Command and Control by Eric Schlosser - If you want a scary bedtime story, here you go. This book is phenomenal. It’s quite long—be forewarned if you aren’t looking to be reading the same book for a while—but it’s entirely worth your time. Schlosser digs deep into the development, maintenance, use, and misuse of nuclear weaponry in the US, with the 1980 explosion of a Titan II missile in Searcy, AR as the center point for the book. The near misses Schlosser digs up are truly frightening and it seems a miracle that we haven’t had an accidental nuclear explosion somewhere in this country yet. It’s an exhaustive look at a topic that most people know only fragments of and I found it fascinating and frightening. It’s hard to imagine the scale of devastation that modern nuclear and especially thermonuclear warheads could level—which is why Schlosser gave care to accurately describe what those events could look like and puts that in the context of the modern-day, worldwide nuclear arsenal. This was great nonfiction—one of my favorite so far this year.
Brutal Youth by Anthony Breznican - If you like your fiction on the dark side and set inside a private school environment, here you go. The book opens with the freshmen at Saint Michael’s Catholic High School preparing for the onslaught of the traditional senior vs. freshmen initiation rites (which are disturbing and are actually bullying, but the nuns turn a blind eye). We follow Peter Davidek through this dog eat dog social environment and we see his fellow students make bargains with the seniors for perceived special treatment or they simply try to disappear and go unnoticed. There’s a corrupt priest, a kid who flings jars of dissection specimens at other students when he snaps, and a nun trying her best to think of slang synonyms for “penis” as she goes to mimic high school graffiti on the wall (she settles on cock, FYI). So yes, I recommend it.
Dirty Work by Gabriel Weston - Dirty Work is an interesting book. It’s short but there is a lot going on. Weston, a doctor, writes about a fictional London-based OB-GYN (Nancy) who is undergoing several crises at once. Nancy has nearly just killed a patient in surgery and is sitting before a group of medical professionals to determine if she’s fit to practice. Nancy, as it turns out, botched an abortion she was performing. There is very little political to be found here. It’s not so much a debate about abortion or abortion providers. This is more about Nancy’s psychology. She questions her mistakes and begins to lose her sense of self—entirely based on her ability to provide compassionate, meaningful care. What is she if she cannot do that? In the end, I thought this book tackled a very important (and controversial) topic in a nuanced, self-aware way.
Working Stiff by Judy Melinek, M.D. and T.J. Mitchell - I loved this book. Well, first—a warning. If you’re squeamish, do not read this. I really mean it. Move along. If you’re not (or too curious to remember you are actually squeamish), then you should read it. Melinek and her husband co-wrote it (“hey honey, let’s write about the time I sawed the guy…”)—and the book is about her rookie year as an NYC medical examiner. Melinek has a blunt, objective story-telling style and it grabbed me right from the first page. She maintains her professional demeanor throughout, but still wrote a colorful, interesting book about exactly what a medical examiner does, how they do it, and why it is important. She is not without a sense of humor and occasionally I can see her rubbing her hands together like, yes! Let’s explain how we crack open the skulls! At one point she mentions that everyone at dinner parties always insists she tell them her “worst case” and she always demurs. “Guys, you don’t want to know. Trust me.” But she writes about it in this book. It is really, really horrible. Later, about a quarter from the end of the book, Melinek switches gears and gives the reader a look from inside the NYC Medical Examiner’s office during and post-9/11. It is a memoir worth reading for a lot of reasons, but especially for the bravery, hard work and compassion that Melinek and her colleagues exhibited during that time.
How Toddlers Thrive by Tovah P. Klein - There are lots of books about toddler discipline or toddler “training” (potty, sharing, tantrums, bedtime, so much training) but I’m glad I randomly grabbed this one from the library new release section a few weeks ago. It’s a combination of research, anecdotal stories and advice. It’s not a dry instruction manual or a 5-step process to having the well-behaved, tantrum-free toddler of your dreams. There are no “10 Ways to Achieve Potty Training Success” chapters. Instead, Klein talks mostly about toddler psychology and brain development. She explains why common discipline or parenting tactics don’t (and can’t) work and shows how even the smallest changes in the way we talk to toddlers can have immediate and long-lasting effects on their behavior. There is a lot of explaining—this is why this happens, this is why they do that—and then Klein leaves the reader with practical advice that parents can bring into their own home. Klein’s emphasis on establishing predictable, structured routines is something I was nodding my head at each time she mentioned it. Klein argues that the more routine-oriented you are as a parent, the more free your child is to develop flexibility at their own pace. It also affects their ability to handle transitions and change later in life. I notice huge behavioral shifts when we change even a small part of Isobel’s routine. I’ve become more relaxed about her routine as she’s gotten older, but this book was a good reminder not to do that. Klein advocates a very hands-off parenting style: Let them play. Let them make mistakes. Don’t try and fix things for them. The chapter on Toddler Shame was fascinating. Even things we perceive as small (for example, “Let me help you write your name the right way”) leaves a toddler feeling ashamed of their own attempt. Until I read this chapter, I didn’t realize how often I was trying to “help”—let me show you! this is how you do it! let’s try this instead!—and it was eye-opening and humbling. This is the rare parenting book that is as informative as it is instructive.
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue - The best part of this book is reading the afterword. It was only then, at the close of the book, that I realized how meticulously researched and carefully plotted the novel actually was. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to rescue the other 300-some pages from being agonizingly plodding. The book is set in late-1800’s San Francisco during a brutal heat wave (horses were dying in the streets) and the smallpox epidemic. Donoghue immerses the reader in the city and in the time period in a very visceral way—a small blessing because the plot unfolds slowly, in reverse. The book starts with a murder and then jumps backward a month to work slowly forward until we come again to the murder and its aftermath. The most colorful, fully-imagined character is the one most available to Donoghue (this will seem vague now but I’m trying to avoid spoilers). I cared less and less about the murder mystery the further I read: The rich historical setting was the best part of the book. If the story had been even slightly pared down or the characters a bit more real, I think it would have made a big difference. As it is, I found it good—but not good enough to recommend. I loved Donoghue’s last novel, Room. That book was suspenseful and enormously creative. This book—a murder mystery set in the underbelly of the “Old West” San Francisco—seemed likely to be just as exciting and vivid. But, in the few times the book does come alive, it’s simply a tease.
The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker - This wildly popular European best-seller was finally published in the US earlier this year—and did not catch on and was poorly reviewed in US publications. I trusted the Europeans though and I’m very glad I did. However, a few housekeeping items: This book is not realistic and it’s a bit too long. It’s mildly ridiculous at times and cliched or cringe-worthy at others. It’s set in a small New Hampshire town and I can almost see Swiss author Dicker sitting at his desk picking the Best of American Character Stereotypes for filling out the roster of characters. (There is one Jewish mother he wrote who is just—no. It’s not good.) But, despite these things, the book is just crazy, stupid fun. The mystery is sufficiently mysterious and the book-within-a-book concept works better than it should. Our narrator, Marcus Goldman, is suffering from major writer’s block a few years after the spectacular success of his first book. Marcus’ old college professor mentor and friend, Harry Quebert, suggests he come to New Hampshire to write. Shortly after Marcus arrives, Quebert is arrested when the bones of a young girl gone missing over 30 years prior are found in Quebert’s garden. Marcus’ publishers—ready to strangle him for dragging his feet on a second book—see a wonderful opportunity. Write about Quebert! Solve the mystery! Find out who murdered the girl! Marcus reluctantly agrees and begins to dig into the town’s long-held secrets. As I said above, the book isn’t perfect. But, it’s also one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a while. Give it a try and let me know what you think.
Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro - Hmm. I don’t know. This novel (about a group of New York-based members of a mommy group doing a weekend together with their families at the beach) was stressful. I like flawed, annoying characters as a general rule, but this group’s passive aggressive/sometimes actually aggressive in-fighting grew exhausting. There is the requisite adulterous temptation and the sanctimommy of the group unable to shut up about how advanced her child is. (The others think the girl is sociopathic instead.) There are the kids, causing extreme emotional grief and upset for the parents. The kids bite each other. They whine. They cry. One suffers a particularly memorable midnight constipation episode. There are at least 15 personal or interpersonal conflicts happening in one claustrophobic beach house and I stopped caring about most of it about halfway through. I enjoy fiction about parents dealing with honest, realistic problems, whether in their partnership (or non-partnership), or in their life in general or what-have-you, but goddamn—these people were awful. It was an interesting setting and the issues each character faced were compelling, but the characters themselves—my god. The increasingly unrealistic events of the book were emotionally manipulative—a propulsion system designed to keep me reading. “I know you hate these people by now, but how will they cope with THIS AWFUL THING? STAY TUNED!” If nothing else, this is an excellent cautionary tale: A weekend vacation with dramatic adults and too many kids in a too-small house is no vacation at all.
The Partner Track by Helen Wan - It’s hard to tell how much of the fictional The Partner Track is autobiographical, but lawyer Helen Wan’s first novel about a young Asian-American lawyer competing against a pool of men for partnership in her prestigious Manhattan law firm has a “been there, done that, I’m-writing-you-into-this-book” tone. This is especially true for the first quarter of the book, as Wan establishes the setting: Brutally long work hours, law firm hierarchies, and how the corporate politics of race/sex/class affects and influences the personal and professional dynamics for protagonist Ingrid Yung. The tone of the book feels light, like chick lit, but the topics and politics are heavy and serious. It’s a deft combination, especially taking into account the fast-moving, occasionally-juicy plot and the satisfying (if unrealistic) ending. I really enjoyed this, but I knew I would when the first page opened to a Ruth Bader Ginsburg quote.
The Art of Sleeping Alone by Sophie Fontanel - This short memoir feels almost like poetry—short, lyrical chapters, all beautifully written. Paris-based Fontanel, at 27, becomes celibate after seeing her physical and emotional connection to sex become more destructive than fulfilling. It is vulnerable and intimate, like reading a journal. If you want something you can read in an afternoon, this is a good choice.
The Skies Belong to Us by Brendan I. Koerner - This is masterful, fascinating nonfiction. My favorite nonfiction has the ability to pique my extreme interest in topics that could, in theory, be covered in a few Wikipedia paragraphs. Here, though, is book-length coverage of a topic—with all the dates, historical facts, cultural background and other necessities that nonfiction requires—all expertly woven into a plot that feels almost like fiction. Koerner covers the Golden Age of Hijacking (a 5-year period starting in 1968) in which an American jetliner was “skyjacked” nearly once a week. He focuses on one particular hijacking: the taking of Western Airlines Flight 701 by Vietnam veteran Roger Holder and small-time weed dealer Cathy Kerkow. Their story melds the book together, their hijacking a perfect example of how the unrest of the era manifested in hijackings designed to make a political statement, elicit cash ransoms, or both. Given today’s TSA-laden airports, the snippets of the book about the commercial air lobby balking at security checkpoints because they feared travelers would take to the roads to avoid the inconvenience are written appropriately tongue-in-cheek. (“They’ll never submit to having their personal effects X-rayed!”) I wanted to call this one of the most interesting nonfiction books I’ve read this year, but I decided it’s just one of the most interesting I’ve read this year period. Highly recommend it. (I received this book free in exchange for a review.)
One and Only by Lauren Sandler - I was in the parenting section at the library looking for another book when I saw this one on the shelf. The topic is, of course, timely (we’ve been talking a lot about this) and I knew the book would be thought-provoking. What I wasn’t expecting was that it was also emotional and vulnerable, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes through Sandler’s anecdotes about being an only child raising an only child. Sandler does not use the book to try and make the argument that only children are the same as children with siblings. Instead, she shows the ways they differ and how that can be positive (only children tend to be more successful) and intense (only children tend to internalize parental relationships and emotions) or even negative (only children often bear the sole burden of emotionally supporting their mother after parents divorce or separate). She explores other topics of interest, including the perceived loneliness of only children, the economics of raising an only child, the intersection of religion and having multiple children, and the environmental impact of having children at all. It is fascinating and well-written. If you don’t have kids, have one child, have more than one—this is a book well worth your time. It’s about more than parenting, more than just logistics and research. It is razor-sharp cultural insight and analysis and I found it incredibly well-done. Here are some passages I loved:
"I want to snuggle with my daughter for as long as she’ll let me, being as present in her life as I can while giving her all the space she needs to discover life on her own terms. I want full participation: in the world, in my family, in my friendships, and in my own actualization. In other words, to have a happy kid, I figure I need to be a happy mother, and to be a happy mother, I need to be a happy person. Like my mother, I feel that I need to make choices within the limits of reality—which means considering work, finances, pleasure—and at the moment I can’t imagine how I could possibly do that with another kid."
"The University of Chicago’s Linda Waite, whose research focuses on how to make marriages last, tells me, ‘You’re better off to ignore your kids and focus on your relationship than to focus on your kids and ignore your relationship,’ which she says few people have the courage to do. Instead, she says, we do the opposite. ‘Kids, kids, kids. That’s how we forget about our own needs—it’s all about them. And no one is happy like that.’"
"What my mother needed to be a happy person is not what all mothers need. She needed to feel she was making a significant contribution through her work, and not just her family, working for more than the necessary paycheck. She needed to live somewhere she could walk a few blocks to buy a really good cookie when she got the craving after diner. She needed to travel, to make her marriage as significant as her motherhood, to be able to go supermarketing and pick up the dry cleaning without being outnumbered by her kids, plural, who were performing the theater of rivalry in the produce section."
"I find that parenting offers an untold bounty of happiness, joy, excitement, contentment, satisfaction, and pride—just not all the time. Each child is an additional source of pride, sure, but also an additional infringement on freedom, privacy, and patience. I can understand why Jean Twenge, in a study on parenthood and marital satisfaction, found that happiness in a marriage tumbles with each additional child. This finding bears out worldwide and not just in the United States."
"A survey tracking families from the late 1980s through the early 1990s showed that while a single child decreases a mother’s employment by about eight hours a week, the second kid leads to a further reduction of about twelve hours. A father’s work hours don’t change at all when a first child is born, but an additional child actually increases his time on the job by about three hours per week."
"Actually, real change [in terms of a societal shift in the way Americans viewed the work/life balance and social policy for mothers] began in the seventies and ground to a halt by the mideighties. That’s when Ellen Willis wrote in her essay ‘Looking for Mr. Good Dad’: ‘the problem is not that women’s demands for freedom are rocking the boat,’ which they surely no longer are, ‘it’s that men have the power to set the terms of their participation in child rearing and women don’t. So long as mothers must depend on the ‘voluntary commitment’ of men who can withdraw it without negotiation at any time, we’re in trouble no matter what we do.’ […] As you’ve read, thirty years after this essay was published, thirty years that could have seen great progress, the US Census considers child care to be parenting when a mother does it, and an ‘arrangement’ when a father does."
"Whether parents are single or coupled, many of us enjoy a quieter side to this intensity [of the relationship between an only child and parent] too; an unspoken intimacy. I remember as a child gingerly opening the door to my parents’ bedroom, slashes of early morning light from the shutters setting the room softly aglow. I would tiptoe to the far side of the bed where my mother slept, and crawl under the paisley flannel duvet. Silently, I’d lay my head beside hers, and try to sync our breathing. Now I lay awake many mornings, awaiting Dahlia’s cry of ‘Mama’ before I creep into her room and lay my head on her pillow. She wriggles in close and takes hold of my elbow. And in the dark cocoon of her tiny room, I feel her try to sync her breathing with my own."
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloane - This book sets the intersection of technology and an old-fashioned love of printed books into a delightful, fast-paced work of fiction. The protagonist, Clay, is looking for work after the tech start-up he worked at went under. He stumbles upon a dusty bookstore that is—yes, open 24 hours a day—and is hired as a night clerk by the owner, Mr. Penumbra. He notices a strange revolving door of customers coming in at odd hours to trade their huge, antique-looking volumes for similar looking books—all taken from a mysterious section of the bookstore that houses books with no ISBN numbers. (That Clay can find, anyway.) After he sneaks a peek at the pages and discovers they seem to be written in some kind of code, he embarks on a quest to discover what all this intrigue is about. I was trying to figure out a way to describe this book to my sister and the best I could come up with was that it’s sort of like the Oscar-winning film (-____-) National Treasure: no Nicolas Cage—but with more books, a secret society, and things long hidden in obvious places. If you need a quick, easy read, this is a good choice.
Thomas Quick: The Making of a Serial Killer by Hannes Rastam - I read a blurb about this book and knew it might be something I’d be interested in (Swedish crime non-fiction? okay!), but it was disappointing. I’ve actually got about a quarter left to read. I don’t think I’m going to make it. Thomas Quick—imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital—was long considered Sweden’s first and most prolific serial killer after confessing to and being convicted of many heinous, long-unsolved crimes. He was notorious for the brutality of the murders (he claimed to eat his victims) until curious journalists began to uncover faulty confessions and a distinct lack of evidence. This book is about the crimes Quick confessed to and the mistakes law enforcement made in trying to close the unsolved cases. That sounds fascinating, right? It is, in a way. But this book needed extreme editing. It is overlong and bloated with unnecessary information. It seems as though the author was overwhelmed by the amount of information he had accumulated and decided to put it all in—and then add some more. I hate blaming the translator, but maybe that’s what happened here. Anyway, if the book had told the story in a more compelling, concise way, it could have been a fascinating look at the criminal justice system and mental health system colliding.
Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas - Daniel Kelly is a talented swimmer who hopes one day to win Olympic gold. He receives a swimming scholarship to an elite boys school and attempts to shrug off his working class upbringing and prove he is The Best. The Fastest. His competitive drive is all-consuming and his intense anger at any slight—perceived or real—starts to create big problems for him in the pool, in class and at home. The story is good, but exhausting. Tsiolkas’ free-wheeling chronological narrative, taking huge leaps in time and space, is not my favorite. Kelly is a flawed protagonist—almost too flawed. I like the honesty of creating a really unlikable character, but it’s hard to cheer for him, whether he’s swimming or screaming or thinking. The strength of the main plot could have benefited from this being a trimmer, more cohesive book. Tsiolkas tried to tackle too many themes and characters, and that, along with the choppy narrative structure, made the book more tiring than thought-provoking. I received this book free in exchange for a review.
Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead - This is a great example of where a back-and-forth chronological structure can really work in a book’s favor. Astonish Me is about Joan—an American ballerina—who helps a Soviet ballet star defect to the US. The Soviet dancer, Arslan Rusakov, remains a constant fixture in Joan’s life even after the years pass and she marries and has a child with another man. This book—about ballet, love, marriage, friendships—is a treat to read. The chronological structure I mentioned above allows Shipstead to continue revealing crucial back story and context as the novel progresses. Most important: This doesn’t feel like a cheap maneuver to keep the drama high. I really enjoyed this one.
The Loyal Lieutenant by Georgie Hincapie - You look at the cover of this book and you think, “Great! We can finally hear Hincapie’s side.” That’s the book I wanted to read. I always loved watching him ride. His long, celebrated career was exciting and interesting. This book is not. Once I cracked the cover, I started to quickly figure out the more juicy parts of his story by what he didn’t include. If you don’t sniff out the same thing right away, you certainly will when you open to the sparse and carefully curated picture section in the middle of the book. Hincapie wants to write the “let’s play down the doping and Lance Armstrong association” game here by talking about everything else instead. When he does mention the reason most people will pick up the book (he put Armstrong on the cover, come on!), it either comes off heavily edited or is a rehashing of what we already know. Let me put it this way: I would have read this book even without all the doping scandal revelations of the past few years. And, yes—I know there are only a few ways you can say, “That climb was fucking hard and I was pedaling as fast as I could.” But George. GEORGE. First: The ghost-writing sucked. The voice doesn’t feel authentic and there is flowery, splashy prose to back that up. Second, he eagerly speeds through the US Postal and the Tour de France years to get back to his more singular accomplishments in the classics. Understandable, okay, but annoying for the reader. He didn’t have to expunge one for the other. If you’re going to tell your story, tell the whole thing. Which leads me to my third issue: He really wants to lift the doper mantle right off his shoulders. He tries several tactics to make this happen. He downplays it. He talks about his naturally high hematocrit level which limited the amount of dope he could do. (This is fair, but reads like a “I did it but not as bad as that other guy” whine.) He talks about when made the decision to ride clean in the late 2000’s. He talks about this a lot. What he doesn’t talk about is anything that could potentially tarnish the good guy reputation that he hopes to preserve. The funny thing is that the more he pleads his case, the more he tries to strategically skip from Tour to Tour in order to move on to other things, the more I began to believe that he was instead an integral, upper level cog in the US Postal doping machine.
Wheelmen by Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell - I’ve now read several books about the Lance Armstrong fiasco and this one differs by coming at the doping conspiracy from a mostly financial perspective. Lance Armstrong The Athlete is superficially discussed (his Tour de France wins occupy a few paragraphs each), but Lance Armstrong The Celebrity and Lance Armstrong The Charity Founder are researched in great detail. It might be easy—especially if you didn’t get interested in this story until it started blowing up—to wonder why Lance’s doping seems to fully eclipse the other cyclists who transfused their blood alongside him. Why is he so vilified, especially when you take into account his massive personal and financial investment in a cancer foundation he created? Wheelmen lays out that answer very neatly. It’s no secret that Lance Armstrong was a focused, driven, ambitious athlete with a mean streak. Wheelmen demonstrates how his personality and ego were very complementary of the general corporate greed and powerful sports entities that have followed him through the past few decades. Since his admission to Oprah on TV that he did dope during his Tour wins, he has continued to frame the doping in a leveling-the-playing-field context. If you didn’t dope, you weren’t even a competitor. This trite, dismissive attitude is laughable against the backdrop of the Armstrong Machine that the authors of Wheelmen write about. Did other cyclists lose $75 million in sponsorships in a single day after recording a poorly performed interview with the most famous talk show host in the world? No. That’s why they’re still writing books about this cyclist. And, as far as the Lance Armstrong-postmortem books go, this is a good one.
Stuck in the Middle with You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan - You may know Boylan from her memoir She’s Not There. In this book, Boylan talks about parenting roles and how her personal parenting experiences in different genders (pre- and post-transition, primarily) impacted her and her family. Boylan writes beautifully. She is funny, insightful and poignant—sometimes all in the same paragraph. Her memoir portions of the book are fantastic. Unfortunately, there are regular breaks for short Q&A interview sessions Boylan conducts with other writers, friends, etc. I found these uneven—some were very insightful, others not so much—and I started skimming through them hoping to return quickly to Boylan’s story. And another thing: While I enjoyed (loved) Boylan’s voice throughout the story, the story omits her wife’s point of view almost entirely. Boylan mentions wife Deidre often, but we get little idea about their personal relationship or interactions. I get it—this IS Boylan’s memoir after all or perhaps there were privacy issues involved—but Boylan’s intimate memories of her sons felt incredibly rich and detailed compared to the references to Deidre. Although I wanted more—more Boylan, more Deidre—I still came away thinking this book was pretty great. It was sweet and heart-warming, full of love and food for thought. I received this book free in exchange for a review.
Have you read either one? What are you all reading now?
I loved this book. I’m someone that’s maybe a little too obsessed with true crime. I figured the people featured in this book were probably similar to me. Maybe the kind of people who started out watching a lot of Investigation Discovery in their spare time and it snowballed from there. That’s not the case. A lot of them began investigating because there was a local unsolved case that they couldn’t forget about. Some had family members or friends disappear and it pulled them into a labyrinth of other families and friends searching for people too. These sleuths are not really finding out the whodunit of cases. They’re instead solving bodies. They examine descriptions of unidentified bodies—some decades old—and match them up to missing persons reports. (This is a simplistic description and doesn’t really convey the true scope of the hours of research and investigation they do.)
The book itself is a little jumpy and disjointed. There are a lot of people and a lot of unidentified bodies mentioned throughout and it would be hard to keep them straight anyway, but Halber has a tendency to make cosmic leaps through space and time without much warning. I got mightily frustrated at first (GIRL STAY ON TASK, PLZ) because it bounced around every 10 pages or so. Luckily Halber discovers the power of a cohesive narrative about halfway through and we became friends again.
Something this book drives home again and again is that there are an obscene amount of unidentified/unclaimed bodies in this country. Some are buried unceremoniously, some are reduced to bones shoved in a banker’s box in the back of a police station storage room. The estimated numbers in the book are mind-boggling. I can see why these armchair sleuths get sucked in. Don’t these people have someone, somewhere wondering where they went? They have to, right? It’s very sobering.
After reading this book, I looked up how many unidentified bodies have been found in Maryland since 2000. 15 women. 65 men. I clicked on a random woman, aged 25-27. She was assaulted. She had been dead for months when she was found. I hope someone finds out who she is. I hope her family gets to say goodbye.
And that’s why I’m glad Deborah Halber wrote this book. I hope these unsung detectives keep doing their good work. They deserve this recognition (and more) for all the years of research they do to try and bring people home to their loved ones.
War of the Whales by Joshua Horwitz - This impeccably researched book is long but reads fast and quick, almost like a long form article for a magazine. It’s the perfect time to publish this, with the success of Animal Planet’s Whale Wars (<3 Alishan) and Blackfish. In this book, Horwitz follows a researcher and a lawyer and their quest to educate and stop the US Navy from conducting active sonar war games in ocean basins and marine sanctuaries. The book opens with one of the most widespread and bizarre marine mammal strandings that our protagonist researcher—Ken Balcomb—has ever encountered. A former Navy oceanographic specialist, Balcomb suspects sonar interference. While scouting for more strandings, he photographs a Navy ship from an airplane and begins to get sucked back into the secretive world of Navy sonar detection—but from the other side of the curtain.
I Shall Be Near to You by Erin Lindsay McCabe - Oh, a historical fiction novel about a woman disguising herself to fight in the Civil War? Yes, please. I try to limit my historical fiction intake these days since I usually end up sorely disappointed, but I couldn’t resist this one. This book is fictional, but McCabe has based her main character Rosetta on dozens of real-life accounts of women disguised as men during the Civil War. It’s a surprisingly emotional little book and I was cheering hard for Rosetta by the end. It takes off a little tentatively—I wasn’t sure if it would be too much Hunger Games-meets-the-Civil War—but McCabe finds her stride once Rosetta leaves home to join her husband at his training camp. There are a few things that seem forced or odd—like conversations that characters have about the meaning of the war while obviously benefiting from McCabe’s ability to put the historical events into greater context. Also distracting: Rosetta’s inner commentary can seem unbelievably modern and it took me out of the book every single time. But, like I said above: As a whole, this book is really enjoyable. I’m so cynical about historical fiction now. This book was a good reminder that it can be done well and bring together many things—historical context, a love story, a sense of adventure—without the whole thing turning into a gooey mess.
The Son by Jo Nesbo - I love Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series so I was excited to check out this new stand-alone book. Unfortunately, I have mixed feelings about it. It KILLS me to say that because the characters are interesting. The action is exciting. The twists are fun. But this could have used some serious editing. It’s got a meandering problem and things wind up all over the place. Characters are introduced as if you should know who they are and then dispatched swiftly several pages later. It seems a little slapped together—we need to link X to Y, so let’s insert this chapter to help that make sense. The chemistry between some of the characters feels strange. Basically, the characters are most engaging when they’re on their own with no dialogue on the page. Yikes. Jo Nesbo is one of my favorite crime authors, but I found this only so-so compared to the other books of his I’ve read (I loved The Snowman).
Read any of these? Any recommendations for a book I should read next?
The title is amazing. The book is pretty fun. As far as travel/romance memoirs go, this is one of the better ones I’ve read. There have been many of these and I can’t keep them all straight anymore. They’re a tropical beach blend of spiritual experiences and handsome, exotic men. I don’t have problems with any of these things, by the way. Just that everything in the post-Eat, Pray, Love memoir genre reminds me of Eat, Pray, Love. I think (I know) that EPL—which Newman mocks in this memoir—has made me very wary of the travel/romance/life-lessons memoir. I’m too skeptical of the author’s intentions. Do you want Julia Roberts to play you too? I don’t think Kristin Newman does, but like I said: Eat, Pray, Love has ruined a lot of things.
But I digress! Newman writes well (she’s a successful television writer) and the parts of the book that talk about how and why she changed her views on relationships are astute and funny and bittersweet. Her examination of her family history adds a lot of depth to the story and I appreciated her being willing to look at her entire life and write about it in a genuine way. That would be enough to bump it to the top of the EPL genre list, since most of those books attempt to be self-deprecating but fail miserably. (“My biggest flaw is that I am too much of a perfectionist! Everything is done perfectly, what a burden! This is what caused my divorce, obviously.”) Anyway, this book is deeper and more introspective than you might expect. There are several moments that hit me pretty hard. (There’s one in particular. Still thinking about it.) I love being surprised by a book in a good way. I must find my passport! A trip is overdue.
I received this review copy for free, but I’ll always write an honest review. Even if I hate it. Especially if I hate it! I love writing angry reviews.
Bootstrapper by Mardi Jo Link - This was one of those books I randomly decided to read because it sounded vaguely entertaining and I’m a sucker for fun cover art. Memoirs of rural living/adventure set alongside some sort of personal or professional hardship OR displayed as a brave and courageous departure from the monotony of a 9-5 life are littered on bookshelves. Maybe Wild started it, maybe Animal, Vegetable, Miracle did it first, but whatever the case, they are now A Thing. And I’m okay with that. I enjoy them a lot. You wrote an entire book about raising chickens? Sign me up. How about that one where you bought a farm and you have no idea what you’re doing? Yes, please. These books are usually a predictable combination of heart-warming anecdotes and humorous stories and sometimes that sounds just about right. (The Dirty Life by Kim Kimball is still one of my favorites of the genre.) Anyway, Bootstrapper is most definitely one of these types of books, but it’s also better. Better because Link IS badass and I was rooting for her the whole goddamn book. She and her husband divorce and suddenly she’s raising 3 boys at an income level that registers at or below the poverty line. She is resourceful, though, and has the kind of mental and emotional fortitude that makes her seem bigger than life. She’s inspirational but it doesn’t come off like she’s actually trying to be. She’s just telling about her life—like when she and her sons entered a zucchini-growing contest at their local bakery to win free bread so she could make her sons enough sandwiches that they wouldn’t go hungry for lunch. It was a quick, good book, but a few things confused or annoyed me. First, it seems like she ran out of stories once things began improving and at that point she realized she’d better wrap it up quick. Nothing else to write about, folks! I’m good now! Second, there are several details that she glosses over or pretends we won’t notice. Details of the divorce, for example, are no where to be found, though it’s a pivotal and reoccurring theme in her book. Third: A good memoir often makes you feel like you know someone intimately and it takes a lot of honest dumping all over the page to get that sense of familiarity well-established. Wild is a good example of this. Cheryl Strayed is really fearless talking about the not-so-book-ready parts of her story and that made me feel invested. Link, on the other hand, seems to have written this very much with impressions in mind (I don’t blame her, she has older kids after all), but I always got the sense she was writing the story she WISHED to tell rather than the one that actually happened. This probably directly relates to my first issue with the book (the rushed conclusion). I think she framed the story, told what she liked and when she couldn’t novelize it anymore? THE END. Anyway—this review has gotten much too long—I still really liked it and would recommend it to you if you need a quick read.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki - Lately I’ve been having a hard time writing reviews longer than three sentences about books I really love. I think I’m afraid that my writing about them will cheapen the experience I had reading them. Long review short: This is the best book I’ve read yet this year. It will be short listed as one of my favorites for 2014. It’s only June, but I’m completely confident about that. I don’t want to give any of the plot away. Just start reading it. It’s intricate, haunting, moving. The writing is so good it made me want to cry. Reading this was a spiritual experience.