“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 

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

"Lethal Passage: How the Travels of a Single Handgun Expose the Roots of America’s Gun Crisis", by Erik Larson - Book Review

Lethal Passage is equally one of the most fascinating and terrifying books I have ever read. As the title indicates, author Erik Larson follows a specific gun, a Cobray M-11/9, from manufacture to its penultimate ending point, in the hands of sixteen year old Nicholas Elliot, who took it to school for a shooting spree that resulted in the death of one teacher and serious injury of another.

Throughout the gun’s journey, Larson takes a hard look into the "gun problem" that exists in this country. The most shocking part about this book is that it was written over twenty years ago and, despite the stark realities he presents, if anything, things have only gotten worse.

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Wave Your Creative Flag with "Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear", by Elizabeth Gilbert - Book Review

Elizabeth Gilbert’s foray into the world of self-help was an easy transition. She did, after all, write one of the most successful ‘sabbatical’ books of all time in Eat, Pray, Love.

While clichéd at times (what self help book isn’t), Big Magic is really just solid encouragement to any person with creative notions to pursue them in spite of everything. Time constraints? Fear of failure or rejection? Worried it won’t be good enough? All of those be damned. Just do it, she says.

But do it for the right reasons. For you. Do not assume your creativity is going to pay your bills. If it winds up doing so, wonderful. Even though it is more likely it won’t, that shouldn’t stop you.

What most people don’t realize is that Gilbert had three published novels that were well received before she broke the bank with Eat, Pray, Love. It was only after the success of that book that she actually quit her day job.

Instead of being a tortured artist, Gilbert wants you to pursue your creativity to completion as you would a love affair. Finishing your creative project is the key, and all it needs to be is good enough. Since there is no “arts emergency” and you won’t be stoned to death for your creativity, what is the worst that can happen? It doesn’t become a colossal commercial success? So what? Your creativity should be pursued for YOU, not for others, and you shouldn’t even have others in mind when you’re doing it.  

She weaves great anecdotal stories from her own experiences and those of other artists in between her advice. She uses catchy phrases like “rejecting the cult of artistic martyrdom” and “the song of the disciplined half ass” to bring her points home.  She’s both storyteller and teacher.

This is a quick, easy read and a good kick in the pants for anyone who just can’t quite figure out how to channel their own artistic ideas. So, with Gilbert’s blessing, go out and be creative! Quit making excuses and don’t set expectations. Do it because you want to and because it makes you feel good.

Published: 2015
Publisher: Riverhead Books

Elizabeth's rating: 4 stars

Running Down a Dream with “Petty”, by Warren Zanes - Book Review

I grew up with Tom Petty - from the moment I discovered I loved rock-and-roll, he was there, feeding my need for music with lyrics I could relate to, and a band that delivered the tunes that had me swaying along with them. He’s from Gainesville, Florida, where I went to school; I’ve seen him live in concert; have listened to him almost my entire life.  Yet, I picked up Warren Zanes’ biography, Petty, and learned I didn’t know much about him at all.

Zanes spent countless hours talking with Petty, interviewing past and present members of the Heartbreakers and Petty’s earlier band, Mudcrutch, and pouring over thousands of recordings to write this homage. Somewhat reclusive, Petty works to stay out of the public eye when not on stage. But Zanes is able to dig into Petty’s knotty emotional history - from his abusive relationship with his father, to his 22-year first marriage, drug use, and the heavy responsibilities of being a father and band leader.  

We follow Tom Petty along his life and musical journey, which are really a single, intertwined quest for perfection. This quest often let him down (family, addiction, and depression), and sometimes lifted him up (musical success and respect); and along the way, we have a front row view into the arguments, disappointments, achievements, tours, and collaborations that make up his long career.

Petty: The Biography
By Warren Zanes

Zanes includes Petty’s father’s rocky upbringing, leading to their tumultuous relationship; of the music scene in Gainesville in a time of R&B, blues, and pop; and of hanging out as a teenager at the local guitar store, picking up band mates and gigs. We follow Petty to Los Angeles, and learn about record deals, his rocky marriage, band conflicts, and of being a master storyteller.  We hear of Petty’s highs and lows, by his own account, friends (including Stevie Nicks), and the Heartbreakers themselves. Zanes brings to us the good and the bad - disgruntled former band members, Petty’s battle with depression and addiction, and finding solace in the music. We all know of Petty’s great collaborations - Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Jimmy Iovine, Rick Rubin, etc. - but along with that we learn how that music was made and where he and the Heartbreakers were in their evolution and mindset.

Petty, now in his mid-sixties, is considered an elder statesman of rock-and-roll. He is still making records and touring - both with the Heartbreakers and Mudcrutch. I admire Petty’s dedication to his craft, his innate talent, and his musical instinct. This is an engaging biography that has given me a deeper connection to Petty’s work and for that alone, it was worth the read.

Published:  2015
Publisher:  Henry Holt and Co.

Vickie’s rating: 3 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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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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"Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget", by Sarah Hepola - Book Review

Sarah Hepola shares her harrowing escapades as a blackout drinker in this unforgettable memoir. She yanks you into her checkered drinking history from the get go. The opening scene has her in Paris on a magazine assignment, out drinking with a friend. She writes about returning to the hotel, walking through the lobby and how, then, the lights of her memory go out.

Until she wakes up the next morning in the middle of having sex with a complete stranger.

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True Story of an American and His Heroic Family in "Avenue of Spies", by Alex Kershaw - Book Review

An American doctor and his family live out Hitler’s destruction during WWII in Paris. Writer Alex Kershaw, a journalist and historical author has conducted a deep inquiry into a particular family’s involvement in the French Resistance in under German occupation.  Avenue of Spies is the completely absorbing result. 

American Sumner Jackson is a surgeon at the American Hospital in Paris and provided medical care during the first world war, so he is no stranger to combat wounds and care. His is married to Swiss-born Toquette, and they have a son, Phillip. They live on a very posh street in Paris - Foch Avenue. The street is an important setting, as many of the homes become the headquarters for Hitler’s SS, the Gestapo - spy hunters and gruesome torturers.

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