Three Mini Book Reviews of Authors Apekina, Harris, and Crosley

Here are reviews for three books published last year to catch up on before a busy 2019 year of reading.

The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish, Novel by Katya Apekina

Author Katya Apekina has written an unusual book that spans years and complex characters. It centers on the relationship of two sisters, their mentally ill mother, and distant, self-absorbed father. 

After Edie finds her mother, Marianne, hanging from a rafter, Marianne is put in a hospital to rehabilitate. Edie and her sister, Mae are sent from their home outside New Orleans to live with their estranged father in New York. With differing feelings on the matter, Mae and Edie are quite close, yet the presence of Daniel, their father, opens the door to a history they were not prepared to face. Edie, reluctant and loyal to Marianne wants to return home to resume their old life. Mae, alarmingly similar to Marianne, wants to remain in New York and connect with Daniel. And things get a bit weird.

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Two Works on the Tribulations of Scientology: "Beyond Belief" and "Perfectly Clear" - Book Reviews

A confession: I am weirdly obsessed with Scientology. And not for any positive reason but because I continue to be amazed that what is clearly a vicious cult continues to hoard literally billions of dollars of cash, skirt tax regulations, and subject its participants to what would in any other circumstance be considered slave labor all in the name of ‘religion’. I have read volumes and watched hours on the organization and one thing remains ‘clear’: they are a tough group with which to tangle.

 In the last month, I listened to Jenna Miscaviage Hill’s audiobook Beyond Belief and read Michelle LeClair’s book Perfectly Clear. Although their experiences within the church were vastly different, their criticisms are perfectly aligned with one another as well as with other defectors from the church. 

 Jenna Miscaviage Hill, although not born into Scientology, was a member from a very young age. Her parents joined and became members of the Sea Org early on. Touted as a privilege and honor to be a member of this internal ‘leadership’ group, the work is arduous and the pay is criminal. Members are expected to work 14 hour days and have family time for less than 10 hours a weekend. Parents spend virtually no time with their children. Once Jenna reached elementary school age, she was shipped off to The Ranch where she was required to do exhausting physical labor and her education consisted of primarily church related things.

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A Remarkable Memoir: "Educated", by Tara Westover - Book Review

Having no expectation when I picked this book up based on a friend’s recommendation, I was surprised by this jarring true story and the austerity with which it was told. Author Tara Westover has written a memoir about her upbringing in Idaho, living under the iron fists of her father and brother, both abusive in different ways, yet all in the name of religion and family good.  

Westover begins her childhood largely in isolation from mainstream society helping with her father’s scrap business and watching her older siblings leave one by one. Her father, self-righteous, delusional, and paranoid, managed the family by fear. Her mother followed him regardless of his destructive path. The family did not believe in organized education nor modern medicine, and had a great distrust for the government. Tara and her siblings were “home schooled”. Except really, they were not academically educated at all unless they sought to teach themselves. Injuries, of which there were many, were treated by their mother with essential oils and energy healing.

Educated: A Memoir
By Tara Westover

Westover had the intelligence and fortitude to understand, even as a child, that hers was not a healthy environment. She’s built up defenses to survive, yet it was not enough, and she had the fortitude to pursue a formal education. In doing so, this small act of defiance created a riff with some in her family, yet it helped to grow her awareness of the world and her own place in it. And over time, she confronted her family’s abuse.

Educated is about a family in crisis that calls to mind Marry Karr’s Liar’s Club. These people are severely broken, yet the author finds her inner strength to break away and discover her own path, fraught with its own challenges. Westover’s narrative style is without melodrama - she soberly conveys her experiences and emotional struggles, sometimes including the perspectives of siblings. She is quite remarkable for not only surviving, but earning her doctorate at Oxford and creating a career and life for herself; although, I’m sure still deals with the aftermath of her family’s decisions and hers. 

Published: 2018
Publisher: Random House

Vickie’s rating: 5 stars

An American Hero and "8 Seconds of Courage", by Flo Groberg and Tom Sileo - Book Review

It’s hard to know where to begin with this review. Maybe it’s with Flo Groberg, one of the authors whom this book is primarily about. Perhaps it’s with the our war in Afghanistan. Or maybe it’s with the Gold Star families and our brave soldiers. All intertwine, and Groberg, along with Tom Sileo create a powerful retelling of Groberg’s experience as a soldier in Afghanistan, of those we’ve lost, and of coming home.

I attended a USO benefit recently, 8 Seconds of Courage was given out at each seat, and Groberg was one of the keynote speakers. His charisma and energy had the large audience completely rapt. Hanging back after the dinner was over to catch up with people, over walks Groberg, so I asked him to autograph two books, and we spoke for a few moments. This young man has enough positivity and drive to power a rocket; and genuine excitement for the future. As he demonstrates in the book, his care for his finance Carsen is endless, and he mentioned their engagement to me. So, I knew the book was jumping to the top of my “to be read” pile.  

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Surviving a Cult in the Memoir, "The Sound of Gravel", by Ruth Wariner - Book Review

The Sound of Gravel is a memoir from a surviving member of a polygamist Mormon cult and the author’s focus is on how the strain of the cult’s ‘religious’ tenets affected her family.

Set mostly in Mexico, Ruth Wariner recounts her family’s multi-generational membership in the Colonia LeBaron, which was originally founded by her grandfather in 1944. Though the colony started off hopeful and prosperous, by the time Ruth was born, it was in decline both in membership and sustainability.

Ruth was the fourth of her mom Kathy’s ten children. Ruth’s real dad died when Ruth was small so the only father figure in her life was Lane, her step-father. Lane had other wives with other children and despite very limited resources, Kathy and Lane continued having kids. True to her faith, Kathy believed women were on the earth to bear children for God’s kingdom and God would take care of them irrespective of the realities of their circumstances.

The tone of this cult memoir varies from others due to Ruth’s prescience and objectivity from a young age. Early on, Ruth decides she will not follow in the tradition of her mother’s faith once she has the power to make her own choices. As she virtually raises most of her siblings, she recognizes that her mom’s choices are jeopardizing all of their lives. About her mom, in the end she posits, “she wasn’t a monster, she was just another human who’d gone looking for her life and somehow ended up on the wrong path.”

For Wariner, her story ends on a positive note, but it was no thanks to the circumstances in which she grew up. She prevailed over excruciating hardship and terrible tragedy – all of which could have been avoided but for the presence of the cult in her family’s life.

As most all of these books tend to be, it is a renewed reminder that cults, under the definition of “religions that are unorthodox or spurious”, should be treated with disdain and intolerance. Because the detriment to the whole of group is vastly greater than the benefit to the few at the top.  

Published: 2016
Publisher: Flatiron Books

Elizabeth’s rating: 3 stars

Punk's Not Dead in "Die Young With Me", by Rob Rufus - Book Review

To be honest, I didn’t want to like this book. A book about a punk kid (no, really, he was in a punk band), I feared it would be another sad cancer story that would make me feel bad. It did that, yes, but it cracked into my heart in deep and unexpected ways.

Rufus grew up in Huntington, WV, and was living a single dimensional life until one day he found punk rock music. Then, the technicolored lights turned on. He and his identical twin, Nat, fell in love with the genre and after consuming any and every album they could physically get their hands on, they started their own punk band, Defiance of Authority.

The band was gaining traction, Rob was dating a hot cheerleader, and things were on the upswing for the Rufus twins except for the nagging cough Rob couldn’t shake. Rufus’ experiences with the local ER shed light both on the inadequacies of medical care in smaller locales in the country as well as the prejudices that go beyond the color of one’s skin.  

Once properly diagnosed, Rufus began treatment in Columbus Children’s hospital hours away from home. Rufus tells his cancer story in such a gruesome and heartbreaking manner, the book is simultaneously hard to read and tough to put down.

What sets his story apart, I think, is his age. Rufus was seventeen at the time of diagnosis, so still legally a minor. He was far from a child, though, and his stories of the pediatric cancer ward in Columbus are told from the perspective of a man-boy suffering from teenage angst, but with one foot in the adult world. The one person he truly found common ground with was the janitor who cleaned his room.  

And as Rob underwent the horrific chemo treatments necessary to save his life, his brother and the band headed out on the Warped Tour. As Rufus lost his hair, weight, organs and puked at least a million times, his brother – his identical twin - got buff, honed his music skills, toured with their idols and had girl groupies. Rufus took it in stride. It is hard for me to imagine being that magnanimous NOW if I were in a similar situation much less at the self-centered, self-righteous age of seventeen.

In the end, Rufus got through his trials through his own grit, the staunch love and support of his parents, a close, small network of friends, a caring team of doctors that actually appreciated his ‘punkness’ and that unbreakable, unknowable bond that twins always seem to share. One night when Nat was on the road and Rob was stuck in the hospital, Nat urged Rob to look out at the moon. It is the same moon in both places, Nat said. In other words, I’m with you. Always with you.

This isn’t a literary work of genius, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s the story of a punk rocker who fought his way through the mosh pit of cancer hell and got back up on the stage.   

Published: 2016
Publisher: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster

Elizabeth's rating: 3.5 stars 

Having Fun with "Troublemaker", by Leah Remini - Book Review

Fully understanding the wrath that Scientology brings down on those who speak out against the “church”, Leah Remini comes out swinging in her new book, TroubleMaker, which chronicles her life in the church as well as her departure.

She admits right up front to being a liar, a cheater and a home wrecker. She even airs her family’s dirty laundry in an effort to cut the Church of Scientology off at the pass. In her words, she did it “to save them some money” by not having to undertake a smear campaign to discredit her.

Where Going Clear by Lawrence Wright should be the assigned text for anyone who wants a true look inside the history of L. Ron Hubbard and his “religion”, TroubleMaker is the salacious gossip side of the story. Remini does a fabulous job of describing in detailing the tenets of Scientology, how it works, and what happens when you step out of line in the eyes of the leadership.

She also dishes on what we want to hear about most: Tom Cruise, the most famous Scientologist, his star studded wedding, and, to a lesser degree, other A-listers who are members.

Remini writes like she acts. She’s noisy, a bit crass, and somewhat defensive and insecure. But she is more prophetic in print that I’ve ever considered her to be on screen. While she has very specific personal reasons for striking out at the church, the book isn’t just a rag session.  It digs pretty deep into the soul of Scientology and how it casts a net over its members that can be virtually impossible to escape. The sheer fact that she didn’t leave sooner evidences the vice-like grip the church exercises on its members.

TroubleMaker is a survivor’s story sprinkled with humor and the type of glimpses inside the life of a show biz star that we all relish reading. It is a page-turner if not a work of literary genius. She is brave for telling her story and while I used to actively not like her (probably in large part due to her Scientology beliefs), I came away from the book not only liking her but rooting for her.   

Published: 2015
Publisher:  Ballantine Books

Elizabeth's rating: 3.5 stars

Olympian and High-End Escort Speaks Out in "Fast Girl", by Suzy Favor Hamilton - Book Review

Fast Girl is a riveting story that I consumed in less than 24 hours. Suzy Favor Hamilton tells of how her obsessive personality and undiagnosed bipolar disorder led her from chasing medals in three different Olympics to becoming a high-end escort in Vegas making thousands of dollars a day. She carried on her escorting all the while being married with a small child – and with her husband’s begrudging consent.

Suzy tells of how her competitive nature and desire to win came young and how running became her outlet. On scholarship at Wisconsin, she ran for the Badgers through her college years and met her cute baseball playing husband, Mark. She continued running competitively after college, making a decent living between her sport and accompanying endorsement deals. But eventually her running career waned and she turned to real estate with her husband.

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Brotherhood and Enmity in "We Were Brothers: A Memoir", by Barry Moser - Book Review

Barry Moser grew up the younger of two brothers in small town Chattanooga, Tennessee in the 40’s and 50’s. Barry and Tommy shared a bedroom, friends, and had almost identical experiences growing up. Eventually one did well in business, and the other succeeded in academia. We Were Brothers is Moser’s memoir of growing up in a racist community with a brother he didn’t get along with. In fact, these brothers were adversaries until late in life, and only then, through a series of letters, did they reconcile. But they only had a short time to enjoy their amity, as Tommy died in his 60’s.

We Were Brothers
By Barry Moser

There are no big plot twists and no adventurous journeys. We Were Brothers is simply one man’s story of a dysfunctional family. We are all familiar with them whether in fiction or in our own lives.  However, what stands out here is Moser’s candor, and his publication of actual letters exchanged between the brothers. Neither come out complimentary. Moser is willing to expose not only his brother’s dark underside, but his own. He fully admits that he is telling this version of the story through his eyes, allowing us to consider Tommy’s alternate view. And as with many southern writers, Moser describes the learned prejudices and political sway of white families. The divide with his brother is enhanced when Barry moves north and becomes a “recovering racist”.

Though the book is prosaic throughout, there are moments of grace. It was interesting and a quick read; however, I may stick with Moser’s artwork (which is quite good and for which he is known), instead of his writing in the future.

Published: 2015
Publisher: Algonquin Books

Vickie’s rating: 3 stars 

A Great Sports Memoir in "Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile", by Nate Jackson - Book Review

This is a true football story. Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile is the memoir of a veteran player. I picked this book up after recently seeing the tail end of an interview with author Nate Jackson, and the commentator mentioned the book. I’m a football fan, but as an east-coaster, I’ve never heard of Nate Jackson, tight end for the Denver Broncos for six years, and with the San Francisco 49ers before that. So as we welcome in a new season, I thought I’d give it a shot, expecting little.  I got a lot.

It was a nice surprise that Jackson can write (without a ghost writer). Throughout his career, he took to writing as an outlet. After his NFL career ended, he enrolled in writing classes and pens football-oriented articles for Deadspin and other publications. Lucky for us, out of his articles emerged his memoir and a book deal.

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