Wednesday, November 07, 2018

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah tells the story of the Allbrights, a family who moves to Alaska in 1974 to attempt to outrun the difficulties the Vietnam veteran father is having in his reintegration to non-military life.

The first 80% of this book is amazing. You can really feel the joy in their arrival to Alaska in the full summer. You can feel the oppressiveness as winter comes upon them and the Allbrights have less and less money and fewer and fewer resources. You can feel the father's slowly disintegrating mental health and the mother and daughter's fight to hold on to their own safety. Hannah does an amazing job of really showing us the town and how the divisions in the town are long-standing and how they play in dealing with the Allbrights.

And then there's the ending. It's just...too much.  There's an accident, a murder, an unplanned pregnancy, a long-term disability. It was like watching General Hospital at the end. I thought the book had been thoughtful and well-paced and then this crazy, insane ending happened. I don't know. I felt kind of meh about The Nightingale and I wanted to love this book, but somehow the whole thing just made me feel like Hannah took some time with it early on and then just wanted to see if anyone would finish it if it she filled it with nonsense at the end.

If you want a book with similar themes on family and loss, read We Were the Mulvaneys instead.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Podcast Roundup Weeks 42 - 44

Okay, I've listened to 138 episodes since my last wrap-up. I kept listening, hoping for a genuinely good show to pop up on my feed to tell you about, but instead I've listened to several mediocre shows.  Here are my lukewarm recommendations.

Jolted is a five-part podcast series by Vermont Public Radio that takes a look at the case of Jack Sawyer, a man in Vermont who had a plan to commit a school shooting, but was stopped before he could implement that plan. The tag line  of the podcast is that it tells the story of a school shooting that didn't happen. Sawyer was originally charged with several felonies, but they were eventually lessened to misdemeanors because, to be honest, he didn't actually do anything illegal. He legally purchased a gun and wrote down detailed plans in a notebook.  The podcast takes a look at this "problem" in the law. When does a thought become a crime (hint: it doesn't - how many people out there still haven't read 1984? sheesh, people)?  The podcast also dives into how this divided Vermonters, but did eventually lead to some reform of some gun laws in the state.

A friend recommended this to me and I'm not sure why. I thought this could have been boiled down into a tight 20-minute segment on This American Life, but instead I listened to two and a half hours of people discussing things that I've already been thinking about for ages. I don't know. Maybe if you haven't actually read the PATRIOT Act and didn't spend much of your twenties thinking about what a "crime" is and how to protect people if you can't actually proactively arrest someone for thinking and planning a crime, this is more interesting than it was for me. Listen if it you haven't thought about this stuff before, but I'm only giving it a mild endorsement.

The Charlotte Observer has a reporter named Scott Fowler who has been covering the story of Rae Carruth, a former NFL wide receiver who was convicted of conspiring to murder his (ex-?) girlfriend, Cherica Adams, who was pregnant when she was shot in 1999, since the incident unfolded. He put together his reporting into a seven-part podcast series called Carruth.

This podcast has sponsorship from the local Charlotte domestic violence agency and the National Coalition against Domestic Violence.  I worked for the NCADV for a time and I've been heavily involved in work against domestic violence and sexual assault for my entire adult life. I wanted this podcast to do its part to raise awareness about domestic violence.  I wanted that.

Instead I got a standard this is the victim, this is the crime, this is the aftermath narrative with a lot of over the top sensationalism about how strong Adams was in the aftermath of the shooting to save her unborn child's life and some pro-life BS about the child, who was born via c-section shortly after the shooting.  There was no examination of the background of perpetrator of the domestic violence, no discussion about what signs someone might have noticed (not to blame the victim or the victim's family and friends, but as an exercise in what to look for in the future to prevent similar crimes) that Carruth was unhinged, no discussion about how pregnancy can increase levels of abuse in already dysfunctional relationships, no discussion about how to get out of an abusive relationship.  It just was an unoriginal look at an all too common abusive relationship with a tiny bit of religious "forgiveness" talk at the end.

I was disappointed. Fowler clearly knows the facts of this case, but I wish he'd tied it to larger issues of importance in the world.

(I also felt this very strongly about the uber-popular podcast Dr. Death. Yes, I get it. This doctor was horrible. But after this podcast ended, I still don't know if I should be worried. Was this a one-off? Is this something that happens all the time? The fixes suggested sound good. Are they feasible? The reason I don't know the answers is because the podcast makers were so fixated on the sensationalism of it all that they forget to have a narrative about how important something is.)

If you like traditional crime narrative podcasts, this one is fine. If talk of domestic violence makes you stand up straighter and pay closer attention to what's going on, skip this one.
I was very intrigued by the idea of Happy Face. This tells the story of Keith Hunter Jesperson, a man known as the "Happy Face Killer," a serial killer who killed at least eight women. The twist of this podcast is that most of it is told from the point of view of his daughter, who was a teenager when he was apprehended.  I thought that the idea of a family member telling the story behind the story sounded fascinating.

But this daughter, Melissa Moore, she's an interesting character. And when I say "interesting," I mean unreliable. I don't actually believe much of what she says and the only real question I have in my mind is how much she believes what she says.  She's a media hound, having been on shows like Oprah and Dr. Phil and having published her own book. In theory, I like the idea that family members can tell us something new, but I guess I don't actually think this person is the best person to do that job.

(Contrast with the woman, Sarah Edmondson, in Escaping NXIVM, who told her story of leaving a cult and I didn't doubt her credibility at all. It's all in the presentation, I guess. I don't understand Edmondson's intentions or actually like her much, but I believed her.)

Also, this thing is a nightmare to listen to if you don't already know Jesperson's story. It goes backward and forward in time. It flips from Moore's narration to the journalist's story. The first scene made the whole thing seem like it was going to be a horror show. I honestly didn't know if this was a fiction podcast at first since I'd never heard of the Happy Face Killer before and the first scene kind of seemed like scripted acting. 

Basically, the whole podcast is a disaster. But I'm still listening, so there must be something here. I'll let you know if I figure out what that is.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Happy Halloween!

Our town held trick or treating on Sunday afternoon, when it drizzled the whole time. It was a bummer and we only had 25 ghosts and goblins come to our door.  Oh, well. Enjoy our attempts at keeping away evil spirits.
Bonus points if you can determine who, me or Dr. BB, carved which jack-o-lantern. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Every section break of this novel comes with a square from a patchwork quilt. There's a lot of talk of quilting patterns in this book as Grace Marks, our main character, slowly becomes revealed to us in bits and pieces, and we have to stitch those small sections of information together. I'm not going to say this framing narrative was a bit on the nose because it did take me a few sections to figure out what was going on, but lo! I caught the symbolism, so it wasn't NOT obvious, if you know what I mean.

Marks has been accused of murder. Did she do it? Did she not? We hear her side of things, as told to a doctor specializing in mental illness. We hear the side of doctors who think she totally did it. We get bits and pieces of her supposed confession.  And this mystery is unfolding in 1843 Canada, so we get all kinds of talk about the trouble in the States (vague hints of the soon to come Civil War), fashions, economic classes changing power and import, and just all sorts of fun historical details, like what clothing was being worn and what modes of transport were being used. We read about the subtle changes happening in relationships between men and women, including brutal scenes of rape and abortion. There's just so much intricate specificity in Atwood's writing that you could just wallow forever in the setting, but there's also so much character and plot happening that you can't wallow there.

This is based on a true story and Atwood connects bits of narrative from poetry, newspaper articles, and other writings on the Marks case to set the scene and then creates her own fictionalized version of what really happened to fill in the details. I guess her explanation makes as much sense as any other explanation, although Occam's razor tells us that the simplest explanation (she helped her accomplice murder two people) might make more sense.

Anyway, it's not a definitive accounting of anything, but it definitely is great writing.  If you haven't given this one a chance, do it. The writing itself is luminous. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman tells the story of Irene, a spy who works for an organization called The Library.  The goal of The Library seems to be to collect all stories from all the different realities.  Apparently there are alternate universes and each universe has different stories and along with that, different elements of chaos and life forms. 

The ideas in this book are delicious. A person who just wants a good story is a tough, take no prisoners secret agent.  She's great at planning, fighting, and getting what she needs out of people. The idea of parallel planes has so many levels (what if there was a world without shrimp?) and it was exciting to dive in and see what those planes would look like. wasn't exciting at all.

The writing just wasn't up to the ideas.  I couldn't really imagine what any of the places looked like. I couldn't imagine how Irene knew what she should be doing and how she should be doing it. I couldn't figure out the motivation for why anyone was doing anything.  This book should have been thrilling and instead I was falling asleep every time I read more than a page of it.

I'll pass on the next one in this series, thanks.

Monday, October 22, 2018

CSA 2018 Week #20 - The Last Basket

I haven't written much about the CSA for the last few weeks because here's what it is:
We've basically gotten sweet potatoes, onions, garlic and squash. It's honestly just been getting stockpiled on our counter and I'm running out of large bowls to store stuff in.

Our last basket had all of the above, along with some regular baking potatoes, carrots, kale, daikon radish, parsley, romanescu, and some jalapeƱo peppers.

I am feeling much more overwhelmed with CSA stuff this year than in past years. Part of this is scheduling. We can pick up the CSA from 3-7 on Thursdays and we teach on Thursday right up until 5, so it's usually close to 6 when we get home and instead of diving into dinner prep, I'm spending that first hour we're home picking up and putting away the basket vegetables and then dinner is late and I'm exhausted by the whole thing.  I'm usually hangry and not particularly fond of the vegetables by the time all is said and done.

So I think we can safely say that I'm NOT doing the winter share this year (although I know I'll regret that in February when I'm desperate for produce that wasn't made in Chile) and I'm happy to report that our Thursday evenings can return to normal.  Or something like normal.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel has been on my reading list forever. I've checked it out from the library two or three times before and just never really got past the first three or four pages.  But I've read raves about this book, so I wanted to figure it out.

I have mixed feelings on this book. I really liked the framing device. We start at a performance of King Lear at a Toronto theater as Arthur Leander, a famous actor, dies of a heart attack during the so-called "mad scene." From there, we watch as the Georgia Flu rips through the world, wiping out most of humanity.  We follow characters from the theater as they live or die in this new world, a world without law, electricity and technology, or decent medical care.   I can imagine starting at any grouping of a dozen or more people and following their stories. It is a helpful organizational scheme to keep us in place in a complicated book full of time and geographical switches and prevents us from going off in too many directions, following too many people.

But I actually wish the book were longer. I can't believe I'm writing this. I'm the person who usually wants to tighten up books by cutting out a quarter of the pages in the editing process. But we just don't stay with characters long enough to really get to know them. I would have liked more chapters on so many of the characters, chapters where we could have delved into the characters' backgrounds more thoroughly. For instance, there was a child actress in the Lear production and we find her, twenty years later, a total survivor who is able to defend herself and live a quality life. It's fun to spend time with her, but don't think I didn't think it was lazy that there's just a year and a half of her life that she doesn't remember and her brother is dead so he can't tell her. We don't know how she went from a sprite in the theater production to this savage, in-charge woman. I thought it was a writing shortcut that put distance between me, as a reader, and this character.

The writing was well-done and I enjoyed every page. Maybe that's the real reason I wanted the book to be longer. I wanted to stay in this world longer. It's a post-apocalyptic world, but it's a less dire post-apocalyptic world than many. There seems to be hope and a future of a world in which humanity can rebound. And maybe I need that hope right now.
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