Danger is Everywhere, David O’Doherty and Chris Judge, 2014

danger

Watch out for the page 9 scorpion.

Humor is subjective, based on the skill of the author and the tastes of the reader. For the Laugh Out Loud book challenge (2018 Reading Challenge) I felt a bit of pressure. Do I literally need to laugh out loud? Do chuckles count? Should I give myself a page number limit, like if I haven’t laughed out loud by page 15 I have to start a new book? I wasn’t sure how literally I should take this challenge.

And then I realized, I was already reading a book that made me laugh out loud sincerely and consistently. The only problem… it’s a kid’s book. I read and reread the challenge, and nothing said it couldn’t target the primary school demographic. It’s only criteria seemed to be making me laugh out loud. And, bonus, it tied in perfectly with the anxiety I felt about the challenge.

“Danger is Everywhere”, a manual to help potential dangerologists learn to recognize everyday threaths, is presented by the very nervous and hyper-aware Docter (yes, with an e) Noel Zone, the world’s foremost expert in dangerology (a subject he invented himself). He prides himself on seeing the threat in everyday life like bike riding or sleeping in a bed or toilet sharks and shares his wisdom with us PODs (Pupils of Dangerology).

Complete with helpful abbreviations like T-COD (Tiny Cape of Dangerology) and POWDMB (Pointing Out Where Danger Might Be) Dr. Noel Zone sheds light on the unknown dangers lurking in our everyday lives. Like the piano walrus and mailbox octopi. But the book isn’t just about POWDMBing. It offers helpful solutions. Did you know if you find yourself face to face with a polar bear the best thing to do is not run or play dead, but rather amaze him with a card trick?

At the end of the book there’s the DETBAFOD (Dangerology Examination To Become a Full-On Dangerologist) that, when passed, will bestow the reader the title of Full on Dangerologist (Level 1).

Like all great kids’ books, it has high levels of absurdity and goofiness. While it’s written as a handbook, the format feels a lot like the slew of “diaries” out there for tweens like Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Dork Diaries. As a graphic novel, there are tons of illustrations so even reluctant readers might find the 240 pages at least tolerable if not enjoyable. And best of all, it’s a great read for the entire family, something that doesn’t always happen in the world of kids’ lit. Believe me, I’ve sat through some eye-rollingly bad kids books. When one can make everyone dissolve into laughter, it’s a winner.

Eloquent Rage, Brittney Cooper, 2018

eloquentrage

This is a book by a grown-ass woman written for other grown-ass women. © Brittney Cooper, 2018

For the Book About a Current World Issue (2018 Reading Challenge), I chose Eloquent Rage by Brittney Cooper, PhD.  The book discusses Black Feminism, a branch of feminism that uses intersectionality (the idea that race, gender, economics etc. all impact a person’s life) to try to bring about fair and just treatment for Black women and girls. Given that countries in Africa still practice genital mutilation and child marriage because of outdated and dangerous patriarchal struggles, Black feminism is and should be a world issue.

Cooper grew up in the south in the nineteen-eighties. Placed in predominantly white classes, she gained unique insight to the thoughts and actions of the white world while still maintaining a space in the black community. Never completely welcomed in either place, Cooper developed a unique outsider-on-the-inside perspective that shaped her feminist outlook.

In a style that’s part memoir, manifesto and textbook, Dr. Cooper lays out the who, what where, when, why and how of Black Feminism (capital B, capital F). Her tone easily swings from front porch banter to erudite academia to (much needed) straight up scolding and back again.

Her journey to woke was marked with the pains and humiliations that come with most life changing realization. White classmates that accepted her (to a degree), mean Black girls that shook her, religious Black patriarchy that shamed her, White patriarchy that questioned her worth–all of it comes together to form the person she eventually becomes. Her first steps begin with shedding her reluctance to wear the Angry Black Woman label after being called out by a friend. “She helped me to realize that my anger could be a powerful force for good.” Once she acknowledged her deserved anger, she was able to focus it in a way that made a difference to her identity, her relationship to others, her politics and her life.

Through topics ranging from intersectionality, politics, black churches, her father, Black and white mean girls, Beyonce and bell hooks and more, Cooper discusses why Black Feminism is so important in Black women’s lives. She points out painful but true ways that groups have done Black women harm leading Black women to hurt each other.

This is an uncomfortable read.  I would argue that it’s a necessary discomfort. No one group gets a pass, not even Black Feminists, not even groups Dr. Cooper belongs to. I would guess that for every “damn, right” uttered, there’s probably a “well, hold up a minute…” a few pages later. And to me that’s the mark of a book that’s meant to challenge paradigms, not placate egos.

Heather, The Totality, Matthew Weiner, 2017

Heather

Heather had always felt beautiful and sensed what was fair… Matthew Weiner

For the Book with Bad reviews challenge (2018 Reading Challenge), I chose Heather, The Totality. The book averages a 2.9/5 on Good Reads and 3/5 at Amazon. I know those numbers put it solidly in the mediocre category, but I really didn’t want to commit to a book that a lot of people hated. Another plus, the book is a slim 134 pages. Why commit to a huge book with bad reviews when I can suffer through a shorter one?

And while I wouldn’t say I suffered, I will say, I’m glad the book was short.

Heather is the generic passive female character we’ve seen hundreds of times. More object and ideal than person. Stunningly beautiful. Unbelievably perfect. Untouchable, unknowable. Blah, blah, blah.

Luckily, despite the title and the promises of the book jacket, she isn’t the focus. The story is more about Mark and Karen, Heather’s parents, specifically their marriage.  It’s the plausible outcome when two people marry for the wrong reasons but stay together for the child they adore. From that perspective the book is spot on, capturing the almost imperceptible decline of a bond forged in convenience and gratitude. But that’s not what the summary promised. Taken from the jacket:

“But as Heather grows—and her empathy sharpens to a point, and her radiance attracts more and more dark interest—their perfect existence starts to fracture…. Meanwhile a very different life…is beginning its own malign orbit around Heather.”

Expecting conflict and confrontation between Heather and this “different life”, I was disappointed by what eventually happens or doesn’t happen.

The author makes other style choices, verbally and aesthetically, that could either be viewed as rebellious scribe’s bold challenge to the rules or a high school freshman who hasn’t learned them yet. Because author Matthew Weiner is an accomplished TV writer (Mad Men, Sopranos) one assumes he’s choosing to break the rules, perhaps as an experiment to see if it can be done well.

Here are some of the casualties:

Show, don’t tell. It reads like the diary of a housewife suffering from acute ennui. Character activities are chronicled, emotions are not. There are few conversations between characters. Mostly, singular lines of dialogue are embedded in a paragraph.

Chekov’s gun. This rule basically states, if you draw attention to something, you better have a good reason. In this case, Heather’s empathy is the gun. We are told ad nauseum that Heather has a preternatural sense of empathy.

Examples:

“…her beauty became more pronounced but somehow secondary to…a complex empathy that could be profound.”

“Heather didn’t know for years that her ability to see people’s feelings and even feel them sometimes was unusual.”

“Heather’s empathy had matured with the rest of her…”

Weiner just lets the superpower fizzle into uselessness as she can’t sense the danger next to her, a malevolence so strong her father can sense it from across the street.

White space. Stylistically, the text floats on a sea of white space. The margins are wider than usual and every paragraph, even those in the same scene have at least three spaces between them.  I’m sure this is supposed to indicate the distance between the characters, but it feels more like a college freshman padding a term paper.

The ending is a pleasant, if unceremonious, surprise. There isn’t enough inner conflict or angst to give the reader a sense of dread on the character’s behalf. Afterward, there are no real consequences. It just comes across as a weird thing that happened one day. And then the book was over.

This was one of the most passive reading experiences I have ever had. No imagining, no guessing, no caring.

Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi, 1974

 

HelterSkelter-01

“It was so quiet…you could almost hear the sound of ice rattling in cocktail shakers in the homes way down the canyon.”  Vincent Bugliosi, Helter Skelter.   Image © Alyssa Yerga-Woolwine

Google any crime list with qualifiers like “horrific”, “gruesome” or “terrifying” and the Tate-LaBianca murders of August 1969 probably make the top ten.  Almost fifty years later they remain one of the darkest examples of malevolence and cruelty the American public has seen. In the book Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry offers a dense, fact-heavy account of the murders, arrests and trials for the crimes that brought the decade of free love and optimism to a bloody end.

Helter Skelter, published in 1974, fulfills the Book Originally Published the Year You Were Born challenge (2018 Reading Challenge).  The murders happened a little over five years before I was born. As such, I didn’t learn of Manson and his mayhem until decades later.  By then there was a glamourous infamy that reduced the victims to footnotes and made Manson a star.

Bugliosi recounts his struggle to build a case against Manson and his followers amidst some surprising setbacks—sometimes coming from his own side. Despite the similarities, detectives reject the idea that the cases are connected and treat them separately, refusing to share information. Lost evidence and unfollowed leads plague the investigation.  Bugliosi, through his own interviews and investigations (literally searching for evidence himself) builds the case enough to present to a jury.

As expected with a high profile case this disturbing there’s a lot of information to disseminate and Buglioso does his best to make it accessible. The prose gets mired in details to the point of confusion. Evidence and possible evidence (a pair of unclaimed glasses confounds the investigators), dates, times, locations, alibis, lies, people and their relationship to each other blend together in a hazy mass of data.  The book has 50 pages of black and white photos, many of Manson but also of the victims and the Family, as well as maps and other miscellaneous images. I found myself flipping back and forth to help me keep track of who was who.

The reading becomes sludgy during the guilt trial and worse during sentencing, though it has more to do with the complexity of the case rather than Bugliosi’s straightforward writing. The four defendants—Charles Manson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten—and obstructionist attorney Irving Kanarek cause so much chaos and disruption it’s hard to stay focused. This continues through the sentencing phase when some of Manson’s followers, now allowed to testify, add alternate motives and theories to the already closed case.

He truly gives readers a seat at the prosecution’s table as he takes us through the tedious seven-month long trail. He explains why certain evidence was introduced while other evidence wasn’t, why certain witnesses were called while others weren’t (he subpoenaed many of the Family members simply to keep them out of the courtroom during the trial).  He relives his doubts about the strength of the case and fears for a world where Manson walks free.

The Family’s self-righteous certainty that the murders were justified chills even the most jaded, demonstrated by the obsessive need to “understand” Manson, his followers and their reasoning. The motive doesn’t matter. The end result is that nine people died because Manson said so.

Thoughts that linger:

Sharon Tate’s unborn baby, posthumously named Paul, would be fifty years old in 2019.

Everyone was so young. The victims and the murderers.

The known victims of Manson and his followers are:

  • Abigail Folger
  • Donald “Shorty” Shea
  • Gary Hinman
  • Jay Sebring
  • Leno LaBianca
  • Rosemary LaBianca
  • Sharon Tate
  • Steven Parent
  • Voytek Frykowski

Bernard Crowe, the only person Manson shot himself, actually survived.

Many believe Manson ordered the murders to start a race war, with the assumption that blacks would be blamed, and whites would retaliate. In truth, the Tate-LaBianca murders were meant to be a blueprint with the hopes that blacks would commit copy-cat murders.

The Name of God Is Mercy, Pope Francis, 2016

mercy

For the Book about Theology challenge 2018 Reading Challenge, I chose The Name of God Is Mercy.

The text comes in at about 150 pages and Pope Francis’ speaking style is light and accessible, yet it’s proving to be a difficult book to review. It isn’t a narrative story, rather a Q&A between Pope Francis and Vatican reporter Andrea Tornielli to promote the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, a yearlong event running from December 8, 2015 to November 20, 2016 celebrating the power of mercy.

As such, it reads more like an in-depth magazine article than a nonfiction story.  Following statements with examples from the bible, parables and his own experiences in the priesthood, Pope Francis extols the value of mercy as Jesus’ most important message.  But mercy is such an abstract subjective topic that many of the answers given feel less like concrete answers and more like theories or philosophies.

Since it isn’t a typical read, I’m doing an atypical review.

Here are the ideas or quotes I found the most compelling:

  • Pope Francis rejects the comparison of sin to a stain that can be removed. Instead he likens it to a wound that must be healed.
  • Corruption is the habit of sinning without repentance.
  • “That kind of compassion is needed today to conquer the globalization of indifference.”
  • Mercy is not the erasing of sins like forgiveness. Mercy is a gentle form of forgiveness, an alternative to condemnation.
  • “Jesus said he did not come for those who are good but for sinners.”
  • “…I derive consolation from Peter: he betrayed Jesus, and even so he was chosen.”
  • According to Pope Francis, a good confession requires reflection, humility and awareness of “wretchedness”.