Thursday, April 30, 2015

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

This is a life-is-stranger-than-fiction book from the same author who wrote Seabiscuit. In this World War II era biography, Hillenbrand explores the life of Louis Zamperini. Once the trouble-maker of his neighborhood, in high school Zamperini focuses his talents on running, even making the Olympics for the 5000 meter race in 1936. His experience in Berlin was an adventure for the 19 year old, with memories of eating to excess, meeting people from around the world, and placing 8th in his race. But there were also signs of unrest that hid beneath the surface of the gaiety of the Olympics. As the games came to a close, signs of civil inequality between Jews and non-Jews became more prominent, and Zamperini caught small glimpses of a storm brewing in Germany that would spread throughout the world in the years to come.

After the games, Zamperini's focus was on the 1940 Olympics, but they were never to be, having been canceled due to war. Zamperini joined the war effort soon after. Serving as a bombardier on bomber airplanes, Zamperini became an all too common statistic - one of the missing or war dead. Hillenbrand does a great job of explaining the difficulties and dangers of our military personnel in World War II, specifically dangers not directly related to combat. And Zamperini's position as a bombardier was primed for disaster. Fatefully, in 1943, his plane went down over the Pacific Ocean.

Hillenbrand describes Zamperini's 43 days at sea as a harrowing, gut-wrenching experience. Sadly, it was probably the easiest part of his misadventures to come, enduring prison camp after prison camp at the hands of the Japanese. Reading about his experiences was difficult, at best, but eye-opening too. I didn't realize how naive I was about Japan's role in World War II. Sure, they were a part of the Axis Powers and devastatingly brought the U.S. into the war, but this book really gives you plentiful and specific examples of their treachery.

Zamperini makes it out of the war and, like many veterans and especially prisoners of war, continues to suffer. His post-traumatic stress, not as well understood (or even recognized) as it is today is a realistic reminder that although Zamperini eventually triumphs over his demons, his road to redemption is a long, slow one.

While some of the subject matter is hard to take in, Zamperini's story is, in a word, amazing. Hillenbrand connects seemingly random topics like juvenile delinquency, the Olympics, World War II, POW camps, and survival at sea in a fascinating way through the life of this one man.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl, of the so-called domestic noir genre (check wikipedia for more details), is a voyeuristic journey into disaster. While you might find Flynn's characters unbecoming, there's enough drama and intrigue to keep you reading.

We begin with Nick Dunne, our Girl's husband, who has just reported her missing to the police. Of course, being the husband, Nick is suspect number one. As he tries to search for his wife, work with the police, and deal with his wife Amy's parents, Nick's every move is scrutinized and criticized by the media. You see events unfold from Nick's perspective, which gives you insight into his actions and reactions. And quite honestly, sometimes his perspective doesn't make you like him much. But that's the problem with being privy to one's private thoughts, I suppose. Some things are better left unsaid, and for good reason.

And Nick isn't the only suspect. Amy has a short list of potential stalkers, thanks to being the inspiration behind her parent's successful series of children's books, the Amazing Amy series. Although she is the inspiration, our Gone Girl is really the antithesis of Amazing Amy, whose triumphs underscore the real Amy's least in Amy's mind.

Which brings us to Amy's side of the story. For every Nick chapter, there is an Amy chapter. While Nick's story begins with the present and moves forward, Amy's begins a few years before. Her voice (as told through diary entries) gives context to Nick's chapters...albeit in a slow unraveling way. Besides the problem at hand, Amy's chapters address the usual course of many relationships in a painful way. She regales the excitement of new love, the comfort of a stable relationship, and the rut of familiarity. We are privy to the small deeds, or rather misdeeds, that sow seeds of resentment, miscommunication, and estrangement in this ill-fated couple.

Gillian Flynn weaves not only a murder mystery, but a sort-of psychological study of relationships. She doesn't stop there, though. When you think you've figured out what the book is about, Flynn changes things up. When Amy's diary entries catch up to the present day, you have a much clearer picture of the situation, the mystery of Amy's disappearance is already revealed, and there is still about half of the book left to read.

Gone Girl is definitely interesting, if a bit unrealistic. It has enough themes and mystery in it to keep you reading. While you might not find yourself loving the characters (at least I didn't), you'll be interested enough to press on, much as a person can't turn away from a traffic accident. There are some tragedies we find terrifying, yet comforting, knowing they're not ours. And Gone Girl just might be one of them.

Monday, March 16, 2015

A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment by Scott Carney

Is internal bliss at the expense of outward oblivion desirable? If we lived in a world reminiscent of that which Keanu Reaves faced in The Matrix, are we better off living in ignorance? And why does it seem that there is a fine line between religious fervor and religious fanaticism? Are they even mutually exclusive?

These questions and more are tackled in A Death on Diamond Mountain, the story of several people's search for enlightenment under the auspices of Tibetan Buddhism. Carney's background as an investigative reporter serves his readers well with this carefully researched book. If you don't know anything about Tibetan Buddhism, like me, (or Buddhism in general), you'll be, well, enlightened yourself on the subject after this 250-ish page book.

Carney opens with the suicide of one of his own students while they were in India on a ten-day silent meditation retreat. His student's journal held a declaration that Carney questioned as the bold pronouncement of a legitimate religious breakthrough or the ramblings of a mentally disturbed individual. His own search for enlightenment marred by this experience gave him not only an academic interest in, but also a personal stake in the story of Ian Thorson, who also died seeking spiritual truth.

Carney takes his reader through the history of Buddhism, specifically Tibetan Buddhism. You've probably heard terms like, yoga (...pants), dharma (remember LOST?), tantra (Finch from American pie...anyone?), and Nirvana (RIP Kurt Cobain). Words like these are amazingly ubiquitous and popularized. In fact, the reach of Buddhism and Tibetan culture is more pervasive than you probably realize (did you know the Ewoks speak high speed Tibetan?). Yet most people who aren't Buddhists don't really understand their true meaning. You'll get schooled in that by Carney.

He'll also introduce you to ancient holy places like Bodh Gaya, where Buddha acheived enlightenment, and help you understand how Tibetan Buddhism was born in India, took hold in Tibet, exiled back to India, and popularized in the west. This migration led to places like the Diamond Mountain University in Arizona, founded by Michael Roach.

Roach, a well-respected practitioner, who received the title of Geshe (basically the equivalent of a PhD in Buddhist parlance) started his spiritual journey traveling abroad. He took on a lama, or teacher, in the states and eventually began teaching others in a public park. His following grew and he rented a small commercial space for lectures. One thing led to another yada yada yada and he and his followers ended up in yurts in the Arizona desert for three years in contemplative silence.

Roach's brand of Buddhism, although supposedly Tibetan, slowly showed signs of divergence. His taking of a wife, his belief that she was a goddess, and the tantric, or secret teachings he espoused created a divide among his followers. But his education in religion at Princeton and a successful career in the diamond industry gave him important tools that fostered his influence in the Buddhist sphere. These also didn't hurt in enabling him to gain many well-funded sponsors for his cause.

While Carney takes us through Roach's evolution from spiritual pilgrim to guru, he also keeps track of Thorson, who has a tangential affiliation with Roach. Thorson too traveled the world on a spiritual pilgramage, and like Roach went to Tibet and sought a worthy teacher in the states to follow. The spiritual consensus in Tibet for both these men was to send them to the holy city of New Jersey.

So what brings this relationship from tangential to a more solid collision course? Well, like many good stories, it's a woman, namely the aforementioned resident goddess, Christie McNally. Together, she and Thorson set a path for themselves that clash not only with Diamond Mountain University, but with the sustainability of life in general.

From meditative visions, to a religious intervention, to conflict diamonds, to the Apache Indian wars in the southwest, this book is an epic journey. Like his first book, The Red Market, this is an intriguing read on some potentially obscure subjects. Carney's book may not provide the spiritual brand of enlightenment his subjects so desperately sought, but it illuminates in many other ways.

Full disclosure: I received this book free from Carney's publisher with a request for a review. But I liked it anyway.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Horns by Joe Hill

In a series of strange incidents, a man with a goatee finds himself in hellish heat, surrounded by snakes, and holding sharply pronged lawn equipment. If that is too subtle for you, there's the fact that he's also sprouted horns overnight.

Horns is a slowly unfolding story told from different perspectives. I haven't quite figured out if I love or hate the literal horns part of the story, but if I press the "belief suspended" button, I can get around that dichotomy. And really, I think that's a part of what this tale is about.

Iggy Perrish is a twenty-something guy whose life has brought him to a distinct point (points?) when we meet him. He wakes up one morning, after a drunken night of desecrating the place of his former girlfriend's sexual assault and murder, with two horns on his head. Seeking advice from his current girlfriend, the medical profession, as well as his family proves fruitless as the horns seem to hypnotize those around him. Instead of figuring out his own dilemma, Iggy learns the dark, secret desires of those he encounters.

While he's still trying to figure out if this is a blessing or a curse, Perrish learns details about his former girlfriend's last night that leads him on a path of revenge (that's not a spoiler, BTW, as the book cover says, "when it comes to revenge, the devil's in the details"). While he's slowly gaining new insight into those he loves and the world around him, he's also slowly gaining, uh, a very particular set of skills, that seem to be related to his latest predicament.

There is a lot to like about this book. Hill's story of Perrish, his best friend, girlfriend, and brother is interesting enough without the horns thrown in. Hill backtracks and changes perspectives to give us insight akin to end-of-life flashbacks. Small details, words, and scenes reveal significance that can only be seen with hindsight. And Perrish's transition, we learn, is not an overnight one. Perhaps his entire life pointed to this inevitable, literal, reminder of evil that has now manifest itself upon him. Perhaps, we learn, good and evil isn't quite so red and white.

Hill's playful writing is both figurative and literal. Through liberal and, at times playful, use of religious imagery including a lot of fire, horns, crosses, and thinly vieiled biblical references, we learn about contrasts. Hill explores literal good and evil, sure, but he also shows how two people can experience the same thing and walk away with completely different meanings. Could both people have been right? Can this same contradiction occur within an individual too? Or are we all completely good or bad?

Perrish's evolution to literal devil is a slow one, complete after a baptism by fire. But understanding his life gives you insight into the true question of whether he is blessed or cursed. But you have to read the book to find out, because as we've already been told, the devil's in the details.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff

This WWII survival story kept me at attention over the five page-turning days I read it (in case you aren't impressed, that's pretty fast for me). Lost in Shangri-La is the true story of how an army airplane crashed in New Guinea during World War II and the survivors encountered Stone Age cannabilistic tribes in their quest for survival. And besides surviving the plane crash and cannibals, there was the terrain, weather, injuries, gangrene, and the fact that Shangri-La was completely inaccessible to the outside world (unless your plane crashed over it). So even if they survived all of that, there was the question of how they would actually get out of Shangri-La.

Our story begins with a women's army group stationed in New Guinea during WWII. You get a background on women's role in the army during that time as well as the South Pacific perspective of the war. Zuckoff also focuses on the Philippines, where one of our principle rescuers (Earl Walter) grew up and whose father is there fighting against the Japanese. Leading a regiment of Filipino-Americans, Walter campaigns to join the fighting in the Philippines but finds himself immersed in what he later describes as the highlight of his life.

Not only do we have our survivors' tales, but we have Walter's search for a lasting contribution to the war, as well as the fascinating heritage of the people of New Guinea. If you think WWII was a long time ago, it's the space age compared to these tribes who have yet to discover the wheel. Zuchoff describes them beautifully in the following passage:

"They had tamed fire but hadn't discovered the wheel. They caked their bodies with clay when mourning but had never developed pottery. They spoke complex languages - the verb that means 'hit' or 'kill' could be inflected more than two thousand ways - but had a single word to describe both time and place...Their only numbers were one, two, and three; everything beyond three was 'many.' In a world awash for color, they had terms for only two...They ornamented themselves with necklaces and feathers but created no lasting works of art...They feared the ghosts of their ancestors but worshiped no gods. They were gentle with children but hacked off girls' fingers to honor dead relatives...They build thirty-foot-tall watchtowers, but their only furniture was a funeral chair for the dead. They grew strong tobacco but never distilled their crops into liquor...They valued cleverness but not curiosity. Loyalty had special significance. To greet close friends and relations, they said Hal-loak-nak, 'Let me eat your feces.' Its true meaning: 'I will do the unthinkable for you.'"

Can you imagine the shit-storm (and not in a friendly poo-eating way) that would be created by dropping a bunch of Americans into these people's lives? Read this book and imagine no more!

This book fits my bill for a five star read, I couldn't put it down, I learned a lot of new things, and it changed the way I thought about certain things. That final point came in the epilogue, in which Zuckoff describes the fate of the people of Shangri-La (currently called the Baliem Valley). It makes you wonder if people who are considered "Stone Age" could be better off with modern technology or not. It also was an eye opener in terms of how these people's legends changed to include the "spirit people" who visited them so long ago. Image meeting a tribal group and suddenly you are a part of their spoken history, legends, and even spiritual beliefs. It was surreal, if not a bit scary, to think about.

Zuckoff manages to write a historical war story with just the right blend of story-telling and history. He focuses on a few key individuals, giving their background so you know who they are, and he also gives a lot of information on the context of the war without dragging the pace of the book down. A definite recommend.

Monday, February 2, 2015

First Person Plural: My Life as a Multiple by Cameron West, PhD

Appropriately, I'm of two minds about this book. If it were fiction, it would read as cheesy and unrealistic. But because it's autobiographical, it's a fascinating, albeit difficult read.

About twenty years ago, Cameron West had a job, a wife, and a young son. His life was relatively normal. But stresses built up and he began to doubt his reality. Some phone calls to family members led him to believe he had been molested as a child. As West sought to understand his past, he began displaying bizarre symptoms.

West hit a stroke of luck in his choice of a therapist, who wasn't completely surprised when, during a session, West reverted to his childhood, reliving an incident of molestation. His therapist recognized his behavior as symptomatic of dissociative identify disorder. In other words, West had multiple personalities and little control over who emerged and when.

As West chronicles his journey from diagnosis to treatment to acceptance of his past and present, I was a bit skeptical. Descriptions of personality changes as coming on with a shudder and a twitch brought to mind James McAvoy in the X Men movies.  I couldn't stand how he'd intensely hold his fingers to his temple whenever he was doing anything telepathic. It just seemed so cliche. Well, the whole "shudder twitch" thing made me roll my eyes the first couple of times I read it. But then I looked Cameron West up online. There's a video on youtube where you actually see him switch and the whole "shudder twitch" business kinda makes sense.

There were also parts of the book that I was skeptical about because of the detail that West uses. He recalls minutiae in events during a time when his state of mind was suspect at best. Sometimes he wasn't even present for the described events. I found it very hard to believe he really could recount details down to the exact shirt his wife was wearing.

The fact remains, however, that West is a real person with a real (albeit controversial) diagnosis. He was able to overcome his demons and even got his PhD in psychology to better understand his diagnosis and help others like himself.

I mentioned already this was a difficult read. The descriptions of child abuse West suffered were disturbing to say the least. It was a compelling read, but I can't heartily recommend it. But if you're interested in dissociative identify disorder, it's a great study.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Bad Paper: Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the Underworld by Jake Halpern

What happens when you decide not to pay off those Jimmy Choos you bought on your Chase credit card? Chase will attempt to recover the money owed; but maybe you lost your job, or have other bills to pay, or are in prison. Who knows? At some point, it becomes more profitable for Chase to sell your debt, rather than try to recoup the money themselves.

One of the amazing things about this process is that the debt, YOUR debt, is sold as a line on an Excel spreadsheet. There might be thousands of clients on a single spreadsheet, which is considered a portfolio. So brokers who manage the sale of these portfolios are literally selling a thumbdrive with an Excel file on it. This is a process that is largely unregulated, easily pirated, and potentially lucrative for those willing to do the work.

And the quality of the portfolio, or paper, determines the price paid. What is the geography of the debtors? Is it credit card debt, or payday loans? Has the paper been sold more than once? Are the debtors young? Old? These questions and more, all play into determining if the portfolio is sold for pennies or hundredths of a penny on the dollar.

Bad Paper focuses on individuals in the business who specialize in, well, bad paper - older, harder to collect debt. This usually means millions of dollars of debt can be bought for dirt cheap with potential for significant profits IF the debt can be collected. With thousands of debtors to contact, it's sometimes a game of throwing the spaghetti on the wall and seeing what sticks. Of course, there's the potential for collectors to employ less than palatable tactics on these types of debts. Threats of lawsuits, imprisonment, and even personal threats can occur (which is totally illegal). But even if the debtors agree to pay a fraction of what they owe, the collection agency is making a massive profit.

Because of the risk involved, and the sometimes questionable tactics used, this industry attracts occasionally unsavory characters. Because of the lack of regulation, those in the industry often find themselves "working out" conflicts on their own.

Halpern also highlights a few stories from the other side of this industry. Those of the debtors themselves. Why did they go into debt? How successful (or not) was the collection agency in collecting that debt? And if it came down to it and they were taken to court, what happened? It was amazing to hear how easy it is to fight these cases, yet how rarely people do.

You don't need to be interested in finance or the economy to find this book interesting. It's something that I think most people can relate to on one level or another and a real eye opener to an industry you don't hear much about. A solid recommend.