Kate’s Review: “American Fire”

32191677Book: “American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land” by Monica Hesse

Publishing Info: Liveright, July 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: Audible

Book Description: Shocked by a five-month arson spree that left rural Virginia reeling, Washington Post reporter Monica Hesse drove down to Accomack County to cover the trial of Charlie Smith, who pled guilty to sixty-seven counts of arson. But Charlie wasn’t lighting fires alone: he had an accomplice, his girlfriend Tonya Bundick. Through her depiction of the dangerous shift that happened in their passionate relationship, Hesse brilliantly brings to life the once-thriving coastal community and its distressed inhabitants, who had already been decimated by a punishing economy before they were terrified by a string of fires they could not explain. Incorporating this drama into the long-overlooked history of arson in the United States, American Fire re-creates the anguished nights that this quiet county spent lit up in flames, mesmerizingly evoking a microcosm of rural America – a land half gutted before the fires even began.

Review: True crime is a genre that is known for a focus on the more horrific crimes that can be committed. You will usually find stories of murder, kidnapping, and missing people, and I’ll admit that those are the kinds of stories that float my boat the most. But there is a very large swath of topics that can be covered in the genre, and for the people who are interested in the recent true crime boom but not interested in the blood and gore, I have good news for you. “American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land” by Monica Hesse may be the perfect true crime book to check out. Because not only does it address relevant social issues, and focus on a crazy and obsessive romance, it has a shit ton of fires and arson that are incredibly nuts in their origins and motives.

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Buckle up, buttercups, it’s about to get weird. (source)

Hesse doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to revealing the perpetrators of the 60+ arsons that were set in Accomack County, Virginia in 2012. Given that she initially wrote articles for the Washington Post about these fires, the identities of Charles Smith and Tonya Bundick were already out there for all to see if you had followed Hesse’s writings. But that doesn’t make “American Fire” any less compelling. On the contrary, it’s almost more fascinating to be told the backgrounds of Smith and Bundick, the ways that the investigation unfolded for those who had to fight and solve the arsons, and to explore the economic and social circumstances that Accomack County was in when the arsons occurred. What you end up taking away is a smorgasbord of both maddening and upsetting circumstances that came together to create a vortex where these fires terrified and fascinated a community already on its knees. We get to see the relationship between Smith and Bundick come to fruition, and by learning about their backgrounds (from the menial and petty crimes that Smith had already committed to Bundick’s past relationships, be they romantic of familial) we see the context of how these two people found each other, clung to each other, and did completely outlandish acts (like ARSON) together. Hesse compares and contrasts them with other criminal romances, and tries to figure out how their codependence and passion could take such a strange and destructive turn. I thought that she gave them a pretty fair shake, in that she never excuses their actions, but paints a picture that leaves it so the reader can get inside their heads and potentially empathize, at least a little bit. And let me tell you, it’s one crazy ride that reads like something out of a Coen Brothers film, which is only buoyed by Hesse’s writing style and how gifted she is a narrative non-fiction.

But what’s even more interesting is how Hesse peels back the layers of Accomack County itself, and gives us an idea of what it was like in 2012. The arsons were all committed in buildings that were long abandoned, and given that it was 60+ buildings it goes to show that, like other rural parts of America during this time, the economic downturn really hit this area hard. With corporate agriculture and big box stores moving in and pushing independent businesses and their owners out, and with the general nosedive the economy took during the Recession, Accomack County was already going through something bleak, and its residents were in dire straights even before the fires began. The fires became a literal hell scape in a lot of ways, though they also piqued the interests of those in the communities as to who could be doing it. It’s an interesting prelude to what has become such a hot topic as of late, because of the cultural shift that seems to have happened with the 2016 election and how these communities and their grievances have been connected to it. Accomack County feels like a ghost of itself in this book, a place that has been left behind in some ways, and I couldn’t help but think of present day and how it feels like everything is burning to the ground and the inevitable tie our political climate now has to the idea of the forgotten rural areas. It just struck a lot of nerves for me as I read it. And I think that was part of the point that Hesse was trying to make.

“American Fire” might be the perfect true crime book for those who want to give the genre a try, but are reluctant to read something that has too much violence or nihilism. It’s a bizarre tale to be sure, but it has a lot of resonance that I didn’t expect from a book about two lovers who burn shit to the ground. But then one should expect the unexpected when it comes to this book.

Rating 8: A fascinating and a little bonkers tale of romance, fires, and a shifting American culture that reads stranger than fiction.

Reader’s Advisory:

“American Fire” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books About Middle America – NonFiction”, and “Murderino Reading List”.

Find “American Fire” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Highway of Tears”

40538634Book: “Highway of Tears: A True Story of Racism, Indifference, and the Pursuit of Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls” by Jessica McDiarmid

Publishing Info: Atria Books, November 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: In the vein of the astonishing and eye-opening bestsellers I’ll Be Gone in the Dark and The Line Becomes a River, this stunning work of investigative journalism follows a series of unsolved disappearances and murders of Indigenous women in rural British Columbia.

Along northern Canada’s Highway 16, a yellow billboard reads GIRLS, DON’T HITCHHIKE. KILLER ON THE LOOSE. The highway is a 450-mile stretch of dirt and asphalt, surrounded by rugged wilderness and snowy mountain peaks. It is known as the Highway of Tears. It is here that at least twenty women and girls—most of them Indigenous—have vanished since 1969.

Highway of Tears explores the true story of what has happened along this troubled road. Journalist Jessica McDiarmid reassembles the lives of the victims—who they were, where they came from, who loved them, and what led them to the highway—and takes us into their families’ determined fight for the truth. The book also indicts the initial police investigation marred by incompetence and systemic racism, even as it shines a light on a larger phenomenon: more than a thousand missing and murdered indigenous women across Canada, a topic brought to international attention when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opened an official inquiry into the case.

Combining hard-hitting reporting with a keen, human eye, Highway of Tears is a penetrating look at decades’ worth of tragedy and the fight to honor the victims by preserving their stories and providing them the justice they deserve.

Review: Thanks to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this book!

I’m a true crime aficionado to the bone, and I have been for as long as I can remember. But I do recognize that there are problematic issues within this genre that should definitely be acknowledged and worked on. One of those issues is that the stories that usually get paid the most attention to involve pretty white women victims, and other victims, especially POC, are not as widely acknowledged. One of the most egregious examples of this is the case of the Highway of Tears in British Columbia, Canada. Highway 16 is a highway that runs a number of miles, and a number of Indigenous women have either disappeared altogether near it, or have been found murdered in the vicinity. Almost all of the cases have gone cold and unsolved, and the victims have been deprived of justice. In “Highway of Tears”, Jessica McDiarmid jumps into a deep and emotional investigation of the crimes, but also of the stories of the women who have been victimized and cast aside, and the life that they were leading before. And boy oh boy, this is one of the most emotionally wrenching true crime books I’ve ever read.

The most important aspect of this book I mentioned above. McDiarmid is very conscientious to give backgrounds and back stories to a large number of the victims, whose disappearances and murders have been happening since the 1970s and up through today. Instead of just being a number of names and a group of lumped in all together, as if their violent ends were their only defining traits, we get comprehensive stories about the various lives that these women led, and the people who were left behind to mourn their loss. I had known about the story of Alberta Williams because of the podcast “Missing and Murdered”, but as each profile and backstory was explored my heart grew heavier and heavier. She makes all of them personalized individuals, and by seeing the trauma that some experienced in life and all of their families experienced in death just shows how unjust it is that not only did they meet these horrible ends, but they haven’t gotten answers or justice.

McDiarmid doesn’t pull any punches when she talks about how the victimization of these women, and in turn their families, is a direct result of a racist system that doesn’t value these women because of their race, their place in society, and their gender. She also does a very good job of showing how the system perpetuates multiple social injustices towards the First Nations population, and how in turn these injustices create an environment where this kind of victimization is far more prevalent compared to other populations in Canada. She also pulls in colonial practices throughout Canadian history, and the direct line that these practices have to modern fallouts for Indigenous groups. From residential schools to alcoholism to poverty to many more, McDiarmid makes it VERY clear that many of these practices have consequences that are still felt today. And on top of all of that, she juxtaposes the differences in approach, attention, and outcomes between the Indigenous women who are missing and murdered, and a few cases where the victims are white women. Suffice to say, Missing White Woman Syndrome plays a huge role, and while the missing and murdered Indigenous women fade into the background, white women get lots of media attention, and lots of resources are poured into the investigations surrounding them. It’s all very upsetting, but all too true.

On top of all of this, McDiarmid has a writing style that will suck you in, and will set the scene so that you feel like you are there. I had a very hard time putting this book down, even though the topic was very upsetting and hard to read about. But McDiarmid insists that you do so, because the story is far too important and has gone unacknowledged by too many for too long. I want this to become the next “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark”. I want this to be read and I want these womens’ stories to be heard and I want them to be seen as who they were. There is no closure with this story. Justice hasn’t been served. But one can only hope that if more people learn about this and speak up, perhaps more will be done.

“Highway of Tears” is a must read. One of the year’s best.

Rating 10: An incredibly powerful and evocative examination of the Indigenous women who have gone missing or been murdered along Highway 16 in British Columbia, “Highway of Tears” in unforgiving in its indictment of a racist society, and emotional in its profiles of many victims who have been cast aside or forgotten.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Highway of Tears” is new and not on many relevant Goodreads lists, but I think it would fit in on “Best True Crime”, and “Canadian Indigenous Books”.

Find “Highway of Tears” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Lady from the Black Lagoon”

34993030Book: “The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick” by Mallory O’Meara

Publishing Info: Hanover Square Press, March 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The Lady from the Black Lagoon uncovers the life and work of Milicent Patrick—one of Disney’s first female animators and the only woman in history to create one of Hollywood’s classic movie monsters.

As a teenager, Mallory O’Meara was thrilled to discover that one of her favorite movies, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, featured a monster designed by a woman, Milicent Patrick. But for someone who should have been hailed as a pioneer in the genre there was little information available. For, as O’Meara soon discovered, Patrick’s contribution had been claimed by a jealous male colleague, her career had been cut short and she soon after had disappeared from film history. No one even knew if she was still alive.

As a young woman working in the horror film industry, O’Meara set out to right the wrong, and in the process discovered the full, fascinating story of an ambitious, artistic woman ahead of her time. Patrick’s contribution to special effects proved to be just the latest chapter in a remarkable, unconventional life, from her youth growing up in the shadow of Hearst Castle, to her career as one of Disney’s first female animators. And at last, O’Meara discovered what really had happened to Patrick after The Creature’s success, and where she went.

A true-life detective story and a celebration of a forgotten feminist trailblazer, Mallory O’Meara’s The Lady from the Black Lagoon establishes Patrick in her rightful place in film history while calling out a Hollywood culture where little has changed since.

Review: As someone who loves horror movies, I’m actually not very well versed in a lot of the Universal ‘Monster’ Flicks. Though we watched all of Karloff’s “Frankenstein” and parts of Lugosi’s “Dracula” in a college class, I am dreadfully uneducated when it comes to the lion’s share of the film canon. That said, I have seen “Creature from The Black Lagoon”, and it’s one that has a special place in my heart if only because The Creature, or Gill-man, or what have you, is such a tragic figure in this “Beauty and the Beast”-esque tale. As opposed to his Universal Monster counterparts, Gill-man looks more sad and lonely than frightening and foreboding. As the weird girl in middle and high school who had her fair share of crushes on more popular guys, I feel that longing and loneliness the Gill-man kind of has.

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Not that I kidnapped the objects of my affection, however… (source)

What I hadn’t realized was that The Creature was designed by a woman named Milicent Patrick, so when “The Lady from the Black Lagoon” by Mallory O’Meara came upon my radar I was immediately interested in learning about her story. What I wasn’t ready for was how personal this part biography, part investigation story would be, for O’Meara AND for women in Hollywood AND horror.

O’Meara is the perfect person to tell Milicent’s story, in that not only has she been invested in Patrick’s life’s work since she was a teenager, but she herself has certain parallels to Patrick. Like Patrick, O’Meara is a young woman working in Hollywood, specifically as a producer of horror films. And like Patrick, O’Meara has faced rampant sexism and misogyny in her day to day life at her job, from people assuming she isn’t a producer based on her age and gender. So this story isn’t just an interesting biography of a woman whose contributions to horror have been lost, but also an investigation into her life led by another woman who still sees the same problems within the industry. While Patrick’s life is undoubtedly fun to read about (for example, she was one of the ink and color animators for the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment in Disney’s “Fantasia”, which has ALWAYS been my favorite sequence in one of my favorite Disney movies!), it’s also a familiar and frustrating look into how women were treated in show business during this time period… and how they still are treated today. Patrick was ultimately black balled from design after Bud Westmore, a famous designer who was  jealous of her success, insisted that she not be given credit for the monster that SHE CREATED. Even recently people still argue that she wasn’t the actual creative mind behind it, in spite of the evidence that she was. O’Meara successfully takes it upon herself to get her legacy out there, and the reader not only gets to read about the life of a pretty neat woman, but the time, effort, and experiences of what it took to uncover the story. From Hearst Castle to Hollywood to Las Vegas, Patrick’s life is laid out because of O’Meara’s hard work and diligence.

But the part of this story that I found I was the most invested in, and the most galling, was the sexism and misogyny aspects of this story, both experienced by Patrick AND O’Meara. It’s not a big secret that Hollywood can be incredibly toxic for the women who work there, but that doesn’t make both Patrick’s AND O’Meara’s experiences any less upsetting. Though O’Meara hasn’t lost her job due to jealous male colleagues, she has her own personal stories to tell of others mistreating her, the most glaring being a story about an actor working on one of her movies making sexual innuendos about her in a ‘does the carpet match the drapes’ kind of way (and I did a little digging and have a theory as to just who this actor was, as she left his name out out of fear of retaliation. Sadly, it doesn’t surprise me if I’m right). Given that women are STILL shut out of so many opportunities when it comes to film and television behind the scenes, especially genre films like horror and fantasy, hearing that those who ARE there get treated like this is very upsetting, especially as a lady horror fan. While O’Meara’s experiences certainly aren’t unique, that is the exact reason that these experiences need to be shared.

“The Lady from The Black Lagoon” was a very interesting and rewarding read for this horror fan. I definitely think that horror fans everywhere really ought to give it a go, if only so Milicent Patrick can continue to finally get her due long after it was stolen from her.

Rating 8: A thorough, eye opening, and emotional book that tells the story of a forgotten creative mind, and how the problems she faced in her industry are far from fixed.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Lady from the Black Lagoon” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best of Old Hollywood”, and “Los Angeles (non-fiction)”.

Find “The Lady from the Black Lagoon” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered”

41068144Book: “Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered: The Definitive How-To Guide” by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark

Publishing Info: Forge Books, May 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: I own an Audible Audiobook/ was given a partial ARC by a friend.

Book Description: The highly anticipated first book by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, the voices behind the #1 hit podcast My Favorite Murder!

Sharing never-before-heard stories ranging from their struggles with depression, eating disorders, and addiction, Karen and Georgia irreverently recount their biggest mistakes and deepest fears, reflecting on the formative life events that shaped them into two of the most followed voices in the nation.

In Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered, Karen and Georgia focus on the importance of self-advocating and valuing personal safety over being ‘nice’ or ‘helpful.’ They delve into their own pasts, true crime stories, and beyond to discuss meaningful cultural and societal issues with fierce empathy and unapologetic frankness.

Review: I’m a Murderino and have been a Murderino for about two years now. For those who may not be familiar, a ‘Murderino’ is the name for fans “My Favorite Murder”, a true crime comedy podcast hosted by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark. I know I’ve spoken about it on this blog before, as I highlighted this book for the month of May, put the podcast in a “Not Just Books” post, and have referenced it on and off, here and there. I first discovered “My Favorite Murder” when I was going through a bit of a hard emotional time. I was feeling stagnant and unappreciated at one of my jobs, I was having anxiety about the future and big decisions that I knew needed to be made sooner rather than later, and one of my aunts (whom I had been close to) was dying of cancer, which sent a number of other family members into a turmoil. My friend Amanda recommended MFM to me, and I started it on the plane ride out to visit my ailing aunt/start preparing her house for hospice/getting other affairs in order. MFM became my comfort during that trip, as Kilgariff and Hardstark were able to talk about dark (yet eternally fascinating) topics with wit, empathy, and humor. I’ve been hooked ever since. And when I found out that Kilgariff and Hardstark were writing a book, I was PUMPED. I was very lucky to be given a partial ARC (thanks to my friend Carol! THANKS CAROL!), and read the first half of this book a couple months before it came out. But I knew that when the book came out in full, I had to get it on audiobook, as Kilgariff, Hardstark, and Paul Giamatti (it’s a long story) were the narrators. So I did a dual read/listen. And it mostly lived up to all I wanted it to be.

I will say, first and foremost, that if you are going into “Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered” thinking that it’s going to be focused on true crime, you are mistaken. Whlie Kilgariff and Hardstark DO make references to various cases within it’s pages, and do share their own experiences that may have been close calls, this is definitely more essays/memoir about who they both are as people, and the various life experiences that shaped them into the true crime junkies that they are today. So if you are a fan of the podcast but consider yourself a ‘skipper’ (aka you skip the first third of the show where they are bantering and conversing to get to the cases), this book may not be what you’re looking for. But while this isn’t a book about true crime at its heart, what it does have to offer is a personal and relateable set of essays/memoirs that show the lives of two women who have come a long way and gone through a lot of hardship in their lives. Both women has struggled with their mental health, eating disorders, drug addiction, and various personal losses as time has gone on, and they are both very reflective on these things that they have had to endure and overcome as time has gone on. Both Kilgariff and Hardstark talk about their experiences with candor and grace, and while they definitely can find some humor in these things they never feel like they’re making light of these experiences, nor do they make them self-exploitative. While they touch on these issues here and there on the show, in this book their vulnerability is on full display, and I found it to be very relatable in a lot of ways. Given that both women have talked about putting up defenses, seeing them put it all out there was very admirable.

The book is also very funny at times. Both Kilgariff and Hardstark have fun senses of humor, but Kilgariff especially has a wry tone and a knack for making me laugh hysterically. She has always been my favorite of the two, and it’s no surprise that it was one of her sections, about a childhood memory involving her and her older sister in their latchkey kid days, that had me laughing so hard I was crying. Both women have a very conversational tone in the writing that works both in audiobook form AND in print form, and none of the humor felt out of place or forced. And the bonus with the audiobook is that you get to hear their voices, and their intonations of how they wanted their words and stories to sound. In some ways I felt that this was better than the print book, but honestly, you can’t go wrong with either of them.

I did have a couple of criticisms with the book, and though they may not be limited to this book specifically I do want to address them. The biggest one is that both Hardstark and Kilgariff fall into a familiar ‘self help’ trap of not thinking about how accessible their advice is for their readers. This comes out the most in their advice on how to tackle mental health, as both of them are huge proponents of therapy being a be all end all and something that everyone should do. As someone who has benefited from therapy greatly, I also believe that therapy is wonderful for those who have access to it. But the sad truth is that the ability to seek out therapists/therapy, and mental health care in general, is not something that everyone can do, be it because of financial reasons or other inhibitors. It’s very easy to say ‘everyone should go to therapy!’ when you have the financial means to do so, but sadly, that isn’t the case for many people, so to make it seem like it can be achieved by anyone is rather tone deaf, or at the very least reeks of privilege. Now this certainly isn’t something that is unique to Kilgariff and Hardstark, as MANY ‘self help’ books trot out solutions that fall into this trap. But given that the sometimes blindness to certain privileges is a common critique of this show and both authors, I was a little disappointed to see this advice, especially since in so many other ways they were quick to check other kinds of privilege blind spots that they have had in the past. And I do kind of wish that they’d done a little more with the true crime angle. What we did have was interesting and they certainly don’t HAVE to rehash cases we’ve heard time and time again, especially since they admittedly don’t do deep dive research. But a reference here and there felt more tacked on than anything else.

All of that said, I really did enjoy “Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered”. Kilgariff and Hardstark are still a couple of my favorite podcasters out there, and I’m glad that they have come so far and have been able to overcome so much while still staying true to themselves. And remember everyone: Stay out of the forest, buy your own shit, and most importantly 

tenor
G’bye! (source)

Rating 8: A fun and enlightening memoir from two of my favorite true crime podcasters, “Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered: The Definitive How-To Guide” is sure to delight MFM fans!

Reader’s Advisory: “Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered: The Definitive How-to Guide” is included on the Goodreads lists “Murderino Reading List!”, and “Books of Podcasts”.

Find “Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered: The Definitive How-To Guide” at your library using WorldCat!

Bookclub Review: “Girl Squads: 20 Female Friendships That Changed History”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is ‘genre mash-ups’, where we pick two random genres and try to find a book that fits both. 

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

39873981Book: “Girl Squads: 20 Female Friendships that Changed History” by Sam Maggs

Publishing Info: Quirk Books, October 2018

Where Did We Get This Book: from the library!

Genre Mash-Up: Non-fiction and short stories

Book Description: A modern girl is nothing without her squad of besties. But don’t let all the hashtags fool you: the #girlsquad goes back a long, long time. In this hilarious and heartfelt book, geek girl Sam Maggs takes you on a tour of some of history’s most famous female BFFs, including:

• Anne Bonny and Mary Read, the infamous lady pirates who sailed the seven seas and plundered with the best of the men
• Jeanne Manon Roland and Sophie Grandchamp, Parisian socialites who landed front-row seats (from prison) to the French Revolution
• Sharon and Shirley Firth, the First Nations twin sisters who would go on to become Olympic skiers and break barriers in the sport
• The Edinburgh Seven, the band of pals who fought to become the first women admitted to medical school in the United Kingdom
• The Zohra Orchestra, the ensemble from Afghanistan who defied laws, danger, and threats to become the nation’s first all-female musical group

And many more! Spanning art, science, politics, activism, and even sports, these girl squads show just how essential female friendship has been throughout history and throughout the world. Sam Maggs brings her signature wit and warmth as she pays tribute to the enduring power of the girl squad. Fun, feisty, and delightful to read—with empowering illustrations by artist Jenn Woodall—it’s the perfect gift for your BFF. 

Serena’s Thoughts

This was my bookclub pick. I drew “nonfiction” and “short stories,” which on first glance was a pretty terrifying and unintuitive draw for me. I read very little nonfiction and only a handful of short story collection, all of which were decidedly NOT nonfiction and definitely were lots of fantasy/magic/aliens action that in no way could be pass off as “true to life.” But after thinking about it a bit more, short biographies seemed like the obvious choice and when I stumbled on this title when browsing around, it was an obvious pick.

Overall, I really enjoyed this story. Collections like this about women of history who have largely gone unnoticed have had a bit of a spotlight recently and our bookclub, when asked, could rattle off three or four similar titles off the top of their heads. But the interesting quirk that made this one stand out was its focus on female friendships and partnerships. All too often we hear stories about the one woman who stood out as unique (and often forgotten) among all of the men who surrounded her, so it was a breath of fresh air to read this book that focused on the fact that it wasn’t just one in a million women who was doing interesting things and chances were good that she surrounded herself by other like-minded women who are worth noting, not just a bunch of dudes.

Many of the stories were unfamiliar to me and I really liked that about the story. There were a few familiar ones as well, but even those felt as if they were providing new insights into the lives of these women. Overall, I enjoyed most of the choices provided. However, the book is broken up into section that have an over-arching theme with the women included in each, like “sports,” “science,” and “warriors.” I get the reasoning for this, but I do feel it might have worked against the book, as readers who are less interested in certain areas, like sports, perhaps, might go into a segment of stories prepared to be bored. And then, because they have similar focuses, the way each story plays out could begin to feel a bit predictable and repetitive. Had the stories been presented in a more random manner, this might have helped this aspect.

My only other complaint comes with annoyances with the writing style. At times, it can read as very dry and a bit pedantic. And then, in an obvious effort to counterbalance this very thing, the author would throw in some quirky, conversational-style line to try and “spice things up.” I found these one-liners very distracting and fairly eye-roll-worthy most of the time. Other than that, though, I really enjoyed this book and was glad that my bookclub pairings lead me to it!

Kate’s Thoughts

I, for one, am always going to be happy to see women’s history showcased, especially if they are stories that haven’t really been brought to the public’s attention on a large scale level in the past. So when Serena picked “Girl Squads” for her book club pick, I was definitely excited to learn some new things about some awesome ladies.

And new things did I find! While there are some familiar stories in this book, like the stories of the three present Women Supreme Court Justices or the ‘Hidden Figures’ of NASA, a lot of the tales of lady friendships and partnerships were new to me. I enjoyed the variety and range of the stories told, from sports and athletics, to warriors and battles, to innovators and creatives and more. It was both really empowering to read all these different tales, and also frustrating that so many of these tales have gone unnoticed or under-told for as long as they have, at least in terms of what I’ve been exposed to. My favorites included the Haenyo Divers on Jeju Island, South Korea, and the Japanese Women’s Olympic Volleyball team.

I also really liked that Maggs made a concerted effort to tell a variety of stories from all over the world, so as not to focus mostly on white, European narratives. Given that our educational system in this country is so Euro-centric, seeing stories from all over the world and many different experiences was really enlightening. Given that academia, like many other communities, has problems with diversity, I was happy to see that Maggs intended to write an intersectional book.

But like Serena I had similar problems with the structure of the book and the conversational tone it attempted to implement. By the time I reached the final fourth of the book, I found myself skimming and missing various sections of the chapters due to zoning out. It just got to be a little long, and, as Serena mentioned, the structure made it feel repetitive and lagging. And when it comes to the conversational commentaries that Maggs tried to drop in every once in awhile, I had very little patience for it. I think that this kind of creative choice CAN be done, as I’ve read a few books that manage to nail the fun quirky tone with the more ‘serious’ subject matter, but Maggs’s attempts felt more ‘how do you do, fellow kids?’, as opposed to natural or organic.

Those things aside, overall I enjoyed “Girl Squads” because of the stories that it told.

Serena Rating 7: Never quite felt like it found the writing style or organization that best fit it, but the stories were interesting and enlightening, none the less.

Kate Rating 7: With similar complaints about the writing style and structure, this book tended to take me out of the moment more often than not. That said, I liked learning new things about women I wasn’t familiar with.

Book Club Questions

  1. Which story was your favorite and why?
  2. Were there any stories that you want more information on or think could have been improved? Which one would you read a full-length biography on?
  3. Are there any women you would have like to see highlighted who weren’t included and what notable aspects of their life would you draw upon?
  4. How did you feel about the writing style and organization of the collection?
  5. Are there any other “themes” (like “girl squads”) that you would like to see be used to create a collection of short biographies? Who would you include in a collection like that?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Girl Squads: 20 Female Friendships that Changed History” is on these Goodreads lists: “Biographies of Women, by Women” and “Great Books For Young Girls.”

Find “Girl Squads: 20 Female Friendships that Changed History” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Northhanger Abbey” by Jane Austen.

Baby/Pregnancy Books: Part I

So, surprise! I had a baby last month! And in honor of my little one, and to acknowledge that alongside all the great fiction books I’ve read and reviewed over the last 10 months the fact that I’ve also been obsessively researching baby information, I’ve decided to dedicate my two posts for this week to four of my favorite pregnancy/baby-related reads. It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that, as a librarian, reading was/is my go-to coping method when the first-time mom anxiety hit(s) and there are a lot of resources out there. Some were ok, some seemed like a textbook for scare tactics (I’m looking at you “What to Expect” series), but these four were pretty solid for me specifically. Now, of course, pregnancy and parenting is all very indivualized to how people approach life and children, so massive warning that these fit what I was looking for and in no way reflect some type of be-all, end-all to the the vast, VAST expanse of resources and approaches on these topics. So, that out of the way, here are the first two I’m highlighting.

16158576Book: “Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong – and What You Really Need to Know” by Emily Oster

Publishing Info: Penguin Press, August 2013

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Pregnancy—unquestionably one of the most pro­found, meaningful experiences of adulthood—can reduce otherwise intelligent women to, well, babies. We’re told to avoid cold cuts, sushi, alcohol, and coffee, but aren’t told why these are forbidden. Rules for prenatal testing are hard and fast—and unexplained. Are these recommendations even correct? Are all of them right for every mom-to-be? In Expecting Better, award-winning economist Emily Oster proves that pregnancy rules are often misguided and sometimes flat-out wrong.

A mom-to-be herself, Oster debunks the myths of pregnancy using her particular mode of critical thinking: economics, the study of how we get what we want. Oster knows that the value of anything—a home, an amniocentesis—is in the eyes of the informed beholder, and like any compli­cated endeavor, pregnancy is not a one-size-fits-all affair. And yet medicine often treats it as such. Are doctors working from bad data? Are well-meaning friends and family perpetuating false myths and raising unfounded concerns? Oster’s answer is yes, and often.

Pregnant women face an endless stream of decisions, from the casual (Can I eat this?) to the frightening (Is it worth risking a miscarriage to test for genetic defects?). Expecting Better presents the hard facts and real-world advice you’ll never get at the doctor’s office or in the existing literature. Oster’s revelatory work identifies everything from the real effects of caffeine and tobacco to the surprising dangers of gardening.

Any expectant mother knows that the health of her baby is paramount, but she will be less anxious and better able to enjoy a healthy pregnancy if she is informed . . . and can have the occasional glass of wine. 

Mini-Review:  As a librarian, I feel like I have a lot in common with the author and her emphasis on research-based decision making. Working in an academic library, none the less, I spend a solid chunk of my time teaching students why it is important to find research to back up their own thoughts and opinions and how to distill that information into choices that are reflected in their work. This book has an incredible wealth of information from someone who has spent the time to really analyze what studies are really saying about pregnancy and decision-making, all presented through the lens that each expectant mother will need to ultimately make whatever decision feels right and most comfortable to her. For me personally, it really helped re-focus my attention on aspects of pregnant life that do require new approaches but also took a lot of fear out of the millions of warnings out there that make pregnant women feel like everything and anything is crazy dangerous for them and their growing baby. It’s all too easy to live the full 9 months feeling like every little thing could be the WORST THING EVER and you’re a BAD MOM if you do such and such thing. This book really helped me give myself a break from much of this. For others looking to know what the science is behind the general recommendations that “everyone knows to be true,” this is a great book to really dig deep. And yes, justify a glass of wine now and then!

16144855Book: “A Good Birth: Finding the Positive and Profound in Your Childbirth Experience” by Anne Lyerly

Publishing Info: Avery, August 2013

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Most doctors are trained to think of a “good” birth only in terms of its medical success. But Dr. Anne Lyerly knows firsthand that there are many other important elements that often get overlooked. Her three-year study of a diverse group of over one hundred expectant moms asked what matters most to women during childbirth. The results, presented to the public for the first time in A Good Birth, show what really matters goes beyond the clinical outcome or even the usual questions of hospital versus birthing center, and reveal universal needs of women, like the importance of feeling connected, safe, and respected.

Bringing a new perspective to childbirth, the book’s wisdom is drawn from in-depth interviews with women with a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences, and whose birth stories range from quick and simple to complicated and frightening. Describing what went well, what didn’t, and what they’d do differently next time, these mothers give voice to the complete experience of childbirth, helping both women and their healthcare providers develop strategies to address the emotional needs of the mother, going beyond the standard birth plans and conversations. Transcending the “medical” versus “natural” childbirth debate, A Good Birth paves the entryway to motherhood, turning our attention to the deeper and more important question of what truly makes for the best birth possible.

Mini-Review: Yes, yes, again with the studies. But this was one big study conducted by a doctor on women’s experiences with labor, specifically. The author was recognizing that while medical professionals focused, rightly for the most part, only on the outcome of labor to establish whether a birth was “good,” many women, asked later would mention a variety of things that contributed to their feelings on their labor experience. The book is broken up into section that deal with these larger areas (like communication, safety, control, etc) and got into the different, smaller details that influenced how women felt about these larger topics and their birth. The really great thing about this book, I thought, was the way it always circled back to the idea that every woman is going to need different things to feel like she had a “good” birth, and that in a society that is largely fixated on the “right way” to have a baby, we are often losing focus on the fact that the whole idea of a “right way” is a fool’s errand to begin with. One that is often used to shame women about their choices, rather than support the variety of ways that work for the many, many different women (and births!) out there. After having my baby, this book seems even more valuable, as I can still find myself having the tendency to feel guilty about some of the aspects of my labor. But this read is a good reminder that there is no need for that.

 

Kate’s Review: “American Kingpin”

31920777Book: “American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road” by Nick Bilton

Publishing Info: Portfolio, May 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: In 2011, a twenty-six-year-old libertarian programmer named Ross Ulbricht launched the ultimate free market: the Silk Road, a clandestine Web site hosted on the Dark Web where anyone could trade anything–drugs, hacking software, forged passports, counterfeit cash, poisons–free of the government’s watchful eye.
It wasn’t long before the media got wind of the new Web site where anyone–not just teenagers and weed dealers but terrorists and black hat hackers–could buy and sell contraband detection-free. Spurred by a public outcry, the federal government launched an epic two-year manhunt for the site’s elusive proprietor, with no leads, no witnesses, and no clear jurisdiction. All the investigators knew was that whoever was running the site called himself the Dread Pirate Roberts.

The Silk Road quickly ballooned into $1.2 billion enterprise, and Ross embraced his new role as kingpin. He enlisted a loyal crew of allies in high and low places, all as addicted to the danger and thrill of running an illegal marketplace as their customers were to the heroin they sold. Through his network he got wind of the target on his back and took drastic steps to protect himself–including ordering a hit on a former employee. As Ross made plans to disappear forever, the Feds raced against the clock to catch a man they weren’t sure even existed, searching for a needle in the haystack of the global Internet.
Drawing on exclusive access to key players and two billion digital words and images Ross left behind, Vanity Fair correspondent and New York Times bestselling author Nick Bilton offers a tale filled with twists and turns, lucky breaks and unbelievable close calls. It’s a story of the boy next door’s ambition gone criminal, spurred on by the clash between the new world of libertarian-leaning, anonymous, decentralized Web advocates and the old world of government control, order, and the rule of law. Filled with unforgettable characters and capped by an astonishing climax, American Kingpin might be dismissed as too outrageous for fiction. But it’s all too real.

Review: There is a misconception about the true crime genre, and that is the thought that there are only books about blood, violence, murder, and serial killers to be had. While those are certainly some of the more popular topics in the scope of the genre, you can find a large number of books about less violent crimes. So for those of you who like the idea of reading up on something salacious and scandalous, but are squeamish when it comes to violence and death, I may have a good true crime fit for you. It involves a whole lot of the scandal and law breaking, and outlandish twists and turns that don’t seem real, but is, for the most part, low on body counts. And you may never look at “The Princess Bride” the same way again after reading it. Let me introduce you to “American Kingpin”.

“American Kingpin” is the story of the rise of The Silk Road, a website that acted as a black market for drugs that was hidden within the Dark Web. It was founded by a man named Ross Ulbricht, who initially saw it as a way for people to have access to illegal drugs, a value that lined up with his Libertarian beliefs. His internet handle was “The Dread Pirate Roberts”, and he remained fairly anonymous for years. As his website and fortune grew, so did his love of power, and his need to hold onto it by any means necessary. Along with his story are the stories of the various law enforcement officers who tracked him, and even got embroiled with him and The Silk Road, in hopes of catching him. And boy, is it a doozy. Nick Bilton does a very good job of keeping all of the complicated character threads straight, and slowly weaves them together to create an all encompassing big picture that reads like a thriller novel. He writes not so much sympathetic, but well laid out backgrounds of the people, and I think that seeing Ulbricht especially in a complex light was important. But it never took away from the fact that this guy was an entitled, privileged, single minded narcissist who thought he was untouchable, and went from drum circle college student to a man who was taking out hits on those who crossed him. While calling himself The Dread Pirate Roberts of all things!

The narrative itself moves at a fast pace, and given that the events are so outlandish that they read like fiction, it has a high entertainment factor. Like the cast of players, I felt like I was reading a thriller novel as opposed to a non fiction account, and it really speaks to how good of a narrative non fiction writer Bilton is. There were multiple moments I shouted out ‘ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!’ Specifically when it was noted that The Silk Road considered dabbling in human organs. HUMAN. ORGANS.

giphy
I had to set the book down and laugh in despondency. (source)

As Ulbricht’s scheming escalated the tension did as well. The book is very well researched, and it’s constructed in a way that gives a pretty evenly distributed amount between the players and the goings on in all of their lives, and how they connected to each other. I had a very hard time putting it down as I was reading, and even though I had a pretty basic working knowledge of the story thanks to the “Casefile” podcast series on it, there was still a lot of information at hand that never got bogged down by the sheer volume of it all. Bilton is also certain to push back against the idea of the Libertarian Utopia of the Silk Road being ‘victimless’ in its drug business, detailing one especially sad story about someone who was an unwitting purveyor of drugs from the site… and then suffered terrible consequences because of it. While Bilton never outright maligns the values that Ulbricht was striving to champion, he definitely makes a very compelling case for debating them. It never feels preachy; just matter of fact.

All in all, “American Kingpin” is a thrilling write up of a truly unbelievable crime. If you’ve been curious about the new true crime interest in our culture, but are wary when it comes to violence and murder, I would absolutely recommend this rollercoaster of a book.

Rating 8: A tense and VERY addictive true crime thriller, “American Kingpin” does a great job chronicling the rise and fall of a black market empire and the man who was behind it all.

Reader’s Advisory:

“American Kingpin” is included on the Goodreads lists “Scary Tech? Big Data, Surveillance, Information Overload, Tech Addiction, Propaganda, Dark Money..”, and “Murderino Reading List!”

Find “American Kingpin” at your library using WorldCat!