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.