Small is Possible: Life in a Local Economy by Lyle Estill

With the Shakori Hills Festival going on this week, it seems appropriate to review this small is possiblebook, a survey of the grassroots businesses of Chatham County.

The author has lived in the area since 1990.  During this time, he’s worked for an independent Internet company, created metal art, and run a biodiesel facility.  As such, he’s a big advocate for sustainable businesses and environmental issues.

Small is Possible highlights the people who make a local economy work.  They are artists, craftsmen, shop owners and other business types who have grown to trust each other and see the viability of keeping commerce within the community.

There’s lots of stumbling blocks along the way – financing is always one of the hardest.  It can be hard to talk a loan out of a banker when they consider a fledgling business questionable.  Convincing locals to shop at a food co-op instead of at a big box store is also a big hurdle.  And, there are times when idealistic ventures don’t quite work to par (read the chapter “Housing Ourselves” to find out).  Still, there’s enough success stories here, and Estill writes with an understated humor that keeps this book an engaging read.

Keep it local.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson

one summerIn his latest book, Bryson describes an eventful summer.  He summarizes it in these words:  “Babe Ruth hit sixty home runs.  The Federal Reserve made the mistake that precipitated the stock market crash.  Al Capone enjoyed his last summer of eminence.  The Jazz Singer [the first popular talking movie] was filmed.  Television was created.  Radio came of age.  Sacco and Vanzetti were executed.  President Coolidge chose not to run [for another term].  Work began on Mount Rushmore.  The Mississippi flooded as it never had before….Henry Ford stopped making the Model T…And a kid from Minnesota [Charles Lindbergh] flew across an ocean and captivated the planet in a way it had never been captivated before.”

If none of these long-ago events intrigue you, I still recommend that you take a look at this book.  Bryson knows a good story when he sees it – and he found a lot of them while doing his extensive research!  I found the entire book fascinating, especially enjoyed his tales about colorful characters, and laughed out loud a number of times.

I’ve enjoyed a number of Bryson’s other books and particularly recommend In a Sunburned Country, a travel book about Australia.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine

How do female brains differ from those of males?  Why do infant girls spend more time gazing at their mothers’ faces than baby boys do?  Why dofemale brain little girls so often begin playing with sentences beginning with the word “let’s,” as in, “Let’s play dolls, ok?”  Why do teenage girls gather in groups, while spreading negative rumors about these friends?  What traits make a woman consider a man to be husband material?  How does a woman’s brain change after the birth of a child?  What changes occur in the brain of a middle-aged woman?

This book by a neuropsychiatrist, based on extensive scientific study and on her practical experience with patients, answers these questions – and many more.  Brizendine tells us that, although “more than 99 percent of male and female genetic coding is exactly the same,” men and women are significantly different.  The differences, which often go back to our Stone Age ancestors, come from our body chemistry as well as from our DNA and our training.

This easy-to-read book will help women to understand themselves and will guide both women and men to a better understanding of other people.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland by Gerald Clarke

I enjoyed seeing Judy Garland in the movie The Wizard of Oz during my childhood and, years later, with my children.  After listening to a CD of her interpretations of holiday songs, I decided that it was time for me to find out more about her life.

get happyGet Happy draws on many sources – the bibliography is twelve pages long, and the footnotes go on for forty-nine pages!  These sources include Judy’s unpublished, unfinished autobiography, as well as numerous interviews with people who knew her.

There are happy moments in the book, especially the descriptions of her performances and her phenomenal popularity as a singer and actress.  She began singing in public before her third birthday, loving the sound of applause.  As an older child, she sometimes sang a love song on a darkened stage.  Her voice sounded so mature that the audience was amazed when the lights came on!  This biographer describes her appearance at Carnegie Hall as a perfect performance.  She was a movie star during her teens and her adult years, winning the 1940 Oscar for outstanding performance as a juvenile.  As an adult, she won two Oscar nominations (1955 and 1962).

Much of her appeal as a singer came from the emotional poignancy which she brought to her performances and which came, at least in part, from the many heart breaks which she suffered.  The book tells about her psychological problems, her conflicts with her mother, her dependence on pills, and her five marriages, all ending unhappily.

Through joy and sorrow, Judy Garland was an icon whose story makes fascinating reading.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Red Holler: Contemporary Appalachian Literature edited by John Branscum & Wayne Thomas

The Appalachian Mountain region and its people have been a powerful influence on American literature. The area is an anomaly in the eastern part of the country – a placered holler largely rural, with a culture somewhat different from the mainstream. Its very uniqueness makes the mountain region fertile ground to be written about.

And write they do, here in Red Holler, a kaleidoscope of fiction, poetry, essays and graphic writings by a coterie of individuals who provide a gritty face to latter-day Appalachian literature. Most of the writers here are largely unknown, at least to me, although both Ron Rash and Dennis Covington have contributions here. Go past these two (although their story and essay are worth reading); there’s some good writing in Red Holler, and it shows the varieties of viewpoints that are manifest in Appalachia today – white, black, gay, straight, or poverty-stricken.

Since it’s an anthology, Red Holler isn’t something that you have to finish in one sitting. You can go through a story or essay, cut through a few poems, and then put it down for another time – just the ticket for these busy times when reading a whole novel is out of the question.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Renewable: The World-Changing Power of Alternative Energy by Jeremy Shere

The mention of alternative energy, for most of us, brings up images of solar panels and wind turbines.  How about biomass?  Heat from therenewable earth that runs turbines?  And are the various types of alternative energies new ideas?

Renewable is a survey of the different types of alternative energy – wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, and water – and the histories of their developments.  It may surprise you to find out that the fear of fossil fuels running out is not a new one – people have been predicting this since the first oil well was struck.  The advent of electricity in particular was the initial impetus for exploring other ways of producing energy, whether it be from wind, sun, or water.  The increasing popularity of the automobile also prompted some industry leaders to look for viable alternatives to gasoline.  In fact, Henry Ford was an early advocate for ethanol as car fuel.

Some of the early inventions were crackpot, and some were truly innovative for their time, although not sturdy enough to withstand the forces of nature.  The primary problem with alternative energies (then and now) is economic – the cost of producing energy from these methods is usually more expensive than using coal, natural gas, or nuclear sources.

Shere provides some interesting historical perspective, along with a realistic assessment of the state of alternative energies today.

Other books to consider for further reading is Powering the Dream by Alexis Madrigal (the author mentions this book in the introduction) and The Power Surge by Michael Levi.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Chickens in the Road by Suzanne McMinn

Chickens in the Road is a back to the country saga based on McMinn’s popular blog of the same name. chickens

The author has strong roots in West Virginia, and after her marriage ends, she moves back to the county where her father’s people have been settled two hundred years or so, and it’s somewhat of a culture shock to her and her kids.  Her initial move is into a house belonging to her cousin, but what she really wants is her own working farm.  Once she begins a relationship with a man known as “52”, buying land of their own becomes more of a reality. 

Out of necessity, she learns what is required to be self-sufficient – raising farm animals and being tested by them, the weather, and her significant other, who varies between a knowledgable handyman and an emotional abuser.  It doesn’t help that their farm is literally out in the middle of nowhere – not far from places, but difficult to access, particularly during the winter, and their land is mostly sloped. 

McMinn gets the city beaten out of her by the toil of farm living, and writes about all aspects of her life, including cow milking, soap making, and other affairs of not-quite-so plain living.  She has some hard lessons, but farming gets into her blood and defines her, even as certain other things fall by the wayside.

Back to the land literature has been popular for a long time, and I’ve seen a fair number in recent publication; these types of books are easy fulfillment for a reader’s fascination for slower paces and meaning.  Chickens in the Road begins with these ideas in mind, but quickly moves to the grittier side of farm life.  McMinn does not romanticize the never ending hard labor, nor does she belittle the rewards.  She also adds lots of humor to the narrative – you’d have to be able to laugh to get through some of her predicaments.

The woman sure can acquire a menagerie.  And I do want to try some of her recipes.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

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