Monday, January 18, 2016

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

Going Clear is about the enigma that is Scientology, a religion marketed to the wealthy and famous who can afford undergoing years of auditing sessions. It's a secretive religion that unfolds information in stages, making the stranger tenets of Scientology more palatable after acclimating one's mind to less shocking, but priming "truths." As a newer religion (founded by L. Ron Hubbard in the mid 1950's), Scientology has recent history to its detriment. And it is this with which Wright begins...the story of L. Ron Hubbard, a science fiction writer, who wanted to leave a permanent mark on history.

Wright digs into Hubbard's past, including his military service, revealing how Hubbard's claims as a war hero (among other things) are at odds with archival data. Wright also explains how Scientology began as a group of Hubbard's followers roaming the high seas (yes, you read that correctly). Hubbard and his followers traveled around the world, looking for a place to build his church and avoiding others that wanted nothing to do with his new movement. This history is why today, the top level of Scientologists are considered a part of the "Sea Org."

Scientology eventually settled, ending up with Los Angeles as one of his church's hubs, complete with a celebrity center that caters to stars like John Travolta, Kirstie Allie, and most famously, Tom Cruise. While a celebrity endorsement of the church is great advertising, you have to wonder what kind of damage the church can do to a public individual, whose deepest darkest secrets are memorialized via auditing sessions, which are a kind of confessional/therapy session involving a lie detector made with two metal cans.

In discussing Hubbard and the Church, Wright alleges abuses by the church's top level leaders, including the church's current leader, David Miscavige. We are talking serious stuff, like Miscagive physically assaulting people with little provocation, or hazing people using tactics reminiscent of my college years, and worse. Some things are almost too crazy sounding to be true, but then again, we are talking about people who believe they were banished to earth by the dark Lord Xenu, or some such shit.

Among some of the church's more infamous headlines is the decades long battle between the church and the IRS. While the IRS went after the church for unpaid taxes, the church hired private investigators and whistle-blowers to harass the IRS. Eventually, Miscavage negotiated tax-exemption status for Scientology, in exchange for agreeing to withdraw the many lawsuits and forms of harassment Scientology laid against the IRS. This important decision by the IRS was a big win for the church financially, and also culturally. Despite decades of perceived illegitimacy around the world, the US Government now recognized Scientology as an organized religion (that's why I call it a religion, not a "religion," because the IRS said so). Praise be to Hubbard.

The Church also launched Operation Snow White in the 70's. The goal of this secret operation was to infiltrate government offices and purge any documents that were disparaging to Scientology. This operation involved more than 30 countries and reads like a spy novel. I am not a conspiracy theorist, but this whole Snow White thing was starting to make me look at my tin foil in a new way.

While Going Clear gives a lot of insight into the workings of the church and its leadership, I felt it lacking in the actual meat and bones of the Scientology doctrine. I was hoping for more accounts of what a Scientologist undergoes during auditing, or what gatherings of Scientologists are like...are there sermons about reincarnation and how to fight off suppressive persons? What do Scientologists bring to a potluck? Do you still have to get a flu shot after going clear? Do Scientologists secretely giggle when they hear the word, "Xenu?" While some of these things are touched upon in Going Clear, I'm guessing you can read one of the many books written by former Scientologists to get more detailed info.

One thing to keep in mind, this book is very one-sided. It's not an unbiased presentation of Scientology. Rather, Wright uses information from former Scientologists. While he attempts to meet with church leadership (including Miscavage) to tell their side of the story, a lot of the information he gives in their "defense" is a simple statement such as "the church denies x and y" or something to that effect. That's not all Wright's fault, however. He explains that, understandably, the church wasn't the most willing participant in his writing endeavor. And while he provides some information the church gives to refute certain things, a lot of it comes down to a he said/she said account, which appropriately, I guess you just have to take on faith.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Follow You Home by Mark Edwards

I birthed a little person recently. So reading is about as much a priority as wearing a shirt right now. However, I have a lot of "down" time in the form of rocking and feeding said little person. So a free book on my Kindle was in order. Enter Follow You Home. It was on my Kindle. It was free. I didn't have to wear a shirt. Done.

I got through this book in two days, which is record time for me. I don't know if that says more about the book or more about the amount of feeding and rocking I was doing in those two days. This psychological thriller is about two young travelers, Daniel and Laura, who are experiencing Europe, until they get to the scary, sinister part of Europe (that would be the eastern bit). There (in Romania), they experience the Thing That Must Not Be Spoken Of and quickly end their trip.

Back home in London, Daniel and Laura try to go about their daily lives. But their once close relationship dissolves as each spirals into their own living hell in trying to deal with What Happened.  As Daniel tries to get over the loss of Laura, he experiences strange things, things he can't help but wonder might be connected to the fateful trip. Meanwhile, Laura not only withdraws from Daniel, but her grasp on reality seems to be slipping away.

Two stories in one, Edwards slowly reveals what happened to Daniel and Laura in Romania while simultaneously unfolding the resulting horror they both encounter back home. He keeps you guessing, is it something supernatural? Is it something depraved? Something real? Something imagined? And he unfolds both stories in such a way that there were times (usually in the middle of the night) where I was too creeped out to read (and I still got done in two days!).

Overall, this book was a great package. It was quick, captivating, and a bit scary. I'd be interested to read more of Edwards' other thrillers, shirt or not.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A Higher Call:An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II by Adam Makos

This World War II story is written by an American war historian, Adam Makos. Makos finds a story so compelling, he fights his patriotic instincts and centers his story from the German perspective. A Higher Call highlights the life of Franz Stigler, a German fighter pilot ace. Framing his book around the so-called enemy, Makos wonders early in the book, can good men be found on both sides of a bad war?

Franz Stigler knew as a young boy he wanted to fly planes. His father taught him and his brother, August, how to fly small planes as young children. Franz eventually worked as a commercial pilot, and when WWII broke out, was recruited to teach Germans how to fly for the war.

Franz grew up in a Catholic family. During the 1930's, as Hitler's party rose to power, they cautiously watched and disagreed with the changes enacted by The Party. As Catholics, they fell under increased scrutiny, since the Pope spoke out against Hitler. August, in particular, who was dating a church official's daughter, could potentially bring the magnifying glass onto the family. In a way, Franz had a way out, having been excommunicated from the church for sword fighting.

But this official disownment of Franz on the Church's part was only one sided. Franz continued to quietly practice his faith, even making sure he always had his rosary for every mission he flew, as this became his inevitable path working for the German air force.

If you're wondering how Franz could be in the German air force during Hitler's dictatorship, if he wasn't a member of, or even supportive of the Nazi party, this was more the rule than the exception. German fighters fought for their country, not for Hitler. They prided themselves on being neutral, politically, and resented Hitler's eventual efforts to infiltrate to military with his own spies in an effort to squash dissention to The Party.

This neutrality could be taken a step further in the code Franz was taught, to down foreign planes, but not kill pilots if they ejected. This code would be brought to the forefront when an American bomber, piloted by Charlie Brown, was shot down by German fighters. The B-17 was on its first mission, flying in formation in the unfortunate position known as "Purple Heart Corner." As the bomber descended in its inevitable demise, struggling to stay airborne as it tried to leave Germany, Brown and his injured crew found they couldn't shake one German fighter. But strangely, the fighter didn't fire on them. Assuming it was out of ammo, they still couldn't explain why the fighter flew alongside the bomber's wing, taking it safely across a German flak zone.

The mystery would remain with Brown, who eventually sought out the mystery pilot decades later and learned about Franz, his amazing life, and his even more amazing code of honor.

Makos slowly helps us understand how Franz got to this point. For in the beginning, his main focus was on downing as many planes as possible and getting the coveted Knight's Cross commendation for fighter pilots. In the beginning, it was the numbers that motivated him. But as Franz neared the end of his career, something greater took over, and the numbers fell by the wayside when Franz found himself a part of an elite, yet ill-regarded unit of German fighters. Under the command of a man whom Hitler wanted to keep out of the way, this new unit was given little resources and little hope for success. But their willingness to continue to fight successfully for Germany ended up being their silent protest against Hitler and General Goring, the controversial commander in chief of the German Air Force.

This book provides not only an interesting, alternate view of WWII, but also a great story that was covered up by the American Air Force for years. A solid recommend.


Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Rachel rides the train every day. And every day she passes the same homes and people going through their same routines. Until one day, something changes. What Rachel sees alters the trajectory of her life that is already complicated with a divorce and alcoholism.

Anna is a stay at home mom. Although her life seems simple, she lives in the shadow of her husband's ex-wife, struggling with raising her two-year old daughter and keeping her sanity while trying to maintain a happy marriage.

Megan shouldn't have a care in the world. She is free to work on her art and has a loving husband. Although she loves him too, for some reason that just isn't enough for her. And when she goes missing, the lives of these three women converge.

Three women, three points of view, all telling the same story. Although I was able to guess the "whodunnit" aspect of the book (and I'm usually not great at that), I felt Hawkins put enough mystery and twists and turns to keep things intriguing and moving. While I didn't particularly like her main characters (probably intentional on her part, though), I felt she made them interesting.

I would be remiss if I didn't address one point. That's the whole Gone Girl comparison. We have multiple narrators, a missing girl, diary-like entries, and unlikeable characters. So how do the two face off? IMHO The Girl on the Train edges out her competition. I didn't have to press the "I want to believe button" like with Gone Girl and, in general, I was more engrossed in the story. While I wouldn't say to skip Gone Girl, if you had a choice between the two, I'd go with The Girl on the Train. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

After much hype and fanfare (and waiting on the library hold list), I finally got my hands on Station Eleven. I purposefully didn't read many reviews on this book so I wouldn't be influenced by others' take on things. All I really knew was what the publisher provides as a preview...that an orchestral and theatric troupe travels around what is left of Michigan after a devastating illness has decimated the world population. I wasn't quite sure what to think of that.

I'm happy to report the whole theatric troupe angle didn't come across as contrived or pretentious. If you're wondering why Mandel frames her story with this concept, it may have something to do with the troupe's mantra, which is "survival is insufficient." Mandel gives us more than a survival tale, focusing her story on her characters, who live their lives in spite of their circumstances. And this means doing more than just surviving. It means providing and finding enjoyment despite what has happened.

Mandel introduces us to many players, who are all somehow tied together, whether through direct relationships or by varying degrees of separation. She jumps from person to person and from time to time. Through their stories, we learn how everything changed once an illness struck the world, killing all but one of every 200-300 people.

Unlike similar story lines, where the future is still somewhat technologically advanced (Hunger Games, Divergent, the Maze Runner), Mandel explores a future where all technology is lost (more like the Forest of Hands and Teeth or the Walking Dead). What happens when the power goes out permanently? When the internet stops? When all the gas is no longer usable and transportation is only accomplished with animals? How does one rebuild?  All the while with a new world population of potentially less than the current population of California. Is it important to teach children who grew up after the pandemic about technology that no longer exists? How do you describe a smartphone? Or how people traveled by airplane? What happens if you were on vacation in a foreign country when the pandemic hit and all air travel was permanently suspended?

Mandel provides you with a varied cast, so there is bound to be someone you can relate to or want to root for. And she shows us how these people evolve and adapt. Not just because of what happened, but because that's what people tend to do in general. Rather than dwell on the why and how of what happened, Mandel deals with the questions that people face afterward. Her story-telling and writing is solid, and you will be drawn into this world that so frighteningly resembles our own. This is what makes Station Eleven memorable...if not a bit scary.

Monday, June 8, 2015

After Awhile You Just Get Used to It: A Tale of Family Clutter by Gwendyolyn Knapp

Gwendolyn Knapp is only in her thirties, but her colorful family and personal relationships have already provided enough fodder for a memoir. After While is the story of Gwendolyn, her sister Molly, her mother Margie, and her stepfather John. Of course, there is a host of other family members and the occasional love interest that pepper her life with stress and shenanigans.

Knapp grew up in Florida where she lived with her packrat mother and overachieving goth sister, as well as her mother's extended family. She begins by introducing us to her stepfather, John, and her grandparents. She hits the ground running with sudden death and a bout of scabies. And things only gets worse from there.

As she regales her teenage years, I experienced a certain nostalgia, since we're about the same age. Reading about her music choices and high school experiences made this time in her life seem, well, normal to me. Her stories seemed filled with an appropriate amount of whimsy and dysfunction that many people (myself included) have experienced in one form or another. I began to wonder where all this was headed, and if I should consider writing my own memoir...

During an eventful Thanksgiving we meet her Aunt Susie and uncle Ricky, a heartbreaking couple with real problems, but let's be honest, they made the holidays memorable. Then she describes plenty of other family gatherings that involve multiple strangulation attempts and lots of squirrels.

Knapp eventually ends up in New Orleans. Although she's a bit farther from the influence of her family, her adult life is full of one dimensional characters with little redeeming value. At this point in the book, I began to notice Knapp's negativity in how she views people. Take her boyfriend Robin, for instance. She describes him as an artist who doesn't bathe, take her anywhere, and has bean bag furniture. But her description is more matter of fact, as opposed to critical. She goes on to describe a doctor's appointment where the doctor only wants to talk about an upcoming vacation. Even after the doctor compliments her boots, Knapp reveals they are atrocious, as if to say the doctor was being disingenuous. She describes another encounter where someone compliments her dress and she explains it's a two dollar thrift store atrocity.  At this point, Knapp's knack for turning even nice gestures into something negative begins to grate on me. 

Even her description of where she and her family traveled for vacation (at the mid-point between the world's crapiness and despair) depressed me. And to make matters worse, her mother and stepfather eventually join her in New Orleans. After a family reunion and another failed relationship, it seemed not a lot had changed and Knapp's negativity was still a big part of her life. She was still struggling to make ends meet and keep herself sane. 

So a mixed review. I felt her struggles weren't any bigger than most people's, although perhaps she has more patience and creativity to get them on paper. I was a bit exhausted and left wondering where Knapp's life was headed. I guess I was hoping for some great revelation on her part, or a success story. A moral, perhaps? Some tidbit to leave me with? When she didn't offer any, well, I suppose it was fitting, and by that time, I had just gotten used to it. 

Disclaimer: I received this book in exchange for a review.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach

Did you ever wonder how an astronaut goes to the bathroom in space? Mary Roach will make you question why you've never pondered this before. With lines from her book like, "give me a napkin quick, there's a turd floating in the air," she'll also give you the greatest appreciation of gravity you never anticipated...

Roach is a master of taking a topic (like cadavers, sex, and in this case, space travel) and deconstructing it, showing its many facets...whether interesting, surprising, or even a bit awkward. Packing for Mars is the tell all for space travel. Besides providing somewhat of a history of the international space program, Roach gives the nitty gritty of space logistics: how NASA obsesses over a mission, the research associated with space travel, the personality testing, the mission simulations, how astronauts eat, drink, poop, and maneuver in a tin can in clunky suits in zero gravity. Besides participating in interviews with those involved, Roach also participates herself, when possible.

Take parabolic flights, for example. Besides being a novel way to spend your time, they are used for research and training for the space program. Imagine flying in a jet that goes high enough into the atmosphere to reach zero gravity for twenty seconds before hurtling back down to earth for ten seconds, only to repeat this endeavor 29 more times. Under the auspices of research, Roach participates in such a flight to give a first hand account of what it's like (spoiler - depends on your propensity for motion sickness).

Of course, I call bullshit on Roach not participating in some other studies, like the ones where you lay in a bed at a -6 degree decline for weeks to see the effect on one's body (in a pseudo simulation of zero gravity). Or the "all cube diet" or "forty-two days of milkshakes" diet (not as enticing as it sounds). Honestly, the chapter on space food depressed me, which was kinda her point. Food from tubes really should be relegated to those in a vegetative state. I hear the meals up there have vastly improved...but that still leaves lots of room for hijinks.

Roach also reveals tidbits here and there that you just can't anticipate until you send people up in space. Things like how plants used for experiments in space cannot be edible. Otherwise astronauts nostalgic for something besides toothpaste to eat will end up eating the science experiments as well.

Or there's the scary prospect of losing an astronaut to space euphoria, the phenomenom whereby an astronaut on a spacewalk achieves such a feeling of awe that it threatens to overtake good sense and prevents him from returning to the spaceship.

There are also chapters on animals in space, simulated space missions on earth, and the little-known science behind keeping floating vomit out of your space helmet. The chapter on space hygiene was rife with unwelcome terms like "underarm sweat supplies," "restricted-bathing experiment," and "odor plateau."

If none of this interests you, perhaps you enjoy reading technical papers and users manuals for furniture assembly. Otherwise, you'll probably enjoy this book, or find it eye opening, to say the least.