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.