Book Review — Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

The story of Theranos and its founder Elizabeth Holmes is nothing short of infuriating, in part because she led a corporate deception that will go down as one of the worst cases of fraud and mismanagement in history, but also because for me, as a former Theranos client, the story was personal and I feel used and duped.

Holmes represents so much of what’s wrong with the world today. As a child, when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, her answer was “a billionaire.” She reached that goal at a very young age, in large part because of her own hubris but also because her story was as much a product of what we wanted to hear as it was based on reality. Holmes was held up as a visionary, a genius, even the next Steve Jobs, long before she accomplished anything other than creating fake value for an idea that wasn’t real. What’s more American than that?

John Carreyrou’s book about the rise and fall of Theranos reads like a thriller, one that shows how at nearly every turn Holmes and her close advisors chose to do the wrong thing in order to keep the company propped up on a bed of deceit. What’s worse, she did this with literal lives at stake, as the results of her not ready for prime time blood test claims led directly to misinformed patients with real health issues. It’s criminal, and I hope she goes to jail for it (her trial on wire fraud and other fraud begins soon).

The rise of Theranos coincided with my own health issues, issues that required me to get regular blood work to test my cholesterol, blood sugars, and other heart-related measurements. It was and continues to be, inconvenient to go to standard labs like Labcorp and Sonora Quest. Back in the early 2010s, you had to arrive early at these labs and wait with others, sometimes for an hour or more, before having coffee, to get your blood drawn. So it seemed too good to be true that one could simply show up at a nearby Walgreens and get your blood drawn quickly, with just a finger prick, and have results delivered to a mobile phone app in less than 24 hours. With no appointment and no doctor’s order needed.

I started using Theranos as soon as the tests became available in Phoenix, one of the test markets for the Theranos/Walgreens partnership. I was impressed by the initial appointments, and the app, and was thrilled that I could select my own tests without waiting for a doctor’s order. I also bought into the growing myth of Holmes, reading stories about her and seeing her delight the media on news show after news show. I believed she was a visionary, and while I wasn’t one to compare her to Jobs, I did fall for the story that she was changing an industry that needed to be changed and that she was certainly intelligent, and charming (if not a bit odd). I loved that she was the “first female self-made Silicon Valley billionaire.” I mean, she hung out with the Obamas and Chelsea Clinton!

Carreyrou’s book is a devastating investigation of how Holmes built Theranos with no regard for the truth and with no empathy for the people whose lives she was manipulating. She turned out to be a con artist. Perhaps not at first, but certainly soon after she dropped out of Stanford to build Theranos and realized how far her image and charm could take her. She duped a lot of people much smarter than me. From former Secretary of State George Schultz to Henry Kissinger to Mad Dog Mattis, to Rupert Murdoch. You gotta get up pretty early in the morning to con a con artist like Murdoch.

I don’t feel the need to go into every subterfuge she committed, for that, I suggest you read the book or watch the upcoming HBO documentary by Alex Gibney that debuts this month or watch next year’s Hollywood blockbuster starring Jennifer Lawrence as Holmes. It’s a great story that will have you riveted, whichever vehicle you choose to consume. But I do feel the need to comment on how the Theranos story was aided at every turn by a mass media intent on delivering stories with no fact checking. America loves a Horatio Alger rags to riches story and even better if it’s delivered in the package of a not unattractive young blonde woman.

It’s upsetting that Fortune and Forbes and CNN and all the other outlets (even the Wall Street Journal while at the same time its intrepid reporter Carreyrou was uncovering a giant hoax) neglected to do their due diligence on Holmes before propping her up as the next Gates or Jobs.

I’m not suggesting they should have known the full scope of her crimes, but at least get some unbiased background before putting her on such a pedestal. Asking George Schultz about her was not enough — yes he’s reputable but he was on her board. Of course he’s going to sing her praises. Hell, he threw his own grandson under the bus for her as we learn in the book.

Here’s a woman with no scientific background, a Stanford dropout, spinning a yarn so unbelievable that it would embarrass Mark Twain. Looking back, the signs were everywhere that she was a fraud. Many people with lab experience said what she was claiming to have done (test for hundreds of markers with a tiny pinprick of blood) was scientifically impossible. There were also plenty of fired former Theranos employees who knew she was a fraud, and while she threatened them to keep quiet, it wasn’t impossible to find whistleblowers as Carreyrou found out.

It’s infuriating that the media helped build her up or that the culture of Silicon Valley created her myth without much more than insider word of mouth. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” we learned from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). This aphorism is truer today than ever. We don’t want the facts — we want the myth. That’s how Trump got elected. How climate change became a two-sided issue. How dot coms became more valuable than GE and Ford. How Elizabeth Holmes became worth $4.5 billion.

Carreyrou’s book made me mad. But more than that, it made me even more jaded than I already am, which is really saying something.

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The Best Books I Read in 2018

This year I set a goal to read 20 books and while I started 30 I abandoned three leaving me with a total of 27 books read in 2018. The list includes some new books and some older books, but for the first time, the list also includes books selected by others as this year I joined my first book club. You can cut to the chase right here if you like and head over to Goodreads to see my complete list.

The books I completed included eight nonfiction titles and 19 works of fiction. There were a couple of memoirs, a few health-related books, and a few short story collections. Looking at the titles, I suppose my overall impression is that there were only a couple of truly outstanding books, a handful of average books and a few I struggled to complete. By the way, my rule is that I’ll give every book a minimum of 100 pages at which time if I’m not enjoying it I’ll abandon it. Life is too short to read bad books.

Here are the best books I read in 2018:

  1. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki — The biggest surprise of the year for me is just how much I loved this 2013 novel by Japanese American novelist Ozeki. I picked it up on a whim after looking through a list of Man Booker nominees and it sat on my shelf for a while before I picked it up early this year. From the moment I started reading, I couldn’t put it down. It’s the story of a writer named Ruth who lives in the Pacific Northwest and one day while walking along the beach she finds a diary written by a teenage Japanese girl. The novel takes the reader back and forth to the life of the girl as well as the writer who makes it her mission (or obsession) to find out what happened to the young girl in the wake of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami. This story has everything I love —
    it spans multiple time frames, it has multiple narrators, it teaches the reader about history and about a different culture, it is contemporary, it provides life lessons, it is heartbreaking and uplifting, it is philosophical, it has rich and interesting characters, and it even includes a little physics and just the right touch of magical realism. A Tale for the Time Being is the only novel I read in 2018 that garnered five out of five stars on my rating system and it most definitely has been added to my unofficial list of favorite novels.
  2. World in my Eyes: The Autobiography by Richard Blade. If you grew up in the 80s and listened to alternative rock music, you probably have Richard Blade to thank for introducing you to many of your favorite bands. Blade’s voice has become a global force now that he’s a regular on Sirius XM’s modern rock station First Wave, but he was one of the deejays who launched the modern rock phenomena in the early 80s as the top jock on Los Angeles’s KROQ. I couldn’t get KROQ in San Diego, but we had our own version of Blade in 91X’s Steve West who was certainly a product of Blade’s work. That said, whenever we drove north past Camp Pendleton we’d quickly tune into 106.7 FM to spend some time with Blade. Over the past few years as a Sirius XM subscriber, I’ve gotten to know Blade even more but nothing prepared me for how influential and amazing his life truly was. From his humble beginnings playing parties in England and then across Europe, he made his way to America in 1980 and soon after became a fixture on Southern California radio where he “introduced” us young Americans to the likes of Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, The Smiths, and The Cure. Blade’s autobiography was so much more than a trip down nostalgia lane, it turns out he overcame great odds and never gave up in his quest to become successful. His story provides a lesson for anyone hoping for success in any endeavor.

Here are the rest of my favorites from the year. If you click on the title it’ll take you to my review of each.

My Favorite Albums of 2018

Each year as I compile my list of favorite albums I am struck by the variety of things I’m listening to, and also by the way my tastes change over time. I wonder if my taste is driven by the albums that are released each year, or if the albums I choose to listen to are a result of what I desire to hear? It’s an interesting thought experiment I suppose.

I can say that 2018 was a year of diverse musical selections for me. This year my tastes tilted toward the mellow and even a bit toward the alt-country/Americana. That said, I continue to be loyal to artists I’ve loved over time, like Death Cab, Franz Ferdinand, and Paul Weller. So here you go — my 10 favorite albums of 2018 (plus a few honorable mentions).

First, a few albums just fell just short of my top 10 but nevertheless are worth mentioning. Young Sick Camellia by St. Paul and the Broken Bones was a solid effort. This eight-piece soul band from Birmingham, Alabama is the whitest R&B act you’ll ever see with the most surprising-looking lead singer ever (what if CeeLo Green were white?). I’ll Be Your Girl by The Decemberists was just ok for me, which is disappointing because The Decemberists have been one of my favorite bands of the new millennium. Still, an average Decemberists album is better than no Decemberists album and it’s worth a listen. Last year’s top album on my list was by the legendary Paul Weller, who continues to be prolific, this year coming back with True Meanings. After the force that was A Kind Revolution last year this one was a little too mellow for my liking, but still Paul Weller so it deserves a place on my list even if just outside the top 10. I really liked To The Sunset by Amanda Shires, my first introduction to her but she’s been around for a while both solo and with her husband Jason Isbell’s band The 400 Unit. To the Sunset has a bluesy rock feel that struck a chord with me. Finally, perhaps the most controversial record of the year was Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino by Arctic Monkeys which was undoubtedly a departure for them but is a beautiful, moody, piano-driven anathema. I love Arctic Monkeys, and while I didn’t love this album I liked it enough to appreciate it for what it is — an experiment in pop weirdness.

And now, my 10 favorite albums of 2018 (and here’s a link to a YouTube playlist with a song from each of my favorite albums of the year):

10. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats — Tearing At The Seams. All I can say about Nathaniel Rateliff is that his music makes me happy. From the first time I heard 2015’s S.O.B. I was hooked, and this year’s album is really great down-home bar rock. Tearing at the Seams combines blues, rock, soul and a little gospel to boot. These guys are part of a great neo-soul/R&B movement that owes its start to the likes of Amy Winehouse, Adele and The Black Keys. Other artists in the genre include the aforementioned St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Fitz and the Tantrums, Hozier, Kaleo, Mayer Hawthorne, Alabama Shakes, etc.

9. The Kooks — Lets Go Sunshine. I came late to the Kooks party but I’m really starting to enjoy these boys from Brighton. If you like bands such as The Strokes, The Fratellis, or Arctic Monkeys the Kooks will be in your sweet spot. I think they are a bit more musical than the typical post-punk revival bands which for me means they are a tad more accessible than some of their peers. If you want to say that means they are a bit more pop I won’t argue.

8. Frank Turner — Be More Kind. If you like smart, interesting rock and roll then you can’t go wrong with Frank Turner. He has been churning out great album after great album for years since going solo about 10 years ago. Hard to find another rocker who went to the London School of Economics and studied at Eton with Prince William.

7. Snow Patrol — Wildness. I’ve always liked Snow Patrol and Wildness is their best record in a while. For some reason, people either hate or love these guys, maybe because they too often get compared to the lightning rod that is Coldplay, but Gary Lightbody has a voice that I just love. Wildness is solid top to bottom.

6. Franz Ferdinand — Always Ascending. It feels like these Scottish alt-rockers have been around for decades, but Always Ascending is only their fifth studio album. I finally got to see them live this year (at a small venue) and they were fantastic. Franz Ferdinand is definitely one of my favorite 80s-infused bands along with the likes of Phoenix, the Kooks, Interpol and others. I love that Franz Ferdinand embraces their 80s sound. Always Ascending is a great addition to their catalog and I love it all.

5. Leon Bridges — Good Thing. This neo-soul artists from Ft. Worth, Texas is truly blowing up this year on the heels of his second album Good Thing. His debut album Coming Home (2015) evoked memories of Sam Cooke and Al Green, and while Good Thing brings a little more modern soul touch it’s still gorgeous. I suspect Bridges is on the verge of being a household name and it’s only a matter of time before the awards start piling up. I just hope he stays true to his soul roots.

4. Neko Case — Hell-on. The brilliant Ms. Case has found her way into my top 10 several times over the past few years, both as a solo artist and with “super-band” New Pornographers. Hell-on was definitely among the contenders for my top album of the year and it’s her best work since 2009’s Middle Cyclone. I can also say that Neko scored my favorite song of the year, Last Lion of Albion, which you can hear on the YouTube mix I linked to above. FYI, she’s an amazing Twitter follow!

3. Father John Misty — God’s Favorite Customer. No album made me happier this year than Josh Tillman’s (aka Father John Misty) God’s Favorite Customer. He’s such a throwback to 70s soft rock you can’t help but have visions of Stephen Bishop or Glen Campbell. But J. Tillman is all in on this 70s sound but with observant and funny lyrics. I’m feeling good; Damn, I’m feeling so fine; I’m living on a cloud above an island in my mind; Oh baby, don’t be alarmed this is just my vibe.

2. Lord Huron — Vide Noir. This LA “indie folk” band has only put out three albums but this is the second to make my year-end favorites list following 2015’s Strange Trails. For me, top to bottom, Vide Noir is even better than Strange Trails and I find myself listening to it all the time. I’d say it has been my go-to album for 2018. Vide Noir is much more than an indie folk album. It is flat-out gorgeous musically, perhaps because it’s their major-label debut.

1. Death Cab for Cutie — Thank You For Today. Death Cab has been one of my favorite bands for more than a decade thanks in large part to three great albums in a row with Plans (2005), Narrow Stairs (2008), and Codes and Keys(2011). I admit I was a bit disappointed with 2015’s Kintsugi, so when Thank You For Today came out this year I was only cautiously optimistic. I’m happy to say this album exceeded expectations and has returned Death Cab to its well-deserved place among my favorite bands. The album is strong from top to bottom with no bad songs and I absolutely love it. I hope you do too.

Book Review: Part-Time Indian Creates Full-Time Concerns

One thing you can count on, and that is if a book is banned or in any way censored I’m going to read it. So it should come as no surprise that I have always wanted to read the young adult novel The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. This weekend I finally got around to it (and no, it was a coincidence that I read it during a holiday wherein Americans celebrate a fake feast with a people against whom it committed genocide).

The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is one of the most banned books in America. According to Wikipedia, among the book’s controversial themes “include cultural insensitivity, provocative and explicit language, scenes that are sexually explicit or anti-family, anti-Christian content, alcoholism, and depictions of bullying and violence, among others.” Despite these concerns, the book was well received by critics and won the 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

Add to the mix that author Alexie was caught up in the #MeToo movement over the last year, with a reported 10 women having gone public with sexual harassment allegations against the author who later made a public apology for his “poor decisions.” This certainly complicates things and opens the whole “can you love the art while despising the artist” argument. I’ll nip that question in the bud right away by saying I can generally separate the two, enjoying the work while simultaneously condemning the artist. I loved  The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and I also enjoyed Smoke Signals, the film adaptation of his short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. 

I’m a sucker for a good coming of age story, and The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a great one. The novel is semi-autobiographical and concerns a nerdy Native American teenager (Arnold “Junior” Spirit) who lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington State but because he longs for a better education and an escape from constant ridicule by his native schoolmates he decides to transfer to the nearby off-reservation white school. For this he is ostracized by his native community but also finds it difficult (at first) to fit in at the all-white school. In a great bit of true comic irony, the Reardon mascot is the Indian, so Junior says he is one of only “two” Indians at the school.

Alexie does a wonderful job in the novel addressing native themes with openness and honesty. Alcoholism and poverty are ever present, as are racism and Native American stereotypes. The white kids don’t know what to make of Junior, and truthfully Junior isn’t sure what to make of them. The unwritten rules of the reservation don’t seem to apply in the white school so Junior’s sense of equilibrium is thrown off. Back on the reservation he is treated like a traitor for leaving, yet Junior wants to hold on to his native roots not abandon them. 

Ultimately the novel is a story of personal growth for all involved. I’m not giving anything away by reporting that all of the characters learn valuable lessons about life. But more importantly, it is the reader that learns the most. Alexie doesn’t pull any punches as he discusses life on the reservation for his friends and family. Living on the reservation offers little in the way of prosperity for its inhabitants, with poverty and alcoholism — and as a result, death — an ever-present feature. Readers, and young readers especially, need to understand the plight of Native Americans in our country so we can hopefully learn from our mistakes and move the country forward with more justice. Not that we’ve done a good job to date, but I suspect the more young people learn about this situation the better chances we have for a egalitarian future.

One thing I loved about the novel is that Alexie doesn’t try to teach the lessons of the story by sugar-coating the truth. Too often young adult novels don’t speak the language of teens, and ironically it is exactly this fact that causes the book to continually be banned. Junior is real because he is based on Alexie, but mostly because he talks and acts like a real 14-year-old kid. He is crude and sexually explicit. He talks about boners and masturbation and he and his friends use inappropriate terms to refer to each other’s masculinity. Should we ban the book because he uses a bad word? Of course there are no bad words, only bad intentions. Using the word “faggot” to dis your friends is something that teen boys do (and yes, they shouldn’t) but that doesn’t mean you can’t incorporate reality into a novel. Junior is a flawed character as we all are, but he’s a realistic character. I wonder if some of the same politically correct people who want to ban this book for its use of gay slurs decried the banning of Tom Sawyer for it’s use of the “n” word? Art needs to be real to be effective.

The best way to learn from Alexie’s book is to read it and discuss it, not to ban it. If I were assigning this book in a class you bet I’d have a class discussion about the use of derogatory terms for gays — that’s called teaching. I’d also have a discussion about why Reardon High School should change its mascot (yes, it is really still the school’s mascot). And why poverty is rampant on reservations. And why alcoholism is so prevalent among Native Americans. And why young Native Americans are torn between two worlds. Discussing questions like these is what’s missing from American schools and why we are still so divided as a country.

The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a fun read with a lesson for everyone. I don’t typically read young adult novels, though like The Book Thief by Markus Zusak it’s definitely suitable for adults as well as teens. And also like The Book Thief, The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is apparently being made into a movie with Hugh Jackman among others  signed on as a producer. I’m looking forward to seeing the story on the big screen.

Film Review: The Hate U Give Delivers Excellent Performances But Comes Off a Bit ‘Preachy’

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Amandla Stenberg as Starr Carter

The Hate U Give is based on the young adult novel by Angie Thomas and it’s perhaps because the story was originally targeted to a young audience that the film version feels a bit like an after-school special. Don’t get me wrong, the message is important for kids and adults, and the film does a very good job of exploring several key race-related issues — but as an adult with what I think is a fairly good understanding of these issues there wasn’t much new here for me and as a result the lessons feel somewhat preachy and the plot felt predictable.

I’m not in any way trying to minimize the black lives matter movement, just simply suggesting that the plot of the film didn’t strike me as powerful the way, say, a Spike Lee or John Singleton film might have handled the subject matter. Of course, as I said, the target audience is young adult so it was perhaps not as raw or emotional as an adult-focused film might have been.

Regardless, there are certainly some great lessons in the film about black lives matter, police brutality, race relations, black-on-black crime, the drug war, teen relationships and several more. In fact, George Tillman Jr squeezed a lot into two hours. The events in the film felt real, from the white/black relationships at the predominantly white school to the community response to police violence against an unarmed black teen. The story was clearly ripped from the headlines and anytime film is used to shine a light on injustice it’s good for the art form.

The plot was indeed predictable, from the shooting to the reaction by both the white and black community. Of course, if you watch the news at all and know what’s going on in the black community in America specifically as it concerns police brutality the plot would be predictable. I think, though, what was not cliche was the depth of the characters, specifically teen protagonist Starr Carter and her father Maverick Carter. Starr, in particular, was a compelling protagonist because she was literally caught between the two worlds of her privileged white school and her crime-ridden home life in the ghetto. This dichotomy pulled at her and her response to the violent act that the film centers around was quite complicated and it evolved as the plot thickened. Her father was also a well-developed character who came up in the violence-infested drug culture and even served jail time, but who used that experience to try to raise his kids to end the cycle of violence and to empower them as black Americans. Maverick Carter was doing more than the best he could for his family given their circumstances, and in fact, tried hard to educate his kids while supporting his community rather than abandoning it. He is quite a noble figure and it should be no surprise that Starr, in particular, was such a thoughtful and mature young woman.

And then there are the performances in the film. The story may have felt like a made for TV movie, but the acting was first rate. Russell Hornsby (Maverick) was tremendous as the fiery patriarch of the extended Carter family and I won’t be surprised to see him rewarded come award season. Hornsby has done a lot of TV and a few films, but I couldn’t place him while I was watching the movie.

Which leads me to the overwhelming star of this film, Starr herself, 20-year-old Amandla Stenberg. Best known for her work as young Rue in the first Hunger Games film, Stenberg’s performance as Starr was breathtaking. She showcased all of her emotional talents in the film, from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. Whenever she was on the screen, she lit it up with pure charisma. Stenberg brought so much emotion and depth to her character that she has undoubtedly proven she is a tremendous actor and will be a force in the future. I am not alone in declaring Stenberg the next Hollywood “it” girl as I suspect she is on her way to becoming a huge star (pun intended) and we should expect numerous accolades and awards down the road — if not right away for this performance. I wanted to see this film specifically after I read an interview with her in Vanity Fair recently. She is intelligent, beautiful, and quintessentially Generation Z (post-Millennial). She has already set herself apart as a young actress, but she’s also a political activist and LGBTQ advocate who has already been named “Feminist of the Year” (2015) by the Ms. Foundation for Women. She recently reported that she had stopped using a smartphone due to its effects on mental health. The term “woke” may have been invented for her!

In summary, a nice film with a powerful message and incredible performances. I would have loved it if it were a touch less predictable. Or maybe I was just uncomfortable that white people in the film were called out for trying to appropriate the black lives matter movement! Like I said, complicated issues all around and good food for thought.

Book Review: The Water Knife

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Spoiler Alert: this review is part book review and part political rant about climate change!

I love a good dystopian story. We’re binge-watching The Man in the High Castle right now and we have “enjoyed” The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu. But the Allies didn’t lose WWII and while misogyny is experiencing a comeback in these highly charged political times, I really don’t see either of those scenarios taking place anytime soon. Dystopian stories are supposed to be warnings or lessons about what might have been or could be. Dystopia is fine as long as it’s a vision of an extreme and unlikely world. This is the reason The Water Knife is such a terrifying novel — not only is the nightmare scenario of the novel possible, but we’re also actually pretty close to it becoming a reality sooner rather than later. The world in The Water Knife is disturbing and it takes place in the city I call home. Yep, like it or not, Phoenix is ground zero in a world where water is scarce. Hey, it’s a desert after all and as many people have noted, it’s a monument to man’s arrogance.

The Water Knife is a 2015 novel by Paolo Bacigalupi. It takes place in the near future, where climate change has devastated the Southwestern United States. Phoenix has become a wasteland of abandoned suburban homes and a weigh station of sorts for climate refugees from Texas and other states who are hoping to find a new life in Los Angeles or San Diego or Las Vegas, where water rights have provided enough for American refugees to live more comfortably. But California and Southern Nevada have closed off their borders to stem the tide of climate refugees and Phoenix has in effect returned to its lawless, cowboy Western roots. Oh, and the American abandonment of Texas and Arizona along with other drought-ravaged states has enabled the region to become a haven for drug cartels who have long ago taken over Mexico and now moved in to run the former American territories and serve as “coyotes” that provide passage across the border. Add to this the “oasis” buildings built by the Chinese to house political and corporate bigwigs and workers which tower over the poor residents of Phoenix who now live in shanty towns built up around pay-for-water wells. Don’t worry though, Phoenicians can get some drinking water by peeing into a “ClearSac” which can provide a little “clean” water. So, it’s not all bad.

The Phoenix in The Water Knife is pretty awful. Think Mad Max meets Waterworld. But is it really far-fetched, or are we truly headed toward this future?

Let’s put aside climate change and its causes for argument’s sake. What do we know about water in Phoenix? The Colorado River typically accounts for nearly half of the city’s water supply. The water in the Colorado River comes from snowmelt in Colorado, and a huge portion of that water sits in Lake Mead on the Nevada/Arizona border and Lake Havasu on the California/Arizona border.  More than 30 million Americans across seven states — California, Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico — rely on this water for survival. Yes, survival.

Now here’s something I learned in the novel. The water rights for the Colorado River are not equal. The Colorado River Compact divides the river basin into two areas, the upper division (comprising Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming) and the lower division (Nevada, Arizona, and California). The states in the upper basin have higher priority to this water than the states in the lower division. That’s not too bad as long as there’s enough water for everyone. Ah, but there’s the rub my parched friends.

In the past 13 years, Colorado’s snow has been melting at a faster rate, vanishing earlier and earlier each year. Lake Mead, which reached its highest point ever in 1983 at  1,225.44 feet, today — Saturday, October 27, 2018 — Lake Mead sits at 1,078.84 feet.

So what? If the lake levels dip too low, Arizona could lose about a seventh of its annual water allotment to the Central Arizona Project, which supplies much of the state’s water. What’s “too low”? If the water level falls to 1,075 feet above sea level, a shortage declaration would be issued and cuts would be scheduled. Wait, what? That’s like three feet from today’s levels. Yep, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said last month that there’s a 57 percent chance that Lake Mead’s water levels would be so dismal in 2020 that Arizona and Nevada would face cutoffs. If Lake Mead’s water level falls below 1,050 feet, Arizona would lose an additional 80,000 acre-feet of water.

The same U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reported in August 2018 that it predicts Lake Mead will dip just below the threshold to 1,075 feet as early as May 2019. At the beginning of 2020, Lake Mead levels are predicted to be at approximately 1,070 feet and then predicted to fall to as low as 1,053 feet in the summer of 2020.

The Environmental Defense Fund recently wrote: “Arizona is running out of time to figure out new ways of conserving and creatively sharing an increasingly scarce water supply. We need to collaborate now in order to avoid catastrophic and economically destabilizing impacts in the very near future.”

It’s not like nobody has been talking about this, or that the media has dropped the ball. Just last month Joanna Allhands of the Arizona Republic wrote an opinion piece with the headline: A Water Shortage is in Arizona’s Future, Like it or Not.

The Water Knife is a cautionary tale told with a big slice of reality. Which is why I think it’s terrifying. I’m an environmentalist, but I’m not Chicken Little. I mean, the sky may actually be falling. But will things get as bad as Bacigalupi would have us believe? Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re far off. You can choose to believe we’ll come up with some kind of magic pill to keep us from heading over the falls, but given the current political climate and our inability to agree on even the basic fundamentals of how a society should run, what makes you think we’ll be civil to each other when the water starts to dry up?

It’s a fact that Las Vegas has water rights over Arizona. And California, with the fifth largest economy in the world, has far more power than Arizona and its tap into the Colorado River is above Arizona’s. Somebody is going to lose this battle and Phoenix is not in a good position to win.

9780385352871_custom-b9151d61a5c6869bf30190fa56d69a11c7c8bcd9-s400-c85Bacigalupi’s vision is dark. In the novel, the powers that be in Southern Nevada and California do whatever it takes to keep their communities from drying up. They protect the water with troops and drones. They protect their borders. They make deals with shady characters from cartels to the Chinese. They cheat and steal. They kill. They ruthlessly cut off water from one community to save another. People a lot smarter than I believe future wars will be fought not over oil, but over water.

The Water Knife is fiction, but it leaves the reader with a lot to think about. Especially if the reader, like me, lives in a city of almost two million people in the middle of one of the hottest deserts on Earth in which most of its water gets delivered via a single canal that stretches 336 miles from Lake Havasu to Central Arizona.

In the novel, the Central Arizona Project canal has already been compromised. But it really wouldn’t even matter if there’s very little water in the lower division anyway. And say what you will about climate change, facts are facts and when it comes to the Colorado snowpack the proof is in the runoff. The shit is already hitting the fan and it’s probably only going to get worse — and there’s not much we can do about it.

Given all that, the Phoenix of The Water Knife may be inevitable. My son thinks we should get out of Dodge now before things start to get ugly. He makes a compelling argument. At best, we have a few years until by law we have to start rationing. After that, with no solution in sight, people and businesses will start to leave. Who is going to buy your house? Why would a company relocate to Phoenix? Seriously, before we run out of water to drink it’s more likely our economy will tank. Maybe we should sell our house now and move to a more climate change friendly environment (Portland anyone?).

With all that as the backdrop, I still have to say The Water Knife is a great novel. The characters are believable and several are downright relatable. Lucy is a tough journalist trying to tell the story of what Phoenix has become without getting herself killed by the cartels or the powerful people fighting over water rights. Angel is a former criminal turned “water knife” who does the heavy-handed bidding of the Southern Nevada Water Authority and its ruthless leader who will literally do anything to keep Las Vegas from going dry — including killing and stealing. Maria is a refugee from Texas trying to survive in the Valley of the Sun by doing whatever it takes, including selling her body for a hot shower and enough money for a little water to drink. The lives of these three characters, each with their own motivations, collide around a long-lost document that could change the water rights of the Southwest forever.

I admit, despite the overall theme of the novel, it was fun to see Phoenix woven into the story like a main character. Bacigalupi certainly did his homework about Phoenix and its water history. Central Arizona Project, Phoenix suburbs like Chandler, Tempe and Mesa, even the Target on Elliott Road just south of Guadalupe turns up in the story. It was easy to imagine several of the scenes taking place in Gilbert or Ahwatukee.

Another interesting “character” that shows up in the novel is Marc Reisner’s  1993 nonfiction book Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. Reisner’s book is read a lot in academic circles, and it takes a historical approach to understand how cities came to be built in the Arizona desert in the first place and why maybe, just maybe, they were doomed from the start because the water was never going to last forever. I haven’t read Cadillac Desert, and frankly, I’m afraid to now, but I will definitely get to it once I get over my anxiety after reading The Water Knife.

One thing I will say: I’m never going to take water for granted again!

Further reading:

The cost of drought: Less water from Lake Mead in 2020, higher rates for consumers

Arizona cancels water meeting amid difficult negotiations on Colorado River deal

Cost of drought: Less water from Lake Mead in 2020, higher rates

Phoenix Prepares For The Worst Amid Looming Colorado River Shortage

Colorado River Drought Cuts in Arizona Would Be More Severe Than Expected

Review: Educated by Tara Westover

9780399590504_custom-e037ecf3180a26cdc3475e88f65cb5d2eb5a0a1f-s400-c85One of the reasons I joined a book club earlier this year was because I tend to read the same kinds of books (literary fiction or science/social/political narrative nonfiction) and I thought it would be great to open myself up to new books. While I certainly haven’t loved or even liked some of the books chosen by my peers, it’s always a good idea to open your mind. This month my book club read Educated: A Memoir and frankly I never would have read this book had it not been selected by a member of my book club. And that would have been a shame because this was a wonderful memoir.

Tara Westover’s story is remarkable and so well written. I’ve read my share of books and seen movies about people who have overcome great odds in life (Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken comes to mind), but few have come from such an unassuming and surprising protagonist. In this case, the narrator in question is a young woman who grew up isolated from mainstream society in the Idaho mountains. Tara Westover’s parents raised her on the family homestead with no formal schooling, no visits to doctors, no significant interaction with the world outside her home or the nearby small town made up of mostly members of the LDS church. To say she led an isolated life is an understatement — something she reiterated in a TV interview I watched online after finishing this book by sharing that when she arrived at Brigham Young University at age 17 she thought Europe was a country and she hadn’t heard of the Holocaust. She’d also never seen a doctor, wasn’t immunized and didn’t even have a birth certificate until she was nine years old.

But hers is a story of survival more than isolation. Her father was a survivalist who didn’t trust the government or modern medicine. He was a religious zealot who ruled his family with an iron fist and treated his children as employees at his only means of income, his scrap metal business and junkyard. Westover’s mother was an herbalist, who treated any medical condition with homegrown “tinctures” and salves. She was an untrained midwife who delivered children across the community and frankly it’s amazing she didn’t accidentally maim or kill anyone. She “survived” a terrible car accident that probably caused a brain injury. She treated one son’s terrible burns from a fire with home remedies and “healed” her husband’s life-threatening explosion injuries with the same salves and herbs. And despite being a strong-willed woman, she deferred to her powerful husband at every turn.

Westover was also physically and emotionally abused by one of her older brothers, and her recollections of these incidents were heartbreaking. In fact, when she discovered her older sister had also been mercilessly abused by the same sibling and the two sisters decided to confront their parents about the attacks, her sister’s eventual decision to back off the claims led to Westover’s near-complete estrangement from her parents and several siblings that still remains. Her mother agreed to back the girls, but also eventually changed sides and demured to the patriarch of the family.

All of this abuse is the backdrop for a remarkable journey into mainstream society for Westover that began with the encouragement of one older brother to try to go to college despite never having set foot in a formal classroom and having been “homeschooled” with very little beyond religion. Westover purchased a few books and taught herself enough algebra and grammar to get a good enough score on the ACT to get admitted to BYU and that launched a career in academia that eventually led to degrees from BYU, Harvard and ultimately a Ph.D. from Cambridge. That is quite a feat for someone who didn’t go to a proper school until she was 17.

Early in the book, Westover wrote that her memoir was not a story about Mormonism. I heard her say in an interview she wanted to nip that narrative in the bud and that she has no hard feelings about the religion in which she was brought up. That said, she recently wrote that she is no longer a member of the LDS church and describes herself as agnostic. This is important to the underlying theme of her story, and given my personal feelings about religion, this is the point in the review where you might expect me to rail on the LDS church and religion in general. But I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to rail on ignorance because that is what truly is at the heart of Westover’s upbringing and the reason why I think her scholarly attainments are notable.

Westover’s father was indeed a religious fanatic and that played a significant role in her life up until she left for college. Her mother also put religion before knowledge. It is that lack of knowledge that led to her unique childhood. No school because they feared knowledge. No doctors because they feared science. No birth certificates because they feared the government. Which came first for the Westover clan — religion or ignorance? I think for the Westover’s it was ignorance. And fear. And a little psychological dysfunction. Val (or Gene as she called her father in the book) was and is a classic paranoid schizophrenic who used religious text to justify what he didn’t understand. Even Westover herself said she didn’t think her father meant any harm, but rather he didn’t know any better. And that right there is the trouble with America in 2018.

Ignorance leads to hate. Ignorance leads to anti-science. Ignorance leads to misogyny. Ignorance leads to fear of the other. Ignorance leads to voting for Donald Trump.

Val Westover isn’t that unique. His views are extreme, but he’s not that different from people who don’t “believe” in climate change, or who think Mexicans are rapists and murderers so we need to build a wall to protect ourselves. Tara Westover’s story is extreme, but she’s not that far off from a child who is raised in a household that doesn’t trust the New York Times because their parents claim it’s fake news. There are a lot of Tara Westovers in America in 2018. Ignorance is the enemy.

Tara Westover overcame ignorance out of sheer will. She is a survivor in the sense that she transcended the ignorance that she was force-fed. She will break the cycle going forward and raise educated children. She should be celebrated for this and her book is a good reminder that we have a long way to go in America.

And that’s how you turn a book about a survivalist family in the hills of Idaho into an anti-Trump diatribe. 🙂

Who Says There’s No Good Music Anymore?

bad music 420x_09_03_13_08_50_40

I swear, not a week goes by when I don’t see someone post something on social media about how there’s no good music these days. It’s like a rite of passage — once you hit a certain age the only music that matters anymore is what you listened to when you were young. We have short memories. Don’t you recall driving with your parents when you were young and hearing them complain about how today’s music isn’t as good as when they were young? Their parents probably said the same thing to them. They don’t make ’em like Glenn Miller anymore!

The thing is, if you think there’s no good music anymore you’re just not listening. Either that or you’re closed-minded. Yeah, I said it.

Yes, the artists you grew up with are always going to have a special place in your heart. Eighties alternative is the music of my youth and I still listen to it today. My queue is always filled with The Clash, The Style Council, and Tears For Fears. But I love music so I’m always on the lookout for new things. Yes, that includes old artists. I didn’t discover John Coltrane until my 40s and I just recently started listening to alt-country.

But that also means I make it a point to listen to today’s artists and in return I have found many wonderful bands that didn’t start making music until around the start of the 21st century. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting I like today’s “pop” music. Damn if I’m going to listen to Cardi B, Charlie Puth or The Chainsmokers. Bad music is bad music and most of what’s played on the radio today is trash — as was Top 40 pop back in my day.

No, you need to do a little digging to find today’s great music. For me, that means I listen to The Spectrum on SiriusXM or a cultivated playlist on Google Play Music like Feel Good Alternative or Coffee Shop Indie. I also read reviews and listen to cuts recommended at RollingStone.com and Paste Magazine. Technology has actually made it easier to find new music without having to shell out $12 for a full-length album only to be disappointed.

This kind of musical exploration has led me to some amazing music by wonderful artists — some of which have etched a place among my all-time favorites. Arcade Fire didn’t release its first album until 2003 and they are without question one of my favorite bands.

With that as background, and because I always like to share what I’m listening to, here are just some of the 21st-century artists I love, starting with my top 10 favorite “new” artists:

Arcade Fire
The National
The Black Keys
Frank Turner
Fitz & The Tantrums
Franz Ferdinand
Arctic Monkeys
The Decemberists
Dawes
Mumford & Sons

And here are a bunch of others I love:

Alabama Shakes
Band of Horses
Cage the Elephant
The Whitest Boy Alive/Erland Oye (solo)
Father John Misty
First Aid Kit
Hozier
Jake Bugg
Joy Williams
Leon Bridges
Lord Huron
Michael Kiwanuka
Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats
Of Monsters and Men
Paolo Nutini
Phoenix
Rag’n’Bone Man
Scars on 45
St. Vincent
The Temper Trap
Tennis
Two Door Cinema Club

There’s something for everyone on the list above (except for country or hip-hop because I don’t like most country or hip-hop). And all of them either launched after Y2K or close.  And if you don’t know some of them or haven’t had the chance to listen to some of them, just head over to Spotify or YouTube and give something new a try. You can’t argue with the cost.

Next time you think there’s no good music out there today, I encourage you to look and listen. Or send me a note and I’ll recommend something or make you a YouTube playlist!

My Favorite Albums of 2017

Last year I had trouble finding 10 albums to write about in my annual favorite albums post, but fear not my music loving friends — 2017 came in like a lion and never stopped roaring. For me, 2017 has been a banner year, one filled with new albums from some of my favorite artists and new discoveries that made a huge impression on me. In fact, for the first time in a long while I had a real tough time picking just 10 albums to feature so this year we’re going to kick things off with a handful of honorable mentions.

  • Hot Thoughts – Spoon. These guys have really grown on me over the years and this year’s effort was really great. Check out Do I Have to Talk You Into It.
  • Ti Amo – Phoenix. This was one of my most anticipated albums of the year given how much I’ve loved their past two. I have to admit though I was a little underwhelmed. That said, I saw them in concert this summer at the Marquee and they were fantastic live. The title track is a standout.
  • Soul of a Woman – Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings. As farewells go, this is as good as it gets. We lost Sharon too soon, but in her short time atop the music world, she sure made the most of it. She was working on Soul of a Woman at the time of her death and it was released in November. Sail On!
  • Tennis – Yours Conditionally. My son introduced me to Tennis this year and I’m all in. Great sound from this husband and wife duo from Denver, who look (and sound) straight out of 1970s Los Angeles. They’ve toured with Spoon, The Shins, and Haim, and even played Coachella this year.
  • ZZ Ward – The Storm. ZZ’s second album was a great follow up to 2012’s Til The Casket Drops which was one of my favorites that year. The Storm is a little more polished and a little more pop, but she’s so talented I don’t care what she sings. I’m all in. Check out this great live version of Cannonball.
  • Declan McKenna – What do You Think About the Car? I heard McKenna’s Brazil during the 2016 World Cup and liked it, but I didn’t know anything about him. Turns out he’s barely old enough to drive and looks like it. But when his first full-length album came out this year I really liked it and I’m betting he’ll be huge one day.
  • Barns Courtney — The Attractions Of Youth. I’ll be honest, I literally stumbled across this album while searching for Courtney Barnett! What a happy accident. I had heard Fire, which is a great song, but the whole album is really good.

And here’s my top 11 of the year (because, of course, 11 is one better than 10):

  • Hearts That Strain – Jake Bugg. This 23-year-old blues rocker from Nottingham, England made a huge impact on me when I saw him live a few years back opening for the Black Keys. That year his music was all over the place, especially Lightning Bolt. So when Hearts that Strain came out I was expecting more of the same, which would have been great. But it’s nothing like his older stuff. In fact, it sounds like he’s channeling Stephen Bishop or Glen Campbell! And guess what? It’s freakin’ beautiful! Just listen to Waiting, featuring Noah Cyrus (yes, that Noah Cyrus). Holy cow! Jake can sing soul and country as well as blues.
  • Human – Rag’n’Bone Man. Here’s more proof you can find good music anywhere these days. I kept hearing the song Human on an ESPN promo for NBA games and it really resonated with me. So I went to listen to the whole album on Google Play and it just blew me away. I really love the new wave of rock and soul, especially artists like Hozier and Kaleo. Rag’n’Bone Man is cut from the same cloth, but you sure wouldn’t guess it from the looks of him — check out the video for Human and you’ll see what I mean. Looks can be deceiving!
  • Heartworms – The Shins. James Mercer is one of a kind and I’ve always liked his work with The Shins and Broken Bells. Heartworms is classic Shins and every song is great. Name For You is one of my favorites off this record.
  • Colors – Beck. Beck has always been a bit of an enigma to me. He always seems to be trying out new sounds, which is cool I guess, but I really like his upbeat deejay sound. Two Turntables and Microphone! I was really optimistic when I heard the first track off Colors, Dreams, because it was upbeat. Needless to say, I fell in love when the whole album because it makes me want to get up and dance. Up All Night really sums it up for me.
  • Sleep Well Beast – The National. The National has become one of my favorite bands over the past decade or so and frankly I could listen to Matt Berninger sing all day long. 2007’s Boxer will always be my favorite, but Sleep Well Beast will do just fine. If you haven’t spent much time with The National I highly encourage you to do so. You should start with The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness off the new album. Such a gorgeous song.
  • A Deeper Understanding – The War on Drugs. I’m a little late to The War on Drugs, but better late than never. I stumbled upon them in 2014 when they released Lost in the Dream and I played the hell out of that album. This year I was really looking forward to the new record and it doesn’t disappoint. It’s definitely a deep record with luscious instrumentation and intense lyrics and it requires multiple listenings to let it sink in. I’m a sucker for piano-driven rock. Check out the video for Pain to get a sense of this deeper understanding.
  • Masseduction – St. Vincent. Annie Clark (AKA St. Vincent) has been around for a while now, and truthfully I never “got her.” That all changed one night last month when I saw her on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert performing her new song New York. This song hit me like a ton of bricks and I swear I played it over and over for weeks and walked around the house singing “You’re the only motherfucker in the city who forgives me.” When the whole album came out I didn’t know what to expect, and it’s a little more electronic than I typically like, but I just love it. I love every song. And I seriously considered making it the top album on this list. Check out Los Ageless to get a better sense. And for what it’s worth, she always looked a little weird to me but her new look is hot.
  • Low in High School – Morrissey. I’m unapologetic about loving Steven Patrick Morrissey and I was as excited as anyone to hear his new album (his 11th solo record by the way). Low in High School delivers, and seeing him live this month only brought that home. For a 58-year-old dude he can still bring it, on stage and off. Spent the Day in Bed was the first track released and it is a unique sound for him. But the message is all Morrissey, as is the rest of the record. Don’t miss I Bury the Living, my son’s favorite song on the album and a devastating attack on war and the soldier mentality. Oh Moz.
  • Everything Now – Arcade Fire. It had been four years since Reflektor and like all Arcade Fire fans, I anxiously awaited the release of Everything Now. The album sticks with the winning formula that has made Arcade Fire one of the best bands in the world and one of my favorite bands as well. The title track is classic Arcade Fire. This album was always going to be near the top of my 2017 list.
  • Whiteout Conditions – The New Pornographers. Keeping the Canadian theme going, The New Pornographers are a collective of artists that includes the tour-de-force that is Neko Case, who has found herself on my year-end list both as a solo artist and with the Pornographers. Neko is a renaissance woman and a great Twitter follow with a great sense of humor and political style. Most of all, though, Case is a wonderful singer/songwriter and Whiteout Conditions is a solid effort following on the heels of 2014’s Brill Bruisers (which made my favorites list that year). Whiteout Conditions kept me interested and entertained from start to finish. Check out High Ticket Attractions for a good example of this great album.
  • A Kind Revolution – Paul Weller. For more than 40 years, Paul Weller has been making music and forging revolutions. The Jam merged the 60s soul sound with 70s punk and led a literal revolution of Mods in skinny suits, Army jackets, and Vespa scooters. Instead of building on that success, Weller created the Style Council and led a wave of new romantic artists into the next generation. And when it was time to go solo, Weller returned to his soulful roots and since 1990 the Modfather has been cranking out album after album, all of which have brought him tremendous success in England and the title of one of the country’s founding fathers of rock. Now on his 13th solo effort, A Kind Revolution may just be his best solo work yet. The album is a pure blues/soul goodness complete with Weller’s hard-charging guitar-driven rock and roll perfection. Here’s a taste of the entire album in one nice little YouTube sampler for your listening pleasure. And for a longer taste, here he is on Conan performing my favorite track off the album, Long Long Road. This song is classic Weller and an example of why he has always been among my all-time favorite artists.

Weller

The Mysteries of Life in the Moonglow

MoonglowWhen I graduated from college in 1988 I imagined one day I’d be a successful novelist. I was an avid reader of literary fiction, devouring the novels of great American writers like John Updike, Phillip Roth and Tom Wolfe. Around the same time I stumbled upon a novel by an unknown author named Michael Chabon who had just published what I later learned was his master’s thesis work from UC-Irvine. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was a coming of age novel and I was coming of age. It hit me like a ton of bricks — how could a 25 year old kid from UC-Irvine of all places write such a masterful work of modern fiction. I was inspired enough to look into MFA programs and even applied to Chapman College in Orange County. If Chabon could do it even though he wasn’t some East Coast literary snob why couldn’t I? By the way, I later learned UC-Irvine has an exceptional MFA program that only admitted 13 fiction students each year.

I ended up taking some graduate-level English classes at San Jose State, after all it was in my backyard and it too produced a tremendous literary talent in Amy Tan. But ultimately I wasn’t ready for graduate school (I ended up earning an MA in English many years later from Northern Arizona University) and went to work as a technical editor instead. And while my literary dreams never fully went away, I still haven’t written a novel. I think part of the reason is because I know in my heart I could never be as good as Michael Chabon, who went on to write some of the best American novels ever including one of my all-time favorite novels, Wonder Boys, as well as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay for which he won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. As an aside, Wonder Boys is one of the few novels I can think of in which the movie version is almost as good as the book (Robert Downey, Jr., Michael Douglas and Frances McDormand are great, not to mention Tobey Maguire and Katie Holmes in supporting roles).

Flash forward to today and Chabon’s latest novel, Moonglow, is one of the best-selling books of the year. I just finished it, and it is undoubtedly his best work since the mid-90s. Moonglow is a unique work of “fiction” in that the lines between fact and fiction are blurred. Chabon has stated the novel is based on the true experiences of his grandfather, but he took many liberties to shape the story. Either way, it’s a beautiful tribute to his family’s legacy. The narrator of Moonglow is a writer named Michael Chabon, who over the course of the book tells the story of his grandfather’s life as he sits on his deathbed relaying his complicated past to his grandson Mike for the first time. I don’t want to spoil the story for you, but suffice it to say Chabon’s grandfather was a remarkable man who married a complex woman. Like a lot of Chabon’s work, the story touches on Jewish identity, World War II, the Holocaust, and family dynamics. It also bounces back and forth between the the early days of his grandfather’s life and the later days, providing a complete picture of the man over the course of a lifetime. The fact that the reader really has no way of knowing which parts of the story are fact and which are embellishments only adds to the intrigue. And as always, Chabon’s writing is brilliant. His style is modern and the story has just enough detail to give the reader a sense of being in the moment, whether that is behind enemy lines in Germany during World War II or in an active adult community in Florida.

Moonglow is quite a tribute to Chabon’s grandfather. It makes me sad that I didn’t ask my grandparents more about their lives before they died. I know very little about my paternal grandfather (who died when I was very young) other than the fact that he owned shoe stores in Brooklyn. My maternal grandfather died suddenly around the time I graduated from college, and I only know a little about his life — he served in the Navy Reserves during World War II and when he married my grandmother he was cut off by his Orthodox Jewish family because my grandmother wasn’t Jewish enough. I imagine there was quite a story there, but I didn’t think to ask. I think that’s one of the reasons Moonglow is so touching. While Chabon’s grandfather was slowly dying from cancer he spent time with him and heard his stories. It’s a wonderful legacy for his grandfather and his entire family as the stories are now available for people to read for all time. In a way, Moonglow immortalizes his grandfather and that is a tremendous gift to his grandfather, his family, and the book’s readers.

As for my own literary dreams, there’s always hope. Toni Morrison wrote her first novel at 39. Raymond Chandler didn’t publish his first story until he was 45. Frank McCourt wasn’t published until he was 64! I don’t know if I have a novel in me, but if I write one that’s even half as good as anything Michael Chabon has ever written it’ll be a personal triumph.