Black Swan Rising, Lisa Brackmann, 2018

…And once those black swans start flying…you don’t know what’s coming home to roost. Lisa Brackmann

Spoiler Alert

For the Political challenge, I chose Black Swan Rising, a tale entrenched not only in the world of politics but behind the scenes of the sensation driven media. The story follows two protagonists into the world of domestic and cyber terrorism.

            Young and ambitious, Casey Cheng bides her time as a tv journalist in the steppingstone market of San Diego. She’s recovering emotionally and physically from injuries sustained at the hands of a gunmen while covering an event. In effort to make sense of it she decides to turn a negative into a positive by researching the deceased gunmen and his motives. Nabbing an interview with the shooter’s mother gives Casey access to his lair. There she finds a graphic novel that inspired him and a growing movement of angry men bent on taking back the country using her shooter’s name as a rallying cry. She becomes obsessed with finding out the truth.

            On the other side of town, recent college grad Sarah Price is a campaign worker for Democrat Matt Cason, a war veteran with a temper.  As the campaign’s social media coordinator, Sarah must balance the publicity needs of Cason with her desire to keep her past hidden. When violence erupts at an event, Sarah is forced into the spotlight, where her secrets come back to haunt her. She’s obsessed with hiding the truth.

            Casey and Sarah’s paths converge intermittently about halfway through the 400+ page book. Yet, they never really join forces. Each woman maintains her own storyline as they follow their respective career paths. It’s like Brackmann created two separate novels with the other character making occasional cameos.

            Though I liked following the two intriguing characters, Brackmann’s attention to both isn’t distributed evenly. At the beginning, we’re introduced to Sarah and she feels like the main character. It’s jarring when Casey takes over about forty pages in. The story bounces back and forth between Sarah and Casey, as well as secondary (they’re too important to be minor) characters without any real rhyme or reason. Sarah’s storyline resolves almost 100 pages before the book’s ending, though she’s still around (and plays a very important part at the book’s climax).

            Characters in the book are either compelling and real or barely existent. Those real ones come complete with histories, vices and personal agendas. Casey feels most fleshed out, but that proves to be problematic because some of her habits—risk-taking for one—become exhausting.  Brackmann does an excellent job portraying the way a Type-A person like Casey would react to being felled by a gunman. The idea that she would morph her healing into a career move seems apropos. Why should someone else benefit from her pain?

Sarah’s troubled past was more interesting to me and I wish more had been done with her. Still, it’s fitting, given the character’s desire to shut that part of her life out. Sarah’s got a survivor’s mentality so it makes sense she wouldn’t dwell on the secret she’s trying to keep hidden. The characters of Matt and Lindsey Cason are a study in the pressure media scrutiny can put on a marriage that’s already cracking.

            My only complaint about the book is the wedged in romantic feelings Casey and Sarah’s characters have for colleagues. It’s as if Brackmann felt obligated to give these young women men to fixate on in sporadic bursts. Casey kinda sorta develops a crush on her cameraman but loses interest so quickly it’s hard to understand why it was mentioned. Sarah kinda sorta has a thing for the charismatic, troubled and married Matt Cason. It’s clear she isn’t interested enough to derail her career or his marriage over it. Then, suddenly, she’s pursuing an available colleague. Honestly, it felt like the author decided to drop those storylines and just forgot to delete all the sentences pertaining to them. It doesn’t take away from the overall enjoyability of the book. It’s just a tad distracting.

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Alex, The Life of a Child, Frank Deford, 1983

She was dear and noble, and nothing ever controlled her.

Frank Deford

I expected one of the most difficult categories of the 52 week book challenge to be “The book that makes you cry” and I was right. I read a few books that I thought might have an impact, but while I could appreciate the moroseness of the situations, no tears came.

Deep down, I knew the book I had to choose for this challenge. The one book I could count on to reduce me to ugly crying tears. Even after thirty years, even after multiple readings.

I first came upon the story of Alex Deford at my grandparents’ house. Reader’s Digest ran an abridged excerpt in one of its issues and shortly after a tv movie came out. After sobbing hysterically during the film, I made my mother drive me to Waldenbooks the next day so I could get a full copy of the book. At twelve years old, the story of Alex’s struggle touched me in a way I still can’t explain. Though not a bestseller, many of us who read this book have a devoted, near obsessive love for it and Alex herself.

In October 1971, Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford lived an idyllic life in Connecticut. Married to a former model and father to a healthy son, the birth of daughter Alex completed the American dream. Briefly. Just four months later, Alex was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that causes the sufferer to produce too much mucus in the lungs as well as other ailments. The disease is progressive and fatal. Even today, the life expectancy is 37.5 years (Cystic Fibrosis News Today). Back in the seventies, the age was eighteen. Alex only made it to eight.

Yet, even as her health deteriorated, Alex’s vivacious nature kept her and her family going. Up until the last week of her life she had no intention of going gently into that good night and held out hope that there would be a cure.

Deford wrote the book shortly after Alex’s death as a way for his adopted daughter to get to know her older sister. He chronicles Alex’s life by interviewing those who knew and loved her, revisiting entries from the diary he kept and sharing memories and philosophical reflections. But the book is more than just a biography of Alex. It’s a look into the lives of families affected by terminal illness, something those of us blessed with health don’t have to think about and probably can’t really comprehend. While Alex’s presence no doubt made their lives better, it’s fair to say her disease made their lives more challenging. Simply put, it’s an account of the toll a terminal disease can take on a family.

Because the reader knows how Alex’s story ends, her eventual death looms in the distance, adding weight to all the action that comes before it. Part of what makes the book so devastating is knowing that Alex’s suffering (and there’s a lot of it) will ultimately yield nothing. Deford mentions this himself in a refreshing display of deserved bitterness and righteous anger. He doesn’t shy away from “negative” emotions or hide the truth behind saccharine sentiments like “There’s a reason for everything” or “God must have needed another angel” drivel. He knows his daughter got a dark cloud and he doesn’t pretend there’s a silver lining. While I don’t begrudge people taking a more optimistic approach to grief, sometimes it feels like it belittles the person’s life and suffering when we act like there’s an upside to their death.  

Forty years after her death Alex still impacts those of us who read this book. Her story is inspiring and long-lasting. Cystic fibrosis robbed Alex of years, but it didn’t diminish her spirit.

Night Film, Marisha Pessl, 2013

Sovereign. Deadly. Perfect.

For the book with 600 pages challenge, I chose the mystery, Night Film, by Marisha Pessl. The book benefits from the ingenious use of images alongside text.  Pages of visual materials like fake newspaper and magazine articles, emails, documents and webpages are scattered throughout. It’s like a picture book for adults. It’s enhanced with interactive elements and Easter eggs found on a website that the reader can still access as of the writing of this review.  

Pessl establishes a world that straddles reality and fiction in a fantastic feat of world-bridging.

The author creates a mythic and brilliant director, Stanislav Cordova, whose films are revered by loyal followers and reviled by detractors. Parts Kubrick, Von Trier and Lynch, his work is potent and dangerous and causes viewers to question everything they think they know. His films are difficult to find and eschew mainstream topics. His fans, who call themselves Cordovites, hold red-band screenings, rave-like gatherings in abandoned buildings and tunnels to secretly view his movies, dubbed “night films” some of which are banned because of the disturbing imagery.  

Cordova and his family, as mysterious and reclusive as he is, remain a source of curiosity veiled in myths and urban legends even decades after his public appearance.

While the Cordova family is the subject, the book’s main character is Scott McGrath, a relentless journalist fallen from grace, having chased the shadow of Cordova to his own peril.  Years before, after receiving bad intel, he falsely accused the director on national tv of heinous acts against children. It costs McGrath his reputation, job and marriage. While clawing his way back to decent society, he has a strange encounter with Ashley, Cordova’s twenty-four-year-old daughter in Central Park. She appears like a wraith in red and quickly vanishes. A week later she’s found dead at the bottom of an elevator shaft. McGrath convinces himself that Ashley’s appearance was an attempt to reach out to him.

McGrath forms a rag tag team with nineteen-year-old Nora, a quirky Florida transplant with a tragic past and Hopper, a man who shares history with Ashley, though he is reluctant to spill the details. Together, they reconstruct a timeline of Ashley’s last few weeks, interviewing anyone who may have had contact with her that can help solve the riddle of her death.

Though interesting, the book isn’t without its flaws. There’s lots of unnecessary info dumping through dialogue, which is just this side of unforgiveable given the copious amounts of supplemental materials included in the book itself and available online.

The main problem is with the enigmatic Cordova family, especially Ashley. She’s yet another ineffable creature, dreamlike, ethereal and unknowable. Her gray eyes (because she couldn’t just have blue) bore into people’s very souls leaving them changed. All the people who’ve looked at her basically give the same gist: piercing eyes, otherworldly stare, she’s haunted, she’s haunting. The reader knows nothing about Ashley because characters can’t explain her. She’s too enigmatic to comprehend or care about.

Sometimes the dialogue and descriptions can be a little cringe-inducing. Characters who shouldn’t have more than a few sentences of dialogue are given pages of backstory and dense monologues and then evaporate. As Pessl allows minor and side characters the time to unfold, they start sounding the same. They fall into a similar poetic cadence, heavy on metaphor and symbolism. The following three lines are said by three different characters, all different ages from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

“She looked so familiar…Like a tune you suddenly recall from childhood and yet you can’t remember the lyrics or really anything beyond a handful of mysterious notes.”

“I’d long given up my actress dreams, dreams of fame, which I understood was nothing more than consigning oneself to a cheap carnival where one lives forever in a cage, applauded and ridiculed by equal measure.”

“To know her then not…is like serving a life sentence. You see everything at a distance, through thick glass and telephones and visiting hours.”

At 600+ pages, Night Film is a commitment, for sure, but I think most readers will know early on if this is a book they want to see through to the end.

Splintered, A.G. Howard, 2011

This is my one chance to find Wonderland, to cleanse the Liddell bloodline of this curse, and to save Alison. A.G. Howard

Disclaimer 1: I don’t like Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Disclaimer 2: I am not the intended audience of this book

Participating in this book challenge has been an overall rewarding experience. Thanks to the wide-ranging categories I’ve read books I’d never pick up had it not met certain criteria.

On the flip side, sometimes those books I never would have read are books I would have been happy without, as is the case with Splintered.

The “character with your name” challenge has been problematic. Despite the rising popularity of the name Alyssa, the literary world lags.

I settled on Splintered, mostly out of desperation (see disclaimer 1). It’s a Young Adult Fantasy (see disclaimer 2) set in the Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland universe. Splintered is an imaginative continuance of the Wonderland saga, one in which Wonderland and the book Alice in Wonderland co-exist.

The main character, Alyssa Gardner, is the teen descendent of Alice Liddell, Carroll’s inspiration for Alice in Wonderland. Lewis and the rest of world consider Alice’s adventure to be childish make-believe. But the real Wonderland is a dark twisted realm lurking below. Alice’s visit left Wonderland’s inhabitants embroiled in political struggle and upheaval and only Alyssa can restore the balance.

Above ground Alice’s descendants suffered as well, victims of an insanity curse placed upon them for Alice’s transgressions. Alyssa, the great-great-great granddaughter of Alice, tries to break the curse to save her mother, Alison, from a scheduled lobotomy.

Following clues left by her Wonderland guide, Morpheus, Alyssa realizes Wonderland is not only real, it hides the cure to her mother’s insanity. Throughout her childhood Morpheus appeared either in the form of a moth or young boy her age so despite the bizarreness of the situation, she trusts him. Alyssa takes the plunge through the looking glass and embarks on a series of quests to repair what Alice broke and save her mother.

The story is compelling, though needlessly complicated, which fantasy stories lean towards. Rules for how magic works are doled out on a need to know basis and even then there’s always some exploitable loophole rendering the rules useless.

But that’s not the biggest problem Splintered has. It’s the characters.

Alyssa is an insufferable Mary Sue, who’s simply too delicate and fragile to be able to take on the quest alone. Enter Jeb, the overbearing lummox/love interest. Simply being Jeb makes him the authority in every situation, even when he has no clue. While Alyssa is certainly no expert, she’s still ahead of him in terms of information. She’s familiar not only with the Carroll story, but her own family’s history. She’s gathered clues. And yet when Jeb takes control, she demurs. In a world of powerful magic, Jeb is convinced his brute strength is more powerful. It isn’t.

After following her, uninvited, through the looking glass, he starts barking orders under the guise of “protecting” Alyssa. His sole motivation is to get them back home (Does he know how? No. No matter, he’s Jeb!), despite Alyssa’s quest to save her mother. With the guidance of the deceitful Morpheus, Alyssa traverses the whimsical landscape with Jeb dragging his feet the whole way. And yet somehow, she falls more in love with the oaf as they go.

Morpheus, Jeb’s romantic rival, brings out the worst in Jeb. And by worst, I mean the worst name-calling.

The dialogue is eye-rolling. Some of Jeb’s insults:

            “Hands off you son of a bug!”

            “I go where Al goes, dances-with-bugs.”

            “Take her silence as no, bug for brains.”

Sadly, despite his duplicity, Morpheus believes in Alyssa from the very beginning. He encourages her and implores her to see the inner strength that exists (it really doesn’t, but we’re told it’s there). Jeb, meanwhile, sees Alyssa as brittle and unsound, incapable of taking care of herself.

The best parts of the book happen toward the end when she leaves Jeb in a ditch and continues the journey on her own. Unfortunately, her thoughts are constantly on him and he seems to be her sole motivation. There were several times throughout the book I forgot that she was there to save her mother. Her universe revolves around Jeb.

Again, this book isn’t for me. Some of the teens side-eyed me as I invaded their part of the library. This is the kind of world where teenage girls yearn to belong to a guy and that guy will be completely theirs in some weird possessive pact. A world where the love interest is dating a beautiful, rich cold-hearted rival but just can’t seem to get his mind off Mary Sue Alyssa. A world where the only victory that matters is winning the boy.

The Spy, Paulo Coelho, 2016

The cover of Paulo Coelho's novel The Spy features an actual photo of Mata Hari wearing an ornate swan head dress.

Yes, I turned gossip into “secrets” because I wanted money and power. But all those who accuse me now know I never revealed anything new. Paulo Coelho

Spoilers

Brazilian author Paolo Coelho brings Mata Hari to life in his espionage novel, The Spy. Formatted as Hari’s final letter to her attorney, Édouard Clunet, and his response, Hari’s life and death unfold in this fictional retelling of real events.

Born Margaretha Zelle in the Netherlands, she had an idyllic childhood until her early teens when her father went bankrupt, her parents divorced and her mother died, all within a three-year span. At 18, she married Dutch Colonial Army Captain Rudolf MacLeod, a man twenty years older than her. He whisked her away to Indonesia, far from her turbulent life and money problems. An unhappy marriage and the loss of a child caused her to flee to Paris.  There, with a dash of cultural appropriation, she transformed herself into Mata Hari, a supposed Javanese princess and exotic dancer. She was the definition of overnight success and supplemented her dancing income by becoming what one could politely call a courtesan.  These connections to high society movers and shakers would be her downfall.

Her rise to fame was quick, but once World War I started, she lost her status. She received an offer of employment as a German spy which she accepted with the intention of actually working as a double agent for France. Unfortunately, she chose the wrong man to trust in the French government and he sold her out.

These facts are available almost anywhere. Wikipedia, biography.com, Britannica.com are some of the first sites that pop up when you type Mata Hari. Coelho supplements the facts, imbuing the space between bullet points with Mata Hari’s imagined feelings, motivations and intentions.

The Spy was translated from Coelho’s original native tongue, Portuguese.  As with any translation, the reader wonders what was lost between one language to the next.  How close to the author’s vision was the translator while maneuvering over idiomatic barriers.

I bring this up because Coelho’s Mata Hari doesn’t come across as likeable. I don’t know if he didn’t write her sympathetically or if some linguistic artistry got lost.  I get the feeling if she were alive today, her IG captions would be variations of “I’m so ugly, right?” or esoteric Facebook posts asking for prayers but not saying why. Her attention seeking seems insatiable and exhausting even while her bold resourcefulness is admirable.

Despite her poor choices, Mata Hari’s punishment had nothing to do with spying (she never gave the Germans information). Her fatal offense was cashing in on her own sexuality and parlaying her appeal into social currency. No matter how it gets translated, that comes across clearly.

Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell

Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell is known for his gift of explanation. In Blink he studies the “hows” and “whys” of split-second decisions. In Outliers he tackles the “who” behind success. But in his first book, The Tipping Point, he focuses on “what”, as in what makes certain phenomena spread across cities, states, countries, even the world. He offers detailed insight into the precise moment something goes viral, when mere events or spectacles get nudged over the line and become crazes. Like when Cabbage Patch Kids, Tickle-Me-Elmos and fidget spinners went from toys on a store shelf to national obsessions.

According to Gladwell, the tipping point is the “moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” With language usually reserved for the medical field, Gladwell discusses “infections” and “epidemics” that happen across disciplines ranging from medicine, criminology, commercialism and urban development. Backed by studies and anecdotal materials he identifies important moments during specific phenomena’s lifespans. With an uncanny ability to infuse dry material with a dose of, he takes readers through different phenomenon and pinpoints the causes in a way that can change your viewpoint.

As is Gladwell’s signature style, he points out problems and the obscure solutions and explains why it’s obvious. For instance, New York’s improved subway safety can be traced, not to more police presence, but to fixing broken windows and cleaning graffiti. Why? Because those things symbolize a breakdown of society thereby giving the criminals a perceived camouflage. Removing the pervasive low-level criminal elements (graffiti and vandalism) makes the next level (muggers, gangs) stand out.

In a different example, Baltimore’s successful needle exchange program wasn’t a success because of the medical agencies going out and exchanging needles one by one. The “retailers”, addicts who picked up hundreds of discarded needles, traded them in and made a small business out of selling clean needles to fellow addicts for a dollar. It doesn’t diminish the success of the program, but it changes the way it operates.

The most striking comes from an edition of Gladwell’s book that includes a new afterward by the author. He compares an epidemic of suicide among teen boys in Micronesia and the school shootings done by teen boys in the United States.  In both cases, the boys were “infected” with the ideas. In Micronesia it can be traced to a well-known affluent young man who killed himself as part of a love triangle. In the United States, it can be traced to Columbine. The fact that they can be traced at all means there’s reasoning, logic and methodology to the phenomena. It also means there is hope of curtailing it, if not completely stop it.

That’s what makes The Tipping Point so interesting. His findings give people reason to look at problems in different ways, looking for a solution that may not make sense in theory but does in practice.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast, 2014

It was against my parents principles to talk about death. Roz Chast

Edgar Allen Poe, Stephen King, Anne Rice, Neil Gaiman. They do horror alright, but if you want something visceral—heart palpitating, shake you to the core, staring up at your ceiling at three a.m. scary—Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is a must read.

Most horror happens in a realm of fantasy. Think supernatural creatures or twisted psychopaths you’d have a million in one chance of crossing paths with in real life.

In New Yorker cartoonist’s Roz Chast’s graphic novel, the villain is age.

Also, it’s not meant to be a horror story.

Specifically, it’s a memoir of her parent’s old age and eventual deaths. And for those readers lucky enough to still have their parents, Chast’s work is unnerving as it spells out in detail the cruel indignities of aging. Not just from the elderly perspective, but from the caregivers who may be torn between the needs of parents and the needs of their own children.

The sobering graphic novel touches on a part of aging few of us think about: deterioration. We dread the death but forget that it can takes years to get to that point. As each day passes there’s a loss of some kind: loss of independence, loss of control, loss of memory. And the one we aren’t supposed to talk about…loss of money. Yes, it’s quite expensive to die in the United States. Even more expensive to stay alive. Assisted living facilities, nursing homes, at home help and hospice— all these things cost money and even the most frugal savers can find themselves with a the dubious gift…living longer than expected and outliving their means.

Much like Chasts’ 2017 Going Into Town, the book is informative with the same conversational tone. CWTASMP it’s much more personal. While she recounts her parents’ death, she’s also definitely working through the complicated relationships she had with them.

I wasn’t kidding about the book being scary. Like Chast, I’m an only child.  Thankfully, my parents are still relatively young and in good health. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t worry about all our futures, especially when in ten years I’ll have three kids in college. This book doesn’t really do anything to allay those concerns.