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.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

24. Grace, Not Perfection

I took another detour, folks, but I swear, this book was calling me. I was walking through Target (as one does - often), and saw this bright pink cover. I'm a sucker for pink, it lured me in. I thumbed through a couple of pages of what was clearly some sort of self-help book, then put it down and moved on. I don't buy books like this, come on. I'm totally fine and content and not stressed at all.

Yeah. Right. 

I went home without it, but found myself at Target the next day (as one does.) This time, I knew it was coming home with me. But, do you want to know something really dumb? I hid it. No, I didn't steal it! But, I hid it as I walked through the aisles and finished my shopping. I stashed it in the basket under my 30% off tank top and next to my clearance jewelry, hoping no one would see what I was buying.

How dumb is that?

I mean, it's dumb in many respects because no one is really looking in my cart to see what I'm buying (are they? Well, all those South Hill Spokane moms are buying the same things - wine, activewear, scarves and jewelry - so what do they care anyway?) But, it's really dumb because why should any of us be ashamed to do things to better our lives? Somehow, though, we are. Which is why I had to buy the book.

Emily Ley is a married mom who happens to have a thriving business selling amazing planners (I'm a planner junkie, so I already knew of her work.) Her Simplified Planners have the same goal most moms have: keep track of your chaotic life, while somehow finding the time for quiet and fulfillment. Oh, and, it should look pretty, too. The reality is, that's really hard to do. So, her book offers real-life perspective on finding the time for what matters and never forgetting who is really in control,

The title - and, book - focus on grace. I have to admit, that's a word I really struggle with. It's really hard to graciously accept that we're not 100% in control. I'm a faithful person, I truly believe in God and the power of prayer and that much of our lives are pre-determined. But, believing that and having the grace to accept it are two different things.

See that guy with the rock? That's how I feel a lot of the time. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was punished by the Gods and condemned to a life of futility. He had to roll the boulder up hill, only to watch it roll down again. Over and over and over. Life can feel a lot like that. You work so hard for one thing and, just as it's settled, you find yourself at the bottom of that hill - or another hill - doing it over again. From under that boulder, it's easy to lose perspective. This book helped me snap all of it back into focus, if only for a minute.

In her book, Ley talks of finding the times in your life that feel the most out of control - and, fixing them. She shares how her family divides chores to speed along the process and balance the responsibilities. She talks about setting aside time on Sunday evenings to go over the week's calendars with her husband. She shares her method for cleaning up the house so that you wake up every day with a toy-free living room and a sparkling sink. These aren't huge concepts; but, you can easily incorporate them into your life to take at least some of the chaos away. The idea is to get those things out of the way, so you can spend more time doing the things that fill your soul, like reading with your kids or enjoying a quiet evening to read.

She goes into the big concepts, too. Why are we so over-scheduled? Why do we feel this incredible pressure to be perfect? It's Pinterest birthday parties or nothing for so many of us. You watch others live their lives through the lens of their social media feeds and, while you know in your heart that it's all over-curated bullshit, you still kill yourself to live up to the ideal. But, who's ideal is it? If we all agree it's bullshit, why do we keep stressing over it?

Ley points out all the chaos that we bring into our own lives, then complain that it is there. Being content is really hard and we're always searching for that "thing" that will fill some hole we can't yet admit is there. "Our mailboxes are full. Our inboxes are full. Our closets, pantries, bookshelves and cabinets are full," she writes. "How do we expect to fit in time for playing on the floor with little ones? Or date nights without cell phones?"

Right? It's time to accept contentment and do what makes us happy.

She also talks about the seasons of our lives and this is what resonated most with me. When you have small children, you feel like this stage of life will never end. Someone always needs something, there's no time for you. There's always Legos on the floor, dishes in the sink and dirt on the nice bathroom hand towels. Someone always needs you to fall asleep in their bed, killing the one hour of solitude you look forward to all day. It's always LOUD. Okay, yeah, I just described life in my house with two boys. Writing it down now, it feels dumb to complain about. Like Emily, I prayed for these boys, we struggled to get pregnant. I have close friends who have lost children and others parenting kids with severe special needs. What the hell do I have to complain about? We need that perspective. And, we need to remind ourselves that this time of life won't last forever. As every empty nester will tell you, we'll miss the snuggles and the constant companionship. We'll miss this season of our lives. As Elton John said in a lyric I think of often, "Don't wish it away." We need to find a way to accept - with grace.

I'm on the precipice of change in my life. There are decisions ahead that I know I will have to make that will alter the course of things for me and for my family. I appreciate this book in offering some control in the chaos. So much is out of our control, so we need to find a way to structure what we can and roll with the rest. And, have the courage to make the small decisions, too.

We have to accept that life is not perfect, despite what that beautiful, put together, smiling mom might portray on Facebook.

Do I have it all figured out after reading this? No. Hell no. But, it helped. And, I won't be lending this book out or selling it to the bookstore. I need this. I need it on my nightstand after a chaotic day. I need it in my car when I find myself tearing up on the way to work because of the expectations of the day ahead. I need it on my desk when everyone has a question or a problem or a minor catastrophe that needs my attention, despite the fact I'm trying to eat my lunch and finish a thought.

We all need it. And, we shouldn't be embarrassed to admit it.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

23. Love and Other Consolation Prizes

Here it is. I'm 23 weeks into my quest to read a book a week in 2017 and I've reached the mountaintop. Not only is this the best book I've read this year, it's easily in my top 10 favorites of all time. I'm not just saying that because I have a family connection to the author and we once exchanged the sign of peace at Christmas mass. This book is simply beautiful. 

And, you can't get it yet.

You see, there's a little watermark on the front left corner of the book. It says "Advance Reader's Edition." I'm fancy, right? Must be because I'm a very important book blogger. Or a super famous local newscaster.

Nah, it's none of those. It's because of this little lady below.

That's my big sister, Gretchen. She went to high school with the author Jamie Ford's wife. She's also insanely competitive. When Jamie posted online that he'd placed an advanced copy in one of our hometown's Little Free Libraries, she knew exactly where it was; she stuffed her kids in the car and dashed out to get it - you can see above, she didn't even take the time to tie her shoes. Is it because she loves to read as much as I do? No. She just likes to win. Subsequently, she did read the book, as did my mom. They both loved it as much as I did.

I've been waiting to read Ford's next book since the moment I finished his last. His previous two novels are beautiful, character-driven books set in Seattle. They both tell stories of Japanese-Americans in Seattle and their complicated pasts. Though he lives in my Montana hometown now, Ford is from Seattle and is also Japanese-American. His understanding of those complicated relationships is evident, as is his clear affinity for Seattle's history. But, that's only a small part of why I love his books so much. His characters are dripping with heart.

The basic premise of this book comes from a hard-to-believe piece of history they don't talk about these days in Seattle. At the World's Fair in 1909, the State of Washington raffled off a baby as a prize. A BABY. And, it's not clear what happened to that child afterwards. Ford's story picks up that premise and turns it into a grown man named Ernest, decades later. 

In Ford's book, a series of tragic events bring a young Chinese boy to America at the turn of the century. He ends up a ward of the state, longing for a family to call his own. To his own surprise, he finds himself on a marble staircase at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Expo, where everyone is waiting to see who wins the coveted prize. Ernest realizes he is the prize - and, that the winning ticket belongs to the madam of Seattle's most notorious brothel.

(Yes, loyal follower of this blog, this is the second consecutive book I've read about a brothel. Don't look too deep into that, okay?)

Ernest quickly learns that being the house boy at a brothel isn't exactly the idyllic childhood he imagined; just as quickly, he realizes the women there are more family than he every could have known. And, he finds himself learning over and over that true happiness in life both comes at a price - and cannot be bought.

Ford's story alternates between young Ernest's life in 1909, when Seattle was buzzing with the excitement of that first world's fair, and his life decades later in 1962, when a new world's fair was about to open. His daughter's work as a journalist cracks open the secrets he's hidden from them for so long. Through that compelling narrative structure and Ford's beautiful prose, you find your heart aching for Ernest and the women of the Tenderloin.

You watch Ernest form deep, intimate relationships with two girls in the brothel. He - and, they - are struggling to understand what matters more: love or freedom. And, you find yourself hoping right up until the very last line that they're all somehow able to find both.

I raced through this book and found myself worrying about the characters. I read the last line, then closed the book and cried. I cried because the emotions were so raw. I cried because it was over. I cried because I wished deeply for the well-being of people who don't actually exist. That's how good this book is - how good Jamie Ford is - and how I wish I could start again and feel it all from the beginning.

Pre-order this book, Do it now so that you won't forget. September you will thank you so much for how smart you are right now.

And, in the meantime, check out Ford's other books, especially Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Next time I see him in church, I'll tell him to hurry up on the next one.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

22. Selling Sex in the Silver Valley

True confessions: I like stories of old-timey hookers. And, I'm obsessed with Wallace, Idaho. That means this book was the jackpot for me. Not only did I read it, I wrote a news story on it. Two birds, one stone. And, a fascinating ride.

I can't begin to describe to you my deep love for this little town, nestled in the mountains of North Idaho. You can't get from my current hometown (Spokane, Washington) to my childhood hometown (Great Falls, Montana) without passing through. I'd probably driven past a dozen times before I really came to understand how cool this place is. It was when I came to cover a really awful news story about an ex-con who took his teenage daughter camping, then raped her and left her for dead in the woods. They caught him because he got hungry and came to buy hot dogs at the Wallace Conoco. We came to cover his court case and realized Wallace is really an old west town, frozen in time.

Since then, I've gone deep into Wallace's past, mostly through books. I read about the fire in 1910 that nearly burned all of Wallace to the ground in The Big Burn (one of the best books I've ever read.) Then, I read about the terrifying fire deep inside the Sunshine Mine that brought the entire Silver Valley to its knees. I've stopped on road trips home to visit the historic cemetery. I've ridden in a bike in the hills nearby. I've zip-lined through its trees. But, what's always fascinated me most is what Wallace is truly famous for: prostitution. Not just in the old west, but all the way into the early 1990's.

I heard someone had written a book about the history of the sex trade in Wallace and I knew I would have to read it. Then, I heard it was selling faster than they could print it - and, I knew I wanted to tell the story on TV. That's what's cool about being a journalist; you find something that interests you, then you can get paid to go learn more about it. I called Dr. Heather Branstetter (seen above, answering all my brilliant questions) and set up a visit to Wallace.

(Here's the part of the blog where I will post a link to our TV story when it's done. You can choose your own adventure here. Either watch the story, then finish the blog - or finish, then come back and click the link. You're a grown-up. It's your call.)

Quick note: I'm going to call the author Heather from now on. Yes, she's a PhD and she's earned the title of Doctor. Yes, AP Style dictates that I refer to her by her last name. But, she's chill as hell and we hung out, so I'm going to call her Heather. I don't think she'll mind.

Heather grew up here, her family goes back generations. As she and so many other Wallace natives have told me, it never seemed strange to them that their little town had a bustling red light district. But, Cedar Street in Wallace was once lined with "cathouses." With names like The Lux, The U&I Rooms and the Oasis, they were better defined by the madams who kept them running. Heather brings these fascinating characters to life and, because very little has changed in the Wallace landscape over the years, you can practically see Madam Dolores driving down Cedar in her trademark blue Cadillac.

Heather's exhaustive research pulls together old insurance maps, city council minutes, sheriff's department records and innuendo, still whispered in the bars of Wallace. From Wallace's earliest beginnings as a mining camp, sex was for sale. One woman told me the male to female ratio back then was 200 to 1. No easier way to make money than by operating a brothel.

Old west brothels were nothing unusual, but very few communities allowed brothels to openly operate beyond the early 1900's, Wallace was an exception; Heather wanted to know why.

Aside from whorehouses being a part of mining towns, Heather has other theories about why they continued to operate her. The most prevailing is the idea perpetuated by the madams and even echoed today (as seen in the Facebook comments on our news promos for the story): it's the idea that men have uncontrollable sexual urges and they need to have a release. Many in town believed - and, still believe - that decriminalizing prostitution kept women safe and kept families together.

Also, even now, the people who live in Wallace aren't the kind of people who want the government telling them what to do.

The madams here treated their working girls well, paid their taxes and gave to charity. Several locals told me they never had school fundraisers. Money for band uniforms and little league fields always just turned up. They didn't know until they were older that it was the madams who paid for them. Prostitution got people elected to public office; prostitution got the streets paved.

"My education was funded through sex work," Heather explained.

The book doesn't glorify sex work, but doesn't make the working girls out to be victims, either. People explained to Heather that the women in Wallace had it easier than prostitutes in other areas because the brothels were women-owned. The women didn't need pimps, though many of them had them. In her research, Heather even met with a woman working in the sex trade now who said she's doing it because she wants to, not because she's been sold into sex trafficking. Have some women? Absolutely. But, not all.

It's not rainbows and kittens, but it's not sordid details of shameful sex, either. Heather's work is matter-of-fact. And, without hearing from the women themselves, that's really the only fair way to tell it.

Lucky for Heather, the madams kept impeccable records. They didn't record the names of customers, but their financials were solid. You can piece so much together by the handwritten books they left behind. And, much to Heather's good fortune - and mine! - you can walk right into one of the brothels today and see exactly how it looked back in 1988.

The Oasis building at 6th and Cedar began operating as a brothel at the turn of the century. It continued to do so until finally closing its doors in 1988. Ginger, the madam, got a tip that the feds were coming, so she and the girls left in a hurry. They never came back. Their rooms now look exactly the way they did that day in January, 1988. Cigarettes are still in the ash trays, Ginger's Atari is still on her TV. There's even a price list on the wall (top seller: straight sex, "no frills. For $15, customers got eight minutes with the woman of their choice.)

I've known about the Oasis for years, but never went in. Again, the perks of being a TV reporter! We spent about an hour there, checking out the rooms, hearing the stories, even going into the old basement where a money bag still hangs from a trap door that was used to hide gambling evidence near the turn of the 20th century.

Guys, I was in heaven.

If you live in this area of the country, you should absolutely check it out. You can easily spend a couple of days in Wallace, whether it's skiing in the winter at either of the two resorts nearby, or biking and zip-lining in the summer. They have some great beer here, too.

Why am I not the mayor of Wallace? I'm going to look into it.

I could write all night about the fascinating aspects of the trade and the compelling stories told in this book. I've been driving my husband and my co-workers crazy since we did the interviews last week! But, I want to leave a little mystery (I do see the irony here, yes.). If you have any interest in the old west, North Idaho history or prostitution, buy Heather's book! Though, you'll have to be patient. It's an extremely hot commodity right now! You can order a copy and check out her website in the meantime. 

I couldn't leave the Oasis without a souvenir. Instead of the panties or the sweatshirt with the price list on the back, I chose the tasteful tumbler. It sits on my desk now next to my mug from another brothel - the still-operating Chicken Ranch in Parhump, Nevada. Paid a visit there for a news story, too. But, that's a story for another blog.... My boss might be reading this...