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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The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea, by Jack E. Davis - Book Review

Phew. Four months after starting this deeply researched and richly written tome, I turned the last page. Ironically, I did so after having spent my first weekend in Cedar Key, Florida, an island which Pulitzer Prize winner Jack E. Davis uses as an example of a current success story of gulf coastal sustainability and reasonableness.

With tens of pages of citations, this book was not written quickly or haphazardly. Honestly, knowing the Gulf is a place near to Davis’ heart, a place he grew up on as a boy, it’s hard to believe he actually finished it.

The man-driven destruction of the Gulf, its coastline, its estuaries and the rivers which flow into it is legendary. And almost all of it is related to capitalism and industry or the direct result of greed. Dead zones, red tide, algae blooms….all man-made disasters.

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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   

When You're "Born a Crime", by Trevor Noah - Book Review

Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime is fierce and heartbreakingly hilarious, just like he is. The son of an unmarried South African black woman and a much older Swiss man, Noah was literally “born a crime” under South African law. His birth was not by accident; his mother purposefully conceived him knowing full well the difficulties to which it could lead. But Noah’s mother refused to be bound by rules, laws, and religious tenets that did not make sense to her. And she was the definitive architect of Noah’s upbringing and ultimate success.   

The entire book is really an homage to his mom. Even as he portrays her at her harshest, which will be hard for some to read, his reverence for her is ubiquitous. He gives all credit to her. She read to him, encouraged him to learn as many South African languages as he could (plus English, of course) and let him know that he was free to do WHATEVER he wanted in life. She also chased after him A LOT because, in his own words, he was naughty as shit. “We only moved forward and we always moved fast.”  

Trevor, by his own description was ugly and ridiculous looking, but he found a way to use that to his advantage. Being a clown can garner attention and he used that attention to develop industrious business opportunities in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the world. Despite his present polish, in his writing he occasionally reverts to slang, starting sentences with “me and him.” As annoying as this grammatical error is to me, somehow, it’s endearing from Noah. It reminds you of where he’s been and what he’s gone through to get to where he is now.

Through his own life story, Noah tells the more general story of apartheid and the plight of the truly poor in South Africa. Noah realized early on that having money gave you choices. “People don’t want to be rich. They want to be able to choose.” And, the “teach a man to fish” parable? Noah suggests that’s nice, but you need to give him a fishing rod too. He uses his own illegitimate birth to lay out the racial caste system in the country and to demonstrate how his mixed race secured him advantage in some circumstances and utter discrimination in others.   

Although his adolescence was an incredible struggle, Noah infuses humor and camaraderie into his story telling. He may have been the gawky clown, but he had friends and love and, even in the darkest of times, hope. Trevor Noah has been a force to be reckoned with since he was a boy. I expect he will continue to be for as long as he’s around.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Elizabeth's rating: 4 ½ 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

Terrifying Truth in "A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy", by Sue Klebold - Book Review

This book is not a cautionary tale, it is a horror story. Not just because of the tragedy that unfolded at Columbine High School that fated day in 1999, but because of what was going on inside the Klebolds house up until then: NOTHING OUT OF THE ORDINARY. 

The pressing question in everyone’s mind when they think about the parents of Dylan Klebold is: How did they not know? The simple answer is: They didn’t.

In her gut wrenching new book, Sue Klebold will convince even the biggest of skeptics that neither she nor her husband, both actively involved parents in each of their sons’ lives, had a clue of what was going on inside their child’s mind and outside of their home. 

Klebold wrote this book as a warning. 

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"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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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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