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 fights there 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 survivor's 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 that 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.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness

Part fantasy, part historical fiction, Shadow of Night is the second book in the All Soul's trilogy (and you really need to have read A Discovery of Witches first to get what is going on). As a tale about witches and vampires, there isn't a lot of action or back story on the whole witch/vampire/daemon culture. But this book was full of day to day details of life in 16th century Europe, which was a surprising highlight for me.

Shadow begins where Discovery left off, with Diana Bishop and Matthew Clairmont having time walked back to Elizabethan London. In search of the elusive manuscript, Ashmole 782, Diana is also hoping to hone her skills as a witch before they return to the 21st century.

We learn a lot about Matthew's past and his varied connections throughout Europe which include Queen Elizabeth and the emperor of the Roman Empire (or something like that). We also gain insight into Diana's unique skills, although I really wasn't visualizing the string metaphors Harkness used to help us explain them. We also get many examples of how Diana and Matthew are hopelessly devoted and bonded to each other. The latter involving the ever romantic rituals of bloodsucking and kissing third eyes.

It seemed the search for Ashmole and Diana's training were just vehicles for Harkness to explain what Diana and Matthew wore and ate from day to day, "Diana! Where are my hose!?" Matthew's many ties took them from country to country, meeting new characters that I couldn't keep track of and getting involved in tangentially related hijinks, the details of which I couldn't relate. But I certainly remember their accommodations and the social customs of each location.

At the end of the book, I felt the plot furtherance didn't match the geographical and chronological grandeur Diana and Matthew experienced. I'm worried that the third book will be another slow-moving read, especially without the historical interest the second held over me.




Thursday, January 15, 2015

Dare I Call It Murder, A Memoir of Violent Loss by Larry Edwards

I'm on a true-crime spree, which is safer than the alternative, I suppose. I was actually turned on to this book by local author, Corey Lynn Feyman. He mentioned to me he knew a man whose brother murdered his parents on a boat trip, so the man wrote a book about it. NBD.

I was intrigued and easily found the book at my local library. This is the story of an around the world boat trip that Jody and Loren Edwards embarked upon with their adult children in the late 70's. Like most families, the Edwards' weren't without their share of drama, and spending several months together in a cramped space isn't good for most normal people. So on a stop in San Diego, Larry decided he would end his journey while his parents, brother Gary, sister Kerry, and a family friend (Lori) continued their adventures in the Spellbound.

Less than 3 months later, Larry received a call, "Larry, there's been an accident." These five words marked the beginning of a life-long nightmare that Larry still lives to this day. Larry's parents were dead, his sister was unconscious, and his brother and Lori weren't really talking. And Larry spent the rest of his life trying to understand what happened.

If you're looking for true crime, you've got it. But this book is so much more. It spans decades and generations. It's a slowly unfolding story of how a single event can become an obsession, and how this obsession slowly chips away at one's psyche. As the subtitle states, it's a memoir of violent loss. And after reading it, you'll be a step closer to understanding the impact of such a loss. It's devastating, enduring, and toxic.

An interesting twist to the story is that there is a competing narrative out there. Larry's niece, against his wishes, published a website detailing the voyage of the Spellbound, encouraging browsers to come to their own conclusions about what happened. After reading the book, you'll understand what a dick move this was. And finding the website online was a surreal reminder that the events in this book are real.And it was interesting to see how someone who supposedly has credibility on the matter could get things so wrong.

Larry, a San Diego local, has won several awards for this book, including the winner of Best Published Memoir at the 2014 San Diego Book Awards and it was also a nominee for the Pulitzer Prize. So don't just take my word for it, it's a good book, y'all. One of my year's best.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Dead Reckoning by Caitlin Rother

Tom and Jackie Hawkes, both divorced, met and married. With a happy family life and a love for boating, the southern Californian couple had nothing but the rest of their lives to look forward to...until they ended up tied to their own boat's anchor and thrown overboard alive.

This is the story of how this loving couple's lives tragically intersected with those of Skylar and Jennifer Deleon's. Skylar, a former child star, was charismatic and charming. He doted on his pregnant wife who, along with her family, seemed to return the sentiment. Jennifer, raised as a "good Christian girl" was excited to begin a family with her husband. They seemed like a young couple with nothing but the rest of their lives to look forward to...until they met the Hawkes'.

It's not really how these two couples meet and interact that is the crux of this book. It's more a story of deception, double lives, and the power of denial. It's the story of how one man can manipulate those around him to see what he wants them to see.

But Jennifer isn't a complete victim in Skylar's deceit. Although an unlikely accomplice, Jennifer is more complicit in the Hawkes' deaths than many people might believe. Was she also deceived by Skylar? Or was she just a depraved as he?

Rother explores Skylar and Jennifer's chemistry and how two people with very different upbringings can come together in a toxic way. She also delves into Skylar's past, his family, and the fringe activities he kept secret so well, until the Hawkes' death started unraveling it all.

If you're a true-crime fan, this is a solid read. It's fascinating to learn how truly depraved people can be. And knowing these events occurred in my neck of the woods made the events even more surreal. A solid recommend.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki



When a barnacle covered bag washes ashore on a small island in British Columbia, Ruth is immediately drawn into the narrative of Nao, a 16-year-old from an ocean away in Tokyo, Japan.

Nao lived with her parents in California, where Silicon Valley and the California sun held nothing but hope and happiness for the Japanese family. But her father's job loss returned Nao's family to Japan, where she went from happy well-adjusted teenager, to a bullied outcast. Escaping the constant pinching, stalking, and even fake funeral put on by her entire class, Nao finds solace in her diary, which Ruth finds in a Hello Kitty lunch box in the bag on the shore. She writes as if to an unknown friend, sharing how her own thoughts of suicide are complicated by her father, who when he isn't sulking or making origami insects, is trying to depart his own now. 

Nao also writes extensively about her buddhist nun grandmother, Jiko. The Japanese equivalent of Yoda, Jiko guides Nao through contradictory one-liners and an extended visit to her mountain monastary.  Through the Tao of meditation and scrubbing old ladies' backs, Nao's energy focuses on her family's mythology, which includes a journey to World War II via Nao's great uncle's letters.

Back in boring land, Ruth delves into her own research, trying to locate Nao or anyone from her family. Ruth hopes to help Nao before it's too late. But is she already dead? Was she a tsunami victim? Does she even exist?

In a nutshell, this description from The Guardian does a great job: 

"If a Japanese-American writer who is also a Zen Buddhist priest wrote a post-Japanese tsunami novel, what themes might you imagine she would address? Biculturalism, water, death, memory, the female predicament, conscience, the nature of time and tide? Tick. All there. Throw in the second world war, the reader-writer relationship, depression, ecological collapse, suicide, origami, a 105-year-old anarchist nun and a schoolgirl's soiled knickers, and you have Ruth Ozeki's third novel, A Tale for the Time Being."

If that sounds like a lot, it is. Nao's story is intruiging enough, but Ruth annoyed me. She would internalize Nao's characteristics by talking like Nao and even fighting with her husband, Oliver, due to his inappropriate reaction to one of Nao's diary entries. One particularly grating moment was when Nao's diary essentially catches up with itself, and Ruth and Oliver are reading together by kerosene light (small island issues apparently) when one of them implores, "go on, don't stop." Sigh.

Ruth's part in the story aside, I liked reading about Nao and her family. There is a good mix of philosophy and even the supernatural that raised things a level for me. But Ruth's part in the story canceled that out. So in total, kind of like the bag that washed on Ruth's shore, this book was a mixed bag for me. There's a lot going on with an interesting story, yet it was a book I could put down.