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Bookworm: ‘Half Broke’ is a heckuva ride; ‘Pelosi’ the biography

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Columnist

"Half Broke: A Memoir"

  • By Ginger Gaffney
  • c. 2020, Norton
  • $25.95, $34.95; Canada 272 pages

The last time you went riding, the weather was perfect. Did you notice that? Or were you thinking about something, some niggling issue, a thorny problem that needed to be solved from the back of a saddle? They say that the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man. In "Half Broke" by Ginger Gaffney, the same goes for the inside of a woman.

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She knew she wasn't going to get paid for the job. That was fine. Ginger Gaffney had a calendar full of work that paid the bills for the small homestead she and her partner shared. No, a gig working with a New Mexico ranch that served somewhat as a transitional option for inmates was Gaffney's way of giving back. Gratis work was gratitude for a good life.

"Pelosi" by Molly Ball.

It wasn't always good, though. To say that Gaffney was quiet as a child is putting it mildly: she didn't speak until she was six years old. She felt like a "genderless thing," she was angry, scared, hurt, mistrustful, had little self-control, and she sometimes lashed out. Then she got a horse.

And now she'd volunteered to work on this "alternative" ranch with horses that had gone feral because nobody knew how to handle or train them. She knew exactly how those animals felt because she'd been like them once, as had the ranchers Gaffney was asked to teach: former addicts, lawbreakers, alcoholics who'd been tossed aside, who'd applied for an opportunity to work with horses, and who were constantly monitored and mentored to give them the best chance to avoid being imprisoned again.

Every horse has a story to tell. Every rancher had one, too, but the rules were strict about when they could share them, so Gaffney really knew very little about the people she taught: Eliza, who'd been nearly mute; Flor, an admitted liar; Randy, who dieted to ride; Tony, who had anger issues. Sarah, the biggest enigma of all. And Marco, who leaves this book with a surprise ending.

The first time you were on a horse happened so long ago that it's like having a finger or a nose: it never wasn't. You probably don't even remember it, but you won't forget "Half Broke."

Swinging timelines like a lariat, author Ginger Gaffney tells her own barnboard-rough story, but that absolutely takes a back seat to tales of horses she's known and people she knew at the prison ranch near Santa Fe. Her tales are told with deliberateness, and quietly – even the ones that pulse with anger or gnashing teeth – but the graciousness and generosity here come out loud and clear, leaving readers with a sad smile, a good chuckle, a gasp, and the thought that books like this just don't last long enough.

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Yes, the skies can be cloudy all day in this memoir, but it's a wonderful one that horse lovers, armchair cowpokes, and reform workers shouldn't even try to resist. If that's you, you should know that "Half Broke" is a heckuva ride.

"Pelosi"

  • By Molly Ball
  • c. 2020, Henry Holt & Company
  • $27.99, $37.99; Canada 368 pages

They were the sunglasses that shook the world. Now, whether it was a gentle shake or an upside-down one is up for personal interpretation, but millions saw the stride, the sunglasses, and the frozen-steel confidence from the woman who quickly became a meme. And in "Pelosi" by Molly Ball, you'll see where every step of that journey came from.

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On the night before she was about to become Speaker of the House for the second time, Nancy Pelosi couldn't sleep. Ultimately, she abandoned the effort altogether, and went back to work. That was, says author Ball, typical of Pelosi.

"Half Broke: A Memoir" by Ginger Gaffney.

She was born Nancy D'Alesandro in the spring of 1940, the last child and only girl of devout Baltimore Catholics. Her father was a long-time politician and he'd hoped at least one of his sons might follow in his footsteps; that his daughter would do so was unthinkable. Politics weren't for "little girls." Nancy was "groomed to be a nun" instead.

But by the time she was a pre-teen, she was helping her father in his job by keeping a file of constituents who'd asked for help. It's there that young Nancy learned that being in office was being in service to those who put you there.

That was a lesson she still keeps.

Later, but early in her marriage, Pelosi moved from her beloved Baltimore to San Francisco, because of her husband's new job. In California, they raised five children; when the kids were older, Pelosi was appointed to serve on the city's library commission, where the talents she already had – organizing, collecting volunteers, using contacts to get things done – were put to good use. Through her efforts for the library, Pelosi met local and state politicians and became close friends with Representative Phil Burton, whose wife won his House seat after he died.

And when she fell ill, she pointed to Pelosi as her successor...

From beginning to end, "Pelosi" is a jaw-dropping book – but not for the reasons you might think.

First, there's the biography, the raison d'etre of the book, the reason author Molly Ball has a story to tell: despite early atmospheres of sexism and outrageous and outmoded expectations for women in the latter half of the last century, Nancy Pelosi was able to seize a latent second life for herself. That sounds like the epitome of determination, but while Pelosi's admirers know about her laser-beam of dedication, Ball reveals where the softer sides lie. Those parts are not allowed to stand on their own, however: they're followed with stories of steel, which does a disservice to the overall tale by elevating its subject to superhero status, and which seems indulgent. This, and a frequent lack of neutrality are both irksome; readers may also wonder why, in a book about a woman who broke the glass ceiling, Ball repeatedly mentions Pelosi's choice of fashion.

Still, expect delicious behind-the-scenes political stories, nail-biting insider accounts, and an insightful biography in "Pelosi." For that, you political animals and Washington watchers, this book will make you sunny.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.