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.

Friday, August 11, 2017

32. News of the World

I've had this book on my list since this little project started, but I was intimidated to start it. You can tell from the parchment-esque paper the book is printed on that it may require a little more brain power than I felt like expending this summer. I knew I would read it eventually, so when it was finally available at the library, I dove in.

I'm so, so glad I did.

Set in the years after the Civil War, News of the World tells the story of a military veteran and widow on a very different journey in the waning years of his life. He travels throughout Texas, reading newspapers to townsfolk eager for information about the world outside their small towns. Long before Google and RSS feeds and information at our fingertips, these people long to know what's happening in far-flung parts of the world. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd feeds their hunger, not with news of war and violence and poverty - they have lived through enough of that already. Instead, he reads about India and England and experiments and light-hearted news that maybe brings some hope that life moves on in the world. Set up like poetry readings, Captain Kidd's news delivery matters as much as the local newspapers sold on the street corners. Probably more.

Along the way, Captain Kidd agrees to transport a little girl back to her home near San Antonio. Ten years old, Johanna was kidnapped by Kiowa Indians who slaughtered her family. She was only six when it happened and the Kiowa raised the young girl as one of their own. By the time she meets Captain Kidd, she remembers nothing of her life before. She wishes to stay with the only family she's ever known. As they cross the miles together and beat danger at nearly every turn, Captain Kidd and Johanna form a beautiful bond. He teaches her English, hoping to help her adjust to the life to which he's returning her. You ache with every mile at the idea of what will happen when the two finally have to say goodbye.

Captain Kidd and Johanna are two of those characters you know will stay with you. 

This book is beautiful in its simplicity. While books set in this time period could easily feel clunky and "old-timey", the author does an amazing job slowly bringing you into the world. The passages are beautiful enough to feel profound, but the pages move by quickly. It's not an easy read, but not a difficult one either. It's worth the journey to watch these two people from entirely different worlds find purpose in each other's companionship.

As I write this, I just found out that News of the World will be a movie starring Tom Hanks. It's brilliant casting. Read the book now before the movie gets made - you won't regret it.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

31. Before the Fall

A fantastic summer blockbuster. An action movie. Pace + character + mystery. A palate cleanser.

That's the best way I can describe Noah Hawley's book. It caught my eye at the library last week because: 1) It was a 14-day loaner, which means people want it. 2) There were multiple copies, which means something at my tiny neighborhood library. 

I found myself instantly hooked and I read it all over the course of 24 hours. It was a beach read, which in the inland northwest where I live actually means reading on a lounge chair next to the lazy river at the county pool. See below.

The story begins where lives end. A private plane carrying powerful men and their families crashes off the shores of Martha's Vineyard. Everyone dies on impact except a four year old boy and a painter who just happened to score a seat on the flight. They make a miraculous swim to shore, then have to navigate life after the crash. The world wants to know: why did it crash? Was it terrorism at the hands of a foreign government? Did the random painter have something to do with it? We don't know until the very end. Along the way, the author lays out the lives of those on board and sends you chasing down speculative paths about who on board might have been a target for something sinister. I like that the reader does find out why the plane crashed, but sings a few different tunes before the conclusion.

The author clearly knows how to create character and drama; he created the TV show Fargo, for goodness sake. Like any good TV drama or action movie on screen, he develops intrigue through cliffhanger-ending chapters and quick takes. I felt myself wanting to push forward to a conclusion.

Like most action movies, though, it didn't leave much behind to learn from. I was completely satisfied with the book and it was totally worth the read, but it didn't do anything that knocked my socks off or will stay with me beyond that initial satisfaction. That's not a bad thing, mind you. It's the kind of book you need to throw in between heavier sets. A breath. A summer afternoon. 

The way this book ends - the cause of the crash - falls in line with a theory out there about the main motivation between a lot of violence in our world. There are experts who believe nearly every mass shooting is motivated by a man who was rejected by a woman (or women.) I've read analyses of school shootings and workplace violence that support this theory and I look to it first when these horrible tragedies occur. This book seems to prove that point: that while we often look for deep, complicated meaning and cause for events, it's often as simple as a woman who turned down a man - and, the hit on his pride that is then taken out on the world at large.

Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but it sure felt like that was the point the author made here.

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Monday, July 24, 2017

30. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

I'm not supposed to be writing this on Monday night. The way this little system works is that I start the book on Sunday, read throughout the week, finish on Thursday or Friday and write a review on Saturday.

I finished too soon. (save the joke there, you perv. I already made it in my head.)

Anyway, I wasn't supposed to be done reading book 30 of 2017 so quickly. But, I started this on the flight back from San Diego Friday and was done with the book by Saturday afternoon.

I couldn't stop. And, now, I'm sad it's over.

From appearances alone, this is probably not a book I would have chosen. It wasn't even on my radar until I heard an NPR podcast and two different bookstore owners listed it as a top book of the summer. What can I say, I do what bookstore owners on NPR tell me to do. Even when I started, I wasn't expecting much. I thought it would be a decent beach read, even though I was reading it on my way home from the beach. I didn't expect what this book delivered: an emotional onslaught, a tale of love won and lost and won and lost again, and a commentary on what we expect from sexy, powerful women - and, how we treat them when they give us what we think we want.

Evelyn Hugo is a former Hollywood star, now widowed and nearing the end of her life. She's ready to tell her life story now that everyone who played a part in it is dead and she gives the honor of writing what is sure to be a best seller to a magazine writer that nobody knows. There's a reason she chooses Monique Grant, which is alluded to and built towards throughout the novel. Within that larger context, Evelyn tells her story. From giving up her virginity to getting out of Hell's Kitchen to earning an Oscar. But, it's the story in between that left me captivated. The story of Evelyn's seven husbands and the question at the heart of it all.

Who is the true love of her life?

It would be easy, of course, to reduce Evelyn Hugo to a starlet who married to get ahead. As we meet each man in her life, we realize - it was almost never about love. But, it wasn't about the casting couch either. We learn that, while the world saw marriage after marriage to producers and leading men, Evelyn's true love was someone else entirely; it was someone she had to keep hidden from the world.

The obvious comparison is Elizabeth Taylor, right? But, even Liz couldn't have lived a story quite like this. Evelyn Hugo is a woman you ache to know - a starlet on screen, a beauty from birth, Hugo is the kind of woman other women want to be like and men want to be with. They describe her bosom like it's the 8th wonder of the world. She was very aware of the power she had, simply by flashing that smile and making men think they had a chance. And she feels the reality of what happens when she owns that sexuality and is judged for using it in return.

Evelyn tells her story without apology, even as we watch her destroy the people she loves. You find yourself frustrated with her choices, perhaps mostly because you know you might do the exact same in her position. And, you ache along with her for the resolution of that hidden, complicated love story that sustains her through it all.

This book asks what would you give up to live the life you've always dreamed of? Your past? Your future? Your dignity? The love of your life? And, it slaps you in the face that, in reality, we almost always realize the gravity of our choices after it's too late.

It's hard to explain why this book spoke to me enough that, two days later, I can't let it go. Even writing about it now, I feel like I'm not doing it justice. Hell, I joined a Facebook group dedicated to discussing the story even though I hate anything that resembles a book club. There are just some books that speak to you, for whatever reason. Maybe it's that deep, enduring love story. Maybe it's the strength and vulnerability of a woman who is in control of her sexuality and punished for it, too. Maybe we can all relate to what it will be like to someday own all of our choices and be comfortable enough in our own skin to share it with the world.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

29. Idaho

The next two books on the journey were crucial. I knew that I would be traveling for the entire week I was supposed to be reading book 29 and the start of book 30, so I knew they had to be good. Do you put extra pressure on the books you read when you know you'll be on the road or in the air? I totally do. Because, for that couple of hours, you know you won't be able to check your phone for texts or to absentmindedly search Twitter. It's you and the book. And, it better measure up.

Here's book 29, which I began on a two hour flight to San Diego and finished the night before we flew home. Most of it was read on the flight there, but I found myself reaching for it after long days at the beach/at the zoo/with my family. It's captivating. 

I knew I wanted to read Emily Ruskovich's Idaho since the first time I read the jacket in the bookstore. Though, I realize now, it is not at all what I thought it would be. The jacket describes a man living a new life with a new wife, who is only somewhat aware of the life he lived before her. For whatever reason, I imagined the book would be reminiscent of the standoff at Ruby Ridge. Knowing it was set in North Idaho, which I have covered as a journalist for 15 years, I just assumed that's where the author would go. I was wrong, but it very clearly has remnants of the best and worst of this part of the country. The author is from this area and her knowledge of it is woven through this book in a way only a native could write.

So, the book. 

It tells the story of Ann and Wade and the life they have built for themselves in the rugged mountains of North Idaho. Intentionally isolated, in geography and emotion. Each had a life before each other and came together through circumstances that prove we are all, somehow, connected. We are one turn of the road, one phone call, one life experience away from building a new life and new connections. Ann and Wade's love was born from unspeakable violence and tragedy; as Wade's mind fails and he begins to forget all that he's lost, Ann finds herself trying to keep that part of Wade's life alive and together. 

((I love that pulled quote; even more, I love this website it came from, which I plan to devour the rest of today.))

While so much of this book shows these connections we have, it also reminds us that, sometimes, we aren't all meant to find the end of the string. We pull and pull and, sometimes, we unravel instead of tie into a bow. It seems to remind us that while we have this primal need to assign meaning to things, sometimes, life truly is made up of a series of random acts. No matter how hard we try, sometimes things don't always connect.

This book is truly a tapestry, weaving together stories and perspectives. The individual strands cover a foundation of unimaginable loss. The author jumps from perspective to perspective, from year to year. As a reader, you expect that eventually these stories will arrive in a single place. They do not; the question of whether or not you like the book probably comes down to how much you're willing to accept the unfinished nature of it all.

I want the payoff. But, I appreciate that it's not always that simple. I wanted answers for the violence, I wanted resolution to lives, unfinished. But, is the book any worse for not giving them to me? Not at all. It's beautifully written, wonderfully told. The characters are complex and imperfect, much like the storylines that define their lives.

So, was it a good airplane read? Yeah. I lost myself in it, truly. It's the kind of book where you look up and around you and somehow have forgotten that the rest of the world hasn't come along with you. Once I landed, the rough mountain landscape stood in stark contrast to the palm trees swaying around me as I read. I felt deeply for every character, on every page.

Next up, book 30. I started it on the plane ride home and have breezed through 213 pages in two days. Yeah, it's that good. And, may be the perfect summer read. Review, coming soon!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

28. The Wonder

This aint no beach read.

I know you're supposed to read lighter stories in the summertime. Books where you can doze off between the pages; pages that get soaked on the corners from the pool or the sunscreen.

This is not. that.

I've thought about reading this for awhile now. Emma Donaghue's book Room shook me to my core and I wanted more of this genius author inside my brain. But, for some reason, I always put it back on the shelf. Maybe I didn't want to be shaken.

When this was actually available at my small neighborhood library, I figured it was time. 

The premise of the book is that a nurse comes to care for a little girl in Ireland who is attracting attention and visitors for a very simple reason: she hadn't eaten in months. According to local lore, Anna didn't need food anymore. According to Anna, she was existing on the manna of heaven. But, an independent commission thought something else might be at play. They hired the nurse and a nun to keep a two-week watch, trying to either prove the girl was, in fact, some sort of miracle marvel. Or, to prove it was all a hoax.

The nurse is instantly skeptical and spends the first nights of her watch trying to prove the child is sneaking food. Over time, her concern for the girl grows and she tries to convince Anna's family and community that she is at risk. But, can she make her case before it's too late?

I've had a hard time describing this book to people. I don't want to give away what is a pretty extreme twist about 85% of the way through. I'm also having a hard time deciding if I should recommend it. It's extremely well-written, of course. But, this thing is heavy. It starts heavy, it progressively builds and the turn it takes turns your stomach as well.

The book is a commentary on Ireland early in the last century. It's a referendum, of sorts, on faith. And, it makes your blood boil at the way society would choose to ignore extreme dangers and terrible crimes, all because it felt like a family's personal business. It also reminds you that, more than 100 years later, not everything has changed.

I felt like I slogged through this, but I actually read it all in three nights. It kept my attention and built my concern. But, it's definitely not your typical summer read. Put it on your list for, say, late January. It's bleak outside already; maybe you won't notice the gray that covers you when you read it.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

27. Cork Dork

I love wine.

I love everything about it. I love the taste, I love the tradition, I love the pageantry, I love the warm sensation of the first sip and I love standing in a vineyard looking at grapes, knowing their amazing potential. I love wine so much, attendees of my birthday party last night left me with 20 bottles to enjoy in the future,

What this book taught me? I don't know shit about wine.

Let's walk it back for a second. I probably know more about wine than the average consumer. I've interviewed several winemakers, I've tasted wine in Sonoma and Yakima and Greece. But, wine is so much bigger than what most of us even care to explore. This book reminded me of that - and, instead of being intimidated, it made me really excited about what's out there.

Bianca Bosker was a tech journalist whose interest in wine was piqued not by the grocery store wines most of us drink every day, but by the high-stakes world of wine that most of us cannot even imagine. These are people who don't brush their teeth and don't drink coffee for fear of it altering their sensitive palate. These are people who LICK ROCKS in New York City, just to expose themselves to more flavors. These are people who describe a good wine as "hitting you in the chest with a harpoon" - and if it's not that experience, they don't want it.

Bosker went headlong into this world, working her way from being a "cellar rat" in one of NYC's finest restaurants to studying for the test to become a certified sommelier. She explores the past (like, the Plato/Aristotle past) and even maps her own brain to find how it reacts to the wine she drinks. It's fascinating, well-written and an eye-opening jaunt through a world most of us will never experience for ourselves.

I read about grapes I've never heard of and also got a great lesson into how to really taste wine. Not "is this good or bad" - but, what is your mouth telling you that can reveal a wine's alcohol content, structure and origin. I sipped a $10/bottle Washington Syrah while I read and felt woefully inadequate. But, this isn't a book designed to make us feel unsophisticated.

See, that's my kind of sommelier. Bosker introduces Grieco, the man behind some really badass wine bars, to show the counter to the pomp and circumstance of the wine experience. While much of the book exposes the obsessive traditions associated with the world of high-end wine, Bosker doesn't try to convince us that there's a right way to drink wine. In fact, she scoffs at the way the verbiage of wine tasting has become homogenized to the point tasters are often just repeating words they know are supposed to be associated with a specific wine, even if they're not tasting those flavors themselves.

She does, however, want you to look beyond the world of Sutter Home and Menage a Trois (the wine, not the act. You know.) You may like the taste of mass produced wine, but isn't it better to experience a wine that tells a story? Totally. Even if it gives your palate a workout.

I fell in love with a wine like this. While tasting wine near Lake Chelan, Washington last year, I tried a Cab from a vineyard that had been in the midst of a wildfire a few years before. Wildfire smoke sank over the vines for weeks. The result? A wine they cannot replicate, with a smoky, campfire feel. I bought it immediately. While I was tasting, a group of young women came in on a bachelorette party wine tour. They cringed at the taste of the Fira, saying it was too strong. They wanted to get drunk off some classic Chardonnay! Wrong? No. You like what you like. But boring, for sure.

Point is, this book doesn't to make you feel bad about enjoying a fruit bomb every now and then. Sometimes, you just want the mega purple-infused sure thing. But, it does push you to look beyond that and get a little adventurous from time to time. Spend a little money, trust the sommelier and lick a few rocks now and then to give your tongue a little workout.

On second thought, don't lick the rocks. Leave that to the experts.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

26. The Graveyard Book

If you would have told me in January that I would read two books this year that were set in graveyards and featured talking ghosts, I would have told you you're crazy. But, here we are. And, you know what? Both such books have been among my favorites.

I didn't intend to read this. Unlike most avid readers, I'm finding out, I had never heard of Neil Gaiman. But, I truly believe sometimes books pick us. I was picking up a gift for a departing co-worker and one of my favorite Spokane stores (Atticus is part coffee shop, part wine store, part book store). My two boys were with me and they're not all that patient in a store that doesn't have video games. So, I was rushing through the shelves and trying to keep them from strangling each other in public when I saw several Gaiman books. I figured if they had more than one, they must be fans. I picked up this one first, read the back and was intrigued. Normally, I'd open the book and read a page, just to see if I like the writer's style, etc. But, I didn't have time, so I grabbed it and took it to the register. There, the kindly bearded man asked if I'd ever read Gaiman before. I said know and - I shit you not - the man got a twinkle in his eye. He told me this was a "good start" and that he and his wife went to Europe and visited the graveyard where this story takes place. I knew I picked a good one.

So, what is it that grabbed my attention? The synopsis on the back. The Graveyard Book describes itself as an "ingenious and captivating reimagining of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book" but, in this story, Mowgli is a boy named Bod and he's raised by ghosts, not by animals. Sounds weird, right? But, it totally works.

That's how the story begins. The prose is simple and haunting and, even though I read these lines at a swimming pool crowded with kids, I was instantly sucked into the darkness. A man named Jack kills a family, but a toddler sneaks away. The man tries to pursue him, but the curious boy toddles into the graveyard and the ghosts there decide to raise him and protect him from the man whose work clearly is not done. We follow along as the boy they name Nobody - Bod for short - grows up in this mystical world. 

Because there are teachers in the graveyard, Bod learns to read and write. Eventually, he goes into the human world and even goes to school. But, that public immersion throws his life again into chaos, as the forces that set out to destroy his family realize they have the chance to finish the job with him. It is then where Bod is able to use all the gifts he's learned from the ghosts to protect himself and the future. 

Like The Jungle Book, you watch Bod grow up and realize that he will have to leave the graveyard and live his life. And it fills you with such a sense of hope to watch this young man set off into the world.

This is the kind of book you get so absorbed it, you find yourself blocking out the world completely. You have to blink a few times to focus back on the world around you. There aren't many of these out there, so when you find them, you want to tell the world.

I have no doubt I'm not doing this book justice. But, if you can willfully suspend your disbelief, it's a consuming and magical tale. And, as the guy at Atticus told me, it's a good start; there's absolutely more Gaiman in my future.

As soon as I started reading it, I thought back to book #10 that I read this year, Lincoln in the Bardo. Also set in a graveyard, it shares perspective on life from the dead. I'm not the only reader of both to draw parallels between the two, but I have yet to see George Saunders reference this book as an inspiration for his. If you've read Bardo and liked it, you'll like this; the biggest difference here is that it's not told from the ghosts' perspective - it's told by an outside narrator. For that reason, I find it more accessible for a casual read - and, easier to lose yourself in it. 

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

25. Killers of the Flower Moon

I damn near failed.

In this little quest to read a book a week this year, it has been pretty easy to finish each book. Most weeks, I've finished by Wednesday or Thursday and had a few days to spare. Not this week, folks. I finished this week's book with one hour and two measly minutes to spare.\

That's not a reflection on the book. This book, as I'll describe in a minute, is superb. It's due to teh fact that life - specifically, work - got in the way. The last week in June is the busiest week of the year for me at work, as I produce our news station's coverage of a massive 3-on-3 basketball tournament. It means a lot of late nights, a lot of tired eyes (well, just two eyes - but much fatigue) and it caps off with two dawn-to-dusk days. I still read every night last week, I just couldn't stay awake to read for long. Anyway, I raced to get done. I didn't want to fail all tens of you! And, I made it by the skin of my teeth.

I heard about this book a few months back on NPR. The story was compelling enough, I immediately put it on my ever-expanding list of books to read. I was eyeing this read for summer, specifically a plane ride to San Diego in mid-June. But, I couldn't wait. As I heard more and more reviews about it, I couldn't even wait for the library hold turnstyle to spin my way. I paid full price for the hardcover and cracked it open immediately.

The book tells the true story you've probably never heard of one of the most notorious crime sprees in American history. I mean, maybe you'd heard of it, but I doubt it. It tells of such a dark history of race relations and greed in our country, it's amazing that it once made headlines worldwide and has since been brushed back into history.

In the 1800s, when the federal government was relegating Native American tribes to reservations, the Osage tribe in Oklahoma made a shrewd decision. They got the feds to agree to a deal that gave the Osage rights to whatever was under the ground on their reservation. Unbeknownst to them, they were standing on massive reserves of oil. The Osage grew wealthy beyond their wildest dreams - and, instantly became the target of greedy killers

Mollie Burkhart and her sisters

One by one, members of Mollie Burkhart's family turned up dead. Some, obviously murdered. Others appeared to have died natural deaths. It wasn't until a dedicated lawman - an agent with the newly-formed FBI - began to dig, uncovering an unconscionable web of lies, deceit and blackmail that put the entire tribe at risk.

David Grann's research takes you back to that time, while giving you the benefit of the foresight tribal members and investigators could not see. Your heart simultaneously breaks and races as you watch one Osage after another fall victim to the people they were supposed to love and trust. And, you cheer both the integrity of the lead investigator and the strength of Mollie Burkhart as you wait to see if the justice system will fail again.

The book is thick with research and I sometimes found it hard to keep all the players straight. In the end, though, I was left with a fascination of how this went down - and, bewilderment as to how it has become nothing more than a footnote in history.

As a journalist myself, I most loved the plot twist Grann introduces on page 238. Just as you think it's neatly wrapping up, Grann writes, "There was another layer to the case - a deeper, darker, even more terrifying conspiracy, which the bureau had never exposed."

Oh, hell yeah.

Even better? It's Grann's reporter that unmasks yet another killer, nearly a century later. One the FBI either missed or ignored.

Grann's book not only follows the twists and turns of how greed turns to murder, it also explores the effects of this chapter on the tribe today. Every death - even still - is questioned. And, no one has forgotten the devil who worked so hard to take all they had left.

It's gripping. And, if you appreciate good reporting and public records, you'll be extremely satisfied in watching it all shake out.