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Mirkat

Mirkat Always Reading

I'm always reading something, usually multiple books at a time.

Anonymous Girl

An Anonymous Girl - Greer Hendricks, Sarah Pekkanen, Barrie Kreinik, Julia Whelan

 

 

Another implausible thriller I nonetheless felt compelled to keep listening to, despite constantly thinking, "This is not the way actual humans would behave."  Two stars instead of one because of that compulsion to find out how everything resolves.  Disappointing, since I enjoyed The Wife Between Us, by the same authors.

 

Jessica Farris is a 28-year old freelance makeup artist living in NYC, struggling to make ends meet while helping her parents care for her younger sister, who at age seven suffered permanent disability from a traumatic brain injury.  During a make-up session with a couple of NYU undergraduate girls, Jess catches wind of a psychological study that pays $500/participant, just for completing a series of questionnaires.  Unable to resist the lure of that payout, she sneaks her way into the study, "on ethics and morality."

 

After Jess's three questionnaire sessions, the psychiatrist conducting the study finds something in Jess's responses compelling enough to suspend the study and create a side-study.  This side-study involves face-to-face meetings between Jess and the psychiatrist, Dr. Shields, and a series of assignments where Dr. Shields gives Jess instructions on what to say and what to do (under the auspices of testing ethics and morality in real-life situations).  Almost immediately, the book strains credulity, and the idea that Dr. Shields is a highly intelligent, intuitive medical and psychiatric professional goes the way of informed attributes.

 

For the rest of this review, I will put up spoiler tags, because there are a whole lot of specific elements I want to cover. 

 

The entire "study" with Jess comes about because in one of Jess's survey responses, she disclosed that she has one-night stands with men fairly frequently, and she noted that when she'd spotted evidence suggesting a man she'd slept with was not single, she pondered on whether participating in cheating made her a cheater, as well.  Dr. Shields is married to a handsome fellow psychiatrist, Thomas Cooper, but they have been separated ever since he admitted to having cheated on her.  In his confession, he claimed a woman had seduced him by flirting with him in a bar.  He further claimed that no man could have resisted.

 

The first set-up involves Jess going to a museum where Dr. Shields knows Thomas will be, so the wacky doc can see whether he succumbs to Jess's charms.  That experiment goes sideways, because a pedestrian accident out in front of the museum stops Thomas from going in (he is occupied with ensuring the woman is safely brought to the hospital).  Without having any idea who he is, Jess gives him her number and asks him to contact her when he knows if the woman is okay, as Jess was one of the people who stopped to help.

 

Inside, Jess gets into a conversation with a man wearing a leather bomber jacket.  When she reports back to Dr. Shields later, the doc mistakenly assumes the jacket wearer is Thomas, but when she slips and refers to him as "the man with the sandy hair," Jess notes that the man she spoke to in the museum had dark brown hair.  Dr. Shields realizes this was a different man, and sets up more experiments.  Meanwhile, Jess and the kind man from outside the museum hook up and have a one-night stand.

 

The second experiment has Jess inside a hotel bar flirting with a man who wears a wedding band, as Crazy Doc observes in the shadows.  The doc is relieved when she sees the two leave the bar together, because this leads her to conclude that Thomas was right, and that no man could resist being flirted with.  Then she is crushed moments later, when Jess texts her to let her know he has rejected her, telling her he's happily married.  Now Thomas is surely a lying liar who lies.  So....  This allegedly highly intelligent mental-health professional and medical doctor thought she needed this awkward "experiment" to demonstrate whether it's true that no man could have resisted?  Wouldn't she already reasonably know that in the given situation, there would be a whole lot of individual variation?  This is just stupid.

 

A later experiment calls for Jess to go up to Thomas (whom Dr. Shields has not identified as her husband) in the same place he's said to have been seduced.  Jess is supposed to pretend she thinks she left her phone in the booth where he currently sits, and ask him to call her number to check.  She's supposed to "realize" the phone was in her purse the whole time.  (This is meant to be a set-up where, having obtained her number, the doc can find out whether he will contact Jess for sexy times.)  This experiment goes awry because he and Jess immediately recognize one another, and she makes a quick excuse to leave.

 

Other ridiculous assignments involve having Jess pretend that women whose numbers Dr. Shields has harvested from her husband's phone have won free makeovers, so that Jess can ask them predetermined questions as Crazy Doc listens on an open cell-phone call, while muted.

 

Of course, Crazy's husband figures out something is weird, and he and Jess end up putting their heads together about the "experiment."  Thomas warns her that she is not safe.  A young woman who had also been a very special study experiment had become distraught and committed suicide.  (Later it comes out that the young woman had initially been a patient of Thomas's, and that she had actually been the one-night stand.)

 

Doc Crazy eventually figures out that there is some collusion going on between Jess and Thomas.  Thomas, for his part, has assured Jess he will devise a plan to get her out safely.  But Doc Crazy uses Evil Genius ploys to show Jess how little control she has of her life.  The doc gets Jess fired, sabotages a relationship she's established with a man named Noah, and sends Jess's family on a holiday trip to Florida (so Jess has no excuse to go home to spend Christmas with them).

 

In the big denouement, Jess has proof that Doc Crazy gave the young woman, April, the meds she used to overdose, after making her feel utterly despondent (thus protecting her husband from getting in trouble for an indiscretion with a patient).  So ultimately, Doc Crazy saves him once again by using her husband's Rx pad to write herself a prescription for her own lethal dose.

 

About that last.  Since 2016, New York State has had an eprescribing mandate.  Research, authors.  With narrow exceptions, all scripts must be done through eprescribing, so no walking into the pharmacy with a paper script for your lethal dose of opioids.

 

This one is a smaller deal, but Jess narrates that she is from a suburb of Philadelphia.  Cool, my parents live in a suburb of Philly.  Which one, Jess?  Later, readers learn that her family lives in Allentown, PA.  NOT a suburb of Philadelphia.  I can report this, having lived in Allentown for five years.  It's a small city, in its own right, and it is a little over an hour away from Philly.  If the authors wanted a suburb of Philly, there are so many to choose from.  Glenside, Wyncote, Cheltenham, Elkins Park, Upper Dublin, and on and on.  NOT Allentown.

 

Aside from all that--the book is divided into two narrative perspectives.  Jess's chapters are delivered in first-person, present tense.  Dr. Shields are in an irritating second-person, where she is addressing Jess as "you" in her handwritten notes.  Adding to the irritation, Dr. Shields uses an off-putting passive voice to describe all her own actions.  For example, she would never say, "I made restaurant reservations."  It would be, "restaurant reservations are made."  Imagine this over and over, with direct verbs never used.  After Dr. Shields kills herself, there is even a section in the epilogue where Jess imagines how Dr. Shields would describe a final encounter between Jess and Thomas, in the infernal notes.  And in the audio, the narrator who does Dr. Shields's sections narrates this flight of fancy, as well.

(show spoiler)

 

Immortal Life: A Soon To Be True Story

Immortal Life: A Soon To Be True Story - Stanley Bing

Immortal Life is set in a not-too-distant future, in which the line between government and giant tech companies has disappeared.  Smart phones have been replaced by cranial implants that connect to The Cloud with a tap behind the ear.  Artificial Intelligence has become ever advanced, 3D printing (both solid and liquid) paired with medical technology has allowed the wealthy old-aged, through replacement parts, to postpone death well into their 120s.

 

Arthur, the 120-something head of the world-dominating Corporation, is poised to defeat death.  His consciousness is to be transferred into a new body.  Before that transfer, this body has been known as Gene, a specimen developed from human DNA and imbued with a brain that has basic knowledge but isn't supposed to develop a real personality.  When Arthur's mind is uploaded to Gene's brain, Gene is still there somehow.  He wants to live, and there are members of a resistance who want to help him.

 

This book had an intriguing premise and a strong start, but I felt it lost steam in the last third or so, and I didn't end up enjoying it as much as I thought I would.  However, there were elements of the ending that I found unexpected, in a good way.

Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane - Neil Gaiman

 

 

Some authors should not narrate their own books.  But Neil Gaiman is not one of those authors.  Neil Gaiman should narrate everything:  His books, my shopping lists, your GPS directions.  Listening to Gaiman's narration of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I just kept thinking "delightful," not just for the story itself (even though that fits), but also for the way Gaiman narrates.  After the story was over, I listened all the way through the acknowledgements, despite Gaiman's helpful comment that "You don't need to listen to this part; it's mostly names."  I would listen to him reading poorly translated instruction manuals.

 

The story is framed by the protagonist's return, at age 47, to his childhood neighborhood, for a funeral.  He visits a neighboring farm, and remembers fantastical things that happened when he was seven, and his neighbor Lettie, at age 11, went to great lengths to protect him from unbelievable adversaries.  I don't want to say more--just give it a listen!

Someday Someday Maybe

Someday, Someday, Maybe - Lauren Graham

Audiobook, narrated by the author, delightfully.

 

I first became aware that Lauren Graham had written a novel because she mentioned it in her memoir, Talking As Fast As I Can.  When the novel came up in the list of available mp3 audiobooks in my library's e-collection, I grabbed it.

 

Someday, Someday, Maybe is set in the mid-1990s.  Its narrator/protagonist is Franny Banks, an aspiring actress living in Brooklyn with two roommates, Jane and Dan, and getting ever-closer to a self-imposed deadline to either get that big break in acting or give up and move onto a more conventional life/career track.

 

A co-worker of mine likes to use the adjective "charming" to praise some of her favorite books, and as I was listening to this one, the word "charming" came to me.  Graham's voice--both in the audio and authorial senses--is entertaining:  funny, poignant, and bubbly.  A book like this written by an actress, about being/becoming an actress, can be self-indulgent and overly precious, but I felt that Graham avoided those pitfalls.  There were a couple of meta-narrative moments, but they worked for me.

I Know All There is to Know About the Lying Game

The Lying Game: A Novel - Ruth Ware, Imogen Church

I ended up reacting to this book much as I did to Ruth Ware's Woman in Cabin 10.  I felt compelled to keep listening and listening until I got to the end, but once I was done, I wondered why I'd spent all that time.

 

The "lying game" of the title doesn't ultimately seem that significant to the central "mystery" of the book.  Although Ware tries to make the lying game relevant to the lie and cover-up the four former boarding-school classmates share, I think she fails at that.  The lying game was all about fooling classmates or teachers to believe their lies--the more of a "whopper" the better.  But the conspiracy of silence between main-character Isa, Fatima, Thea, and Kate was to protect Kate, and had nothing to do with their whoppers.

 

There was also just so much that was implausible.  There was a "scandal" that resulted in the girls being given a choice between expulsion and leaving voluntarily, and they all opted for the latter.  But it's ridiculous that the girls are blamed for the "scandal."  There is a scene where the school's current headmistress says the situation would be handled completely differently "today," but you'd think the "scandal" had taken place in the 1950s, instead of being in 2000 or thereabouts.

 

Isa is supposed to be a lawyer, but it's hard to believe she had the intelligence to become one.  And her grasp of criminal law seems fairly shaky.  There were times when I'd be thinking "Don't do that--it's so stupid and dangerous!"  Then she'd acknowledge that it was stupid and dangerous.  So you know better, but do the stupid, dangerous things, anyway?  Including endangering your baby?  Excellent.

 

If you were "meh" about The Woman in Cabin 10, and you are hoping The Lying Game will be an improvement, you may want to take a pass.

The Hazards of Time Travel

Hazards of Time Travel - Joyce Carol Oates, Andi Arndt

Adriane Strohl is a seventeen-year-old high-school senior living in a not-too-distant future version of America, the Reconstituted North American States (NAS), which seems to have involved incorporating the U.S. and Canada under an increasingly totalitarian regime where there is a single political party--the Patriot Party--and with presidential elections where only the very rich get to vote, by selecting an emoji that represents the one candidate up for "election."

 

In this world, Adriane has received the exciting news that she is the recipient of a prestigious Patriot Scholarship, as well as having achieved the honor of serving as valedictorian for her class.  But her prospects take a frightening turn when, because her speech draft is a series of questions she feels her teachers and principal should answer, she is arrested as a "subversive" during graduation rehearsal.  As punishment, she is designated an EI:  exiled individual.  Her four-year exile is to take place not only in a different place, but in a different time. From the year NAS 23 (years having been renumbered based on September 11, 2001) in Pennsboro, N.J., Adriane is transported back to September of 1959, where she has a four-year scholarship to Wainscotia State University in Wainscotia Falls, Wisconsin.  She has been assigned a new identity--Mary Ellen Enright--tragically, a double orphan, whose adoptive parents died in a vague accident.  Mary Ellen Enright is not permitted to speak to anyone of her "Adriane Strohl" identity, her exile, nor her life in the "future."  She is not allowed to seek out fellow EI's.

 

Before long, Adriane/Mary Ellen comes to realize that the assistant professor assigned to her quiz section of the Psychology 101 class she taking, Ira Wolfman, is also a mysterious double orphan, and they come to forge a risky secret alliance.

 

I love me some Joyce Carol Oates, and for much of this book, I just kind of shook my head and marveled that Oates can bust out a book in any genre she chooses.  Dystopian Sci-Fi?  Sure thing, coming right up!  Adrian/Mary Ellen adjusting to and reacting to the world of Midwestern 1959-1960 was handled with wit and humor.  I could relate, for instance, to her disgust and wonder that so many people casually smoked, apparently innocent of the cancer connection, while expecting non-smokers to be apologetic about their coughing discomfort.

 

For most of this book, I was on my way to five-starring--which is a rating I seldom issue.  But in the last  20-ish percent of the book, the narrative took a turn that led to an ending that felt unsatisfying to me.  It partly feels like a cop-out and partly feels maddeningly unfinished.

 

But despite all that?  I STILL think it's worth reading.  Prepare to not necessarily have things wrap up as you might hope or expect, but also enjoy the ride and the journey into Oates's imagination.

Nine Perfect Strangers

Nine Perfect Strangers - Liane Moriarty, Caroline Lee

Nine people check into a health resort in Australia, Tranquillum House.  Frances Welty, a romance novelist, is reeling from her publisher rejecting her latest manuscript and the discovery that the man she'd met online and had planned to marry had been catfishing her.  Jessica and Ben Chandler have been facing marital problems since winning a large lottery jackpot.  Heather and Napolean Marconi, and their daughter Zoe, are facing the three-year anniversary of the death of Zoe's twin Zach.  Tony Hogburn is a former athlete who has struggled with his post-sports life for 20 years.  Carmel Schneider feels puffy and dejected in the wake of her husband leaving her and immediately finding a beautiful new girlfriend.  Lars is an intensely handsome divorce lawyer who attends health retreats regularly.

 

Masha Dmitrichenko, the eccentric Russian expatriate who owns and leads Tranquillum house, promises the eight guests that after a ten-day stay, they will not be the same people they were when they checked in.  Through personalized protocols of exercise, nutrition, meditation, massage, and therapy, they are all to expect a transformation they could not have foreseen.

 

Ten years before, Masha suffered a heart attack that caused her to be technically dead for a short time.  In light of that experience, Masha left behind her stressful corporate job, remade herself through physical fitness and meditation, and founded the retreat.  She brought in as "health consultants" a former employee, Delilah, and one of the paramedics who helped her, Yao.

 

Without giving away the book's secrets, I will say that Masha's "protocols" take a turn nobody expected.  Once again, narrator Caroline Lee manages a Moriarty ensemble cast masterfully.  I found myself caring about all the characters and enjoying their interactions with one another.  As an aside, with Frances being a romance author, whose editor encourages her to change things up by considering writing a psychological thriller, there were some "meta" components that could have been self-indulgent and cloying, but Moriarty pulled them off, and I enjoyed them.

Killing Commendatore

Killing Commendatore - Haruki Murakami, Kirby Heyborne

Murakami's first-person narrator for Killing Commendatore never discloses his name (something that didn't actually occur to me until I was close to the end of the novel).  The narrator is a portrait artist whose wife unexpectedly asks him for a divorce, sharing that she has been seeing another man.  Portrait Artist (calling him that for convenience) leaves the apartment he shared with his wife, embarks on a journey, and ends up living in the remote mountain home of a well-known artist--the father of an old art-school friend.  The father, suffering from Alzheimer's disease, has been moved to a nursing home.  For a nominal rent, Portrait Artist cares for the home, focuses on his art, and does some teaching at a community center.

 

Portrait Artist discovers in the attic a remarkable painting called "Killing Commendatore," which depicts in Japanese style a version of a famous assassination scene in Mozart's "Don Giovanni."  Portrait Artist brings the painting into the studio and becomes mesmerized by it. His friend's father, as a young man, had studied in Austria, but mysterious events over there during the Second World War resulted in his being returned to Japan, where he abruptly changed from painting in a European style to a Japanese style.

 

Although he has quit doing traditional portraits through an agency, he accepts a commission by a wealthy neighbor who gives him the direction to paint the portrait in any style he chooses.  The shared experience that produces the portrait leads to a friendship between the artist and his subject, ultimately leading Portrait Artist to accept his neighbor's request to paint the portrait of another neighbor, a 13-year-old girl, Marie.  The neighbor who requests the portrait may have a connection to the girl--but I won't spoil that.

 

Bringing the painting "Killing Commendatore" down from the attic--where its creator had ostensibly hidden it with the intention of preventing anyone from seeing it--seemingly sets into motion certain fantastical events, calling forth "ideas" and "metaphors" that are personified, and making possible/necessary a crossing into an alternate world.

 

This is one of those books I can't quite assign a star rating to.  There were aspects of this book that I loved:  Its depiction of an artist's mind, the narrator's visual memory, the power of art to capture elements that go beyond surface appearance.  There were aspects that I found troubling, too.  I've seen discussions where people note that Murakami seems obsessed with breasts and ears.  The breast obsession definitely comes through in this book (including the narrator sharing that his sister, who died at age 12, had very small breasts, as does the 13-year-old Marie, in contrast with her aunt, who has large shapely ones--while his wife also has small ones).  He also gives his weirdly detailed descriptions of women's ears in a couple of instances. 

 

There is also a scene that involves a sexual dream where the narrator basically rapes his sleeping estranged wife--he himself identifies it this way when he thinks about the dream, noting that if she's asleep, she's not consenting.  On the one hand, he was dreaming, but on the other--the dream might not have been an ordinary dream, so possible unfortunate implications.

 

In addition, although the book had me hooked most of the time, there were also segments where the narrative dragged, and I actually found myself doing "wrap it up" gestures with my hands (I listened to the audio version).

 

In sum, I am glad I experienced this novel.  I think Murakami's fans will, on the balance, appreciate the story, though possibly with misgivings.

Perfect Mother

The Perfect Mother - Aimee Molloy, Cristin Milioti

A "May Mothers" group brought together by a Prospect-Park, Brooklyn-based website called "The Village" meets on a regular basis, usually in the park, to swap stories, share milestones, and commiserate on new motherhood.  The members' interactions began online, and expanded to real-life meet-ups.  The "May Mothers" signed up during pregnancy, and continued through the births and beyond.

 

In July, right around the time the babies are hitting the eight-week mark, some of the May moms plan a night out at a bar, without the babies, for a bit of fun. Single-mother Winnie is reluctant to participate, as she has no sitter, but group member Nell offers to lend her Alma, her nanny.

 

By the end of the night, Winnie's son Midas is missing. Earlier in the night, Nell had taken Winnie's phone--left behind on a table--and dropped it in her purse.  But the phone is nowhere to be found.  Winnie's house key had been tucked into a pocket attached to the back of the phone.  Did someone steal the phone and use the key?  And if so, who would do that?

 

Before long, the local news is obsessed with the missing "Baby Midas" story, and the other members of the "May Mothers" group are soon under the intense scrutiny of the media, crime blogs, and police.

 

I enjoyed this fast-paced narrative.  (Remember that *** = "good" for me; not "meh.")  I will say there were times when the lengths some of the "May Mothers" went to, in order to "help" with the case/insert themselves into the investigation strained credulity, and that is the one reason I didn't four-star this book.

 

Without giving anything away about the ending, I will say I did NOT see it coming.

 

Side note about the narration:  Cristin Milioti narrated the audiobook. In case you are doing exactly what I did--thinking "WHY do I know that name?"  Well, among other roles, she played the mother in How I Met My Mother.  I will add that she is an excellent narrator, and I would definitely make a point of listening to another book that she narrates.

Dopesick

Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America - Beth Macy

 

 

Beth Macy narrates this book herself.  She generally does a fairly good job with the narration, but there was one moment where someone directing the production should definitely have insisted she do a second take.  She began to read the word "similar" with the stress on the wrong syllable.  So it came out "sih-MIH..."  at which point, she came to a dead stop, paused, and then continued with "similar."

As a journalist covering the "opioid epidemic" beat in Roanoke, Virginia, Beth Macy got a close view of the devastation in Appalachian communities.  Before the crisis reached affluent suburban communities, the people she had come to know through her reporting were the "canaries in the coal mine."

 

Along with providing a historical overview of the prescribing of opioid and synthetic-opioid medications, Macy reports on interviews she conducted with addicts, heart-broken family members, drug dealers, and assorted other relevant individuals.

 

To a certain extent, I was already familiar with material Macy covered, but she deepened my understanding.  A major take-away is the need for a shift in focus from punishment/incarceration to treatment, including medication-assisted treatment.  And responsible prescribing practices.

Broken Things

Broken Things - Lauren Oliver, Erin Spencer, Saskia Maarleveld, Sarah  Drew

It has been five years since a horrific murder happened in a small Vermont town:  beautiful Summer Marks, on the verge of turning 13, was found in the woods, stabbed seven times--in what appeared to have been a ritualistic killing.  Immediate suspects were Summer's two best friends, Mia and Brynn, and a male friend/love interest, Owen.  Although the three were cleared of having committed the crime, the cloud of suspicion has never left them.  Mia transferred to another school, but ultimately turned to homeschooling.  Brynn stole some prescription pills, leading to rehab, which felt so much safer than home (and school), she got her cousin Wade to periodically smuggle in drug-positive urine to extend her stay.  Owen went away to boarding school in Scotland.

 

The three girls had been obsessed with a fantasy novel, The Way into Lovelorn.  The book maddeningly ended on an unfinished sentence, which inspired much speculation from fans.  Did the author intend to finish the sentence in a sequel she never got to (the author has been dead for many years)?  The three friends, along with "playing" Lovelorn, had been collaborating on a Lovelorn fan fiction.  (Summer's death bore a resemblance to a scene in the fanfic.)

 

Going through old papers, Mia makes a discovery that raises new questions about her friend's death.  Although they haven't spoken in years, Mia drives out to the rehab that Brynn is about to be discharged from, just as a freak storm prevents Wade from arriving with drug-positive urine to extend Brynn's stay again.  Unwittingly, Mia becomes Brynn's ride, and soon they are warily considering whether to trust one another.  And Owen (who is back, having graduated from the school in Scotland).

 

What can the old friends discover about the long-ago murder?  What actually happened that day, and who is really responsible?  Should they pursue these questions, or simply let the past go?  (Well, you know that last won't be the chosen option!)

 

Lauren Oliver demonstrates a deep understanding of the contradictory sides of friendship and obsession, particularly the love-hate, push-pull the queen bee of a friendship-group can inspire.  

Wife Between Us

The Wife Between Us - Julia Whelan, Sarah Pekkanen, Greer Hendricks

Mea culpa time:  I received an ARC of this book in September of 2017 (had to search my emails to figure out when this was!).  I had the best of intentions but kept not getting to it.

 

Fast forward more than one year, and the book has gotten a ton of [well-deserved] attention.  And....  It's available as audiobook.  Which seems to be the only way to come close to a 100% guarantee I will complete a book anymore.  I requested it from the library e-collection, waited, downloaded, listened.  Got almost immediately hooked.  Kicked myself for not jumping on this one right away.  Back in September of 2017!

 

Vanessa Thompson, recently divorced, wishes to prevent her ex-husband, Richard, from marrying his new fiancee.  

 

Why is she intent on stopping him?

 

Well....  This book has plenty of twists.  The kind that make you want to re-read early sections after a new piece of information blows your mind.  I don't want to spoil the fun by being more specific than that.  I'll just note that the book is divided into three parts.  You go into part two after your mind has gone boom.  Part three also occurs after an interesting shift, though not as brain-kicking as the first.

 

This is a quick, fun, gratifying read for fans of this genre (mystery/thriller)

 

The audio includes a recorded conversation between the two co-authors.

Unhinged (Apprentice White House Edition)

Unhinged: An Insider's Account of the Trump White House - Omarosa Manigault Newman

I will disclose up front that I did watch the first season of NBC's The Apprentice (and a few seasons after that).  I was not a fan of Omarosa based on her season of the show, and I expected her to quickly fade from the public stage after season one concluded.  But of course, Trump brought her back for his Celebrity Apprentice spin-off (based on the premise that being on the original show had made Omarosa a celebrity), and she's gone on to make other reality-show appearances.  Her most prominent one was the reality show the entire world seems to be witnessing:  The Trump Administration.

 

Back when Donald Trump announced Omarosa's involvement in his presidential campaign, and subsequently his administration, I think my reaction was in line with many other people's:  stunt casting and tokenism.  I haven't changed my opinion on that since listening to Omarosa's audio narration of her book, but it does seem as though she herself had a long period of denial about that very thing.

 

Omarosa presents herself as a person who went into her job with the Trump White House with the intention of being a voice for persons of color and women--someone who would be in a position to help these communities and act as a stop gap against instituting or continuing policies with the potential to cause harm.  There were times when, according to the author, she felt there were missed opportunities when leaders of organizations representing these groups refused to engage with Omarosa out of distrust for the Trump administration.  Though eventually, she had to face the realization that internal obstacles and agendas would prevent her from promoting the causes she thought she could champion.

 

For a long time, Omarosa refused to believe that her longtime mentor Trump was a racist and misogynist.  She found ways to recharacterize things he had been documented as saying and doing, reasoning that he had always treated her well.  One of the things that caused her to allow herself to doubt that was the rumor of a recording, caught when Trump was on mic by NBC for the first season of The Apprentice, using the "n-word."  In the back of her mind, she had to start considering the possibility that Trump had used that word about her (and/or the one other African-American member of that cast, Kwame Jackson).

 

Throughout the book, Omarosa describes what she terms "Trumpworld," which includes all the people who are loyal to Donald Trump:  family members, counsel, and certain individuals in the administration, among others.  She confirms James Comey's perception that Trump demands a type of "loyalty" much like what a Mafia don expects of his mob "family."  For a long time, she reports, she was an enthusiastic member of Trumpworld.

 

Unsurprisingly, Omarosa concludes that Donald Trump is a narcissist who is incapable of empathy.  That has been evident for a long time, but according to Omarosa, her blind spot caused her to take a fairly long time to recognize this.  She expresses concerns about his physical health and what she sees as a sharp cognitive decline.  (Her theory is that Trump's high consumption of Diet Coke contributes to the cognitive decline that she perceives.)

 

One aspect I cannot ignore is that Omarosa is definitely a self-promoter, with some elements of narcissism, herself.  She does go out of her way to share with the reader self-praise about the work she was doing while in Trumpworld.  She characterizes herself as super-smart, well-educated, a military veteran, and an ordained minister!  (I actually didn't know about those last two items on the list.)  Throughout the book, much of what Omarosa reported simply confirmed things I've read from other sources or perceived on my own.  Often, I found myself very aware of viewing things through an "Omarosa" lens.  Though ultimately, it was interesting to hear her perspective.

 

Part of her conclusion aligns with Bob Woodward's reportage in Fear, that there are individuals in the Trump organization acting as stop-guards against Trump's worst impulses.  She also has noted that we should be afraid of Pence.

 

A note about the actual narration.  Omarosa's "Trump" imitation is hilariously bad.  She should not pursue a career as an impressionist.  Curiously, her version of Trump actually pronounces her name correctly.  (It's oh-mah-ro-sa; I have never, ever heard Trump NOT pronounces it ah-mah-ro-sa.)  On the other hand, her pronunciation of "Donald" hits my ears as "don-alt."

Skin in the Game (is the phrase I never want to hear again!)

Skin in the Game: The Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life - Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Joe Ochman

Here is how I came to read this book:  There is a blurb from Taleb on the back of Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow, which I think very highly of.  Back in November, as we were about to go on a family trip, my husband asked me to see if I could get Skin in the Game from the library for Kindle.  It wasn't available, so he decided he wanted to re-read a couple of Taleb's earlier books, which I loaded on the Kindle for him.  While I was on the library's e-collection site, I decided to put a hold on the audio version of Skin in the Game.  After all, Taleb had thought highly of Kahneman's work, and my husband had found value in Taleb's earlier books.

 

Oh, my God.  Where to start?  I feel a little bad going with a one-star rating, since Taleb did convey some valuable concepts.  But to me, anything of value was counteracted by sheer nastiness against public intellectuals he has decided to dismiss or feud with, along with hypocrisy (engaging in the very approaches he rails against).

 

"Skin in the game" (I got to a point where I had heard the narrator say "skin in the game " SO many times, I now recoil anytime I hear it): basically, the idea is risk sharing. If I take advice from you, and I have a poor outcome, there should be a negative consequence for you.  In that way, you have skin in the game.  Taleb insists one should not take advice from someone who gives advice for a living, unless the person is in a position to suffer in some way from a poor outcome.  But wait a minute.  Isn't Taleb issuing advice in this book?  Isn't he administering advice as a profession?  So shouldn't I NOT take his advice?  But then if I don't follow his advice about advice....  Do I circle back to TAKING his meta-advice?  PARADOX.  Also, how does Taleb have SitG when it comes to this book?  He keeps reminding the reader that he has "f**ck-you money."  He clearly doesn't need the book to do well for his own financial well-being.

 

One of his examples to illustrate his SitG position was when he was part of a roundtable discussion, and participants were asked to comment on Microsoft.  Taleb reports that he said, “I own no Microsoft stock, I am short no Microsoft stock [i.e., would benefit from its decline], hence I can’t talk about it."  Wait a minute, what?!?!  You know who I DON'T want to hear from, regarding Microsoft?  A person who owns stock or who shorts Microsoft stock.  Such a person would have a conflict of interest.  A person with MS stock would have a motive to say nice things about the company, to increase the value of the stocks, while the person who shorts MS stock would have a motive to make negative comments about the company.

 

At one point, Taleb warns against conflating SitG with conflict of interest, but he offers no guidance on disambiguating them, and his Microsoft comment leads me to suspect he doesn't have a solid idea on the difference.  Example:  I work in continuing medical education (CME).  It is standard procedure to have faculty and planners of a CME program to disclose any relevant financial relationships that could potentially cause a conflict of interest.  An example would be a speaker who has received a research grant from Pfizer, planning a presentation that discusses medications produced by Pfizer.  The speaker would need to disclose that relationship, and the CME provider would need a mechanism to resolve the conflict of interest.  Like having the content peer-reviewed by non-conflicted individuals and recommend changes if appropriate, to avoid bias.

 

I was disappointed to find that Taleb has decided that Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, authors of Nudge, fit into his reviled category "IYI" (intellectual yet idiot).  Though everything he complains about regarding people he lumps into this category seem to apply to him.

 

Taleb shares an anecdote about meeting Susan Sontag.  Reportedly, she literally turned her back on him when he said he was a trader, declaring that she did "not believe in the market system."  Oh, wait a minute.  She was dismissing someone based on his profession?  As Taleb does with academics, journalists, economists, psychologists, and most intellectuals?  Does his own medicine taste bad?

 

He has a weird section on distrusting people who "look the part" for their profession.  He gives the example of surgeons, declaring that he would prefer a surgeon who "looks like a butcher," rather than looking however he thinks surgeons are expected to look.  His explanation is that a surgeon who looks like a butcher must be good to overcome his looks.  Bwuh?  And what part does Taleb think he looks?  Oh, right.  He thinks he looks "like a bodyguard."  Instead of F. Murray Abraham's understudy.

 

And his belief that he looks like a bodyguard takes me to another fixation of his.  Weightlifting.  Did you know that Taleb LIFTS WEIGHTS?  Well, he DOES.  And this makes him superior to all of the professions he disdains.  Because no one who belongs to any of those professions could possibly LIFT WEIGHTS.  (Take a moment to consider whether you actually know someone from one of those professions who does lift weights.  Quietly chuckle to yourself, while it also occurs to you that the person you know probably does not think weightlifting makes him [or her--not that Taleb would acknowledge female weightlifters] special.)  Oh, and when Taleb LIFTS WEIGHTS, he lifts with REGULAR PEOPLE.  He has even....  I'll give you a moment to prepare.  He has even lifted weights with people who speak with a cockney accent.  (I KNOW.  So salt-of-the-earth, regular-guy of him.)

 

Related to the weightlifting, he made an offhand remark about what activities "low-testosterone people" engage in.  LOW-TESTOSTERONE PEOPLE?  What, like WOMEN?  No, surely this was his macho-man way to disparage men he considers less macho (and therefore less valuable) than himself.

 

This is turning out much longer than I intended!  I have noticed that many readers who thought Taleb's earlier books in his "Incerto" series were valuable were disappointed in this one.  Especially when it comes to the nastiness and score-settling.  Some who have noted this disappointment in reviews have still given this latest book high (or relatively high) ratings, based on the valid points that exist between the nasty stuff, while others have gone with low (or relatively low) ratings because the viciousness is such a turn-off.  My feeling right now is that I won't read another Taleb book, but I suppose I might change my mind.

 

Side note about the narrator:  I swear he read this book as though he had a near-constant sneer on his face.  I can kind of see why the narrator made this choice, but I think it made the experience even more painful than it would have been, otherwise.

Fear

Fear: Trump in the White House - Bob Woodward

This book is somehow simultaneously alarming and unsurprising. The latter, I suppose, must come from everything I have already read and heard about the inner (mis)workings of the Trump White House. One of the most fascinating things to come about when this book was poised to be released was Bob Woodward's published interview with Donald Trump. The opening of the book notes that Trump declined to be interviewed for it. In the interview, Trump initially claimed that no one had told him about the book, the whole time Woodward was attempting to set up an interview. Then during the course of the interview, it became clear that this was a lie. That captures so much of the way Trump operates.

 

In the interview, Trump claimed that the book was going to be flawed because it lacked his input. But Woodward is thorough and even-handed. Though I have to say, when the book ended, I thought, "Wait, that's <i>it</i>?" I'm not sure how I expected the book to conclude, but it felt as though it just stopped, and everything is so.... Unsettled. I guess that's one of the possible downsides of reporting on real life. I only hope there are still people in the White House averting disaster.

Before the Fall

Before the Fall - Noah Hawley, Robert Petkoff

Disclaimer:  I am giving this book a "Goodreads" two stars; not an "Amazon" two stars.  This is a "this was fair" two stars.

 

Seven passengers, one bodyguard, and three airline crew members are on a private flight from Martha's Vineyard to New York City, when the airplane crashes into the ocean.  Somehow two of the people on the airplane survive:  an artist named Scott Burroughs, and JJ, the four-year-old son of David Bateman, who runs ALC News, a cable station that appears to be a thinly veiled version of Fox News.  Against the odds, Scott is able to swim about ten miles to the shore of Montauk, Long Island, with JJ on his back, rescuing both of them.

 

Scott immediately becomes part of the 24-hour news cycle, with most reporters wishing to know more about the "hero" story.  Going against the grain is one of the talking heads at Bateman's network, Bill Cunningham.  Cunningham has recently come under fire for obtaining illegal recordings of various high-profile people's phone conversations, and he is not chastened.  Cunningham goes into tinfoil hat mode, insisting that his friend David was most definitely probably murdered as part of an elaborate conspiracy, and who was this Scott guy anyway, and who cares if he saved JJ Bateman's life, even dogs can be trained to save lives.  Or maybe it's because Ben Kipling, David Bateman's friend and a fellow passenger on the flight, was about to be indicted for laundering money from "non-friendly" nations.

 

The narrative moves back and forth in time, filling in the backstories of the various people on the plane, which also include David's wife Maggie; a former preschool teacher; their nine-year-old daughter Rachel (who had been kidnapped at age two, hence the bodyguard); Ben Kipling's wife Sarah; the Israeli bodyguard, Gil Baruch; the pilot James Melody; co-pilot Charles Busch; and flight attendant Emma Lightner.

 

The plot held my interest, and I wanted to find out why the airplane went down.  But once it wrapped up, it seemed the author was rushing.  When the book ended, I said out loud, "that's IT?"  It felt as though it should have had at least one more chapter.