About stuff (including me and writing)

Monday, July 03, 2023

Book Reviewlette: Indulgence in Death

Indulgence in Death (In Death, #31)Indulgence in Death by J.D. Robb
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Good paperback genre read. Character arcs essentially flat (because in a series?) but distinct and intriguing. The murder mystery plot and setting are both clever; futuristic and creative. I'll probably try another in the series for comparison and to see if it/main character gets old with repetition of quirks and plots.

(Four stars for what it is/genre. Not comparable to deeper reads.)

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Friday, March 31, 2023

Hillbilly Women: Struggle and Survival in Southern AppalachiaHillbilly Women: Struggle and Survival in Southern Appalachia by Skye Moody
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Skye Moody (aka Kathy Kahn) originally published "Hillbilly Women" in 1974, then updated primarily the introduction and end note in 2014. The subject and form were a huge undertaking; all but the last chapter are written in the words of individual women living in Southern Appalachia whom Moody visited during her first decade of living and organizing there. Inevitably, there are some absences and some repetitions.

In fact, the author developed the project that became the book based on her own noticing of absence and repetition in the stories she heard. Traveling within the mountains, listening as women told their lives to the writer and activist, Moody
"...began making tape recordings of individuals' life stories with the intention of carrying them to their counterparts across the mountains and hollows. This was before the Internet and satellite television existed. I wanted them to know that they were not alone, and that their stories matched those of thousands of others not so far away struggling to survive under the same spiteful thumb of poverty, prejudice, and exploitation."

Moody shared this context in the book's endnote. I would have appreciated being more aware of this as I read through the stories from the beginning, and I would recommend reading the last couple of pages first.

In the final chapter, titled "Without Anger There Won't Be Any Change," Moody's voice concludes the book, necessarily apart from--and probably also necessarily after--featuring diverse yet entwined voices of Appalachian women from multiple generations, races, religions, relationships, and jobs.
"Every time I read over the stories of these women, I am filled with a sense of failure. I feel somehow I failed to capture their intensity and strength and the emotion with which they recall the cruel experiences of their lives...

I'll never forget the day Myra Watson got indoor plumbing in her house and the pride she felt because she had finally saved up enough money to have it installed. Why did she have to wait 64 years for indoor plumbing?"

Of course the stories include what Moody angrily identifies as "cruel experiences," influenced by natural and unnatural disasters such as business-and-government-made floods and jobless, deadly freezing in unheated homes. They also feature sly humor, pride, generosity, music, discernment, and everyday culture in food, family, and education.

I looked for a couple of years for a book or other document that would show the people, place, history, and social circumstances of this group of Americans who existed mainly in my world as caricatures in movies or figurative language and country song lyrics, with the occasional brief, out-of-date documentary treatment. "Hillbilly Women" is the best I have found, even in its own dated-ness.

Together, the stories, presented through a series of themes (sorrow, creativity, migration, motherhood and mills...) provided important American history that I hadn't learned in my privileged education. I had previously seen "Coal Miner's Daughter," "Norma Rae," and Barbara Kopple's 1976 "Harlan County, USA" documentary film (as well as having read that disingenuous, unfortunately successful more recent book with "Hillbilly" in the title). "Hillbilly Women" filled out some of my minimal knowledge of Appalachian unions, corporation towns, and Cincinnati's Over the Rhine neighborhood as Blue Ridge Mountain refugees told of hillbilly life in their "slum."

If you're interested in reading some stories and voices of mid-20th century Appalachian women, I can recommend this collection.

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Tuesday, February 28, 2023

All Boys Aren't Blue: Review

All Boys Aren't BlueAll Boys Aren't Blue by George M. Johnson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

At the end of his memoir (acknowledgements?), George M. Johnson notes that he learned of the existence of YA memoirs just before writing his. I am -- as a reader nor a teacher -- not the target audience. Johnson's story is important and compelling as a queer Black young adult from a loving, expansive family and strong education. 

In my reading,* the stories, ruminations, tones, and general themes did not cohere. Its structure felt to me like a personal blog: sometimes personal narrative, sometimes personal diary ("might delete later"), cultural artifact lesson, family tree, fraternity history... occasionally how-to manual. I hope and expect several pieces of this memoir are valuable -- and accessible -- to students (and their teachers) who are wondering if they are alone.

"There is truly something to be said about the fact that you sometimes can’t see yourself if you can’t see other people like you existing, thriving, working."

*two-thirds paper, one-third audio, read over 12 months (library copies).

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Finding Me, Viola Davis: Audiobook Review

Finding MeFinding Me by Viola Davis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Absorbing (I listened in just three sittings), intense, surprising, stark, direct, and infallibly hope-full. 

The last is something I am definitely not; hearing this vein in "Finding Me" felt similar to my listening experience as a not-Black, not-child of horrible poverty and of violence at home, not-EGOT. That is, I am grateful for the generosity of Ms Davis' sharing from her life to my privilege (minus the EGOT, I guess!). 

Ms Davis' memoir -- which must be listened to in her voice -- was especially accessible to me as a woman, actor-adjacent, sibling, and analyzer.

Two takeaways:
"What memory defines me?" (VD, via Will Smith)

"The question still echoes: How did I claw my way out? There is no out. Every painful memory, every mentor, every friend and foe served as a chisel, a leap-pad that has shaped ME. Me, the imperfect but blessed sculpture that is Viola."

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Wednesday, February 01, 2023

Impressions Review: The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen


The Sympathizer earns a careful review, but just now these are some are of my impressions. 

▷ My experience of the (Pulitzer-prize-winning) novel about a Vietnamese refugee who left Saigon at its "fall" -- from Southern, U.S.-allied government to Northern, communist government in 1975 -- is inevitably influenced by my experience over the last 50 years. My experience began and continued as a (white, female) American born to white, Christian Bible translators in South Vietnam in 1972; my experience includes leaving Saigon as a toddler near its fall in 1975. The author was born the year between me and my older brother, and like my parents and three older siblings and I, left Vietnam in 1975. While reading (and listening to the final few chapters of) The Sympathizer, I felt both insider and outsider. The narrator of The Sympathizer is a counter-operative, biracial-bastard Vietnamese refugee to America.

▷ I read the novel over almost two years, in and out of states of being able to focus on reading books and states of not, stretched out through many two-week stints borrowing, then waiting my turn, then borrowing again from my local public library until I bought the audiobook to own and to finish what was pretty consistently clear as the best book I'd read in a few years.

▷ The five-star plot immaculately weaves together intricate and intense layers. When talking about the book with my mom the day after finishing, I was surprised to realize I could remember so many scenes and storylines vividly.

▷ Humor and horror. Gritty and (story-and-tone-relevant) philosophical. I found The Sympathizer to be, on balance, uncynical, in the best ways. From one wide angle, the story is about disillusionment, featuring a faithful friend and comrade whose loyalties are worked over like something presumably whole and valuable put through a meat grinder. One of those loyalties is to his sure sense of himself.

▷ In a January 2022 essay in the NYT about (not) banning books, Viet Nguyen wrote, "...loving books is really the point — not reading them to educate oneself or become more conscious or politically active (which can be extra benefits)." Of which I frequently need to be reminded, and sometimes convinced. I am especially persuaded in this case (and in the NYT essay) through Nguyen's association of "loving books" with expanding empathy through a novel's ability to make us care about a character (preferably a complicated one). The Sympathizer's evocation and generation of empathy happens in multiple ways throughout the book, perhaps as the narrator and the characters he describes live through both such quotidian and such traumatic, multiplied/divided lives. Writing about some books banned for their dangerous potential to expand empathy with characters some parents and activists fear (and some books that some of us have conflicting cognitive and complicated aesthetic responses to), Nguyen reminds us to: 

"Read “Fahrenheit 451” because its gripping story will keep you up late, even if you have an early morning. Read “Beloved,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “Close Quarters” and “The Adventures of Tintin” because they are indelible, sometimes uncomfortable and always compelling. We should value that magnetic quality[... ;] books must be thrilling, addictive, thorny and dangerous." 

Or, from The Sympathizer:

Art could be both popular, aimed for the masses, and yet advanced, raising its own aesthetic standard as well as the taste of the masses. We discussed how this could be done in Ngo’s garden with blustery teenage self-confidence, interrupted every now and again when Ngo’s mother served us a snack.
I'm hoping to start (and finish!) the sequel, The Committed, in way less than two years, and am curious-confident about how I will experience it as insider-outsider, book-loving, disillusioned, non-cynical, fan.


Goodreads review

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Tiny Book Review: The Groom Will Keep His Name: And Other Vows I've Made About Race, Resistance, and Romance by Matt Ortile

The Groom Will Keep His Name: And Other Vows I've Made About Race, Resistance, and RomanceThe Groom Will Keep His Name: And Other Vows I've Made About Race, Resistance, and Romance by Matt Ortile
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Peppy and pointed reflection on the experience of culture and colonization. It's like listening in on a friendly, sharp, post-college mono-chat about cultural theory meets lived experience, with a brief history of the Philippines and some 2010s hip blogging/writing connex. The author's reading absolutely adds value to my experience of the book.

(My review written from the perspective of a Gen X writer and cultural studies academic with some growing up years in the Philippines and a tug-of-war lens of cynicism-optimism.)
(Includes some explicit sex description, FYI.)

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Wednesday, March 04, 2020

Bourne Legacy: “I really have no idea what’s going on.”

This review was originally posted in 2012 on my former college's blog, which is no longer active. I am reposting here as an example discussion of a "relaxing movie" for my Applied Humanities students -- and you.

I tried to explain the premise, as I understood it from previews, of The Bourne Legacy to my friend as we walked into the theatre to see the fourth movie in the Bourne trilogy. As far as I can tell, I was successful.

Jason Bourne was never really a real person, or at least not who he seemed to be, or Jason Bourne wasn’t his real name, and he had a lot of identities when played by Matt Damon in the first three films and in his role as a part of The Program, run by the U.S. government, or by corporations, or rogues, so it’s okay that there’s a new actor (Jeremy Renner) now in the same role, except it’s not the same role, but. . .

Wait, let me start over.

A few minutes into my viewing of the fun, action-packed, pretty-to-look-at, sometimes cleverly-scripted, but just as often cliché-ridden Bourne Legacy, I started to track dialogue that explicitly acknowledged the story is convoluted, but who cares? My notes include the line, “I really have no idea what’s going on,” in quotes – but I have no recollection of who said it, when, or why.

“Is it possible?” one character asks. “I’ve kinda lost my perspective on what’s possible,” another responds. Me, too! “How do you know I’m not evaluating you?” one spy-like guy says. “I don’t. Maybe you are, maybe I don’t care. Don’t you ever not care?” Perfect! The movie spends its first 30 minutes setting up questions, while blatantly supplying no answers. We jump from Alaska to somewhere in Africa, to Korea – quick scenes, multiple storylines, little progress. Blood, drugs, mystery. What’s this? Don’t dwell – on to the next scene, where a character, playing it straight, says, “You’re not saying much of anything.” No kidding! I’m a third of the way through the movie before I care enough to wonder about a plot point – but I’m not bored until the last third when we’ve been told all there is to know.

Jason Renner plays a guy with a name (eventually), or at least a name a couple of people call him, as well as a number. He’s at a training camp where he’s put through rigorous physical and mental tests while taking a blue and a green pill, occasionally returning to a pharmaceutical research lab for monitoring and adjustments. Something happens (seriously, I’m not sure what, and I’m pretty smart and attuned to details) and this program, being run by some organizations and some powerful people (honestly…), spirals into chaos. Pills must stop being taken, and people with knowledge must stop being alive.

Renner’s character (I’m going to call him Aaron, because some other people do at some points) goes on a quest to replenish his supply of chemicals, because the effects they have on him are compelling. He’s so much smarter and stronger than he was without them, and that’s good. He hooks up with one of the research doctors and they take off on a trip to Manila, trying to stay alive and smart and strong.

As the movie goes on, chase scene after chase scene and plot twist upon plot twist, empathy remarkably grows in me as a viewer as I connect to these two pretty characters who don’t know what’s going on either. Dr. Marta (Rachel Weisz) asks Aaron why he needs so badly to maintain his advanced chemical state, and he responds, “It doesn’t really matter, does it?”

I liked the three previous Bourne movies. They didn’t shape my view of humanity or international relations, but they entertained me with intrigue, action, empathetic heroism, and exotic settings. I liked this movie, too, but it’s like Bourne lite, and even while it gives me what I’ve come to expect in a Bourne flick, it also reveals a flaky underbelly.

To wit: what’s a Bourne movie without a car or motorcycle chase on stairs in an urban setting? Legacy gives us that, but in such a way that it somehow feels like, “Here’s your chase scene, I hope you like that we made it 20 minutes long and devoid of any plot or character development!” It gives us the vulnerable yet super-able hero and his reluctant yet capable female sidekick, but then it highlights her need for superhero saving in gratuitous, repetitive scenes. It introduces intriguing political and philosophical situations – a questionably-still-human character chemically programmed to eschew empathy or regret sent to chase down Aaron and the good doctor – but doesn’t develop the premise in any way beyond the surface physical. He’s like a robot, and we’re not as saddened or frightened by the institutional and relational implications of this as we might be if we weren’t running up walls and zipping through traffic for quite such a long time.

Fun (for the most part) to watch, impossible to follow, and undeveloped in potential, The Bourne Legacy is a shot of adrenaline with undefined lasting effects about which I’m ultimately good-naturedly and, apparently, empathetically apathetic.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Freelance on a Couch: Stuff that works for me


Things I have learned are good to do in freelance writing and editing while working from home every day that I can mostly on a couch or comfy chair


As a lifelong overachiever, I currently live and work with three of the feline persuasion. If I am not patting, scritching, greeting, complimenting, or sharing laptop space with a cat at least every hour, I can feel the loss physically, emotionally, and mentally. Being happy-ish and healthy-ish allows me to concentrate, persevere, and create. There is science.

YMMV: It seems to me dogs would work quite well in a pinch and why not pet-able reptile or porcine pets, too?


Early this year, I started eating at least an apple a day and I do not care to imagine my life without it now.

Fruit was like my least favorite food category (besides the obviously gross ones like exotic sea creatures, internal organs, and rice pudding) before, and in making the change to eating (and craving) fruit throughout the day I wasn’t an overnight success. But it is now the most reliable “yes” in the eating world for me. If I eat fruit throughout the day, I am more likely to be healthy-ish and happy-ish, and that feeds concentration, perseverance, and creativity. It's just science.

YMMV: Chopping celery or carrots is too much effort and arm pain some days, but cherry tomatoes and mini peppers have the quick pick up, rinse, bite, be done quality like apples when veg is one's vibe. NBD.


... at night (or podcasts while folding laundry or washing dishes). Sometimes my eyes sting like peppers from looking at a screen all day and night. But I need some story in my brain besides what I am writing, editing, or researching. I could not do what I do without that, and sometimes I can no longer read with my eyes.

I have come to love loving what I am wearing when I work at home on a couch.


Sometimes I cannot read or write during prime Day Job hours. My brain is broken. If I can do it at 8PM, I will. Sometimes I can do it with the TV on or family members or stranger cafe dwellers talking. I can do it starting at 1AM. So yes, your mileage may vary and this is the worst advice ever. But accepting the truth that forcing myself into a tight, scheduled routine was making it harder for me to work cut out a lot of anxiety and false guilt. Part of living with my mental and physical health is recognizing that there are bad days and weeks, and there are good ones. Eating fruit and taking walks doesn't make everything fit in a nice neat job box.


I use a device that physically reminds me every hour or so to move. For the most part, I work on a couch, with my laptop either on a pillow on my lap or on a bamboo, air-slotted lap desk on my lap. If I sit all day, I will be unhappy and unhealthy, and my muscles will lock up or spasm. I will feel bruised where nothing but pillow, couch, air, or cat touched me. I will feel exhausted. Sometimes that happens even when I got up and shook it out or walked to the mailbox every hour. See Work When I Can.


These commonly known stuffs work for me. They are not unique. They might not work for you or someone you love.

I came into my present professional set-up from a life-altering experience of major depression and I have fibromyalgia.

Since 2016, I have been doing some combination of the following, professionally:
  1. Researching and writing web copy for a commercial and/or non-profit client, typically of the start-up, information-economy type.This involves consistent, same-old assignments, week on week. I have worked with the same bread-and-butter client (mental healthcare-related) since 2017.
  2. Developmental editing, aka ghost-writing and/or story/writing coaching. This involves finding and collaborating with a client on their idea for a book, typically for six-ish months per project.
  3. Teaching "nontraditional" college students online through a huge university. This involves guiding and grading through an eight-week term, one or two liberal arts course sections at a time.

This is the first of an attempt to blog a few times in this, my birth month. Topic suggestions welcome! 

Share stuffs that you have learned are good to do in your job: post a comment!