Thursday, June 14, 2018

Backward Facing

Coming back after so long--well, I've read a lot of books in the past six months or so.  Don't worry, I'm not going to try to get caught up.  I'm going to hit the high notes, maybe a couple of low notes, and try to talk about the ones I got as advance copies, even though those are pretty much all out at this point.

A perfect example is Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud, by Elizabeth Greenwood.  This book was published last August, so I've had an advance copy for more than I year; I read it a few months ago, though. 

This book has some great meat with maybe a little more filler than I'd like.  The author is inspired to start looking into faking one's own death after a joke she and her friends made while lamenting their student loan debt.  This is a fine jumping off point, but she kept coming back to the idea throughout--the idea that this is something she's considering, at least on some level.  Any part where she thinks about doing this herself is kind of thin.

That said, the research she does is pretty great.  I was especially interested in the death fraud investigators and the death fraud coach (my term).  The "coach" is someone who helps you live off the grid to whatever extent you want, and who "theoretically" understands how to go further than that.  The insurance investigators have seen the whole deal, though, and I would watch a trashy network show about them tracking people down to small countries in other hemispheres where it's pretty easy to bribe a medical examiner.

There are a few stories of people who got away with faking their own deaths for a while, which is about as close to a success story as you can come (true successes don't ever have their stories leaked).  People who were caught years later after setting up new lives. It appears to really take a sociopathic streak to do this--or a dearth of community ties, I guess, but each of these people left family behind in ways that come across as pretty harsh.

So yeah, a lot of fun stuff in here, with a little more about the author's personal and emotional journey than I wanted in this particular book. Something a little more reporter-style, a bit Mary Roachier, would have been nice, but this is a very solid outing. 

My first review in months!  Feels good.  I need to get my legs under me, though; I could be funnier.  Still, welcome back!

Monday, June 11, 2018

Back from the Brink

Hiatus? What hiatus? I don't know what you're talking about.

Seriously, I'm dusting off the keyboard and we'll see if I have words to say about things. I definitely have a bunch of books that I've read, though--quite a backlog, in fact. My Kindle--a new one!  April's battery ceased charging; my new Kindle bestie is called Protagonist and we're getting along just fine.

I love getting a new Kindle because it comes clean and pristine and I can just put the books I *most urgently* want to read on it.  This works for about a week. I think it's an ADD thing that every book it occurs to me to read is urgent.  Or maybe it's more that I'm afraid I'll forget about them, so every interest becomes an urgent one.  Anyway, we're up around 200 books on Protagonist.

That's what the blog is for! I can't delete the ones I've read till I talk about them!  So let's go through the advance copies that came out last year; the throwaway freebies that I don't actually remember anything about; the books I composed eloquent reviews for but never wrote them down.  Let's revisit.

Also! I work at a library now!  I have 50 books checked out!  It's gonna be a heck of a ride!

Next post Friday; talk soon, chickies!

Monday, March 19, 2018

Trashy True Crime Is Trashy

I have a big ol' soft spot for police procedurals (any kind of procedural, really), and I saw an ad for the new series Mindhunters, so when I saw the book by John Douglas on the library shelf I picked it up.

I mostly picked it up to flip through, and this is the kind of book that rewards that kind of dipping in and out, in that it's episodic with short descriptions of crimes and then how the author/narrator brilliantly solved them.  It's very much like a bunch of less-nonsensical episodes of Criminal Minds (because they took all their terminology from this book). 

So to that extent it's working for me?  I mean, I like watching the puzzle pieces put together, and descriptions of horrible things never really sink in very  much for me. so there you go. 

But the most notable thing about the first half of this book (and half of a 400-page book is a lot of pages) is that it's about the Mindhunter himself--this is a memoir.  We learn about his youth and the hijinks he got into and how he met his wife and the trouble he gave his superiors when he was in the Air Force and and and.  Douglas is fond of his own sense of humor; though he doesn't make jokes in the book, he describes funny incidents or jokes that he made.

And because a lot of it takes place in the '70s in the boys' club of the FBI, a lot of it is INSANELY sexist. Like, he describes his courtship of his wife with only about three anecdotes, and two of them involve him making humiliating sexual jokes about her in public. After dinner with a friend in a hotel restaurant, they're riding the elevator and he and his friend start talking about how much she's going to charge them the next time they're in town and who'll bring the whipped cream.  At their first pre-Cana class, he convinces her priest that they met at a topless bar.  She laughs in both of these anecdotes; I seriously did not.

He is very respectful of victims, witnesses, and survivors when discussing cases, but he describes every woman he dated and female colleague with what a bombshell she is, how attractive and vivacious.  He talks about how working with a female coworker put one of the Mormon guys on his team in a bad spot with his wife. I could go on and on.

Now I'm in the second half, and it's much more what I was expecting: crimes and their solutions, concepts like signatures and stressors, techniques like staging interviews and setting up stings.  All great.  But the sour taste of casual sexism and the super-macho life he's told me all about made me a lot more uncomfortable than all the crime.  Because this is what the good guy looks like.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Something on Sunday, 2/25

Sunday hoorays:

School vacation ends!  Sadly, not tomorrow in our district (THAT is a whole story), but Tuesday! So soon!

Bad Dates. Not, like, actual dates, but the play at the Huntington.  Sometimes you just need to laugh and cheer and feel happy, and darn if this wasn't a feel good play.  I am buoyed by having seen this play. The actress, Haneefa Wood, was a delight. 

I am reading so much!  Not blogging yet, but reading!  All hardbacks, weirdly, but gift horses can't be choosers, as the poet says.

We saw Jo and Tom and Oliver! It had been months.

This past week (and the next two) have been so incredibly full of drama that it's not even worth talking about. Sorry to be vague; it's mostly boring.  I appear to be politically active in my community now and it's kind of exhausting. But I am well and the drama is not going to hurt me, and in two weeks my responsibilities will be over and I will faint dead away. 

Until that day, I remain yours faithfully,
s

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Popular: A Memoir

When Library Amy mentioned Popular, by Maya Van Wagenen, and told me that the YA book club had read it, I thought it sounded super interesting. A teenage girl finds an advice book from the '50s on how to be popular and decides to try to improve her middle school experience. Amy strongly suggested I read it, but with an expression that said it wasn't perfect.

I've taken a peek at old books like How to Win Friends and Influence People, and some of those old social guides that Dear Abby used to put out, and they can have decent ideas embedded in some very dated explanations. Make eye contact, ask people about themselves, laugh at least as often as you talk.

Maya starts out talking about her bottom-of-the-ladder, mostly-ignored, sometimes-bothered middle school existence, and it seems like one of those things where basic advice might, surprisingly, make a big difference. She decides to take on one chapter from this advice book each month for the school year, building on her experience as she goes.

So maybe you can imagine my discomfort when we get to the table of contents of Betty Cornell's Teenage Popularity Guide and find that every single topic is about getting pretty. We've got diet and figure, posture, skin and makeup, hair, and clothes.  Start off with the notion that these are the ingredients to popularity--not one of which involves what you think, say, or do in your interactions with literally anyone.

When you take these as starting points, the anachronistic nature of the text gets awkward really fast. On weight loss: "As for taunts from your friends--and they will taunt you--keep your chin up and your weight down." On hair: "When it comes to shampooing your hair, plan to save at least one night a week for the job."  On clothes: "For Heaven's sake, have a little pity on others and a lot of pride in yourself; put on a skirt when you're shopping."

The author picks some of these particularly rough quotes to include, so it's pretty clear that she gets what's wrong with this. But she doesn't comment on them, and she continues to follow the instructions. Dressing like a proper 1950s girl (in pearls!) is not what I was expecting her to learn from this.

Having said all that--this book is super enjoyable.  It's basically this girl's diary while she does this project for a year, and Maya is a really good writer. The fun part here is watching her step out of her comfort zone, and spending time with her family and in her community.  Her younger sister is autistic; her father is a college professor; they live in a small Texas town on the border of Mexico where there's a lot of drug-related violence and a great deal of poverty.  The family isn't very well-off, but they get along and seem incredibly sweet.  And if I wanted to smack her father when he teases her ab out a boy she likes--well, that's what it's like to be a teenager with a dad, right?

I'm only halfway through the book, so how I end up feeling will depend a lot on the conclusions Maya draws from these results, and especially on whether or not she calls out some of the really shallow advice the book has.  But whether she comes through for me or not, it will have been worth the read.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Something on Sunday, 1/21

A busy but uneventful week around these parts, except that I actually wrote two reviews for the blog this week! 

The guy from How Did This Get Made? did a solid to the world of romance novels this week.  After he got called out for mocking a cover on Twitter, he decided to read the book. It's a really great apology; check it out. (Also check out the blog this is from, SorryWatch.com, which is worth reading.) I guess when you're the guy who watches bad movies, you learn that there's something to appreciate that's worth looking for in surprising places.

My volunteerism is piling up these days, and my alma mater is having a donation drive they're calling the Teach It Forward Impact Challenge.  My understanding is that I donate money in the next couple of weeks and then a matching donor will multiply my donation by however many hours of charity work I do during a specific week.  Joke's on them--they picked the week when I have a Friends of the Library board meeting, a Friends event I'm working at, working in my son's third grade classroom, and just signed up to help do taxes for low-income people.  That is gonna be a heck of a donation!

Let's see how the rest of the week treats us. Tally-ho!

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Murders of Molly Southbourne

It was the cover that sold me on this one, when I saw it on Netgalley.  I didn't even realize when I clicked request that it was from Tor (which is practically an automatic must-read), or even that it was a novella (which I figured out when I was 10% of the way in and shocked at how fast it was going).

Look at that cover.  The Murders of Molly Southbourne, by Tade Thompson, has the title-cover one-two punch going for it.  The starkly pale face with the bright red streak of blood. How many people has she murdered? Is she even the killer?

From the beginning, where the character wakes up chained up in a basement, unsure who she is or where, we are left guessing.  A young woman comes in and says she needs to remember this story, cuts her own arm, and begins to narrate.

The novella is about Molly, who grew up on a small farm in England with her loving parents.  She is homeschooled and lives a solitary but happy life. Her parents guard her carefully, and no harm is allowed to come to her. When she is even slightly hurt--a small cut, a nosebleed--well, strange things happen. More mollies appear, which starts out fun but very quickly becomes dangerous.

My friend Katie once passed on a comment from her writing teacher: a novel talks about the turning point in a story, but a novella talks about the lead-up to that turning point.  In a novella, the end of the book is the Big Moment Where Something Happens. I'm not sure if this is meant to be a global truth (and I think I'm going to email Katie to ask), but I've thought about that a lot, and I think it's often true--good novellas frequently build tension all the way through at a steady pace and break the tension on the very last page.  It's not about the Big Moment happening or about the aftermath, but about the lead up to the Moment itself

I wouldn't have said that while I was reading this book, but in retrospect I think that's true. If it had been any longer, it would have had to be structured completely differently; I would not have been able to tolerate the steadily mounting tension, the difficult progression of Molly's life. 

But as it was, this was perfect; it's a perfect example of a story that takes a premise and spins out the life of the person who lives that premise.  Molly is curious and hard and strange and competent, and she has a life of many, many questions but very few answers. 

A very interesting story; I'm quite looking forward to whatever comes next for Tade Thompson.