Sunday, December 10, 2017

52. You Don't Have To Say You Love Me

I didn't expect to be writing this today. I wrote a review yesterday of last week's book and was about to get started on this one. I chose this book of the three in my current "to read" pile because it was the longest of the three. I have a flight to DC and back next weekend and thought that would give me plenty of time to finish it.

Less than 24 hours, it's done.

I don't know if I devoured this book as much as it devoured me. There's no way this review will do it justice.

Sherman Alexie is something of a local boy to us here in Spokane. Technically, he grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation about an hour away, but he was born here and is a fixture of the local literary community. He's a big freaking deal - and, we once had a Twitter messaging exchange before he quit the platform, so we're basically close friends. Okay, maybe not. But, I'm a fan. 

I heard about his memoir earlier this year, but didn't have a terribly strong desire to read it. I'm not much of a memoir gal. Then, I read this open letter to his readers about how talking about this book was haunting him so much, he ended his book tour early. I felt the subject matter might be too heavy for someone trying to crank through a book every week. Still, it kept coming up. In list after list of the "best books of 2017" there was Sherman Alexie. I borrowed it from a co-worker and prepared myself for an emotional struggle.

The book is a remembrance of Alexie's mom, who passed away in 2015. It's not a glowing look back at a life, well-lived. It's the heart-wrenching reality of life on the reservation; it's a tale of a young man lucky to have escaped a father who drank too much and a mother who lied. A lot. Alexie made peace somehow with the father who abandon his family many times - who never did much to provide a good life. But, you see in story after poem after prose-laden chapter that Alexie has not come to terms with the relationship between mother and son. He was relieved when she died. And, tormented by guilt and grief.

And, it's so much more than that.

The book explores all the ghosts of Alexie's past. The bullies that tormented him through childhood, the brain injury that defined his birth and young life, the decisions he made to leave the reservation he left behind in order to find the man he was supposed to become. The scars are literal and figurative and you find yourself wanting to look away from a man laying himself so bare.

But, you don't. You dig and dive and devour until you realize you've been holding your breath for 449 pages. And, on page 450, you break. And, you still have five pages left.

It's not a "cry your eyes out" kind of book. It's powerful and moving and incredibly sad, but it's Alexie's story to tell. Because some of the most painful revelations come in the form of poetry, it's as if the reader is somehow one additional step removed. 

His writing his breathtakingly beautiful. His experiences are hauntingly sad. His life on the reservation is frustratingly common. He got out - but, never escaped. He describes his theology as a verb: return. Like that spawning salmon that defined his tribe for centuries, he is constantly returning to his childhood home. To his memories. To his grief.

I loved this book because it cracked open my chest and settled in my heart. I love it because he talks about places I've been and people I know and stories I've covered in the news. I love it because the writing his damn near perfect. I love it because, ultimately, it is hopeful.

I could go on. And, on. And, on. It's much easier to let the work speak for itself. One of the last I'll read this year and, undoubtedly, one of the best.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

51. Good Omens

When you dedicate a year of your life to reading, you learn a little bit about yourself along the way. Here I am, book 51, and I learned a powerful and surprising lesson: I don't really like to read funny books.


I know. It's weird. Especially if you know me. I can laugh at just about anything. Humor is both my security blanket and my ace-in-the-hole. I think God made me funny so I wouldn't complain about not being a 5'10" supermodel. But, it took this very well-written, very funny book for me to realize I'd rather keep humor and reading separate.

Let me explain.

This book was recommended to me by a very smart, very well-read co-worker. We tend to agree almost universally about books and swap back and forth all the time. She gave me this book to read after I read Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book (which was really unique, but not at all funny. I loved it.) She described as something like Monty Python and she's dead-on with that. But, for some reason, it sat on my shelf while I picked up other books instead. This week, it was time. 

As the novel opens, the authors are setting the state for the end of the world. Not in an R.E.M. kind of way, but in a "antichrist and the four horsemen" kind of way. But, there are problems from the get-go. For one, an absent minded nun has misplaced the Antichrist. And, two angels (one truly angelic, one fallen) are trying to stop the inevitable Armageddon from taking place. Why? Turns out, they've become quite fond of the human race and would like to see it continue. By the time the four horsemen ride in - on motorcycles, no less - things are in chaos and it's hard to say exactly to what we are careening towards.

It's satire, it's whip-smart and it's fascinating. But, for whatever reason, I just couldn't get into it. Maybe the names were too confusing and complicated. Maybe the subject matter was too far-fetched. Maybe I had too much Nyquil this week (no maybe there, actually. That's true.) But, while I found myself fully appreciating what it takes to pull off writing a novel like this, I couldn't wait to close the book and be done with it.

So, maybe I don't like funny in my books after all. 

I'll definitely read more Gaiman. I'll definitely take more book suggestions from Tracy, who is insanely smart and witty herself. But, I'll be going back to more serious tomes to round out my year of books. And, the next one is going to plunge me deep into darkness... Stay tuned...

Saturday, December 2, 2017

50. Those Who Wish Me Dead

I didn't expect it to go so quickly.

Book 50 was a page turner in the truest sense. It begins with a bang and carries you from chapter to chapter with mini-cliffhangers (that hyphenated word initially auto-corrected to mini cheeseburgers, which are freaking awesome, by the way. And, that is not the point.) 

Back to the book.

It begins in Indiana with an 11-year old boy stumbling, quite literally, upon a body. The man is underwater, handcuffed with his throat slit. Moments later, the boy witnesses a murder and the fight for his life is on.

For his protection, Jace is moved to a wilderness camp in Montana. They believe it's the only way to keep him safe from two brothers who are hunting him. He finds safety, at least briefly, with a woman working in a fire lookout who is being chased by her own personal demons. Next thing you know, bodies are stacking up, the forest is on fire and Jace and everyone committed to protect him is running for their lives.

The book sounds like the kind of mystery/thriller my mom likes to read and she consumes these things like I would like to be consuming mini-cheeseburgers (Note to self: don't write reviews when you forgot to eat lunch.) For the most part, I think of thrillers like this as fast food - it's good when you want it and it will fill you up, but it won't really sustain you in any sort of meaningful way. The difference here is that the writing is actually really good. The characters are strong and well-developed and the story itself is compelling enough that you want to stay engaged. And, there's a twist I didn't see coming.

The drama is vivid enough that I was actually scared at times. In the two nights it took to finish it, I ended up reading more than I would have because I was too scared to turn off my light and go to sleep! So, if that's your kind of thing, you'll love it. 

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a date with tiny cheeseburgers.

Monday, November 27, 2017

49. Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman

Ever been told you're too loud? Too hysterical? Too impatient? Too frantic? Too emotional? Too slutty? Too bossy? Too masculine?

Yeah. Me, too. All of it. And more. 

You can see why I was drawn to this book.

It's a collection of essays at exactly the right time in history. Whether you consider the political rise (and, demise) of Hilary Clinton or the powerful influence of (the queen) Beyonce, you have to argue that women have never before been on the cusp of so much power. Which is exactly why people keep trying to bring us down. 

As someone who has often been described as "too [enter adjective here]", I was instantly drawn to what I expected would be a powerful analysis of this point in history. Who are the unruly women? What makes them so? And, I hoped in the end to feel empowered and okay about being, simply, too much.

Anne Helen Petersen assigns an adjective and a woman to each essay. Nicki Minaj, for example: too slutty. Madonna gets too old. Hillary Clinton is too shrill. It explains how each defines cultural expectations and, while a portion of us celebrate them for it, others choose to tear them down. Most of the analysis here isn't breaking new ground. But, there are specifics that I know will stick with me.

Kim Kardashian, for example, is described as "too pregnant." We're only a couple of generations removed from a time where it was considered indecent to mention or even allude to pregnancy in TV and movies. It was Demi Moore who shattered all expectations when she posed nude, very pregnant, on the cover of Vanity Fair. Finally, the world was forced to acknowledge the very basic scientific fact that women get pregnant and their bodies show it. By the time Kim K came around, the pregnant belly was considered a fashion statement. But, Kim K didn't get pregnant the way she was "expected" to. She was pregnant all around, not just a cute little belly up front. She was swollen and uncomfortable and miserable - and, it was all captured on reality TV. Tabloids were paying more for photographers who could capture unflattering photos and shots of Kim eating. While people celebrated the beauty of Kate Middleton's "tasteful" pregnancy, they criticized Kim's, with one tabloid compared a shot of her in a black and white dress to an image of a killer whale. 

We want women to celebrate their pregnancies, but only if they do it the "right way." Kim's pregnancy was a lot closer to what most women experience, yet even those who have been bloated and swollen were among the first to criticize the way she wore the extra weight.

That's one example in a book filled with them. They'll make you angry and they'll make you think. But, they didn't make me hopeful. I found myself shaking my head at the reality more than I felt empowered. But, no one said that was the intention of the book to begin with.

The book is well-written and well-researched, but I wouldn't suggest reading it for fun. I wouldn't even suggest reading it all in one sitting. It's too frustrating. Too anger-inducing. Too familiar. 

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?

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.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

35. Underground Airlines

Maybe it's the exact right time in history to read this book.

Underground Airlines sets up a chilling reality: Abraham Lincoln was never actually president. He was assassinated, not at Ford's Theater shortly after beginning his second term, but instead on the way to serve his first. That means the Emancipation Proclamation was never issued. Slaves were never actually freed.

Fast-forward to now. Four states, "The Hard Four" still have legalized slavery. It's illegal for slaves in those states to escape and there are legal systems in place to catch those who escape. But, still, many try. They do so with the help of heroes along the way who make up the Underground Airlines - which is, really, no different than the underground railroad to which it refers.

The man at the center of our story is a man who was once a slave. He has been forced to work for the government as a bounty hunter to collect slaves who escape. He's really good at it. And, he's morally torn apart about what he has to do.

We catch up with Victor's story as he's hunting down an escaped slave named Jackdaw. You are able to see how the system works, how he does what he does, and you realize the dread he feels knowing he's ending every hope of freedom for someone very much like him. 

And, you're along for the ride with Victor as he is forced to return to the Hard Four to try and uncover a secret that one man died to carry; a secret that could end the whole concept of legalized slavery once and for all.

The concept of this book is so compelling, I've had it on my list for months. I dove in, really expecting to be riveted from page one. Then, I really struggled to get through it. It wasn't just that the subject matter was dark and, in some aspects, a little too close to bringing to life some of the awful racial tensions and issues we're facing now. It's more that the ramp up to the real action of the book just took a little too long. I wanted to know more about Victor's past, which was revealed to us in too-small chunks along the way. I wanted to know more about the mechanics of slavery worked in the Hard Four and we were only given that in the very final chapters. It wasn't until Victor crossed the border back into the region that enslaved him that I really felt the pace of the novel pick up.

There are moments of beautiful writing in this book. There are true breath-gasping passages. And, you really do feel the moral conflict that Victor faces in his role as bounty hunter - you really see why he's doing this. But, the story loses steam in the spaces in between.

On Good Reads, I gave it 3 stars. I'd absolutely give it 5 stars for concept and character - and barely 3 stars for execution.

Friday, August 18, 2017

34. Close to Shore

How good is this book? I swear to you, I was rooting for the shark.

Okay, lest you think I'm a terrible person, let me back up.

This. Book. Is. So. Good.

I'd tell you it's the ultimate beach read, but if you read it on the beach near the ocean, you'll run to the boardwalk so fast, you'll forget the book and your towel and your chair and your children near the shore.

I had never heard of this book, though it has been out for quite some time. The story it tells, in fact, was the inspiration for Jaws. And, it's written in a way that you forget it's non-fiction. 

The book tells the story of a series of shark attacks that terrorized the Jersey shore in 1916. At the time, two new trends were emerging and they were on a collision course with each other. First, people were just getting into the hobby of sunbathing and wading into the waters of the ocean. Women were free, relatively speaking, of the cumbersome swimsuits that had weighed them down in decades prior and men were starting to see venturing into the ocean as equivalent to trekking into the forests. That was all happening around the same time that "experts" were concluding that sharks would not attack people. It hadn't happen, they said. They had no proof. So, imagine the shock that stifling hot summer when people from the cities flocked to the coast and, just off shore, swam what scientists now believe was a juvenile great white shark, far from home, desperate and hungry.

Chills, guys.

The author does a fantastic job using alternating chapters to set the tension. In one, he describes the time in which these shark attacks was ripe to occur and the people who would eventually come in contact with what they called a "sea wolf" or a "sea monster." The next chapter, then, gives you the shark's likely point of view. What it might be seeing in the water, the sounds and smells that would have drawn it closer to shore. You find yourself holding your breath to see where and who he will strike, as he moves his way up the coast and right into the path of those brave, trendy bathers.

You learn a lot about sharks, you learn a lot about how science observed them when the ocean was truly wild. You're reminded how slowly news traveled then, when the shark is able to come close to come within feet of shore and attack long before word of the previous attack could reach them. By the thousands, people were fleeing the shore and leaving empty hotel rooms behind. The sea was not safe. 

Then, the shore came inland. Into fresh water. Into a swimming hole full of kids.

I'm so tempted to say more, but I want you to read this and I don't want you to miss out on any of the suspense that gripped me from start to finish. This book had such a hold on me, I was scared to swim in the body of water on which I was vacationing and it was a lake, hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean.

That's some book. 

33. Settle For More

Here's how I've always felt about Megyn Kelly: meh

Here's how I feel about Megyn Kelly after reading her book: meh.

It's quite amazing, really, to read an entire 300+ pages about someone's entire life and career and walk away really not having an opinion about the person one way or another. But, that's how I feel. 

I had no real desire to read this book, but she was staring at me pleasantly from the library shelf and I thought I might as well see what she was so eager to tell me. It was free, after all, what did I have to lose? 

Kelly's book details her life from beginning to (almost) now. She describes her family life and childhood and her family members sound like wonderful people. Her story leads her through undergraduate school to law school to a corporate law career and, ultimately, to broadcast journalism. I guess that's why I picked up the book in the first place; I'm a TV journalist, I like to see how people's careers progress. Megyn Kelly, though, had anything but a "normal" tv career. Clearly smart and driven, she started her tv career in Washington, DC working as a part-time reporter at WJLA. I was a summer intern there in 1998, which means absolutely nothing but I felt like including it so that you'd be super-impressed with me. I can tell that you are.

Anyway, back to Megyn, the actual big deal.

Kelly caught the eye of execs at Fox News who plucked her from affiliate obscurity and thrust her upon America. They moved her up quickly. She rose to the challenge and rocketed to cable news stardom.

Kelly talks about being driven and relentless in preparation for big interviews and debates. Admirable? Yes. Surprising? No. That's the bare minimum for journalists of her caliber and I didn't really feel like she "let us in" to the struggles that come with that. The book read more like a resume than a memoir, which is fine. I'd just rather read the latter. She did talk about fears she faced and security she required when dealing with psychotic stalkers and talked about raising kids and having a family with all the demands of her job. 

I was mostly bored, just reading to finish.

Then, I got kind of mad.

Kelly spends the better part of a chapter talking about how women should not use gender as an excuse for not getting ahead in their careers. Not getting ahead, she asks? Don't blame sexism, just work harder. Feeling overlooked and underappreciated? That's because you are - maybe you should move on. It's not bad advice, but it really ignores the reality of sex discrimination and objectification many women feel, especially in our business. It felt honest, but cold. 

Then came the final pages. Kelly waits until page 300 to describe the rampant sexual harassment at the network that launched her career. After talking casually and complimentary about the Fox News higher-ups the entire book, she reveals that Roger Ailes sexually harassed her at the beginning her tenure there. She kept it quiet, only coming forward when other women did so and there were legal implications for Ailes. I'm not judging her for not coming forward - that's a personal decision women have to make. But, it really bothered me that, just pages before, she talked about women needing to ignore sexual undertones and sex discrimination in the work place. 

It just left a terrible taste in my mouth.

Kelly does acknowledge that she's long had a veneer of perfection and that it's hard for her to show weakness and let others in. I'm guilty of much of the same. I do, though, think this book did little to draw that down and reveal the woman beneath.