Book – Every once in a while, a book picked up on a whim can be surprising in wonderful ways. That was my reaction to Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession and How Desire Shapes the World. I was expecting a conventional history of precious stones and jewelry. I got both less and more than that, and wasn’t at all disappointed in the exchange.
Stoned is to traditional, chronological histories as a volume of short stories is to a novel. Chapters jump around in time, but each is a fascinating and complete slice of history in its own right. Chapter subjects are chosen not only to entertain and inform, but used to explore the larger question why human beings value what we value, becoming far less mineralogical or artistic than social and psychological history. For example, the first chapter explores the popular myth that the Dutch purchase of New Amsterdam (later New York) was somehow a swindle because Venetian beads were used as currency, pointing out that glass beads were, at the time, a rare and precious commodity with a globally recognized worth. We wouldn’t balk today at someone purchasing land rights with a sackful of diamonds–why do we respect one variety of shiny bauble but look down on past peoples for prizing another? And what’s going on in our brains that makes us value gems in the first place?
Author Raden does a great job choosing subjects that are both interesting and significant, from the pearl that changed Tudor history to the role of Faberge eggs in the Russian Revolution to the conquistadors’ emeralds to how cultured pearls helped Japan become a world power. Her voice is entertaining and pacing is brisk, making Stoned a quick and fascinating read. It’s perfect for anyone who loves popular and casual histories like Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.
Book – There’s a building in Brownsville, Texas, one of the poorest cities in the country, where something terrible happened. A lot of terrible things happen in Brownsville — right on the Mexican border, it’s a center for drug trafficking as well as immigration, both legal and not, and the usual urban crimes born of poverty and desperation — but this was bad enough that the whole building lies under its shadow.
This isn’t the usual kind of true crime book, and if you try to read it that way you’re going to be disappointed. The facts were never really in doubt. In the spring of 2003, John Allen Rubio, with the assistance of his common-law wife, horribly murdered his three children. The oldest girl was only three years old. Less than a day later, they both confessed to the police; Rubio believed the children were possessed. Or maybe, he admitted when questioned, it was the spray paint he’d been huffing.
But Tillman isn’t telling that story as much as she’s telling the story of the community in which that crime occurred. What did the neighbors think of John and Angela, both before and after the murders? What was it like, to be them, to live in their world? And if John truly, sincerely believed that the children were possessed when he killed them, does that make him not guilty by reason of insanity? What if he had schizophrenia? What if he had brain damage from long-term drug use, or a low IQ from his mother’s long-term drug use? If the state of Texas executes him for his crime, what does that say about us, and the world we live in? And can the community ever come to terms with what happened? Tillman doesn’t offer answers to these questions, but she asks them with care, and I think they’re important ones.
Book – As I mentioned earlier this month, I’m fascinated by stories of wilderness adventures gone terribly, irrevocably wrong. Living in the suburbs it’s easy to forget the immensity of the natural world – and its unforgiving nature. As the authors of Over the Edge say, nature is not Disney World, and there’s no guarantee that the unprepared will make it out alive.
And not to be morbid, but this collection of stories about deaths in one of America’s most impressive natural features is fascinating stuff. While there are a fair number of suicides (although not as many as you might think), most of the deaths they talk about are the result of just that kind of lack of preparation – hikers, cavers, rafters who thought they could do more than they could, and found out too late that they were wrong. It’s a comprehensive catalog of things not to do, and anybody interested in hiking Grand Canyon probably ought to read this first, just to make sure they don’t get too cocky.
I stumbled upon this book after reading the fascinating saga of the discovery of the Death Valley Germans – a family of tourists who disappeared into the California desert in 1996, and whose remains were finally discovered by search & rescue volunteer Tom Mahood in 2010. From this and from Over the Edge, I have learned never to drive a minivan offroad in the desert, to always carry twice as much water as I think I’ll need, and also to stay far, far away from Death Valley.
Book – Tig is a stand-up comedian. She experienced a streak of devastating personal tragedies in 2012, including C-Diff, the death of her mother, the break-up of girlfriend and a stage 2 breast cancer diagnosis. She turned to comedy to channel her grief. The result was a set that went viral and was released as the album “Live,” which was nominated for a Grammy. In her book, Tig recounts her journey. The first chapter depicts her early life and unconventional upbringing and was my favorite chapter of the book. However, after a promising beginning, the book went flat for me. Tig states her feelings, then gives examples, rather than illuminating truths through the story. Other memoirs I have read have been better at conveying difficult character traits of people in their lives, while also managing to express their redeeming qualities. Although I didn’t particularly enjoy this book, I admire Tig for overcoming the adversity she was confronted with and for sharing her personal story through stand-up comedy.
Books – It’s summertime, and what better time to read about people dying alone in the wilderness. Right? No? Just me then. I’m not a camping person, and maybe that’s why I’ve always been fascinated by stories of outdoors adventures going horribly wrong. It’s safely scary: while it’s real, I can be comfortably certain that I will never starve to death in the Alaskan wilderness, because there is no way I would be there in the first place.
But somehow I’d never read Jon Krakauer’s classic Into the Wild, about Chris McCandless, a young man who trekked across the country alone, then survived more than a hundred days in central Alaska, on his own with virtually no supplies other than what he could hunt or gather, before succumbing to the elements (and, Krakauer argues, some toxic potato seeds). I knew I had to read it, though, when I saw that Chris’s sister, Carine McCandless, had written her own memoir, The Wild Truth.
A lot of people, after reading Into the Wild or seeing the movie based on the book, thought of Chris as an irresponsible, immature kid, who never thought about what his disappearance would do to his family. Really, Carine says, their parents were physically and emotionally abusive, and Chris had tried over and over again to reconcile with them before cutting them out of his life completely just before embarking on his fatal trip – a hard, painful separation that Carine herself took decades later. She’d asked Krakauer not to write the truth about their parents in his book, hoping then that her relationship with them could still be saved. The two books together are a powerful story about how our families shape our relationships with ourselves and the rest of the world, and the lengths people will go to when they need to escape that influence.
Book – One of last year’s Bluestem Book Award Nominated children’s selections was Susan E. Goodman’s How Do You Burp in Space?: and Other Tips Every Space Tourist Needs to Know. Mary Roach could easily have used the same title for her endlessly entertaining adult nonfiction offering, but she instead chose Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void.
Packing for Mars (also available as an audiobook, digital or on CD) is in many ways the opposite of most stories about space travel. Expect none of the rose-tinted romanticism of Space-as-Manifest-Destiny narratives that glamorize the patriotic thrill of being first among the stars, or any white-knuckled moments facing down the many terrors of space. Roach’s down-to-earth focus on the humbler details of space exploration may not justify a John Williams soundtrack, but it makes for a hilarious, fascinating read.
As Roach points out, “To the rocket scientist, you are a problem.” Humans are the most fallible component in the precise and delicate machinery of space travel, and Packing for Mars examines the many measures that NASA and other space agencies have taken to address our physical and psychological needs in the harsh environment of space. From an expedition into the remote and otherworldly Canadian arctic where personnel and equipment are tested for moon missions, to the hospital ward where “terranauts” are paid to lie in bed for months to simulate the effects of zero-gravity on bone density, to a parabolic (“vomit-comet”) flight in the upper atmosphere in search of a cure for space-sickness, Mary Roach traveled all over this planet learning how space agencies meticulously plan to reach the next one. The resulting book provides answers to all the questions about space travel that you never thought of or wouldn’t have dared to ask, conveyed with an irreverent wit that makes reading a pleasure.
Book – What do AIDS, malaria, the Spanish Flu, and Ebola all have in common? Aside from being some of the scariest diseases humanity has to face, they all originated in animals. In Spillover, David Quammen explores how diseases cross over from animals into humans, how researchers figure out where those diseases come from, and what that means for the future of human disease.
That sounds like a combination of boring and terrifying, but really, the book is neither – Quammen’s writing is incredibly clear and easy to follow. He doesn’t assume you know anything about biology, nevermind viral microbiology, and both his own explanations and his conversations with experts make the whole topic seem reasonable and comprehensible. I felt smarter after reading this book. And safer, too – as the conclusion describes, one of the biggest factors in how diseases spread is how infected hosts react to being sick, and as humans, with intelligence and forethought, we can do a lot from preventing the Next Big One from being as big as we fear.
This is a little outdated; published (to great acclaim) in 2012, the most recent epidemic it covers is SARS, missing the most recent Ebola outbreak and the Zika virus. (Although there is a lengthy chapter on Ebola, in which he clarifies that it does not actually liquefy its victims, Richard Preston notwithstanding.) But it’s thorough enough to show light on those situations anyway. Pick this one up now, before next flu season comes around.
Book – The Lufthansa Heist reveals the details of one the biggest heists in history. It tells the story of how a group of thieves stole over $6 million from the Lufthansa air hanger vault at Kennedy Airport without anyone ever being charged for the crime until 2013. Henry Hill a known criminal who associated with New York Mafia figures tells the story of how it all happened. Most readers will remember him as the character Ray Liotta portrayed in the movie Goodfellas. In fact the heist is a major part of the movie and eventually leads to the downfall of Hill.
In the book Hill gives the reader a more in depth look into how the heist happened and its aftermath. There schemes included college basketball point shaving, drug trafficking, assault, robberies, and murders galore. The story is fast paced and will keep readers intrigued even though most will know the outcome, assuming they have seen Goodfellas. This book will give you what the movie mulled over for lack of time.
Listening to the audiobook made things a little difficult however. The narrator has a heavy New York accent which made it difficult to keep up. This is because the story is being told from various perspectives. Even with the difficulty keeping the characters straight, due to the heavy accent, I enjoyed the book immensely. He does a good job at keeping a fast pace as I feel one would have if they were reading the book. The book is for anyone who enjoys true crime, mafia stories, and are fans of Goodfellas and mob movies.
Book – In the mid-1980s, dozens of childcare providers were tried, and some convicted and imprisoned, for sexual abuse of children on an unprecedented scale. While in some cases abuse really occurred, the charges were massively inflated, the product of accusations made by children who had been through hours and hours of aggressive interrogation and “therapy” designed to help them recover memories they had suppressed. Into the 90s, adult women were coming forward with allegations of abuse, often connected to Satanic cults, that they had not known about before the memories had been “recovered” in therapy. And by the year 2000, almost all of the charges and convictions resulting from these kinds of allegations had been dropped or rescinded.
Beck does more describing the situation than explaining it in his book, covering the groundbreaking McMartin trial (one of the longest and most expensive in American history) in great detail, but also drawing connections with other, similar cases going on around the country. Beck puts the whole thing down to a growing cultural discomfort with the disintegration of the nuclear family and the development of new therapeutic techniques that turned out to be more damaging than helpful.
The McMartin case broke six months before I was born, but I remember reading about it as a teenager in connection with the West Memphis Three, a group of teenagers who were convicted as part of the “Satanic panic” and only released in 2011. I’ve always been amazed – and a little scared – at how huge the whole thing got before anyone was willing to step up and say, This is ridiculous, this cannot possibly be real. The destruction of one accused family is chronicled in Andrew Jaerecki’s documentary Capturing the Friedmans, which Beck mentions in the book.
Movie – Amy Winehouse lived a short life. In the documentary Amy, the director, Asif Kapadia tries to tell a story of someone looking for help but not being able to help herself during good times.
The documentary follows the short life of Amy Winehouse as told through clips of personal home movies, pictures, performances, interviews, and backstage footage at the Grammys. Winehouse was a troubled soul trying to make it through a life that may have been more than she could handle. Her music came from the depths of emotional suffering. Her gift to transfer those emotions into song gave her the break she was looking for into the music scene. It was also the reason she could not continue.
Throughout the film, the director uses interviews with Amy’s parents, husband, and friends to narrate Amy’s story. They paint a picture of someone who was a free spirit, a good singer, and a troubled person looking for some guidance. The director paints her family as people who did not step in when Amy needed them the most. Her parents, mainly her father, did take offense to his portrayal in the film. Her mother did not object to her portrayal.
The film will cause you to analyze Amy’s life and those around her. Questions will arise about the role her loved ones played in her life. Finger pointing will definitely happen. In all the viewer will need to come to their own conclusions on why Amy’s life was cut short. Fans of the singer, and people who enjoy biographies of celebrities will enjoy this film. There is no speculation of who is to blame in the death, only a story being told of someone who was enduring deep sadness and how she coped with it.