Columbine by Dave Cullen: A Review

Unintentionally, or perhaps subconsciously, the first two non-fiction books of 2017 that I read have centered around gun-related tragedies.

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I was thirteen when news of the Columbine school shooting interrupted afternoon soap operas to bring live coverage of the ongoing tragedy. At that stage, the media reported many inaccuracies, some of which persist despite solid debunking (such as the mythic story of Cassie Bernall, the Columbine “martyr” whose last words affirming her belief in God turned out to be uttered by someone else).

Dave Cullen does an excellent job in this well-researched book of debunking myths and providing perhaps the most accurate picture of the tragedy to exist, all the while admitting that there are mysteries that remain.

Cullen accomplishes a portrait of killers, victims, bystanders, and families while retaining an impassive eye. He almost never inserts an opinion or conjecture throughout the entire book, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions. Just the facts, please. There’s no right or wrong, no pleas for forgiveness or condemnation. Only the portrait of a town and people devastated by an intensely, wholly unanticipated tragedy.

If Cullen does offer a criticism, it’s towards the conduct of a police department that failed to respond to numerous warning signs and attempting a cover-up in the aftermath. He doesn’t need to say it out loud; the conduct of certain officials are damning enough in itself.

Many of the details are shocking. I didn’t know the extent to which the killers’ plan failed; the bombs they planted didn’t detonate. If they had, the death toll would have been in the hundreds.

I ask myself what made Columbine such a standout that its place in history is cemented. It wasn’t the first mass shooting on a school campus (see the 1966 University of Texas Tower Shooting.) Perhaps it was the media, the ongoing you-are-here feeling of capturing a tragedy in progress. Even though the killers were dead three hours before discovery, the tension of seeing the school building from the outside and only imagining what could be taking place inside lent a personal aspect to the event. Much the way a video game allows the player to slip into other worlds and perspectives, immediate access to crises via the media enforces a visceral experience upon the viewer in a way that reading a story in the paper cannot.

Idiosyncratic Top Ten Tuesday: 10 Books to Make You Hurl

Presenting Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by the scandalous The Broke and the Bookish.

I’m a bit of a horror buff, and I pride myself on my ability to stomach all sorts of nastiness (doesn’t go well on a résumé though.) Still, there are some books and scenes that have made even my stomach churn, whether through personal aversion, or sheer author brilliance.

So without further word vomit, here goes the Top Ten Books that Made me Upchuck (or at least want to.)

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Ten Little Indians Went Out to Party? Book Review: Ten by Gretchen McNeil

If you told me Charmin was making a special edition toilet paper based on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, I would buy it.

The great Dame Agatha Christie is one of my favorite authors and And Then There Were None is one of my favorite novels. Do I need to prove my love?

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Meet Agatha Christie, aka Aggie. You know you’re the coolest when people name their dog after you.

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The Abominable Summit: Mt. Everest is a Nazi’s Dream

I can’t talk about Summit by Harry Farthing without talking about The Abominable by Dan Simmons. Both involve such striking parallels that one necessarily invokes the other. Let’s see…Mount Everest? Check. Nazis? Check. Invocations of George Lee Mallory, the famous “lost” Everest climber? Check’s in the mail!

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I wasn’t expecting much from Summit, to be honest. As part of a 2-for-1 credit deal on Audible, I grabbed it as the second choice in a list of underwhelming choices. But it had one critical piece of kryptonite for this here reader: Mount Everest.

Yes, it was Mr. Dan Simmons who spurred my interest in the famous peak (rumor has it the highest peak in the world.) If you’ve never read Dan Simmons, now is the time to pick up The Terror, for a fantastic piece of Arctic historical fiction with a supernatural twist, or his terrific sci-fi series, Hyperion. 

The Abominable is another historical fiction piece, set in the 1920’s, and involves a search on the famous mountain. The searchers are pursued by something that may be terrible, and may or may not involve Nazis.

Summit by Harry Farthing definitely involves Nazis. The narrative alternates between present day, where erstwhile mountain guide Quinn is haunted by a catastrophe at the summit, and a 1930’s era tale of a Nazi with a conscience who aspires, not entirely by his own will, to beat the British to conquer the mountain.

I am not typically a fan of books with Nazis. They are a lazy, paint-by-numbers villain without any redeeming qualities or depth. Summit falls prey to this trope. The villains are all capital “E” Evil and lack any kind of nuance. The main protagonist is a victim to the circumstances around him and despite summiting Everest as routinely as an oil change, he doesn’t do much except almost die a bunch of times.

The depth of the setting remains entrancing. Farthing, an adequate narrator, excels in his descriptions of the frigid mountain face, the forlorn Tibetan landscape, and the bustling touristy town of Kathmandu. His action scenes are setpieces unto themselves, and although I have serious doubts about the central premise of the book (that a German summit would cause a serious uptick in Neo-Nazi activity and bring glory to the despicable Reich), it’s a fun ride.

*The Second Step

 

Top Ten Tuesday: Underrated/Hidden Gems

…I’ve read in the past year or so. It’s Top Ten Tuesday! Hosted by The Broke and Bookish. Much thanks to them, as always!

In attempting to quantify what might pass as a hidden gem, I decided to turn to Goodreads. Looking at the last year(ish) of reading, I ordered them by number of ratings to determine what books I really enjoyed that had a comparatively low number of ratings (not low ratings, just fewer of them, implying fewer readers, implying an increase of hiddenness.)

Naturally, I went off on a tangent and geeked out on some numbers, which I’ve included below, past the underrated/hidden gems I hand-picked, based on nothing but my own biased perspective of the world:

  1. The Elementals by Michael McDowell
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I happened upon this creepy little novel during a 2-for-1 credit sale at Audible. I had never heard of McDowell beforehand. Turns out he published quite a few novels in the Southern Gothic genre in the 80’s. I think the excellent narration aided my enjoyment of this book. Instant characterization and an original, haunted setting on an isolated spit of sand along the Gulf of Mexico give the slim story depth and lingering horror. Big Barbara is sure to be one of my favorite characters of the year!

2. The Angola Horror by Charity Vogel

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I read a lot of non-fiction disaster books. I can tell the good from the god-awful. This is one of the good ones. While the subtitle of this book claims that the wreck “shocked the nation,” it’s been a minute since 1867 and this little known disaster makes for a little-known book. With only 44 ratings on Goodreads, I’m surprised, given the quality of the work (and the excellent title). Everything you wanted to know about old-timey train traveling is here, as well as a compelling and horrific description of a train tumbling into an abyss. Those not killed in the fall were consumed by the flames.

3. On Her Own Ground by A’Lelia Perry Bundles

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Talks are in the works to make a limited TV series about Madam C.J. Walker, a badass entrepreneur running her own business in a time before women could even vote. As the success of Hidden Figures demonstrates, it’s about time we start widening our understanding of history beyond the limited perspective of white men.

It looks like we’ll get to see Rosalind Franklin hit the big screen sometime in the near future as well!

4. The Last One by Alexandra Oliva

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While this one isn’t necessarily a hidden gem, it received a lot of mixed reviews. I wasn’t too crazy about the ending, but the ride was a blast. It had such a clever premise and original twist on the dystopic genre that I couldn’t help but love it.

Well, I only felt like writing about four books.

Now. Here is a digression on some of the interesting (or not) things I learned while analyzing ratings numbers on Goodreads.

My past year of reading has been pretty evenly split between Fiction (47) and Non-Fiction (44). There is a huge disparity between the number of ratings in these categories. Keep in mind I’m looking number of ratings on a quantitative basis.

Average Number of Ratings – Fiction: 93,882
Average Number of Raitings – Non-Fiction: 10,766
Difference: 83,056

Top 5 Highest Number of Ratings – Fiction:

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: 3,166,565
  2. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson: 295,492
  3. The Girl with all the Gifts by M.R. Carey: 96,049
  4. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy: 74, 363
  5. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff: 65, 928

Top 5 Highest Number of Ratings – Non-Fiction

  1. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins: 94,969
  2. Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi: 89,849
  3. The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin: 68,957
  4. Moneyball by Michael Lewis: 67,409
  5. The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer: 30,769

There’s a lot of baseless conclusions I could draw from this list. These are only from the books I’ve read in the past year (and also, only books that I have read, in no way representing readers as a whole).

It might be fair to say that books that have been out longer have more of an opportunity to be read. Hence, Helter Skelter, The Selfish Gene, and To Kill a Mockingbird have been around a long time. But it’s a mix with other books published in the past few years: The Girl with all the Gifts, Fates and Furies, and The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo are all newer books. Obviously movies and pop culture have a heavy influence on readership. The most popular books in all of Goodreads are composed of The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Twilight, and Lord of the Rings franchises.

I do have a suspicion about The Origin of Species being so high on the list. I truly don’t think that many people have read it. It’s one of those books that you might wholeheartedly believe you’ve read, and maybe created a nice memory around it.

The books with the lowest number of ratings, however:

Fiction

  1. Cascadia by H.W. ‘Buzz’ Bernard
  2. Certain Dark Things by M.J. Pack
  3. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”: The Authorized Graphic Adaptation by Miles Hyman
  4. Let Me Tell You by Shirley Jackson
  5. Suicide Forest by Jeremy Bates

Non-Fiction

  1. Bliss and Tragedy by Thomas E. Corts
  2. Fire and Rain by Jerome Greer Chandler
  3. The Angola Horror by Charity Vogel
  4. The Lost History of the Canine Race by Mary Elizabeth Thurston
  5. The Dream World of H.P. Lovecraft by Donald Tyson

Well. Short stories don’t fare so well, do they? It follows the idea that the novel is the most celebrated form of fiction in the U.S. Numbers 1 and 5 on the fiction list deserve what they get. Same goes for numbers 1 and 2 on the NF list. I learned quite a bit reading The Dream World of H.P. Lovecraft, and I appreciated that the book didn’t shy away from his overt racism and xenophobia, but it would periodically dip into theories about Lovecraft’s psychic abilities. The author truly believed he had some kind of telepathic connection with another plane. Kind of destroys the credibility of the whole book.

Well, what did I learn? I think I read a lot more mainstream fiction last year, thanks to Litsy and being more in tune with contemporary fiction, but my non-fiction continues to follow my interests. Sweet!

 

Haunted Families: Help for the Haunted by John Searles/Descent by Tim Johnston

Your family knows you the best. Your family is the one who knows things about you even you don’t know (like if you have a bad habit of sneezing into books). They will remember that one time you went on a rant about water chestnuts in the pot pie or when you threw a head of lettuce at your mouthy teenage daughter.

They will remember it forever. Families are like elephants.

I read two books back to back that are ostensibly about one thing or another, but ultimately deal with families: the consequences of having one, and the consequences of losing it.

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In Descent by Tim Johnston, a teenage brother and sister go for a morning jaunt into the Rockies, and only the brother returns. What ensues is an exploration of the repercussions on a family when one part of it, the strongest part, the unifying part, disappears. As the months and years drag on with no trace of the missing girl being found, the uncertainty manifests itself in painful ways on each family member. The tension of not knowing is worse than finding her body somewhere in that vast wilderness.

The narrative is more than simply a kidnapping story. It’s a story of a family missing a piece of their puzzle. Johnston builds the tension through the grand setting of the Rockies and a heart-pounding finale, but even those dramatic moments seem secondary to the smaller moments of a mother, father, and brother trying to piece themselves together, trying to picture themselves and build their life without their daughter/sister in it. The huge question mark of her life makes it impossible for them to move forward; they grieve without ever giving up hope.

The narrative remains disjointed at times, however, as it seems the author is writing two separate novels. There’s a wrenching, torture-porn moment near the end that feels a bit out of place in one world of the novel, the world where the devastated family attempts to find direction, but utterly in keeping with the brutal winter wilds of the Rockies.

In Help for the Haunted, two sisters cope with a different sort of loss. Their parents have been murdered and now the vastly different girls must cope with the odd legacy left behind. See, their parents weren’t just any parents, but a pair of moderately famous demonologists who cart their girls around to their speaking engagements and keep haunted curios in the basement (check the creepy doll…sounds familiar *cough* Annabelle *cough*).

The couple bears more than a passing resemblance to a pair of real life “demonologists” which makes for a lonely, odd life for their daughters. The elder lashes out while the youngest bears the heavier burden of always doing what is expected. They live on the isolated Butter Lane, surrounded by the weed-wracked foundations of houses that never became homes.

The “haunting” in the title is up for grabs; not necessarily supernatural, but threading through the lives and minds of the teenage girls. Thoughtful characterization and a slow-burn plot makes for propulsive reading as the younger daughter attempts to piece together the puzzle of her parents’ murder. The ending, however, makes a left turn into WTF Town that makes me wish it really had been demons all along.

We are haunted by the lives and loss of those we love (everyone recognizes that moment when they hear their mother/father’s voice coming out of their mouth for the first time). Both novels explore the startling depths of the threads of childhood and family that find expressions in that entity known as the self. I am me, I think. I am an individual. But I am pieces of many other people, too. We are all, for better and for worse, haunted.

 

 

Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge: A Review

Because someone had a gun in a particular moment, that moment became irreversible.

One of the NRA’s most treasured slogans is “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.”

Sure. But guns help them kill much more people much more efficiently. Guns let someone experience a flash of rage with a deadly power in their hands. We all have bad moments, right. What if, during those darkest moments of our lives, we had a gun in our hands. What would we do? What could we do?

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In Another Day in the Death of America, author Gary Younge goes beyond statistics by diving into all the deaths that occur on a single, randomly selected day. On average, seven kids and teens die by gunfire; on this day, November 23rd, 2013, ten were shot and killed. Younge profiles each young life, thus erasing the stats and replacing them with faces, with young people who had interests and passions and loved ones and struggles. On November 23rd, 2013, suddenly none of them had a future.

Younge’s book works best when he is simply relating the human toll of gun violence. He states in the introduction that his book “is not about gun control. It is a book made possible by the absence of gun control.” The circumstances in by which guns are such a pervasive and available commodity in our culture is not something any American can dispute.

The book seems a little disjointed in parts, as Younge tries to connect the current state of gun control (or lack of) in America and its resultant violence with each individual story. He runs the gamut from gun safety training to the NRA (which is exactly the scary, politically influential, manipulative organization that it appears to be) to media bias. His effort feels well-intentioned but a little shoehorned at times.

Especially relevant is the intersection of race, poverty, and circumstance that Younge explores to better effect.Out of the ten boys shot that day, seven are black, two are latino, and only one is white. All are members of impoverished families or the working class. Younge doesn’t shy away from the paradoxical realities that while the environment of poverty and segregation closes off almost all opportunity for these young men, even their loved ones cite parenting and personal choice as crucial in the chain of events leading to their deaths. Unfortunately, mistaken identity and accidental shootings account for nearly half of the deaths.

We all make compromises in our modern lives. We assume the risk of driving cars to enjoy their convenience. Our freedom has consequences. Younge poses the question: “How does the freedom to bear arms measure up against the freedom to know that your children will be safe in elementary school?”

Just as there’s a good chance someone you know has been killed in a car accident, there’s also a good chance you know someone killed by a gun. According to a 2015 Huffpost/Yougov poll, 40% of Americans know someone who was killed by a gun, whether it was by another person or self-inflicted. Of the people I’ve known who have been killed or shot, I often wonder how differently the story might have turned out had there not been a gun there in that moment.

I can’t help but think that for the families and loved ones of those who die every day due to gun violence, they must often wonder the same thing.

 

January Bookcano: Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

Yeah! It’s the first edition of Bookcano 2017, the annual book challenge my sister Dallas and I create with a different theme each month. This month’s theme is “A book Mom picked for us” and though Mom could have been diabolical, she picked the book I’ve most wanted to read for months.

Thanks Mom!

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I have truthfully lusted after this book for many months, but then that pesky Christmas moratorium on buying books and I just had to hope that someone would leave it under my Christmas tree.

Here’s the main lesson to be learned from HEX: Whatever you do, no matter what, NEVER startle the witch!

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This witch. That witch. Any witch. Seriously. Don’t piss ’em off. (source)

HEX has a startlingly originally premise. A modern New England town is being haunted by a witch, a ghostly yet corporeal being that’s been chilling in Black Spring for 300-odd years. She had a bad death, as accused witches often did back in colonial times. Her eyes and lips are stitched shut, and the all the residents know that should her eyes ever open, the shit will really hit the fan.

Sounds like a kind of easy problem to subvert. Just leave right? Move out of Black Spring and find some other, less haunted town to live in. Well, here’s the kicker: the residents can’t leave. They’re bound for life, and if they leave for any length of time, visions of horror and thoughts of suicide haunt them until they either return or bite it.

Longtime residents of Black Spring accept the status quo and the existence of the supernatural. It doesn’t take much convincing once the witch appears in your backyard or bathroom.

An important thing to know about this book is that it was originally published in 2013 and translated from its original Dutch into English. The setting was also changed from the Netherlands to America. It makes for some awkward, and sometimes senseless, analogies and phrasing. Despite a few quibbles with the writing style, which only occasionally veers into King-esque bombast, the story is engaging, original, and ultimately a pretty creepy read.

When the ultimate furor erupts, the lesson is a little on the nose (yep, humans get hysterical, witch hunts ensue, scapegoats get blamed, and the populace is appeased), but the madness has a point: we may think we’re living in a modern society where Salem can never happen, but our nature is to take fear and thrust it on the bogeyman of the day, whether it’s Muslims, immigrants, terrorists, gender transgressors, or women wearing trousers. Maybe the tools we use to torture and bully are different (social media and the internet has made it easy for us to join outrage without consequence or truth), but we still struggle every day against that impulse.

*Curses

  • This also fulfills “H” on my #LitsyAtoZ challenge. Join Litsy! Handle @respekt1111
  • There’s a lot of boob violence in this book. Ouch.

 

2017 Book Challenges aka Litsy Rocks and Bookcano!

So I am focusing on 2 challenges this year. The first:

This is the 5th year of the annual challenge I complete with my sister, Dallas. We come up with a number of themes and then each of us picks a book for that theme. Just as important as the books we choose is the name of the challenge. Names of past challenges include Bookpocalypse, Booknado, and Bookmageddon. In keeping with our disastrous names, this year’s book challenge is duly named Bookcano. Get ready for some molten hot reading!

Theme: A book our mother picked

Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt. Good taste, Mom!

Theme: A book out of our genre (Dallas picks one for me, I pick one for her)

Me: Fantasy – The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
Dallas: Non-fiction – Cascadia’s Fault by Jerry Thompson

Theme: A book set/published in a random decade 

Me: 1730 – Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin
Dallas: 1950 – Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Theme: Book w/girl in the title

Me: The Drowning Girl by Caitlin Kiernan
Dallas: Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart

Theme: Book related to a random country

Me: Scotland – Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Dallas: Belize – A Call to Arms by Alan Dean Foster

Theme: Book related to a random word

Me: Canvas – The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Dallas: Clamp – This Monstrous Thing by Mackenzi Lee

Book that won a Bram Stoker Award

Me: Audrey’s Door by Sarah Langan
Dallas: Dead in the Water by Nancy Holder

LITSY A TO Z CHALLENGE

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Litsy is an amazing app I discovered late last year and I’ve fallen hard. It’s the app for book lovers to hook up with other book lovers and talk about books. Get it now!

Litsy has numerous challenges, and I picked one that seemed pretty tame, because I’m lazy. So I picked one book for each letter of the alphabet, hosted by Litsy user @bookishmarginalia. I wrote them on post-its, and as I complete books, I’ll put them in my little memo book and write a few notes about them.

Here’s my list!

A – Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge
B – Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
C – Columbine by Dave Cullen
D – Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
E – The Elementals by Michael McDowell
F – Foundation by Isaac Asimov
G – The Graveyard Apartment by Mariko Koike
H – Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
I – The Immortality Engine by George Mann
J – Joyride by Jack Ketchum
K – Krakatoa by Simon Winchester
L – The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
M – Macbeth by Some Guy Called Shakespeare
O – On Trails by Robert Moor
Q – Quicksand by Nella Larsen
R – Rolling in the Deep by Mira Grant
S – Swing Time by Zadie Smith
T – Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu
U – The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
V – The Vegetarian by Han Kang
W – The Witches by Stacy Schiff
X – Mr. X by Peter Straub
Y – Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine by Bebe Moore Campbell
Z – Zazen by Vanessa Veselka

Many of the books overlap with other lists I’m working on, including Bookcano, Flavorwire’s 50 Scariest, and Bram Stoker’s Winners List, as well as knocking a few old ones off my massive bookcase full of TBR.

Here’s to 2017! Last year I read 87 books. This year my goal is to read 100!