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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Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America, by Beth Macy - Book Review

If you’re looking for an uplifting read, pass this one up. If you’re interested in serious anecdotal and statistical research into the opioid epidemic in this country, read it.

Macy focuses mainly on the epidemic in and around her home town of Roanoke and in some of the poorer white areas of the Appalachia’s, but the book is global in its application.

 Macy interviewed and garnered the confidence of numerous users, users’ families and even a drug dealer, serving a 23-year prison sentence for heroin distribution. Interestingly, that dealer never did ‘herr-on’ as he refers to heroin. He was wise enough to know that his using would only result in his own addiction which would eat into his profits. While he might be a large fish in the dealing pond, he is hardly responsible for the epidemic. Many of the white addicts he sold to turned into dealers themselves just so they could fund their own habits. And small time players can make addicts just as quickly as big ones.  

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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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Murderous London in "Death in the Air", by Kate Winkler Dawson - Book Review

Death in the Air was an unexpected find at last year’s BookExpo that I finally got around to reading. The subtitle is what got me - “The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City”. I wondered how author Kate Winkler Dawson would weave together these two stories of serial killer, John Reginald Christie and the four day smog that killed thousands. The story comes together in Parliament of all places - competing priorities and differing political agendas. Death in the Air is an interesting history lesson of murder that was never completely resolved.

It’s a 1952 London winter. Fog is a common occurrence in London, as we know. Post war England is financially struggling, they are in rebuilding mode, and industry is pumping out toxic fumes along with production. Coal is the primary source of energy, with two kinds in circulation - a “higher quality” and expensive black coal; and nutty slack, a cheaper, more toxic heat source that the working class use to fill their fireplaces. As a fog descends upon the city on December 4th, factories continue to operate and people go to work. During this time, it’s reported that you would hardly be able to see your hand in front of you, driving is impossible, criminals have their way, and the soot is everywhere, clinging to hair and clothing, being ingested into lungs. After five days of the smoke and fog thousands die from the poisonous gases. It’s not until a year later a report is released stating 4,000 people died due to the smog. And it’s some 50 years later, when the true, staggering number is released - over 12,000 people dead due to the smog.  

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Can Addiction be Dark and Funny? Perhaps, in "How to Murder Your Life: A Memoir", by Cat Marnell - Book Review

What exactly does murdering one’s life entail? Cat Marnell’s biography about her experiences as an alcohol soaked, drug riddled magazine beauty editor give you a front row seat into how she murdered hers.

[BEWARE: SPOILER ALERT AHEAD]

After reading over 300 pages about Marnell’s teeth gritting addictions and accompanying behaviors, I cannot express my level of disappointment to find out, at the end, that she didn’t get sober. Despite her raw exposure of the tortuous life she led, the jobs she lost, the abuse she suffered, the friends she screwed over, the family she manipulated, only to find out that she is still using, was a severe letdown.

To give credit where credit is due, Marnell is a fantastic storyteller and skilled writer. As she’s recounting some of her more harrowing experiences, she manages to do it in such a cavalier, causal way, that only after a few pages do you realize the severity of what she has just disclosed. She also has an acerbic wit. Her banter warms you to her and makes you feel as though she’s just telling you her story. 

Marnell seems to understand the dangers of her addiction. At one point she asks the reader, “is reading this stuff getting repetitive? Welcome to addiction.” The highs she describes do not read as fun. They read as desperate and edgy, painful both physically and mentally. The lows, as one can imagine, are soul crushing.

That is why her ending is so unsatisfying. Why take the time to expose your pain and agony in this shocking regard only to continue on the same path? In her epilogue, she alleges she’s cut out all the “hard stuff” as well as alcohol. I know the latter is not true, though, because I checked out her Twitter page which is rife with photos of booze.

If you’re interested in reading the well-written, harrowing biography of a drug addict who isn’t clean, I recommend How to Murder Your Life fully. If you read these kinds of books to see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, skip it.

Perhaps Ms. Marnell is just doing research for her REAL foray into sobriety. For her sake, I hope she finds it.

Published: 2017
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Elizabeth's rating: Halfway down the middle, 2.5

Search for the Truth and Grit Take Down a President in "All the President's Men", by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

This was my first time reading All the President’s Men. For those of you who read it twenty-five years or more ago, it warrants a second read. For those who have never read it, pick it up.

Written by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, journalists for the Washington Post, it chronicles their development of the Watergate story from hotel break-in to the exposure of systemic fraud, deception, and illegal recording carried on by the Nixon administration. What started off as a story about a low-level burglary resulted in the resignation of the President of the United States.

All the President's Men
By Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein

Long before email and the internet, Woodward and Bernstein were knocking on doors and making phones calls. Though initially rivals at the Post, they eventually realized that they were stronger together. Bernstein was the better writer, Woodward had grit. Woodward’s clandestine relationship with his White House informant, Deep Throat, was spy novel worthy and proved to be paramount in the unraveling of the full story.

As the story was being developed, the White House issued repeated statements accusing the writers and the Post of false, biased reporting. They remained undeterred, though, and continued investigating and reporting. Through their relentless search for the truth, in the end, they got their men.

At the time of the book’s publication, some of the President’s men had pled guilty to crimes, many had resigned, and others were singing like birds. Less than two months after its publication, President Nixon resigned.

This book is full of facts, dates, and names so extensive that you cannot possibly keep it all straight. It reads like one long newspaper article and while sometimes tedious, it is fascinating. It is also at times barely believable, both in the lengths the reporters were willing to go to uncover the truth and the level of corruption that they exposed teeming through the Nixon administration.

Whatever side of the political aisle you’re on, this book supports the notion that this country has survived, and will continue to survive, times of severe political unrest which, while in the midst of it, might seem insurmountable. It also acts as a litmus test for how important our ‘free press’ was and is.

Published: 1975
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Elizabeth's rating: 5  stars   

"Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging", by Sebastian Junger - Book Review

If you didn’t read Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe when it came out last summer, read it now.  It will only take a few hours, but will leave a lasting impact. Tribe articulates the meaning of the word, its the historical and modern implication, and how a sense of tribe in our personal lives makes us more resilient, better human beings.

Junger’s book covers native American Indian tribes, soldiers returning home from war, citizens living through war, and contemporary civilization; and he examines why and how humans thrive in “tribes” and suffer in modern society. Small tribal communities promote caring and egalitarian values, while today’s culture advocates wealth and technology, fostering competition and isolation. This has vast implications on our mental and societal health.

As a journalist in combat zones, Junger has seen the horrors of war with both troops and citizens native to those war zones. It’s something he poignantly touches on in describing his own experiences. Most of us don’t experience extreme hardship and cannot relate to those returning from embattled zones - whether soldiers, journalists, or peace corps. Reentry into their homes where life has continued is a shock and struggle. The sense of community and common cause while away is gone, often replaced with loneliness and isolation. Aid organizations, including the Veterans Administration, put labels on those who have experienced trauma as victims. Junger’s research has exposed that the idea of victimhood is detrimental to the recovery process, and yet another way of alienating someone from the rest of society.

Junger also explores cultural hierarchy in modern society. He questions why construction workers, for example, have a higher perceived importance than stockbrokers. Construction workers after all, provide our shelter and are far more impactful to our everyday life. Calling this out, he points to a general lack of understanding and disconnectedness to many industries and jobs outside of our immediate purview, whether it is as a soldier, construction worker, farmer, or child caregiver. “This lack of connectedness allows people to act in trivial but incredibly selfish ways,” he says.

Tribe dives to the heart of societal issues - historically tribal cultures thrive mentally and emotionally. Generally, we may live in a financially prosperous world, however it has come at a significant cost to our psychological well-being. People benefit from companionship and a strong sense of belonging; especially to recover from trauma. Modern society does not support a high level of social support that helps to build resiliency.

“American life - for all its material good fortune - has lost some essential sense of unity”

Tribe is a thoughtful piece and has me contemplating my own tribe. Do I have one? How has it evolved from ancient tribes? Have I benefited or suffered? And how do you create a meaningful tribe while maintaining a life in the midst of a competitive environment. It’s sobering, and I highly recommend it.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Twelve

Vickie’s rating: 5 stars

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

“Astoria: Astor and Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire”, by Peter Stark - Book Review

What happened after Lewis and Clark headed west? It was years before the Pacific Northwest became part of America. The region was sought after by the Brits, Canadians, and enterprising Americans, including Thomas Jefferson and John Jacob Astor. Jefferson had his sights on colonizing it, thus securing the far borders of the still-fledgling country in 1810. Astor was determined to expand his international trade and create a critical outpost for his enterprise.

Author and journalist Peter Stark delivers this fascinating true adventure to us in Astoria, a journey put into motion by Jefferson and Astor. It’s the story of ambition, ego, bravery, madness, and humanity; of humans pushed to their limits both physically and emotionally, and of their survival.

Beginning with fur trading, Astor’s humble yet ambitious initiation into international trade began with New York, Canada, and Europe. With Jefferson’s political backing, Astor funds an endeavor to settle along the Columbia River leading to the Pacific Ocean to promote trade with Russia and China, ultimately creating an international route, exporting goods around the world. Astor embarks on two campaigns to reach the Northwest from New York - an overland expedition to closely follow the path of Lewis and Clark, and another by sea on the Tonquin, which rounded Cape Horn. These advance parties were to establish a settlement and pave the way for others to follow.

Over the course of three years, this incredible journey is filled with violence and hardships. The overland party encounters hostile indian tribes, harsh terrain and weather, and frequent sidetracks. The expedition by sea barely survives storms, attacks, and a tyrannical captain. Stark delves into the personalities of key players within each expedition, as well as the race to the Columbia River not only by the American expeditions, but by competing traders in Canada, and a hostile British fleet.

Astoria is an amazing view into our history and man’s determination to conquer and succeed. Stark is adept in conveying this tale, making it both fully engrossing and in building the reader’s anticipation, even though we already know the ultimate outcome. Not only is it a thrilling tale, it’s a great read.

Published: 2015
Publisher: Ecco/Harper Collins

Vickie’s rating: 4 stars