from Grann's excellent Lost City of Z. The books are similar insofar as they discuss two courageous men's journeys through the Amazon, and spend more time than strictly necessary talking about candiru. This is not an actual complaint - these are amazingly bizarre creatures, and anyone who would knowingly travel through rivers with them are crazy, heroic or both.

What I loved about Millard's book is the description of the journey taken by Roosevelt. It is a shame that he died at the relatively young age of 60, and sadder still to think that his Amazonian trip might have played a part in his early demise. On the other hand, if one man packed more life into one lifetime, I don't know who it is (except, perhaps, Rondon. See next paragraph). I had read little more than facts about Roosevelt before this book, but I felt a much better appreciation for him after reading it. The author includes information about his upbringing, touches on his years as a Rough Rider, president, widowed husband, sick child, proponent of the Panama Canal, and grieving parent, all of which left me with awe of what the man accomplished and his general approach to life. His journey on the Amazon was captivating, from who packed what to the pack animals that died along the way, and from his contact with Amazonian tribes to the friends who were not prepared to travel the River of Doubt. This book is packed with information, and I was at the edge of my seat waiting to see what trials and tribulations the men would next face. I felt like I was there - frustrated at the days of waterfalls, shocked at one of the camaradas behavior, worried about the men with malaria, perplexed why any of them had undertaken this difficult journey.

The only man whose life rivaled Roosevelt in importance was Candido (Die if Necessary, but never kill!) Rondon. It's amazing that I had never heard of him outside of reading about the Amazon. This might be due to my general avoidance of adventure literature as a younger person, but I imagine at least part of it is due to his not being given enough attention in English-language literature. Having read this book I was intensely interested to read a biography about him, but there are essentially none written in English. How can this be?  How can Amazon, as a company, not have commissioned a work about this man? How can Hollywood not have come calling, even if it was to bastardize a much better-written book? Journalists!  Write this book! (Note: there is a book, published in 2004, called "Stringing Together a Nation: C├óndido Mariano da Silva Rondon and the Construction of a Modern Brazil, 1906–1930." While I hate to disparage a book I have not yet read, any book on this great man that received only 5 reviews on Amazon seems like it is likely not to have captured the public's imagination in the way it should.)

My only disappointment with the book was in its organization and, occasionally, the writing. There were many times when facts were repeated, especially when it came to prompting passages that contained the past. As it is, some of the reminiscing of past experiences took me out of the exciting adventure at hand, which was a pity. The same happens with the author's information regarding the flora and fauna of the Amazon. It is likely already clear to the casual reader that the Amazon was a deadly place, and everyone or everything in it was specialized. If not, I just communicated it to you in one sentence! But to repeat this every time a new species or tribe was introduced became repetitive. Perhaps better to have on chapter on the tribes in the Amazon, or the species the men encountered on the Amazon, or a backstory regarding the people in the book, than weave it in so clunkily. And finally, some of these passages seemed more anecdotal than others, added to shock rather than inform. The things the men experienced themselves were terrifying enough without needing to bring in short passages that seemed largely ancillary, such as the candiru that might have become inserted in a man who was simply urinating near the river, or the English engineer whose throat was slit by the Cinta Larga after they had offered him food.

All in all, however, the events described in this book - and the details included by the author - more than overcame any difficulties the reader encounters in either the writing or organization. For anyone wanting to read more about the Amazon, Rondon, or Roosevelt, this is an excellent book. Now to read either about the war of the Triple Alliance or the Panama Canal...

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Fifteen Minutes Outside by Rebecca Cohen

I will admit to picking up far more of these kids of books than I actually read. You know, the "it's really easy to make significant life changes by just doing this One Easy Thing." Many of these seem to start out as a blog, though I don't know if this is the case with this one. 

The first "do one thing" book I read was Being Julia Child. At the time I was in grad school and had just picked up a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking at a planned parenthood book sale in Santa Barbara, one of the most unrealistically beautiful places I imagine I'll ever live. But back to the book - I had started cooking these recipes both as a way to learn to cook (it was FAR BETTER than anything on the cooking channel) and an excuse to invite people to the house (there's only so much cream one should eat in one serving). Reading that book I was profoundly disappointed: here I was slaving away at a dissertation, and this woman simply blogged about the thing I was already doing, and had far more people read her work WHILE making money than I ever would. 

My first reaction to this book was very similar to Being Julia Child - why didn't I write this?!?! Or if not me, than a couple of enviro-types that I know. The answer is most certainly a topic for another post, but I am happy that I did not put down the book in the early chapters. The only niggling complaint I have as I continued to read this book is the amount of self-promotion in it: my preference would have been to put these things in the back of each book or chapter, with a small paragraph describing her products. I get she needs to hawk her wares, I just don't like it to get in the way of my reading.

And on to the meat of the book! Each chapter is simply a list of seasonally appropriate activities to get you and your kids outside for 15 minutes. Kind of like Things to do with toddlers and twos, but with an outside focus. These lists were great. In addition to a wide variety of activities, they were generally appropriate for a range of ages and interests and were easy to implement with little or no equipment. These are indeed my favorite kind of activities, especially if they are only going to last 15 minutes. Sure your kids may like some of these suggestions and do them for hours, but if they don't, at least there's not a big time, energy or equipment investment.

Would I buy this book? I don't know. After reading it, I would probably use it most if it were a laminated sheet for each month even though I likely needed the book to flesh out some of the ideas the first time I made it. Even better: a spreadsheet of all of the activities, then you can check the ones that would work for your family (anything with a hose is out in our mountain desert, for example) with boxes for you to add ones that work for your area/environment. Oh look, I made another product to sell!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Into Hot Water, A Four Corners Mystery by Judith Ann Isaacs

The second book I read for the Family50 was Into Hot Water, A Four Corners Mystery by Judith Ann Isaacs. Judith has written at least a couple of local guidebooks I have read, and all of them have been both straightforward to use and useful in their details regarding our local area. Given this, I was happy to pick up Into Hot Water.

Just a little background: For a few months after college I worked at a self-publishing book business in Bloomington, Indiana. It sticks in my mind for two reasons: I learned not everyone has a book in them, and if you are a small business owner, Indiana allowed you to let your workers smoke in the workplace. This was the primary reason at least two (yellowed, odoriferous, desiccated) employees worked there. Back to my first point - egads do some people write terrible, terrible books. It truly was a vanity press in the worst sense of the phrase. Given this background, I was pleasantly surprised with this book. The book layout, editing and story were all fantastic for not having been released by a major publisher.

But was it a good read? I will say this: I finished the book and never once thought of putting it down. It was a solid mystery with character development enough for me to care about the people in the story, adequate foreshadowing so that one did not feel the solution came out of left field, and just the right amount of filler to provide backstory but not boredom. In addition, I loved the local flavor.The land disputes, the culture, the small time police - all of this is alive and well in our part of the world, and I was happy to read a novel that captured the true flavor of New Mexico as I have experienced it. 

Recommended audience: Great beach read, New Mexico read, and mystery

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Lost City of Z

I've never been able to keep up New Year's Resolutions, and for all intents and purposes have stopped trying.  This year, however, our library is celebrating it's 50th anniversary by holding a contest: Read 50 books, and at the end of the year get your name entered into a contest. Books read to children count too. Enter the Family 50: This year each family member will either read or be read 50 books.

In a perfect world, I'd have the children write or recite a synopsis of each book they read and post it. And truly, we might get this done. But for my part I hope to write a review of each of my books, both as a way to try and consistently write and as a way to record the books I've read. Let's see if this lasts a month!

My first book is The Lost City of Z by David Grann. At this point I will only say that any review any person can write about this book will not do it justice, so stop reading this and GET THE BOOK! I myself had avoided reading it for well over a year, thinking that it was simply another adventure book.  Not that there's anything wrong with a good adventure story. They can be exciting and interesting. They can help let us feel better about ourselves by painting a picture of an explorer who invariably made a series of bad decisions we ourselves have not made. Short of traveling to a place oneself, there is no better way to learn geography than to read about others who have gotten to know a place firsthand. Truly, adventure books are great!

But this is not merely a description of one man's remarkable travels to one of the most interesting and least explored places at the turn of the 20th century, though Grann's description of the Amazon as experienced by Percy Fawcett is truly amazing (sidenote: tropical diseases are horrific!). It's a book about history, literature, anthropology, geography and technology since the discovery of the New World. Examples of questions that you will find answered: Did Arthur Conan Doyle entertain notions of the occult, and why? Where did we get all the rubber for tires when cars became more prevalent? Why would an opera company be made to perform in the Amazon, and how did they fare? Why were there so darn many explorers in the Victorian age? What do you do if you get maggots in your arm? This book has these answers and many, many more...

As you can tell, I loved this book. I recommend it to anyone with a vague interest in the greater world around them. It would be a lovely spine to a course about South America, with two weeks to read and discuss the book and the rest of the semester devoted entirely to independent projects that piqued the interest of instructors or students. Were I to pick one book that could serve as a jumping off point to learn about Conquistadores, the Amazon, the history of WWI, early anthropology, exploration, the Royal Geographical Society of London, the English, or Colonialism, this would be it. I can't believe how much the author packed into one book.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Radical Housewife

The Radical Housewife: Redefining Family Values for the 21st CenturyThe Radical Housewife: Redefining Family Values for the 21st Century by Shannon Drury
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Since the birth of child number two, I've tried to read while nursing. It makes me feel like I'm getting a little time to myself, as if I'm learning something, and when I'd rather sleep in the middle of the night a good title will get my energized enough not to slump over into a puddle. I hate to relegate this title to only be reading while nursing, but I certainly am glad I picked this up to read.  For me, it was the right book at the right time.

I've read many a biography of famous and/or interesting people, and most of the time I come away thinking, "But they had it so easy!" or "But I don't have a deadly disease to bring me that perspective!" This strength of this book, however, is that it is about as normal as a person you can imagine - juggling children! - but who still managed to become president of Minnesota NOW. It was inspiring to read why she decided to get involved, useful to understand how motherhood - and postpartum depression - impacted her ability to navigate through the things she wanted to do, and wonderful that she was such a down-to-earth person who wrote about the good, bad and ugly of putting oneself out there. Reading this book made me think I could walk her path, which is more useful to me that consulting stories of people whose lives I feel I could never lead.

One other thing: I loved that this book considered moms as feminists without hiding that she is married with children. There are few things that can make one more aware of poverty, inequality of opportunity, the downsides of insurance, or just how crappy life can be than becoming a parent. Sure, life is unfair.  But for some kids and families it is much tougher than others.  Many feminist blogs, however, are a complete turnoff for me - they are meant for college girls who have time to march, or fight only the abortion fight, or who blog endlessly about girl's toys or body image.  It's not that this isn't important, but there's a whole world of unfairness to explore, and many of these issues are far more complicated than the color of kids' toys.  This book was the first feminist book I've read about a woman happily married with kids at home who did not mention breast-versus-bottle, attachment parenting, or any other parenting issues that seem to dominate most other books these days.  This is a woman with other things on her mind, and for that I applaud her and her dedication to getting her thoughts down on the page.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Superior University

Last November, my mom bought me a far fancier sewing machine than the one I'd been using:



She bought it new from a brick and mortar sewing shop, which meant that Heidi came with lessons.  Lessons?! I did sewing in 4-H back in the day, and still remember tests in middle school about sewing (specifically, the purpose of a pressing ham, and that one guy sewed an ice cream cone pillow for his girlfriend), why do I need lessons? My approach to sewing thus far had been to grab the cheapest needles, the cheapest thread and the cheapest material, and then hope it all came out all right in the end. Sometimes it did, sometimes it didn't. Sometimes my thread broke 3 million times and I thought it was the tension. So I went ahead and took the first lesson. And lo and behold! it wasn't always the tension! Thread matters and how long you've used your needles and the shape of the needle and how often you've cleaned your machine!  My first sewing class at Ryan's was fantastic, and I'm really looking forward to the next one.

Around the time mom got the new machine, we also learned about Superior Threads. Several of the quilters around here had taken the project-a-month class called Superior University, and all learned a lot. I went to my first quilt group meeting last month, and I was impressed by what projects had been completed. So I signed up - I thought it was better than just going through a Martha Stewart book using all of my old habits.

This week I received my first project. There were three kinds of thread (two colors of Razzle Dazzle for the first project, and a spool of Bottom Line thread to use for subsequent projects), a notebook, a batting/stabilizer called Soft and Stable, a DVD, and two instructions sheets - one for making a thread sample before starting a project, and one for this month's project. I particularly liked that the instruction sheets came with color photos detailing the steps in each project, and that there was a list of all materials needed. In addition, there's a show and tell page that lets you know how other people's projects look.

Now that I'm finished, here's what I learned.

1.) Razzle Dazzle is a thread that you place in the bobbin. Why this seems so remarkable, I have no idea. But it is! When it came to making my thread swatch (perhaps this is not what they are called - gauge swatch?), for some reason it was tricky to have to duplicate my notes on both sides of the swatch. If I had planned ahead (if my brain had said, "you're sewing with the BOBBIN, plan ACCORDINGLY"), this would have been a little better. Just a note to self: When sewing with the bobbin, prepare the front and back of the blank swatch identically, in order to make marking relevant info more easy.

2.) I really had to change my tension - tension at about 4 is on the far right, and 7 is on the far left. The Bottom Line thread kept showing through - I think I ended up with the tension on 7 or so. Making the thread swatch was completely worth the effort!

3.) The Soft and Stable is black, and I bought a light colored fabric, which made everything look a little stranger than I had anticipated. On future projects, I will pick a much darker or dizzier fabric so that the black isn't such a big deal.

4.) This thread and project was made for free motion quilting. Luckily, I had purchased said foot this weekend, so I was off to the races. I was so much more happy with the free motion squares than with those I tried to follow on a pattern.

5.) The instructions came with an template, but without any carbon paper, artisitic ability or stencils, they weren't very useful to me. This ended up for the best because it made me give free motion quilting a go, but if there's a pattern like that in future projects, it would be worth it to me to pick up stencils or carbon paper.

6.) I need to take the time to baste the openings. The first one I did (bottom left) is by far the worst. I kind of figured out how to make it better as I moved on, but none were anywhere near as good as if I'd basted.

In sum, this was a great project, and I'm glad I'm giving Superior University a go. I think between now and next month I'd like to make some more of these with the free motion quilt foot. They are just the right size for trying it out without getting defeated.