Sunday, August 28, 2016

A Mother's Reckoning by Sue Klebold

I don't read many sad books, and I think after this one my quota is filled for the next ten years. It may be one you need to read in private so you can ugly-cry.

Sue Klebold's purpose in A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy is not just to tell her side of the story, but also to advocate for brain health awareness, particularly when it comes to depression and suicide. She talks about her experiences as Dylan's mother; what she saw, what she missed, and what she wishes would have happened. I approached this book with considerable skepticism, but the apparent honesty of her narration won me over, as did her emphasis on not justifying her son, but trying to show other parents what she missed in hopes that they could prevent suicide and murder.

Mid-book, Sue Klebold gives a very brief description of what happened at Columbine High School in 1999 when her son Dylan Klebold and his friend Eric Harris murdered 13 of their classmates, injured 24 more, and finally committed suicide inside the school library. The media storm, ensuing financial, health, and emotional crises that she and her family suffered are all recounted throughout the rest of the book based on her journals and research.

There is a tendency after a violent tragedy to blame the nearest person, and that person is most often the mom. I think that Sue makes her case that Dylan Klebold was an intelligent but mentally unhealthy person who chose his own path, and hid his suffering from the people who would have helped him. Hindsight is always 20/20, and throughout the book she mourns the lost opportunities to reach her beloved son, while not excusing herself for mistakes she believes she made.

In my library in a prison, we collect books in "reentry" topics. One important reentry category is victim awareness, focused on helping people (who often have trouble thinking beyond their own desires) to see the effects their actions have on others. This book is not only a strong call to action in matters of brain health (Sue Klebold's chosen term), but also one that I hope will make people rethink black and white assumptions about blame and guilt. Finger-pointing may be emotionally satisfying, but it rarely prevents the next tragedy.

If you want a journalistic account of the events at Columbine, definitely read Dave Cullen's excellent Columbine, which Sue Klebold's story largely agrees with. Sue Klebold also mentions a few other books, but one that interested me most was Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters by Peter Langman. A Mother's Reckoning is a story that will certainly break your heart.


"The death of someone who has committed a great crime may be for the best, but any dead child is some parent's vanquished hope. This mournful book is Sue's act of vicarious repentance." - Andrew Solomon, introduction"

"To the rest of the world, Dylan was a monster; but I had lost my child." - 58

"A friend told me once that the brain 'on grief' is like an older-model computer running a program drastically too complex for its capacity - it grinds and stutters and halts over the simplest calculation. It took great effort just to hear what others said." - 117

"It can be hard to differentiate between someone who is genuinely getting out of a cycle of depression, and someone who feels relief because they know they're going to die." - 217

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Wolves at the Door

The Wolves at the Door by Judith L. Pearson is subtitled 'The story of America's greatest female spy', and I don't think that is an exaggeration. Virginia Hall was born into a well-off American family and could have had a quiet life tending a Victory garden during the war. But she was an intelligent and ambitious woman, so she chose a different life.


Before the start of WWII, Hall worked at several US consulates in Europe, trying to gain entrance to become a Foreign Sevice Officer. Her gender stood in her way, but so did something else: she lost part of her left leg below the knee in a hunting accident in Turkey. Her career hopes dashed just before the start of the war, she volunteered as an ambulance driver in France. Then came the Nazi occupation, and the establishment of the Vichy regime.

Hall's disgust for the invasion of a country she loved made her the perfect candidate for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a British government shadow body whose mission was warfare by subversion. America had not entered the war, so Hall joined the British. They trained her and posted her in Vichy France, where she recruited Resistance members, aided stranded airmen, and supplied intelligence back to the SOE. Oh, and wrote articles for an American newspaper as part of her cover.

Her work drew the attention of the sadistic Klaus Barbie, a Gestapo intelligence officer known as "The Butcher of Lyon". Posters went up with the nickname 'La Dame qui Boite' (the Limping Lady), describing her as 'the most dangerous of Allied spies. We must find her and destroy her'.

After America entered the war and later the Germans eradicated the zone libre, Hall fled across the Pyrenees into Spain. She didn't tell the men she escaped with about her wooden leg, and kept up a brutal pace. The escape was not flawless, but eventually she made it back to London.

Not content to stay in safety in spite of her new notoriety and the Gestapo hunt, Hall learned how to operate a radio and transferred to the American intelligence service, the OSS (Office of Strategic Services). And went back to Paris in disguised as a frail old lady to hide her limp.

There she continued her activity, reporting troop movements, coordinating nighttime supply drops, and recruiting and directing saboteurs. Her command of French and German helped her along the way, as did her good instincts and discretion. She was recognized with high honors by the British, American, and French governments, but didn't see why doing her job was so special.

The biography is capably written, and Hall's exploits are rarely a slog. There is a brief bibliography - though I am the type of reader who wishes for much more detailed endnotes. I want to know what sources Pearson used to learn Hall's thoughts and feelings, since she was never able to interview Hall directly. In the acknowledgements, Pearson writes that 'Virginia Hall was once asked why she never told her story. Her reply was that she was never asked.' I think it's an example of Hall's innate modesty and perhaps some leftover habits from years of covert operations.

If you are looking for the story of courage, superb judgment and incredible danger, Hall's story has it all. What a person! During the chaos and moral darkness of WWII, people like her were the reason for hope that the world could recover. It is an important story, and I'm glad that it has been told.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age


In Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle talks a lot about the way face-to-face conversation changes the way people think about each other. In her interviews, people tell her openly of their disappointment in being ignored by friends who are focused on their phones.

In my own social circles, I've noticed that while people do pull out their phones in the midst of a group game or conversation, they don't always get away with it. They are often berated for it, in fact, and guilted into re-engaging with the people around them. My phone doesn't ring a lot these days, so for me it's less of a distraction!

Image of historical cellular phones

I recommend this book to readers who want to hear a clear, balanced perspective on the consequences of constantly divided attention on our society. It will give you a lot to think about, and may start a discussion or two.


"But if we don’t have experience with solitude—and this is often the case today—we start to equate loneliness and solitude. This reflects the impoverishment of our experience. If we don’t know the satisfactions of solitude, we only know the panic of loneliness."

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Maximum Security Book Club


This was a book I was curious to read the moment I heard of it, and at the same time hesitant to get into. Fortunately, getting it through interlibrary loan and having a time limit really helps with my motivation. I work in a prison library, and I make an effort to separate myself from anything work-related in my regular life. (That's why after all these years I still haven't gotten into Orange is the New Black or bothered to watch Shawshank Redemption. Too much prison!) But I did choose to read Maximum Security Book Club by Mikita Brottman. It felt like a professional obligation.

First, the good: I love any book about books, about discussions about books, etc. And I am truly grateful to the people who give up their time to enter a prison to provide programming. Volunteers can be like a breath of fresh air, giving an outside perspective into a difficult environment. They provide pro-social opportunities for men who sometimes have trouble with polite interaction with others. They show people who have been send "away" by society that someone still cares for their well-being. They give opportunities for people with few options to learn and grow.

And now the caveats.

Brottman has very few good things to say about prison staff, and that offends me as a corrections professional. (Full disclosure: I am proud to work in an extremely well-run prison.) Volunteers come in once a week, a month, or a year and often hear the complaints of the incarcerated. What they don't get to see is the dailiness of life in a prison - the 24/7/365 cycle. There is no such thing as a prison snow day, or a holiday, or any day when everything shuts down. That is never an option. Letting down your guard and overlooking security procedures, which often feel pointless and burdensome (I hear management staff say "good security is not convenient"), is also not an option. Corrections staff deal with incarcerated people who are frequently unlikable, rude, and self-absorbed - not to mention violent, manipulative, and litigious. But no volunteer gets to see that side of the people they deal with - they will see an offender on his or her best behavior.

In short, please cut corrections professionals some slack. In a single day their job may go from boring to frustrating to dangerous and back, and they truly don't get enough credit for what they do in dealing with people that society has decreed need to "go away." (Just look at rates of divorce and early death among corrections professionals to gauge the level of stress that is part of the profession.)

Brottman has a Ph.D. in English from Oxford, and brings in books for her group that are very challenging. She doesn't mention using questionnaires or other methods to assess the education level or reading tastes of the men she works with. Many in prison have not even finished grade school, much less high school. Reading Heart of Darkness may not have been the best choice. Though I am a believer in not underestimating what texts people are capable of dealing with, a little more research and preparation on Brottman's part may have netted her better conversations in her reading group.

Then there is using Lolita as a text. This is an area where more research and better judgment definitely would have helped her. The stigma against child molesters ("cho-mos") and sex offenders ("SOs") in prison is a daily source of conflict. SOs are often targets for violent retribution, extortion, and daily bullying. A book like Lolita (though it is a work of genius, and beautifully written), brings up issues that are taboo in a correctional setting for very good reason.

Finally, Brottman commits an error so great I am amazed that she is still able to continue her group: she has personal contact with the men after their release. In a book group it is natural to feel close to people you are sharing time and ideas with, but every man in a prison is a convicted criminal. It is unprofessional and potentially dangerous to put yourself into compromising situation with an ex-con if you are still volunteering at a prison.

Brottman does get many details of prison life right, and think that she comes into some great insights on human nature. I just think that she could have approached her group differently and gotten greater results.

All this to say: if you are looking for an extraordinary memoir about leading a book club in a repressive setting, try Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. If you want one that is only average, settle for Maximum Security Book Club.


"Prisoners aren't supposed to have any secrets. Everything is supposed to be open and transparent. Private tastes and preferences are a luxury of the free." - 83

"Over time, however, what was once mysterious and alluring became difficult and confusing, and while I continued to sympathize instinctively with the men, their suffering began to exhaust me, and I realized that rather than learning more about them, I was simply learning how little I'm able to know." - 217

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Harry Potter Redux


In looking at this cover, please note the words "Original Rehearsal Script". For those of you dying to read another 600-page Harry Potter novel, this is not it.

Instead, this is the script for a stage play. You can finish it in an hour or two, faster if you're an Evelyn Woods graduate!

This is not the door-stopper I hoped for, but I'm still glad I read it. Rowling revisits her themes of family and friendship, and Harry's tragic past, but with new characters. I was glad that she FINALLY made some sympathetic, non-bullying Slytherin characters. (Yeah, Snape was a bully. Even if his death was heroic, he was still a jerk most of the time.)

I don't want to give away the story here, but it follows Harry's son Albus Severus (poor kid!) and Draco Malfoy's son Scorpius (um, a name a former Death Eater probably should have avoided giving his kid) from the postscript of the seventh book to their own difficult Hogwarts careers. We see all of the familiar characters and places (though as one reviewer rightly pointed out, Ron has been relegated to comedic relief, and that's a disservice to his character), sped up decades into the future.

I got misty, I laughed, and I am still desperately hopeful that Rowling with revisit the wizarding world she invented, even if she never writes Harry's name ever again. There are so many stories she could tell, and I'm the kind of girl who loves me an extended universe.

I am also dying to see the play, just to see how they manage the special effects.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Don't Get Caught by Kurt Dinan

Don't Get Caught by Kurt Dinan

This book combines my two great loves: books about revenge, and books about prank wars.

I suppose this eccentric, very specific set of loves comes from The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, a top-notch book about a girl proving exactly what she's worth to a boys-only secret society.

Max, the narrator of Don't Get Caught, and four other high-school misfits find themselves set up by a long-lived secret prank society, the Chaos Club. After getting into trouble and becoming notorious, Max and company decide to team up Ocean's Eleven style to get revenge.

And like Frankie Landau-Banks, Max sometimes questions why he's choosing to do what he does. Not that it stops him from pulling off some by turns atrocious and brilliant pranks at his school, in the company of his new friends. Along the way he grows up a bit and learns some stuff, but I was in it for the prank war.

There are some adult themes in this book, as well as some very non-adult, juvenile jokes. Enter at your own risk.

What really bumped this book up to the full five stars is the very last page. It's the best possible way to end this story. I had guessed part of the twist, but I definitely didn't guess how that last scene would go. You'll have to read it yourself to find out.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

One Punch Man

If you're a fan of manga, or even if you're not, you should check out One Punch Man by Yusuke Marata. The first book in the series is a collection of short stories featuring our hero, who ticks off a monster ravaging City B (there are cities A-Z, apparently, all monster-prone) by telling the monster he doesn't have a back story. One Punch Man is just there for fun.

Unfortunately for him, One Punch Man's idea of a good time is a good fight, and no one seems able to provide him with one. He's a hero with ennui and a sense of humor.

So this bald warrior isn't really Aang from Avatar: The Last Airbender, but I like to think he could be Aang in his twenties. It's an outrageous, funny comic book. I look forward to reading the others in the series.