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 Awhile 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.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Reboot by Amy Tintera

If you're in the mood for another YA dystopian novel, this might quench your thirst. With so many to choose from, what Reboot offers is a quick, easy read with a twist on the zombie genre...but zombie novel it is not.

Wren one-seventy-eight died five years ago. But, as is common with children who contract the mysterious KDH virus, she revived, or rebooted. As her name suggests, she didn't reboot until 178 minutes after her death, a long time compared with other reboots. As a reboot, Wren is separated from her family and sent to live as a recruit for HARC, a government organization that is responsible for keeping KDH, and the population in general, controlled.

Having taken so long to revive, Wren is less human than other reboots. And as a trainer to new reboots, she takes her job seriously. With first pick of the litter, she usually selects high numbered reboots, ensuring less emotional, more easily trained, and always successful recruits. Wren breaks from her usual routine, however, when she meets Callum, a measly 22.

Taking Callum on as a trainee challenges Wren's perspective about herself, as well as HARC. A possible conspiracy pertaining to the "under-sixty" reboots that affects Wren's friend and roommate also makes her question her role in the organization.

In addition, Callum's training doesn't go well. After a few missions in which he defies orders, he faces extermination. Wren finds herself trying to save him in any way possible. And with a mysterious sickness overcoming the under 60 recruits, she doesn't have much time.

So there you have the basic set up. It's a quick read; I felt like not much actually happened in terms of a time line. But there was enough to keep me entertained in this new world - which is actually Texas. I'm not sure how proactively I'll seek out the next book, but if it falls in my lap, I'd read it.

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 failures...at 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.

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.