Tuesday, November 21, 2017

48. Approval Junkie

It's a two-book week, y'all.


Because all it took to knock this puppy out was a six hour flight across the country. My carry-on luggage was a fair amount of stifled laughs. And, some big, old ugly tears. It all went down right there in seat 19A, my row partners oblivious to the emotional road I was traveling. 

It's really intense to read an entire book of personal essays in one sitting. It's even more intense when you're coming off a weekend with a ton of emotional and intellectual stimulation and not a lot of sleep. But, I know I would have loved this book just as much had I spread it over a week and read in the hours before bed.

I didn't know about this book until a fellow news lady friend brought it to my attention (if you live in the Seattle area, please get to know my friend and former colleague Colleen O'Brien. She's one of the good ones.)  She mentioned it to me awhile back, then hand-delivered it to me a few weeks ago. I had no expectations and would consider myself only casually aware of Faith Salie up to this point. Now, I'm fangirl to the max.

Salie is one of those amazing women who parlayed a start in acting into an NPR hosting gig. Now, she gets to report on the greatest news show ever (CBS Sunday morning) and is a frequent panelist on the greatest radio game show ever (Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me.) She's smart, funny AND beautiful, which is totally unfair because I swear my mom said we only get to be one - maybe two - of those things. 

Her voice comes through in this book as if she's sitting across the table from you, sharing a body of wine. She's raw, honest, genuine and really funny. She tweeted me after I tweeted her about this book (GUYS, I'm also an approval junkie...) and said it was her desire to get "nakedly human publicly." She nailed it. She was open and raw without it feeling gratuitous. 

She writes extensively about her first husband (who she calls her "wasbund") and how desperate she was to win the attention and admiration of a man too proud to give it. She writes about the astounding grief over the loss of her mom. She calls Bill O'Reilly "Papa Bear" and writes about the strength and power of choosing a good "divorce dress." She's open about infertility and miscarriage, which so many women experience and few share. 

Somewhere over Nebraska, she knocked me over when she talked about an intense desire to not be the first to say I love you. "I wither when I withhold love." How's that for a punch in the very familiar gut?

It sounds deeply profound, which it is at times. It's also really funny. And empowering. And, trite as it may sound: special. I stopped and wrote down this line she writes, as part of a letter to her daughter. 

Aint that the lesson? You can be one or the other. You can be neither, you can be both. But, know why. Know why it matters. And, if you spend all your time seeking the attention and approval of others, you better have a backup plan for how to sustain yourself if that doesn't exist.

The way she speaks of her first marriage will break your heart. The way she talks about her second will restore your faith. It's so damn sweet without being sickly so. You root for her and her family every second.

When I finished this book, I was somewhere over central Washington. My row pals were sleeping and I was literally wiping my tears on my sleeve. I paid $11 for the in-flight WiFi so I could immediately thank Colleen for bringing it into my life. Then, I tweeted Faith Salie to thank her for writing it. Upon my arrival back to work, I handed it over to the first of many women in my life who can relate. Her experiences may not exactly mirror ours, but the desire women feel to be perfect and accepted at all costs can take a damaging toll. Here, we embrace it. Accept it. Approve of it.

My bonus book this week will take an entirely different approach to the same issue. Can't wait to get started.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

47. The Last Town on Earth

When I started making a list in my phone of which books I should read this year, this was my first entry. I've thought about reading it for so long, by the time I picked it up from the library last week, I actually thought I already read it. The description of the book itself is so profound and so chilling, once you hear about it, it's hard to get it off your mind. Now, after actually reading it, I know for sure it's a book I won't forget.

The book is set in a logging town in northwestern Washington called Commonwealth. It didn't show up on a map; like so many towns throughout the west at the turn of the century, Commonwealth sprang up suddenly, out of necessity. Loggers followed the work and, in this case, followed a man determined to set out on his own and do it right.cross the country. 

In the waning days of World War I, another violent killer was working its way across the globe. All told, the Spanish flu epidemic infected 500 million people. The millions who died suffered a terrible fate; as their body deprived itself of oxygen, people turned blue and suffocated. In what the author of this book describes as a little-known historical footnote, he found evidence that some small towns were so desperate to keep the flu at bay, they self-imposed quarantines in an effort to stay healthy and save their communities. That footnote serves as the inspiration for this book.

Commonwealth was out of the way, off the map. The people who lived there believed they had one chance to save themselves from this evil that was engulfing communities around them. So, they voted to shut themselves off from the world. They knocked down a tree to stop vehicles from coming up the road and stood up armed guards at the entrance. Just as they began their experiment, they faced a challenge from the outside: a soldier, hungry and tired and far from his post, who came to the town looking for food and shelter. What happens between that soldier and the two young men standing guard sets off a string of events that will have them all questioning their humanity and asking questions about whose life matters more.

If I was looking for a book based on time period and setting, this is not typically a book I would seek. The premise, though, was enough to draw me in. And, even at nearly 400 pages, it kept me all the way through. I actually finished the final 200 pages or so on a flight and barely had the desire to look up from my seat. The author manages to really delve into several characters without getting you lost in the process. It's compassionate and compelling and really raises internal questions about how far you would go to save yourself and your family, even at the expense of someone else.

Great read from page one. 

Saturday, November 11, 2017

46. True Crime Addict

Here's a little secret: I ask for book recommendations all the time, but I rarely read something based on a suggestion from someone I know. Why? My husband says I'm a book snob. But, really, I feel like choosing what to read is really personal and taste is subjective. And, I feel like life is too short to read something you don't want to read. And, I don't want to hurt someone's feelings by telling them I hated the book they loved.

Where am I going with this? Oh yeah, this book. One of the reporters at my news station came in fired up one day and said she read this book in one day. She said that never happens, she just got sucked into this one. Not only did she suggest it, she brought it in for me. How could I say no to adorable Caroline Flynn? 

I had a feeling this would be a quick, compelling read. The author used to work at a weekly newspaper and got obsessed with the case of a missing young woman. While this book details her disappearance, Renner also describes the darkness in his own past and in his own family, which he reveals in brief, yet powerful, moments.

That's Maura Murray. Classic all-American college student who appeared to have it all. It wasn't until she vanished in the mountains in 2004 when the cracks in that veneer began to reveal themselves. To this day, no one knows what happened to her. Did she vanish on purpose to escape turmoil in her life? Was she running from the law? Did someone kill her and her body has never been found? Everything is on the table here and this book follows leads and suspects and uncertainties all while the reporter finds his own life unraveling as well.

I hadn't heard of Maura Murray until I read the first page of this book. Now I know her story is the subject of internet blogs and a TV series. Why? To answer that, you have to understand the culture of true crime obsession in America. There are entire TV networks dedicated to it. Everyone wants to find the answers, everyone becomes a sleuth. And when you're a young, pretty white woman, interest in your case is magnified exponentially.

As a journalist, I can relate to Renner's obsession. Ask any reporter who's been at this awhile and they'll have one story where they know their research went far beyond anything that made it into or onto the news. I have a few in my career. A child who was starved to death by a psychotic foster mother. A young woman beaten to death by her boyfriend, in which her toddler son cried out for her throughout her funeral. And, the case that took me into the darkest places I could ever imagine: a child serial killer who murdered a family, kidnapped their two youngest children and tortured them for weeks in the mountains of Montana. I read every document from his prison records. I wrote letters to his mom. I could recite parts of his terrifying blog, years later. You find yourself wanting to know everything, even if it means losing a part of your soul. Why? I can't answer that - neither could Renner, really. It doesn't always make us better journalists and it sure as hell doesn't make for fun conversation at dinner parties. But, I do think you have to be a little obsessive to be a good journalist, for better or worse.

This book was a fast read. I started Sunday night and finished the last page Tuesday. The chapters are short and leave you hanging, so you move quickly from one theory or one suspect to another. As a reader, I liked how many rocks he turned over. As a journalist, I felt he was irresponsible at times about naming people and introducing the idea that they have something to hide. 

I'm actively resisting watching the series about Maura's disappearance and staying off the internet message boards about the case. I have enough of my own dark stories to obsess about. But, if you're the kind of person who finds yourself watching Dateline and theorizing about unsolved cases, this is a worthy way to scratch that itch. 

Sunday, November 5, 2017

45. Radical Candor

It's not exactly reading for pleasure, but I did find a lot of pleasure reading this book. And, I read it completely out of necessity as I get ready to embark on the next chapter of my career.

I was promoted recently and assume a role next month that has me managing a team of hardworking journalists. I've been a manager for the last 9 years or so, but this is a bigger role. And, when you're a woman in charge, you have to think very carefully about how you manage others. If you're assertive - which I am and intend to continue as such - you know people behind your back or going to call you a bitch.

That fact is something I'm okay dealing with. I know that I am not, in fact, a bitch. But, I do want to find a balance between making sure my team is challenge and led without forgetting that they are people, first - and, so am I. This book could not have come at a better time.

Written by a woman whose managed people at the highest levels in some of the world's most influential companies, this book lays out the idea of radical candor. Care personally and challenge directly. It seems so simple, yet so many managers fail to do it. So many worry about their staff liking them, they end up the trap of what Kim Scott calls "ruinous empathy." Others forget that their direct reports are human beings with human emotions and treat them with contempt instead. This approach reminds us to truly care about those who report to us - and, care enough to challenge them to be better.

The idea is simple; the reality may be harder to achieve. Scott challenges managers to ask for criticism from their teams as well. That's not an easy thing for any of us to do, but to lead effectively, we need to know the mistakes we're making, too. And, I love that this approach is designed to create an atmosphere where every voice matters - where everyone is free to challenge up to the bosses, too.

Scott lays out a lot of steps here, so this isn't a "read it and put it away" kind of book. I do believe it's a book I'll keep handy and refer to repeatedly as I begin this new adventure. I also believe my approach will evolve as I become more comfortable in my position. It absolutely reinforced what I think is the best way to manage people. They want to be supported, of course. They want to know their voice matters. But, we all need to be challenged to reach our full potential - and to get results, which is why we're there in the first place.

Who should read it? Any manager who wants to create an atmosphere of accountability. Any manager who wants to create a workspace where people are valued, but also challenged to more. Any woman who's been called a bitch - but, knows that an assertive approach can be anchored in humanity as well.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

44. Lilac Girls

I hate to admit it, but I quite regularly judge a book by its cover. Which is why I probably didn't read this book sooner. It looked so... flowery. And, matronly. So, even though I had heard good things, it never occurred to me to pick it up. Last weekend, though, the universe pointed me to it - and, I'm so glad it did.

I didn't know the premise of the book, which follows three women from entirely different walks of life through World War II. There's a young Polish woman, a German woman and an American whose lives were all dramatically altered by the Holocaust, but for very different reasons. I was looking for a book in the Washington, DC airport - and I had just come from what was probably my fifth visit to the Holocaust Museum. It was the first book I picked up and I couldn't possibly have chosen anything else.

I've actually spent quite a bit of time studying and reading about the Holocaust. Books about that dark time take up at least an entire shelf in my home. Somehow, though, I'd never heard of the group of women they called The Rabbits. You can see their beautiful, brave faces below.

The Rabbits were used as guinea pigs for scientific experiments in a Nazi camp called Ravensbruck. Their legs horribly disfigured, they earned their nickname because of the way they hopped around their camps - and, the fact they were treated more like test animals than human beings. This book tells a fictional account based on their stories and had me wanting to know more about what happened to them and how they were saved.

The novel weaves together three women's stories until they, ultimately, come together. While much of this book is dark and soul-shattering, the ultimate tapestry is woven in such a hopeful way. It's heartbreaking and beautiful.

So, why the Lilac Girls? The book takes its name from the beautiful flowers, which thrive only after a difficult winter. Through the dark and the cold, their beauty comes through. 

If you've read Holocaust fiction before, this story tells a tale you've likely not heard. And, your reward at the end is finding out who in the story truly lived and who deserves more recognition as heroes.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

43. Al Franken - Giant of the Senate

(Disclaimer: Yes, I usually post these reviews on Saturday or Sunday. Today is - I think - Wednesday. It's been a crazy week, so I have been neglecting my post. Rest assured, I finished it Friday. Don't bust me, book police. I'm already half way through book 44.)

It's simple, folks.

Do you like Al Franken? You'll like this book. Do you despise Al Franken? You won't even pick it up. You'll curse at this review. You won't even read this review! So, wait.. how are you seeing this?

Anyway. Back to the point.

Are you indifferent about Al Franken? Then, this book will probably endear you to him. That's how it was for me.

I've been a fan of Al Franken since even before he strapped a mobile satellite dish to his head and reported live from all corners of the world. He was one of the original SNL writers. If there was a Mt Rushmore of SNL, you'd have to argue to put him on there (next to, in my opinion, Tina Fey, Eddie Murphy, Dan Akroyd and Will Ferrell. And, Amy Poehler. And, Chris Farley. It's my Rushmore, I can put as many people on it as I want.) 

My point is, I loved the opening chapters of this book when Franken detailed his life up to and including his time at SNL. That overlaps with the time he met his wife. He speaks of both fondly - and, the way he talks about his wife throughout the book is heartwarming, no matter which side of the political aisle you sit. 

He gets into his run for office, which was a fascinating look at Minnesota politics and also explains how hard it was for him to secure funding for his campaign from the Democratic party. It all then rolls into his time as a senator, often being a nagging voice on confirmation hearing panels. He tells stories of how his staff has to reign him in and keep him from falling back on funny. And, his explanations of is relationship with his staff give an accessible inside look at senate staffs and all that happens behind the scenes that we don't get to see on C-Span.

You don't watch C-Span? You're missing out.

I didn't choose the book because of any particular political leaning. A co-worker lent it to me, told me it was funny. She and I have the same taste in books and humor, so I took her advice. 

So, the bottom line.. If you like or are indifferent to Al Franken, you'll like this book. If you hate him, but love SNL, you'll like the first half of this book. If you like him, but hate SNL, read only the second half. 

If you hate the sight of his nerdy little face, HOW DID YOU MAKE IT THIS FAR IN THIS REVIEW?

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?