Sunday, December 10, 2017

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

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

Less than 24 hours, it's done.

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

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

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

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

And, it's so much more than that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 9, 2017

51. Good Omens

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


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

Let me explain.

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 2, 2017

50. Those Who Wish Me Dead

I didn't expect it to go so quickly.

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

Back to the book.

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 27, 2017

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

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

Yeah. Me, too. All of it. And more. 

You can see why I was drawn to this book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

48. Approval Junkie

It's a two-book week, y'all.


Because all it took to knock this puppy out was a six hour flight across the country. My carry-on luggage was a fair amount of stifled laughs. And, some big, old ugly tears. It all went down right there in seat 19A, my row partners oblivious to the emotional road I was traveling. 

It's really intense to read an entire book of personal essays in one sitting. It's even more intense when you're coming off a weekend with a ton of emotional and intellectual stimulation and not a lot of sleep. But, I know I would have loved this book just as much had I spread it over a week and read in the hours before bed.

I didn't know about this book until a fellow news lady friend brought it to my attention (if you live in the Seattle area, please get to know my friend and former colleague Colleen O'Brien. She's one of the good ones.)  She mentioned it to me awhile back, then hand-delivered it to me a few weeks ago. I had no expectations and would consider myself only casually aware of Faith Salie up to this point. Now, I'm fangirl to the max.

Salie is one of those amazing women who parlayed a start in acting into an NPR hosting gig. Now, she gets to report on the greatest news show ever (CBS Sunday morning) and is a frequent panelist on the greatest radio game show ever (Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me.) She's smart, funny AND beautiful, which is totally unfair because I swear my mom said we only get to be one - maybe two - of those things. 

Her voice comes through in this book as if she's sitting across the table from you, sharing a body of wine. She's raw, honest, genuine and really funny. She tweeted me after I tweeted her about this book (GUYS, I'm also an approval junkie...) and said it was her desire to get "nakedly human publicly." She nailed it. She was open and raw without it feeling gratuitous. 

She writes extensively about her first husband (who she calls her "wasbund") and how desperate she was to win the attention and admiration of a man too proud to give it. She writes about the astounding grief over the loss of her mom. She calls Bill O'Reilly "Papa Bear" and writes about the strength and power of choosing a good "divorce dress." She's open about infertility and miscarriage, which so many women experience and few share. 

Somewhere over Nebraska, she knocked me over when she talked about an intense desire to not be the first to say I love you. "I wither when I withhold love." How's that for a punch in the very familiar gut?

It sounds deeply profound, which it is at times. It's also really funny. And empowering. And, trite as it may sound: special. I stopped and wrote down this line she writes, as part of a letter to her daughter. 

Aint that the lesson? You can be one or the other. You can be neither, you can be both. But, know why. Know why it matters. And, if you spend all your time seeking the attention and approval of others, you better have a backup plan for how to sustain yourself if that doesn't exist.

The way she speaks of her first marriage will break your heart. The way she talks about her second will restore your faith. It's so damn sweet without being sickly so. You root for her and her family every second.

When I finished this book, I was somewhere over central Washington. My row pals were sleeping and I was literally wiping my tears on my sleeve. I paid $11 for the in-flight WiFi so I could immediately thank Colleen for bringing it into my life. Then, I tweeted Faith Salie to thank her for writing it. Upon my arrival back to work, I handed it over to the first of many women in my life who can relate. Her experiences may not exactly mirror ours, but the desire women feel to be perfect and accepted at all costs can take a damaging toll. Here, we embrace it. Accept it. Approve of it.

My bonus book this week will take an entirely different approach to the same issue. Can't wait to get started.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

47. The Last Town on Earth

When I started making a list in my phone of which books I should read this year, this was my first entry. I've thought about reading it for so long, by the time I picked it up from the library last week, I actually thought I already read it. The description of the book itself is so profound and so chilling, once you hear about it, it's hard to get it off your mind. Now, after actually reading it, I know for sure it's a book I won't forget.

The book is set in a logging town in northwestern Washington called Commonwealth. It didn't show up on a map; like so many towns throughout the west at the turn of the century, Commonwealth sprang up suddenly, out of necessity. Loggers followed the work and, in this case, followed a man determined to set out on his own and do it right.cross the country. 

In the waning days of World War I, another violent killer was working its way across the globe. All told, the Spanish flu epidemic infected 500 million people. The millions who died suffered a terrible fate; as their body deprived itself of oxygen, people turned blue and suffocated. In what the author of this book describes as a little-known historical footnote, he found evidence that some small towns were so desperate to keep the flu at bay, they self-imposed quarantines in an effort to stay healthy and save their communities. That footnote serves as the inspiration for this book.

Commonwealth was out of the way, off the map. The people who lived there believed they had one chance to save themselves from this evil that was engulfing communities around them. So, they voted to shut themselves off from the world. They knocked down a tree to stop vehicles from coming up the road and stood up armed guards at the entrance. Just as they began their experiment, they faced a challenge from the outside: a soldier, hungry and tired and far from his post, who came to the town looking for food and shelter. What happens between that soldier and the two young men standing guard sets off a string of events that will have them all questioning their humanity and asking questions about whose life matters more.

If I was looking for a book based on time period and setting, this is not typically a book I would seek. The premise, though, was enough to draw me in. And, even at nearly 400 pages, it kept me all the way through. I actually finished the final 200 pages or so on a flight and barely had the desire to look up from my seat. The author manages to really delve into several characters without getting you lost in the process. It's compassionate and compelling and really raises internal questions about how far you would go to save yourself and your family, even at the expense of someone else.

Great read from page one. 

Saturday, November 11, 2017

46. True Crime Addict

Here's a little secret: I ask for book recommendations all the time, but I rarely read something based on a suggestion from someone I know. Why? My husband says I'm a book snob. But, really, I feel like choosing what to read is really personal and taste is subjective. And, I feel like life is too short to read something you don't want to read. And, I don't want to hurt someone's feelings by telling them I hated the book they loved.

Where am I going with this? Oh yeah, this book. One of the reporters at my news station came in fired up one day and said she read this book in one day. She said that never happens, she just got sucked into this one. Not only did she suggest it, she brought it in for me. How could I say no to adorable Caroline Flynn? 

I had a feeling this would be a quick, compelling read. The author used to work at a weekly newspaper and got obsessed with the case of a missing young woman. While this book details her disappearance, Renner also describes the darkness in his own past and in his own family, which he reveals in brief, yet powerful, moments.

That's Maura Murray. Classic all-American college student who appeared to have it all. It wasn't until she vanished in the mountains in 2004 when the cracks in that veneer began to reveal themselves. To this day, no one knows what happened to her. Did she vanish on purpose to escape turmoil in her life? Was she running from the law? Did someone kill her and her body has never been found? Everything is on the table here and this book follows leads and suspects and uncertainties all while the reporter finds his own life unraveling as well.

I hadn't heard of Maura Murray until I read the first page of this book. Now I know her story is the subject of internet blogs and a TV series. Why? To answer that, you have to understand the culture of true crime obsession in America. There are entire TV networks dedicated to it. Everyone wants to find the answers, everyone becomes a sleuth. And when you're a young, pretty white woman, interest in your case is magnified exponentially.

As a journalist, I can relate to Renner's obsession. Ask any reporter who's been at this awhile and they'll have one story where they know their research went far beyond anything that made it into or onto the news. I have a few in my career. A child who was starved to death by a psychotic foster mother. A young woman beaten to death by her boyfriend, in which her toddler son cried out for her throughout her funeral. And, the case that took me into the darkest places I could ever imagine: a child serial killer who murdered a family, kidnapped their two youngest children and tortured them for weeks in the mountains of Montana. I read every document from his prison records. I wrote letters to his mom. I could recite parts of his terrifying blog, years later. You find yourself wanting to know everything, even if it means losing a part of your soul. Why? I can't answer that - neither could Renner, really. It doesn't always make us better journalists and it sure as hell doesn't make for fun conversation at dinner parties. But, I do think you have to be a little obsessive to be a good journalist, for better or worse.

This book was a fast read. I started Sunday night and finished the last page Tuesday. The chapters are short and leave you hanging, so you move quickly from one theory or one suspect to another. As a reader, I liked how many rocks he turned over. As a journalist, I felt he was irresponsible at times about naming people and introducing the idea that they have something to hide. 

I'm actively resisting watching the series about Maura's disappearance and staying off the internet message boards about the case. I have enough of my own dark stories to obsess about. But, if you're the kind of person who finds yourself watching Dateline and theorizing about unsolved cases, this is a worthy way to scratch that itch.