Sunday, October 15, 2017

42. Origin

Where do we come from? 

Where are we going?

They're the quintessential questions of the universe. Do you believe the creation story? Or do you believe the universe came together through scientific forces and we, as humans, simply evolved?

These are the questions in Dan Brown's newest novel Origin and the questions that drive his predictable, yet surprising, narrative.

If you've read more than one Dan Brown book you know his basic formula. Robert Langdon finds himself thrust into danger and mystery, he's using accompanied by a smart, beautiful woman and there are religious undertones. Or overtones. Tones. And, while I've read all of his books and sometimes roll my eyes at the predictable nature of what he writes, he always sucks me in.

Origin was no different.

I preordered this book and I think had it delivered and finished before most of the world even knew it existed. I wanted something to keep me interested page after page and I knew this would do the trick. With short, mini-cliff-hanger chapters, 456 pages flew by.

What always makes Brown's books interesting to me is the amount of historical research and setting as character. This book is set in Spain and his descriptions of historic and religious landmarks had me reaching for my phone on multiple occasions to get a true image of the incredible settings he described. I learned some things here, which is always a nice bonus. And, I was thoroughly entertained.

The book describes a Steve Jobs-like character about to make an announcement he promises (fears) will change the world. The announcement purports to answer those fundamental questions - where do we come from, where are we going - in ways that could upend religious and shake the faithful. And, as his announcement gets closer, someone is so determined to stop it, they'll stop at nothing to prevent it.

The book moves fast. It has just enough mystery and just enough twists to reward you.

Should you read it? If you like Dan Brown's other books, yeah. For sure. Don't expect a departure from style and substance. I mean, the man has sold more than 200 copies, why change up the formula now?

Sunday, October 8, 2017

41. Girls on Fire

I needed a break from reality. Not actual reality, I guess, but non-fiction. The last two books were nearly 1,000 pages of heavy reading. This was my break.

But, yall, this shit is HEAVY.

And it makes me glad to 1) have two sons and 2) not be a teenage girl anymore.

Girls on Fire is smart, fast-paced and raw. It tells the story of a small town in the early 1990's reeling from the suicide of a popular high school athlete. His death comes in the shadow of fears over devil worship and a general idea that the young people in the community need to be saved. What we find out, though, is that it's not some dark evil force that's preying on the souls of the teenagers. They're being taken over by the general act of being teenage girls.

Have you been a teenage girl? Man. It's HARD. Even under the best of circumstances, you're constantly trying to find your way and, often, blinded by the need to be heard and be included. You do some really stupid shit because of it (I mean, I didn't... but, I've heard of others who did... Crap, I hope no one I've known since high school is fact-checking me on this...)

Hannah is desperate for an identity. She finds it in Lacey, an outsider who leads Hannah down a path she never would have followed on her own. As the story unfolds, you find out more about Lacey and her relationship with the ubiquitous "mean girl" Nikki. Their stories slowly build to a climax which leads back to that young man's suicide in a way I was predicting, but not actually expecting.

It sounds like YA fodder, I realize. And, the author is a prolific YA author. But, the subject matter she wades into here is of the NSFW variety. It's raw and sexual and frightening. It'll have you locking up your daughters and your sons.

This book moved quickly and kept my interest. It brings back that desperate need to belong that so many of us felt. It's also set in the early 1990's and the references to the early days of MTV's The Real World gave me life. What's up, Andre?

Worth a read. Keep it away from your teenage girls. And, keep your teenage girls away from each other.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

40. The Best Land Under Heaven

What would you to in order to survive? Faced with certain death, would you do the unthinkable to save yourself? To save your children? Could you commit the ultimate social taboo if it meant living to see another day? That's what the members of the Donner Party faced those cold winter months all those years ago. And, though you probably know the choice most of them made, I don't think you can understand the decisions they made until you read this book.

I heard about this book when the author was on NPR. The story of the Donner Party itself is fascinating, but the author read passages that showed this was more than a ghoulish account of cannibalism. (The author also happens to be the voice of Sheriff in the Cars movies, so listening to him read from his own book - especially the passages he read from this one - was a little surreal.)

Most of us know the Donner Party because of the choices they made that winter; stranded in snow in the Sierra Nevadas, they ran out of options. Many - not all of them - ate the flesh of the dead to survive. What most of us don't know is the excruciating journey they took just to get to that point on the promising trail west. This book starts at the beginning.

The author details how the Donner Party came together; it wasn't just one family, it was many. The makeup of the party changed many times throughout their journey from Illinois to their intended destination in California. It was made up of several families, single men, young and old. They all wanted to fulfill that promise of Manifest Destiny. They knew what was ahead of them on the uncertain, unpredictable trail. But, they believed they were supposed to go west and claim land as their own. They made one tragic mistake: they took a shortcut.

Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, the Donner Party chose to take a less-traveled path over the Sierra Nevadas called the Hastings Cutoff. They didn't know how treacherous it would be - and, they didn't know they were trying to cross the mountains way too late in the season. Just as they arrived and started to climb, winter arrived with a vengeance.

Every page of this book feels like it's building to that ultimate decision: would they eat the flesh of their dead traveling companions in order to survive. What this book does, though, is helps those of us who can't even imagine making that decision understand how they did. It chronicles hardships and death along the trail and, especially, families doing what they can to stay together and stay optimistic. Many had very young children with them. The mothers had to remain strong and resilient and also care for those who depended on them for everything.

When winter bears down and the party has no choice but to set up camp for the winter, you almost feel yourself suck in a breath and hold. You know they're about to do the unspeakable. The author describes that it wasn't as if someone said, "Hey, we should eat the dead people" and everyone else went along without thinking. For many, it was a decision they would never speak about, even decades later. For some, it was a simple choice: eat of the flesh and live. Some never could partake - and, some of those people died for that choice.

Despite it being central to the Donner Party story, this isn't a book about cannibalism. It's a small party of a much larger story about the settling of the American west. The things they endured go beyond anything most of us could ever imagine. It's a book about human tragedy, to be sure, but also about the perseverance of so many who left their lives behind in search of something more.

You read it and you can't imagine the strength it must have taken to literally walk across the unsettled west. The animals they encountered, the Indian tribes they feared, the accidents that prompted them to bury their loved ones knowing they'd never return to the spot again. You can't imagine the mothers, watching their children starve to death in their arms. You can't imagine the faith it must have taken to be heading blindly into a future you've never seen.

This book is powerfully written and thoroughly researched. It's educational, but emotional. And, it's graphic. Raw. It's not dinner conversation, to be sure. But, it's absolutely worth your time if you want to know the true story about these pioneers and their fight to survive.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

39. HH Holmes: True History of the White City Devil


This book.

No bueno.

Let me elaborate...

A brilliant reporter who has become a mentor of mine once criticized a news story I did as an "information dump." What he meant was that I didn't tell a story; I just barfed out all the information I learned without bothering to try to make it interesting (note: he didn't say "barfed out. John Sharify is far too classy and Princeton-educated for that.)

But, information dump is the only way I can describe this book.

Emphasis on the "dump."

I was tempted to read this book because I LOVED Devil in the White City. It came out years ago and told the story of an infamous doctor turned serial killer who murdered his victims around the time of Chicago's 1893 World's Fair. It's a fantastic read about a compelling character in American history.

This book attempts to tell the "real story."

I'll give the author credit. His research was exhaustive. He dug through old newspapers and court records and God knows what else to piece together what seems to be every second of H.H. Holmes life along with the life of every person who may have ever come into contact with him. Ever. You easily get lost in the characters and he simply buries you with what is really extraneous information.

Information. Dump.

Of the 39 books I've read this year, I haven't loved them all. But, this is the only one I've really contemplated setting aside. I thought I was just distracted by life, so I saved the bulk for a cross-country flight. That didn't even work. It was just too complicated, too detailed and too unstructured to be even the least bit enjoyable.

When Holmes is hanged at the end for his crimes (spoiler alert from 1896!) you almost wish you were next in line at the gallows.

(Okay. that's a bit dramatic...)

Historical accounts don't have to be like this. I'm reminded of that fact by book #40 that I'm just beginning. Same number of pages. Same exhaustive research. But, this next book is written in a beautiful, clear way that doesn't have me wishing for my own death (though, the people in this next book are going to die. And, the survivors are going to eat their friends. Stay tuned for #40!)

Sunday, September 17, 2017

38. Bored and Brilliant

I'm not proud of it.

I'm not proud of the disturbing addiction I have to my phone. You can ask my husband (don't actually ask him), but I will straight up panic if my phone is missing/lost/water damage from being dropped in a toilet/dead. I make a million excuses for why I have to stay attached at all times. None of them are good enough. It's habit bordering on addiction, plain and simple. 

I needed Manoush Zomorodi to save me.

I've listened to Manoush's podcast for quite some time (I can call her by her first name only because we follow each other on Twitter and are basically best friends. Don't tell her that.) Her podcast Note to Self is all about tech and its applications to our real life. I've listened to episodes about what to post about your kids online, about Edward Snowden leaks, etc. A lot of it has to do with responsibly consuming tech, but it's not anti-tech in any way. When she started talking about this Bored and Brilliant concept, I was really interested - and, too much of a chicken to take the plunge. Once she put it in a book, I figured I should pay attention.

Think about that. It's totally true. The guy at the grocery store thinks you're a customer. The waiter at your favorite restaurant sees you as a diner or a guest. But, those Apple guys? The online gaming industry? The cell phone giants? You're a user to them. And, they're more than happy to deliver you the product. We're all hooked. They know it. You've had a taste, now you're jonesing all the time.

It's making us dumb.

Maybe not dumb, but less creative. The concept behind this book is intensive research that shows we don't really get bored anymore. We don't "zone out." We always have our phones with us, so we always have a way to scroll, watch, play, text, engage, etc. There's literally a part of our brain that is not getting used - and, it's the part of our brain that comes up with the best ideas!

I think of it this way: when is the last time you went on a plane and you hadn't downloaded a movie and you won't pony up for the wi-fi? Maybe before you pull out your book or your headphones or fall asleep, you look out the window. Maybe you've had a revelation. That's what happens when we can't access the tech to which we're so used to having in our pocket. These are the times our brains are at their best. 

This constant access to technology has hurt in other ways too. We all find it hard to read a long article or, God forbid, an actual book. We're so used to information in small, digestible pieces. Imagine being a 17-year old or even a 25-year old who has always had this technology. It's a problem with real, long-term consequences.

Yes, we have all this access to information, but it keeps us from having to think for ourselves.


Take the challenge. The book sets aside 5 steps to take to slowly break the addiction and free your brain for big ideas. They include things like "delete that one app that sucks your time - just for one day." They all sound really easy. But, as someone who is about to embark on this challenge, I can tell you, it won't be. But, if it helps me reduce the number of times I pick up my phone in a day and gives me an excuse to stay off Twitter and actually THINK, it's worth it.

I'm hoping to take the ideas here and the concept and make a series out of it for TV news. I think we could ALL use this kind of intervention. If you take the challenge, let me know. I think I'm going to start next week. Hold me to it. I'll let you know how I did.

Buy the book. Underline a million passages like I did. Or, if you don't have time to read, listen to the podcast or watch Manoush's TedTalk on the matter here.

Good luck bein' super brilliant.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

37. The Sellout

One of the smartest books in recent years. No question. I came upon The Sellout at my favorite local bookstore with no prior knowledge of its existence. Boy, did I feel like a moron when I read the amazing accolades it received. Well, feel like a moron no more, dear friends. It's real - and, it's spectactular.

It's nearly impossible to to describe this book in a way that does it any justice. First and foremost, it's satire. And, like all good satire, it's commentary about the world around us. In this case, it's race relations and how, while we all pretend like we want to understand each other and that we aren't all that different after all, a whole lot of people would like to live in a bubble, surrounded by people who look like us. Those of us who have never experienced racism like to think it doesn't exist, that it's somehow a myth. Beatty's writing shines a flashlight into the darkest corners and he's so damn smart about it, you couldn't look away if you tried.

Our main character was raised by a social psychologist who experimented on him in order to show him the ways black people were oppressed in modern society. As he grew up, that boy became a man trying to figure out the world - only to find the town he grew up in removed from the map. He has no idea where he came from and who he is. Along the way, he finds himself perpetuating every stereotype his father was trying to disprove: he ends up bringing back slavery and somehow owning a slave, who also happens to be the last surviving member of The Little Rascals. 

Remember, guys, it's satire. 

When I read, I keep notes of powerful passages, strong themes and strong messages. I used to fill my books with sticky notes and paperclips and underlines. Now, I keep notes for each book in my phone. I couldn't do it with this one. There are simply too many. The first 50 pages or so reads like a brilliant riff. I can't quote most of it here - he's pretty liberal with the n-word and the language he uses is pretty blue. But, trust me when I say they hit you in waves, over and over, until you're desperate to keep your head above water and take a breath.

And, that's the rub, too.

If you're looking for a book in which you can float along and let it wash over you, this is not the book for you. This book makes you pay attention. This book makes you look inside. This books make you question what you laugh at and when you nod your head. This book makes you pay attention for about a million reasons. 

The guy can flat out write. With this book, Paul Beatty became the first American to win the Man Booker Prize. In the speech that honored his work, they nailed what I'm trying to say here: "Fiction should not be comfortable. The truth is rarely pretty and this is a book that nails the reader to the cross with cheerful abandon... that is why this novel works."

Friday, September 1, 2017

36. Kill the Boy Band

You know what I freaking LOVE?

Bubble tape.

That glorious, popstar pink, mysteriously-covered-in-something-that-looks-like-powdered-sugar gum.

And Big League Chew.

Damn, I could eat and entire pouch of grape Big League Chew right now. (Side note: I've swallowed every piece of gum I've ever chewed. Yeah, it's weird. No, it doesn't take 7 years to digest.)

The point is? You know it serves no nutritional purpose, but sometimes you just want the bubble gum.

That's what this book was for me.

I don't remember where I read it, but this book was described as a dark comedy look at the world of extreme teenage fandom. Fangirls gone wild, if you will.

Four friends bond over an insane, all-encompassing love for a British boy band called The Ruperts. Why The Ruperts? They're all named Rupert. Obvi.

The story begins with the air of confession and promises to set the record straight on what happened when they kidnapped one of the Ruperts during a Thanksgiving fan binge gone horribly wrong.

Which one did they kidnap? The ugly one. Every boy band has an ugly one. And, he ended up tied up in their room.

What happened over the course of the next few hours doesn't challenge your brain or make you look for underlying meaning. It just whips you through the crazed world of teenage girls who will do anything for the next Twitter mention or run-in or website hit or fan fiction inspiration.

Is it good?

It's like that Bubble Tape, really. It's deliciously satisfying at first, then it loses it's flavor. And, you're not ready to give up on it because you're getting a fair amount of satisfaction from blowing the bubbles and working your jaw.

I've taken that metaphor too far. My apologies.

It's a quick read and, like the boy bands it immortalizes, entertains on a superficial level. There are a couple of plot twists and moments of deeper intrigue built in, but in the end, it leaves you with nothing really left to hang onto.

Maybe it's not supposed to. As Violet Beaugegarde can tell you, even the best chewing gum can't last forever.