Saturday, April 29, 2017

17. Columbine

See that tattered, well-worn copy? I'm not the reason it got that way. I borrowed Dave Cullen's Columbine from a co-worker, who has been hanging on to it for a few years now. This book is required reading for a class on TV and Social Justice at Gonzaga University. Once you read it, you'll believe every journalist should read it. And, the rest of us, too

Unlike many of the journalists now required to read this book in high school and college classes, I am old enough to remember the events of Columbine quite vividly. I was a junior in college. I had come home from class and switched on the TV and saw high school kids, running from their school with their hands on top of their heads. I watched families, reuniting in anguish. I watched a young man dangling from a classroom window before dropping to scrambling rescuers below. It was not the first school shooting in America, not by a long shot; but, it was the first shooting that unfolded on live television. At that point, it was the most deadly, too.

Dave Cullen is a journalist and was among the first to arrive at the school that day. He's the first to admit that most journalists that day got it wrong. This book is an attempt to correct those wrongs, to rewrite the story of what really happened that day and who those teenage gunmen really were. In some ways, it's an indictment of the media for jumping to conclusions and sticking to pre-determined narratives. It's an indictment, too, of a sheriff who clung so desperately to those same narratives that he failed to provide truthful information that could have corrected that misinformation.

I've known for years that the myths many of us believed about Columbine were not true. I know them, I realize now, because of this book. Without dogged journalists like Cullen, the world would not know that these weren't gay goth loners, looking to exact revenge over the jocks and popular kids that bullied them. What you learn from reading Columbine - and, what Cullen learned from the killers' own writing and videos - was that the intent that April day was to kill everyone. They set up bombs because they wanted mass casualties. They didn't seek out individuals to strike down.

So, why did people so readily believe that? First, because of the information broadcast on TV in the chaotic hours after. One kid tells one reporter what they believe happen, the reporters repeat the information back to the next witness and that misinformation becomes the narrative. Then, journalists went seeking out the facts that supported what they already believed. But, I don't blame the journalists entirely - and, not just because I am one. In those chaotic times, reporters rely on the official information. After Columbine, the sheriff kept spouting the same incorrect information, even though his deputies and investigators knew it was wrong. Yes, it's incumbent on reporters to follow the facts But, it's tough to do that when the person in charge of the investigation is either giving wrong information or sealing reports altogether.

So much of this book chases down the question we all want to know: why? Cullen's exhaustive examination of the Columbine shooters concludes that Eric Harris is a classic psychopath, intent on destroying everything and incapable of sympathy. His conclusion is also that Dylan Klebold was a depressed, suicidal kid, more intent on his own death than the deaths of others. This ins't conjecture; he comes to this conclusion based on the detailed explanations each teen left behind.

I read this book now - and, look at this tragedy - as a mom. I wonder, how in the world could their parents miss this? How could they miss the stockpiling of weapons, the pipe bombs hidden in closets, the complete homicidal and suicidal behavior and nature of their own kids? I wonder how they could miss it, but I place no blame on them. Through the accounts here, you see them as involved, attentive parents from intact families. If anything, their sin was giving their sons a little freedom.

What's striking is how normal both of their lives seemed. They went to high school football games, played fantasy baseball, chased girls. Dylan went to prom three days before the attack. They apologized to their moms on camera. The normalcy of what happened before makes the horror of the act that much more terrifying.

There's so much to unpack about this, especially now that we know so much about what really happened. I won't give you the blow-by-blow, but tell you that it's hard to read. Not to say it's not well-written; it's extremely well done. Cullen sets up two timelines, one after the shooting and one before. The two storylines are on a collision course with each other. He walks Harris and Klebold all the way up through the final moments and, because you as the reader knows what's coming, your heart clenches just thinking about that final day. The shooters knew they would die - they wanted police to kill them. But, 13 people had no idea their lives would end that Tuesday morning. Thousands more had no idea they would never be the same.

Nine days after the shootings at Columbine, the next big tragedy occurred. The world moved on. The myths and misinformation, cemented. The press left town and nobody came back to correct the record. It's a damn shame, too. Because what you learn from reading this book is that, while there is no typical school shooting, there are lessons to be learned from each one. If only the sheriff's office would have been more vigorous investigating complaints about Harris and Klebold in the year before the attack. If only their parents would have found and read their journals. If only first responders would have rushed into the school instead of working so hard to solidify the perimeter.

If only...

If only...

Now, the best service that can be done for the victims is to read their stories. Celebrate those who survived. Make good on that promise we make to ourselves that this won't happen in our communities. And, teach the lessons of what went wrong here.

That's what I'll try to do. If all goes according to plan, I'll be teaching that TV and Social Justice class at Gonzaga next year. I'll teach this book and hopefully inspire future journalists to question more. To dig deep. To follow the facts instead of their hunches. And, to approach tragedy first as human beings, then as reporters. 

I'll teach it as a parent, too, who will remember tearing up at the words on page 273. When the students finally returned to Columbine for the first time after the shooting, 500 parents formed a human shield near the front doors to support their kids and keep the media from being able to focus on their faces. They cheered as every student arrived.

We send our kids to school, expecting they'll be safe. Columbine showed us we have no right to expect that at all.

Note: since Tweeting about this book, the author reached out and told me of other resources available on his website. It includes a teaching guide, mental health information and other resources. You can check it out here. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

16. At the Water's Edge

When is the last time you read a book in one sitting? It's happened for me a few times. I read Into Thin Air in one night in college, so absorbed that I got downright cold in my 90 degree, walkup apartment with no air conditioning in the middle of a humid Milwaukee summer. I read Art of Racing in the Rain in one night, then was disappointed by the ending sometime after midnight. I've read a few books over the course of a plane ride, if I was lucky enough to have a layover in the middle. But, it's been awhile. Now, work/ kids/life/sleep get in the way of more than an hour of interrupted reading time. But, I had it this week for one simple reason.


Not my puke. My kids' puke. One kid started up on Easter Sunday and rolled into Tuesday morning home from school. Midway through that day, the other son came home from school and began the process all over again. My husband was out of town for work, so it was on me to stay home with the boys. They watched the first 15 minutes of every show on Netflix - and I read. By the time the puke-fest was over and the last of the laundry was put away, this book was done.

I bought this book because I loved Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants. Her character development and period-perfect setting made that one of my favorite books of that year. When I read the jacket of this one, my expectations were high.

The basic plot involves a young couple and their friend, heading to Scotland to take care of one father's unfinished business: to prove the Loch Ness Monster is real and restore the family name. The quest teaches the female protagonist much more than she ever imagined.

The book instantly absorbs you. The scene is set with a mysterious woman who commits suicide by walking into Loch Ness and letting the water overtake her. That mystery is laid out in the prologue before Gruen leaps ahead a few years and moves into the story proper.

Maddie Hyde is the daughter of a rich man and a crazed woman, who marries into an uppity family. Her husband Ellis is emasculated because physical ailments keep him from serving in World War II. His emasculation, though subtle at first, turns out to be the razor's edge on which they all walk. So desperate to prove himself - to prove his manhood - he drags his wife and friend across the Atlantic in the middle of the war to prove to himself and the world that the monster in the loch is real.

What you learn about Ellis is that his monster is not a mythical sea creature at all.

They crossed the ocean during a war to find a monster; turns out, the monster was with them, albeit hidden, as soon as they left the shore in America.

In Scotland, Maddie discovers her husband's truth, but she finds her own as well. She becomes a contributing member of society for the first time, escaping the demons she left at home.

The plot is fantastic, the side stories are compelling, the characters are multi-faceted and the ending is fantastic. There's a Gastby-esque quality to the men in this book; you also find yourself rooting for Maddie so hard, it makes your heart ache.

So, yeah. It was good. It was fantastic. But, I think I like it even more because I could read it all at once. It's rare that you put everything else aside and just sit quietly to read for hours. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't complete quiet isolation. In between chapters, I snuck in a conference call, a workout, a few dozen tweets and a ton of "Mom, I'm gonna throw up again!" But, I could read long enough that the setting became real and absorbing. I had a few of those moments where I looked up and it took me a second to jolt back to Spokane, Washington and out of the highlands of Scotland.

I can't imagine why someone wouldn't like this book. But, you'll like it even more if you can sit on the couch on a rainy weekday and read while the rest of the world churns on. I wish one of those days for you.

Minus the puke, of course.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

15. The Underground Railroad

Every list you read about the best books of 2017 includes this title. There's no way I wasn't going to read it. Then, mid-week, Colson Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize. Pretty solid affirmation, if you ask me.

 It's not exactly uplifting subject matter, of course, but inside the pages lies hope; you also find proof that hope can endure, even in the darkest hours.

You know about the underground railroad, of course. But, here, it is not a network of people, but an actual railroad. Deep beneath the soil tilled by slave hands, we go on a journey of tracks and makeshift stops, each unique to the state in which its found. As we learn about the stops, we learn about the states and their role within the history of slavery in America.

The story is told through Cora, a slave girl in Georgia. Through her story, we walk the rows of a plantation and witness the horrors that were commonplace for slaves: rape, sexual abuse, hangings and constant degradation. And, we hold our breath as Cora and another young slave escape, first into the tunnels and then into the unknown.

Their path is perilous. They're hunted by a ruthless slave catcher named Ridgeway, who has even greater motivation to bring Cora back to the plantation; her mother also escaped and eluded Ridgeway. 

Throughout the book, Cora slips in and out of safety, never to fully escape the chains in which she was born. You imagine - though you can't actually imagine - that life. Trying to be free, but always looking over her shoulder, knowing that capture means certain death, a hanging in the trees.

This book is many things. It's heartbreaking. It's a reflection of history. It's powerful in its subject matter. It's sweeping. I wasn't completely blown away by the prose - it was nothing fancy, nothing that made me reach over to grab my phone and make note of it. But, stripped down fits with the subject matter. You don't have to make this book something it's not; it's powerful in its narrative alone. Cora's story is hers alone, but also reflects the struggles and realities of so many slaves whose names we'll never know. 

Oh, and Cora? She's a total badass. A strong young girl who knows that it's worth risking death to leave the plantation. She's strong enough to fight against unthinkable odds, but her real strength lies in her vulnerable. emotional reflection of the reality of life as a runaway slave.

Should you read it? Guys, it won a Pulitzer. What more could I possibly add to that?

Thursday, April 6, 2017

14. Hillbilly Elegy

Where do you find books? I buy some on Amazon (because it's easy); I buy some at my favorite independent bookstore (because it's the right thing to do - and, I love the smell and the creaky old floors); I've checked out a couple at the library (which isn't as easy as it should be because my neighborhood library has weird hours and not a ton of books); and I borrow a lot from my well-read co-workers. This book, though, found me. I think. 

I've read about and heard about this book for awhile. It's often cited as a resource people should read if they want to understand the mindset of many Americans who voted for Donald Trump. I'm not going to make this political, but that is certainly part of the reason why I wanted to read it. It's hard for me to understand why large swaths of people have become so angry at the government. I live a pretty easy life; I have no reason, really, to complain. So, I wanted to step out of my echo chamber and see what I was missing. 

This book showed up in my inter-office mailbox at work. It had a sticky note that said "Jerry" and, though my boss's name is Jerry and another co-worker's name is Jerry, no on claimed it. So, I grabbed it as the perfect read for a spring break road trip to Montana.

Is how I ended up with the book relevant at all? No. But, maybe the rightful owner will read this and ask for it back. Sorry, Jerry.

The book is a memoir about life rooted in the Appalachian region. There have been many.  But, this is written by a man who made it up and out, despite every cultural stereotype threatening to keep him there. JD Vance grew up to be a Marine, to go to Yale Law School, and to create a life that personifies the American dream. He did so, despite a childhood fraught with physical and emotional abuse. Now, he's able to look back at those circumstances in an effort to help the rest of us understand why much of America's working class feels such anger towards the rest of society. And, he makes no apologies for it.

Vance survives - and, thrives - because he had adults in his life willing to do what his parents did not: parent. He paints such a vivid picture of his grandparents, who he calls Mamaw and Papaw. Papaw was once a violent drunk, who gave it all up and became the male role model JD desperately needed. Mamaw is what he describes, lovingly, as a mean old hillbilly who would do anything for him. Her mouth would make a trucker blush and she had something of a mean streak, but it was always in protection of her family. Mamaw taught him how to throw a punch and to take one; and, that it's acceptable to start a fight if someone insults your family. Reading about her is pure joy. 

Though his journey takes him from a rundown steel town in Ohio to the halls of one of America's most prestigious universities, Vance talks about the cultural PTSD that he still faces. And, he talks at length about why others aren't able to overcome it. 

"I am a hill person," he writes. "So is much of America's white working class. And we hill people aren't doing very well." 

Poverty, domestic violence, lack of education, lack of resources... those common factors unite this frustrated group of Americans. Many blamed Obama. Many blamed the Bushes and Clintons before him. But, Vance doesn't blame the government at all for abandoning this class of Americans, as many do. In fact, he cites all the government programs that probably saved his life. The public schools, the financial aid, the health insurance, etc. In Vance's perspective, the working class blames society and the government, but it's really their own choices that have led them down this dead-end road. 

He talks about socio-economic islands. Places where people in poverty are surrounded on all sides by people with the same lot in life. It's hard for many to even dream of growing up to be a doctor or lawyer in a two-parent home because they've never actually seen it with their own eyes. 

The Pew Economic Mobility Project found that there's no more pessimistic group of Americans than working-class whites. But, what are they actually doing about it?

In one passage, Vance talks about how many in his hometown hated (still hate) President Obama. And, how their hate is probably directed more at themselves.

"Barack Obama strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities," he writes. "He is a good father while many of us aren't. He wears suits to his job while we wear overalls, if we're lucky enough to have a job at all. His wife tells us we shouldn't be feeding our children certain foods and we hate her for it - not because we think she's wrong, but because we know she's right."

Think on that for a second. 

He also talks about a childhood friend who told him he couldn't hold a job because he didn't like getting up early. Then, that same friend posts on Facebook something about "Obama's economy." 

Vance describes himself as a conservative, by the way.

It's a fascinating read about a culture to which many of us have never been exposed. Vance challenges them to find their own solutions to the problems within their culture, rather than waiting for the government to come in and do it for them. Hard to argue with that point.

This book didn't help me relate to this culture's views and problems. I don't think you could relate without living it. But, it did help me get some perspective, which is really all you can ask for.

I hope this book finds its way into your mailbox with a sticky note bearing someone else's name. You'll learn something. You'll think. You'll wish you had a hillbilly grandma, if only for the colorful vocabulary.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

13. My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry

This review is about a book. A good book. No, a great book. But, it's also about my grandmother. And, if you're lucky, your grandmother, too.

That's the first sentence of this book that cracked my heart open wide. And, that picture? That's my grandmother's kitchen. The house she lived in for decades, the house in which she raised my mom and her siblings and hosted countless family dinners - empty last summer, for the first time. I stood in that kitchen that held so many memories and, for the first time, it felt impossibly small. How did they raise six kids here? How did I never notice that those walls were mint green?

She never wanted to leave that kitchen or that home. But, as it became harder to remember the simple things in her life, it was increasingly unsafe for her to live alone. So, my mom took me through the house one last time before putting it up for sale. And, at 38 years old, one of the cornerstones of my childhood was gone.

It will always smell like orange peels and coffee to me. And, homemade cinnamon rolls. 

So, that's how this book started for me. Heart wide open, tears on my cheeks. A story about a little girl and her grandmother. 

Elsa's not a regular kid. She's wise beyond her years. She has no friends her age. Her best friend is her grandmother, who's anything but typical herself. She's the kind of grandmother who sneaks beer into her hospital bed inside hollowed-out encyclopedias and makes up imaginary worlds and fairy tales so that her granddaughter won't be afraid to sleep alone. It's not until her grandmother dies that Elsa realized every one of those fairy tales was preparing her for life on her own.

Those tales come to life as Elsa is asked to deliver letters to people in her grandmother's life. Letters, which are all versions of apology. And, as Elsa presents them, she pieces together her grandmother's extraordinary life. And, begins to understand that the world around her that seemed so uncertain is really made up of people closely connected, with her grandmother as the glue.

This is the second book I've read this year by Fredrik Backman. Once again, it's the character development that sets him apart. Every character is flawed and every one of them is perfect. The flat in which they live becomes larger than life, too, because of the amazing people (and creatures) that live inside its walls.

It sounds sappy as I write it here. It's not. really. It's about family - those who are related by blood and those who come together by circumstance. There's mystery. There's intrigue. There's a little violence for good measure. The lessons Elsa's grandmother left her through their secret, imaginary world help Elsa understand the motivations of the people around her.

One of those lessons that will stay with me: "Not all monsters were monsters from the beginning. Some monsters were born out of sorrow,"

The co-worker who lent me this book warned me that it would crawl inside me and take up residency. She said I would want to carry the book around like a baby, protecting it. That I would race to finish, then hope it never ends. She nailed it.

That's my grandma, by the way. She's 99 now. Physically strong, even though she struggles to remember. She's not sure about things that happened 15 minutes ago, but she always remembers her kids and grandkids. She can tell you in amazing detail about her childhood. She's always been one of the strongest people I know. When she was barely a teenager, her mother went back home to Ireland, got sick and never came home. My grandmother was left to help raise her siblings. When she was in her 20's, she left her home in Montana and moved, by herself, to Washington, D.C. You didn't do that back then. You stayed in your father's home until you got married, then you moved into his home and built your life. My grandmother knew there was more of the world she wanted to see. Then, she came home, had six kids and an adoring load of grandkids (pictured below, grandma in the center.) I could not have asked for a more perfect grandmother. 

We don't always see and understand that our grandparents were people before they were grandparents. But, as Elsa learns, the more we learn their history, the more we understand our own.

I finished this book yesterday while on a road trip with my family. While a few tears snuck out in the waning chapters, the floodgates opened when I closed the book. I cried for a good half hour. Not because it was sad, necessarily, but because everything was going to be okay. Our grandmothers won't be around forever. But, if we're lucky, those memories always will be. Those lessons. 

That smell. 

Maybe I'm so deeply touched because of exactly where I am right now. The reality that my grandmother is slipping away hits me every day. But, I really learned from this book that it's okay to let go. And, that she'll still be with me when she's gone.