Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 (Garrett M. Graff)

It's hard to fathom that it's been almost 20 years since September 11, 2001. Most of us can remember exactly where we were that day when we heard that passenger planes had hit the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. In this day and age, it's easy to forget that after that horrible day, the nation was united in our grief, anger, and patriotism.

There have been countless movies, documentaries, and books that have come out since 9/11, but none has affected me so much as Garrett M. Graff's The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11. Graff walks the reader through the entirety of 9/11 by having the readers hear from those directly involved: the ticket agents who checked the hijackers in, the air traffic controllers, those in President Bush's administration, and the families of those who sat frantically by the phone.

For me, there were two parts that were most effective: reading about the normalcy of September 10 and the morning of September 11 and knowing what was to come and hearing from the 9/11 survivors. What stuck out the most to me was that much of the day was all about luck. Someone who survived may have made a left while exiting the World Trade Center, while their friend who didn't made a right.

Oral histories are always the most insightful way to tell what really happened, and The Only Plane in the Sky (which refers to Air Force One being the only plane in the sky when all the others were grounded) is one that will make you appreciate every second of your life.


Monday, October 28, 2019

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (Caitlin Doughty)

In the past few months, I've been on quite the Caitlin Doughty kick. I recently reviewed her books Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? and From Here to Eternity and also went to hear her speak at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. In Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, she describes her experience working at a crematory; this, along with her time at mortuary school, gives her a very clear idea of what to do (and what not to do) to help families when they lose a loved one.

This is a fascinating book, filled with unforgettable and strange stories. From picking up the newly deceased to getting ashes on her clothes, Caitlin brings a sense of humor to the proceedings but never crosses the line into being disrespectful. What I've always loved about Caitlin is that she takes the "scary" out of death in such a matter-of-fact way and answers questions you've always wondered but have been too afraid to ask.

All of Caitlin's books (and her You Tube videos) are designed to help you face death head-on and take some of the fear out of it. I recommend any one of them wholeheartedly.


Sunday, October 27, 2019

Swede Hollow (Ola Larsmo)

Swede Hollow was a book that came across my husband’s radar about a month ago while he was reading up on news from his home state of Minnesota. He’s Swedish and loves history - a perfect combination for a historical fiction tale that highlights the tribulations, trials, and some successes of early Swedish immigrants to Minnesota.

Swede Hollow, written initially in Swedish by Ola Larsmo in 2016, was recently translated into English by Tiina Nunnally and subsequently published by the University of Minnesota Press. The book focuses on the Klar family, who emigrated from Sweden to New York and subsequently to Minnesota in the 1890s. Over the course of sixty years, we see the focus of the family and their squatter neighborhood in St. Paul. This neighborhood was eventually demolished in the 1950s and is now a park; however, for nearly a century it was the home of immigrants from a host of countries, most notably the namesake of the hollow, Sweden. The Klar family’s trials and tribulations as new Americans is woven through historical facts and events that parallel the timeline of the book. 

Larsmo’s work is very solid in quality and depth. For those who have Scandinavian heritage and live in or have family ties to Minnesota, it is certainly worth a read into seeing what Swedes in the Minnesota of 1900 lived through and in some cases, in, as part of their initial years here in America.


Thursday, October 24, 2019

Severance (Ling Ma)

When Shen Fever sweeps many parts of the world, Candace Chen is stuck in New York City. But this novel is not about your typical "zombie apocalypse," which, in my opinion, is very tiresome. There is no cure for this disease, and sufferers relive their day-to-day tasks (like setting the table and driving a cab) over and over again. Severance is even scarier than the zombie genre because you feel like it could actually happen.

Candace drifts along every day troubleshooting Bibles at a publishing company. Her life is so routine oriented that she barely notices when strange things start to happen. Little by little, people get sick, subways shut down, and people flee the city. Her manager gives a group of employees (including Candace) an offer they can't refuse to stay in New York to keep the company running. Soon though, even her coworkers flee, and Candace finds herself entirely alone.

Severance goes back and forth in time between when the fever was starting and when Candace joined up with a group of survivors. Learning about Candace's family history, along with seeing New York emptying out during the outbreak, was very interesting. The time with the survivors, not so much. And the unsatisfying ending is very frustrating. But, all in all, Ling Ma does a good job of creating a world outside of the ordinary.


Monday, October 21, 2019

Brooklyn: The Once and Future City (Thomas J. Campanella)

Brooklyn: The Once and Future City by Thomas J. Campanella reads like 450 pages of Brooklyn history that feels like it was co-opted from The New Yorker (it wasn’t). Campanella is a Brooklyn-born and part-time resident of the city who wrote his third book to chronicle the unique, crazy, odd, fun, and bizarre history of the city that is now “just” a borough of Gotham.

My reference to The New Yorker is more about style and substance of the book: Campanella’s work spans early Brooklyn, Revolutionary War-era Brooklyn, the transformation of the city from sleepy hamlet to a leviathan that devoured the pastoral Long Island landscape, and the schemes, dreams, and stories of fleeing from Brooklyn in the years after World War II. The stories are woven around themes in each chapter that highlight the city’s transformation, absorption into Greater New York, and its struggles in later years. 

Simply put, I thoroughly enjoyed this book as someone who has yet to set foot in Brooklyn but intends to some day. Its history is unique, like any major city, and Campanella has found a brilliant path in weaving this borough’s tale through over 300 years of stories. It’s a great read into a great city.


Sunday, October 6, 2019

Reinventing the Organization (Arthur Yeung and Dave Ulrich)

Reinventing the Organization attempts to provide a blueprint to business leaders to assist them in developing a model of success in an era where change happens fast and new ways to do business arise quickly. While the organizations authors Arthur Yeung and Dave Ulrich highlight certainly provide examples of businesses that have achieved tremendous success both here and abroad, the book may not be of much help to smaller businesses.

Yeung and Ulrich provide extensive research into several tech businesses, and from their research, create a six-step organizational toolkit. According to them, each of these companies possesses characteristics outlined within the toolkit and advocate that application of this toolkit can yield better results within your own business.  While it’s completely fair to point out that the companies used as case studies in Reinventing the Organization are massively successful, they all had their genesis and development in technology. It’s odd that not even one case study came from outside of Silicon Valley or the tech sector in China; this exclusion hurts the potential relevance this book could have had across all sectors of business.

This book is worthwhile...if you are looking to start up or reinvent  a technology company. For someone in a different type of business, while they can probably cherry pick some useful information that can theoretically be applied, it may come across like a “How to Scale Your Tech Startup Just Like Amazon!” instead of “How can I Make My Existing Business Operate Better?".


Friday, October 4, 2019

The Fever (Megan Abbott)

A quick read with nothing special about it, Megan Abbott's The Fever is the perfect book for passing the time on a long plane or car trip.

Deenie Nash is an everyday high schooler, with her father a teacher at the school and her brother a hockey star. Things are normal until, one day, her best friend has a seizure in class. The cause is unknown, and soon, hysteria breaks out when other girls begin to act strangely too. Parents are terrified that a "fever" is sweeping through the town that is targeting their daughters and no one can explain what is happening.

The best way I can describe The Fever is the Salem Witch Trials combined with Mean Girls. Most of the book was your everyday average thriller, but there were points I couldn't stop reading. Again, it's a great book to pick up when you're stuck somewhere and need to pass the time.