Book Review: Going Clear

October 6, 2013 Books to Read, Nonfiction 0

Going Clear was the selection for my Book Club’s September meeting.

Going ClearGoing Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief
by Lawrence Wright, Nonfiction (Released January, 2013)
Bottom Line: Read it.
The story behind L. Ron Hubbard’s (LRH) founding of Scientology, its links to the entertainment industry, and the current state of the “religion”.
My Thoughts: I found it tough to separate my thoughts on this book from my thoughts on Scientology itself, so I will include both here. First, the book. If you’re using a Kindle, do not be alarmed at the very slow rate your “% completed” rises…the actual book ends before 70% (the rest is acknowledgements and sources). Going Clear reminded me a lot of Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer, just swapping out Scientology for Mormonism. Part 1 is mostly about the Scientology beliefs and LRH’s life and is a bit tedious at times. Wright is known as a meticulous researcher (as evidenced in his book on Al Qaeda, The Looming Tower), but he sometimes goes overboard. A lot of the tedium for me was in the detail of the actual Scientology beliefs and in LRH’s writing, which can be completely unintelligible because the beliefs sound insane and they basically use their own language. The parts about LRH’s life were more interesting – he seems to me to be a narcissistic con man. Even his son is quoted in the 
book as saying LRH’s goal was to be “the most powerful being in the universe”. Wright illuminates the glaring differences between the Church’s narrative of LRH’s life and the actual evidence supporting their claims – and this is where his meticulous research is a huge advantage. Part 2 was my favorite. Why? Because it dealt with Scientology’s connections with Hollywood – i.e. celebrity gossip! Wright hits Tom Cruise at about 37% of the way through and he is a large presence through the remainder of the book. You also get some decent dirt on John Travolta, Kelly Preston, and Kirstie Alley. Part 3 is mostly about the current state of the religion (including statements from defectors and media critics). One of the most interesting aspects of the book (aside from the celebrity gossip, of course!) is the question of whether Scientology is a “religion” or a “commercial enterprise”. The Church fought the IRS on this point for years and is now classified as a religion, which means they get an astounding number of protections and benefits under the law. However, Scientology seems to me to be more of a self-help philosophy than a religion (which makes sense because it grew out of LRH’s 1950 self-help book, Dianetics). It does have some rational theories and methods for improving your self-esteem, communication skills, etc. And, this is the sales pitch that is used to attract recruits, along with the brilliant “rumor” that the highest levels of the entertainment industry are full of Scientologists who try to help out “like-minded” up and comers. What wide-eyed wannabe actress wouldn’t sign up for that upon landing in L.A.? But, the upper level beliefs are at times insane and sickening. For example, Scientologists believe that LRH did not actually die, but merely “dropped his body” and will come back to earth in the relatively near future. To be prepared for his return, the Church keeps a fully staffed $10M mansion stocked with his clothes and personal items. The most sickening parts are the Church’s views on family and children. Children “belong to the Church” and are basically separated from their parents at the upper levels and pressed into Church service. Sea Org (the Church’s “clergy”) members are not even allowed to have children. And, if your spouse begins to question the faith, a Scientology member will be “counseled” (i.e. forced) to divorce him or her. And, it’s a stretch of the imagination to take the actual beliefs seriously because they sound like a kids’ video game – using terms like “operating thetan”, “Xenu”, “Galactic Confederacy”, and “wall of fire”. You wonder about the sanity of people that truly believe this stuff. Going Clear contains a plethora of interesting discussion topics, so would make a great Book Club selection. I’m also adding it to my Books for Guys List.

Book Review: The Marriage Plot

October 2, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction 0

The Marriage PlotThe Marriage Plot: A Novel
by Jeffrey Eugenides, Fiction (Released October, 2011)
Bottom Line: Read it.
 TMP chronicles the end of college and the confusion of starting life in the real world for 3 Brown University seniors in the 1980′s: Madeleine (a “romantic” English major and avid reader), her boyfriend (Leonard – a science major and manic depressive), and “guy friend” (Mitchell – who is obsessed with Madeleine).
My Thoughts: 
This was a tough one. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and flew through it, but am having a hard time pinpointing why.  Parts of The Marriage Plot annoyed me – grating character traits, the literary snobbery in world of Brown University English majors, and a focus on esoteric religious thought towards the end of the book.  However, it is beautifully written, the more interesting version of the classic girl/boyfriend/”best guy friend” love triangle kept me turning the pages, and the “what to do after college” angle helps it keep its feet on the ground.

Book Review: The Great Santini

September 29, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction 1

Great SantiniThe Great Santini
by Pat Conroy, Fiction (Released April, 1976)
Bottom Line: Read it.
Summary: Ben Meecham and his three siblings (Mary Anne, Karen, and Matt) grow up under the thumb of their larger than life, volatile fighter pilot father, Bull.
My Thoughts: 
I recently discovered that Conroy is writing a nonfiction memoir (The Death of Santini, due out in October) about his real-life relationship with his father, the inspiration for The Great Santini‘s Bull Meecham. I first read Santini in high school and remember loving it, but I didn’t remember enough detail to write about it for this site. And, I wanted to be up to snuff with my background to fully appreciate his upcoming memoir, so I thought it was high time for a re-read of one of my favorite authors! The first 2-3 chapters may be the best opening of a book in terms of character and story introduction that I’ve ever read. It perfectly sets up Bull’s crazy personality, his imposition of military structure on his home life and family, and, obviously, his temper. He also immediately comes across as funny and I can’t decide whether or not his humor is intentional. I chuckled out loud when Bull stands on the front steps of his house at 2 am, with his entire family loaded in the car ready to move to South Carolina, and yells “stand by for a fighter pilot”. I just pictured an overloaded Griswold family style station wagon almost dragging along the ground while Bull acts like he’s operating a high performance fighter jet in a war zone. Bull and Lillian (Mrs. Meecham) both ended up being much more complex characters than I remember from my initial read, or maybe I just view them differently now that I’m older. Bull has more likeable traits than I remember (he’s loved by many of his Marine Corps colleagues, he does sweet things for his wife and children, and he comes to the defense/rescue of his children in many cases) and Lillian is more dislikable than I remember. She outwardly appears to be a Saint and martyr for putting up with Bull, but she is actually a classic enabler, concerned more about appearances than the well being of her children. And, she constantly foregoes standing up for her children in favor of making excuses for Bull’s antics. I disliked Lillian more and more as the book went on and wound up wondering which personality type (Bull’s or Lillian’s) was worse. It was like Conroy was reading my mind because he has Ben and Mary Anne have this exact conversation towards the end of the book. He, of course, sums up the argument eloquently, saying 
“you always know where Dad stands and he knows where he stands, but no one will ever know where […] Darling Lillian stands, not even […] Darling Lillian. Mom can hurt people more with her piety than Dad can with his temper.”. Finally, Conroy hilariously skewers the Marine Corps (and military in general) and the Catholic Church, even comparing them to each other in a funny section of Bull’s thoughts while daydreaming in church. This is no doubt a heartbreaking book (even more so knowing much of the material came from Conroy’s real life) and it absolutely nails the conflicted feelings of having a horrifying, volatile, and sometimes abusive parent. And, as is the norm for Conroy, it’s beautifully written. I think Conroy could write about paint drying and I would love reading it! The Great Santini is going on my Book Club Recommendations and Books for Guys lists…and I highly recommend reading it (even a second time) if you want to be appropriately prepared for October’s The Death of Santini!

Book Review: The Leopard

September 26, 2013 Books to Skip, Fiction, Mysteries/Thrillers 0

LeopardThe Leopard: A Harry Hole Novel
by Jo Nesbo, Fiction (Released December, 2011)
Bottom Line: Skip it.

Summary: Inspector Harry Hole returns from self-imposed exile to investigate a series of murders connected to one night in an isolated ski cabin in Norway.
My Thoughts:
 Jo Nesbo was billed in some reviews as similar to Stieg Larsson. However, that does him the disservice of raising expectations, only to disappoint. I found my concentration wandering fairly often while reading The Leopard and the flow is a bit awkward. If you really want a Nordic murder mystery, The Snowman (Nesbo’s last book) is a much better choice than The Leopard.

Book Review: The Kitchen House

September 25, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction 0

The Kitchen HouseThe Kitchen House: A Novel
by Kathleen Grissom, Fiction (Released January, 2010)
Bottom Line: Read it.
 Set in the late 1700′s – early 1800′s, a 7 year old white girl is brought to work as a slave in the kitchen house of a Virginia plantation.
My Thoughts: This book manages to be heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time. For every dislikable character, there is someone you love that embodies the other side of the coin (i.e. Marshall and The Captain, Rankin and Will Stephens). The Kitchen House is also chock full of drama and scandal to keep things moving along. I’ve added it to my Book Club Recommendations List.

Book Review: Game Over

September 22, 2013 Books to Skip, Nonfiction, Sports 0

Game OverGame Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down
by Dave Zirin, Fiction (Released January, 2013)
Bottom Line: Skip it.
 Zirin, a sportswriter for The Nation and, explores how politics has recently begun to infiltrate the previously apolitical sports world.
My Thoughts: I think I totally missed the boat on what this book was actually about when I picked it up. I thought it would be about “sports politics” (i.e. the politics of the NCAA and putting on the Olympics), and he does touch on that kind of stuff briefly. But, this book was actually about real (vs. sports) politics becoming more connected to the sports world and how athletes SHOULD use their platform to speak out about politics. He covers comparisons of the recent NFL and NBA lockouts to Occupy Wall Street and the Wisconsin fight over labor laws, the Penn State scandal, LGBT tolerance in sports, and the big business of building pro sports stadiums, among other things. As a fan, I enjoy watching sports for the love of the game and to escape the pressures of daily life…and, I get totally turned off when politics gets shoved in my face at a sporting event or while watching one on TV. So…I essentially disagree with the entire premise of Zirin’s book and was annoyed to be reading it. I also felt like he was ranting at me the entire time and that, for a sports journalist, he came across as hating sports. The one article I did find 
interesting was about the debate over whether NCAA athletes playing revenue-generating sports should be compensated in some way given the money they make for their schools. This was the type of topic I expected to read about in this book. Other than that, I couldn’t wait to be finished with Game Over. Don’t waste one second of your time on this one.

Book Review: The Gods of Gotham

September 21, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction, Mysteries/Thrillers 0

Gods of GothamThe Gods of Gotham
by Lyndsay Faye, Historical Fiction (Released March, 2012)

Bottom Line: Read it.
Summary: Set in 1845 New York, Timothy Wilde finds a young girl covered in blood in his first days as a New York Copper Star (early incarnation of the NYPD), which sets him on a path to solve a mystery of disappearing child prostitutes.
My Thoughts: This is a great book that, while historically accurate (George Washington Matsell, head of the Copper Stars, was a real person), reads like a suspenseful mystery. The Gods of Gotham is set during the Irish potato famine, during which many Irish Catholics immigrated to New York, causing massive racial and religious prejudices in the city. Faye does a great job portraying this social upheaval, especially the anti-Catholicism, while weaving it so well into the narrative that you don’t even notice that you’re learning. The murder mystery is compelling and does not have an obvious solution. The main characters are likable and surprising – most are not who they seem to be by the end of the story. This book is a fun way to learn about old New York and the formation of the New York Police Department – it’s going on my Books for Guys List.

Book Review: The Chris Farley Show

September 20, 2013 Books to Read, Nonfiction 0

ChrisfarleybkThe Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts
by Tom Farley, Jr. and Tanner Colby, Nonfiction (Released May, 2008)
Bottom Line: Read it.
Chris Farley’s life story, told through interviews with friends, co-workers, and family.
My Thoughts: When my brother recommended this book to me, I told him I was excited for something light after Fall of Giants. He said, “this is not a light read – Chris Farley is a complex guy.” He was right – as I read, I found myself talking to my husband about Chris’ issues with his dad, his insecurity and compulsive desire to please people, his earnest naivety in cutthroat Hollywood…and, of course, about how all of this fed his addictions. TCFS is not a juicy Hollywood tell-all. While it certainly contains juicy stories, they’re told in the context of painting a rich picture of Farley’s personality – the good and the bad. This book is on my Books for Guys List.

Book Review: The Casual Vacancy

September 18, 2013 Books to Skip, Fiction 0

Casual VacancyThe Casual Vacancy
by J.K. Rowling, Fiction (Released September, 2012)

Bottom Line: Skip it.
Summary: The unexpected death of Pagford Parish Council member Barry Fairbrother sparks a backstabbing competition to fill his vacated Council seat.
My Thoughts: I should first give you some context so you can appropriately judge my thoughts: I thought the first Harry Potter book was fine (but not fantastic), and I did not read all seven of them. That being said, Rowling’s latest book confused me. When I first started reading it, I wondered if Rowling was being sarcastic about small town British politics and the people who take them very seriously – like the movie “Best in Show”. As the book goes on, I realized this probably wasn’t the case, but I think it would have made for much more entertaining reading. Overall, the book was fine – I wasn’t really into it, but didn’t have trouble finishing it either. I just didn’t get the point of it and I couldn’t make myself care who won Barry Fairbrother’s Council seat. Maybe it suffered from overblown expectations because it was written by J.K. Rowling or maybe I’m one of the only people on earth who is not a huge Rowling fan.

Book Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling

September 15, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction, Mysteries/Thrillers 0

Cuckoo's CallingThe Cuckoo’s Calling
by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling), Fiction (Released April, 2013)

Bottom Line: Read it.
Summary: Down on his luck detective, Cormoran Strike, and his temporary secretary, Robin, investigate the suspicious suicide of famous model Lula Landry at the behest of her adopted brother.
My Thoughts: This book got lots of buzz a few months after its publication under the pseudonym “Robert Galbraith”. “Galbraith” was soon outed as Harry Potter series author J.K. Rowling and the book shot to number one on Amazon’s Bestseller List within hours (it had previously only sold 500 copies). I was certainly interested to see how Rowling tackled the mystery/thriller genre, even though I was not a fan of her first “adult” fiction effort, The Casual Vacancy. Cuckoo is a standard mystery with more fully developed characters than you find in most thrillers. I feel like most mysteries consist of events happening in quick succession and don’t focus much on the characters themselves. Rowling does a great job developing characters, especially Lula. I felt like I intimately knew her even though she was dead in the book’s first paragraph. It actually made me think of how police must get to know the victims in the course of real-life murder investigations. Though the investigation builds more slowly than in many mysteries I’ve read, I felt like it was more true to the pace of a real life murder investigation. Rowling also used the old standby of the “down on his luck, but quite talented” detective type – like Stieg Larsson’s Mikael Blomkvist and Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole. But, despite the familiar archetype, Cormoran Strike was a likable and entertaining character. Finally, the ending did have a few too many convenient coincidences that enabled Strike to solve the puzzle. But, all in all, Cuckoo is a well-written mystery with more in-depth characters than usual for the genre. It’s going on my Page Turners List.