Book Review: Columbine

Columbine
Hatchette Book Group, NY: 2010; 2016
by Dave Cullen
Book Review by Marty Rheaume
Available at the Croswell Library

Columbine haunts us with sobbing teenagers, grieving parents, and dead students who endure in our collective consciousness.  April 20, 1999 wasn’t the first school shooting but it is the one that created a cult of theatrical violence preaching terror and narcissistic loathing. Astonishingly, acolytes embraced the sermon and spread it, wreaking havoc for the next couple of decades, while the rest of us wonder why the nihilistic message appeals to so many.

Cullen uses 400 plus pages to illuminate that day and the deranged minds that orchestrated it. After being one of the first reporters on the scene, he spent the following ten years on the book. With a well-paced narrative, he alternates between the years leading up to that day and the fallout that resulted from it. We meet the victims, their families, the killers, their parents, and the overmatched law enforcement officials trying to make sense of it. Poignant moments of strength and forgiveness abound but this is no feel-good book.

Columbine is most gripping when it explores clinical psychopathy through the twisted mind of Eric Harris along with Dylan Klebold’s sycophantic relationship with him. Harris’s calculating cruelty is so foreign to the empathetic reader, it’s impossible not to be intrigued by his alien thought process. Meanwhile, examining Klebold’s tortured soul gives the reader a different feeling. His relatability lends some humanity to the pair and makes him the more tragic figure.

The juxtaposition of the two perpetrators gives the book a dynamic energy that keeps the pages turning and the mind searching for answers. Harris wanted to watch the world burn. Moreover, he wanted to light the match. Klebold was a disillusioned young man whose frustration with a fallen world led to violent outbursts. We watch their relationship develop into a runaway train fueled by animosity, resentfulness, and spite. Cullen frustrates us by illustrating various opportunities local authorities had to derail that hate train. Most gut-wrenching was an affidavit to search Harris’s house that inexplicably slipped through the cracks, despite linking him to a homemade pipe bomb found in the neighborhood. The results were fifteen dead, a nation scarred, and a darker world.

Twenty years later, we must admit that Eric Harris won. He got everything he wanted: terror, infamy, a legacy of fans, and copycat killers. He let an evil genie out of the bottle and now he’s laughing in Hell as we blame each other for the destruction.

Book Review: The Lone Wolverine

The Lone Wolverine: Tracking Michigan’s Most Elusive Animal
Elizabeth Philips Shaw & Jeff Ford
University of Michigan Press: 2012
Available at the Croswell Library
Review by Marty Rheaume

Michigan is the Wolverine State. It’s been our unofficial state motto since our southern neighbors discovered that we were the ugliest, meanest, fiercest creatures of the North. Rather than hide from the insult, we embraced it as a symbol of northern toughness. Curiously though, no living wolverine had ever been documented in Michigan. For almost 200 years, we had been the Wolverine State without proof of a wild wolverine ever stepping foot on our soil until one winter day in 2004 in the most unlikely of places.

Of course, there had been “sightings” of wolverines in Michigan, along with UFOs, Bigfoot, and Elvis in Kalamazoo. As the first calls of a wolverine sighting came into the DNR office on that cold February morning, the conservation officer took it about that seriously. Eyewitness testimony is slightly better than useless, except when it’s worse. People mistake raccoons for bears, dogs for wolves, and housecats for cougars. It’s easy to imagine the officer patiently rolling his eyes as the first call came in and becoming annoyed as the phone kept ringing but when the call came claiming the wolverine had been treed a few miles south of Bad Axe, it could no longer be ignored. The DNR got there just in time to officially document the first wolverine sighting in the history of the Wolverine State.

This mysterious wolverine sighting in Michigan’s Thumb provoked more questions than answers. For Deckerville science teacher and track coach Jeff Ford, the mystery became an obsession. After surviving a family tragedy as a young child, Ford developed an intense bond with the rhythms of the natural world. The solitude and the potential for discovery and connection animated his youth, while allowing his psychological trauma to scar over. He continued to be an avid outdoorsman as an adult, publishing his writings in various outdoor magazines. By 2010, he had earned the title, “The Wolverine Guy” for his work documenting the story of the Michigan Wolverine.

How did a wolverine end up in the heart of Thumb, hundreds of miles from the nearest known population? “The Lone Wolverine” tells of Ford’s relentless search for the answer. He pursued it through muck and snow and pushed his ailing heart to the limit. He paid the price for the obsession with time, debt, and familial strain.  For six years, he haunted the Minden City Swamp in search of its most famous resident; tracking her, photographing her, collecting DNA samples, and ultimately falling in love with his “pretty gal,” the lone Michigan Wolverine. We’re all richer because of it. Thank you, Mr. Ford.

Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy
J.D. Vance
Published by Harper Collins in 2016
Book available at Aitkin Library
Discussion to take place Thursday, March 29 at 2:30 pm at Aitkin Library

In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance documents his cultural migration from an impoverished Appalachian Hillbilly in southeastern Ohio to a law student in the hallowed halls of Yale. Having one foot in each of those worlds puts him in a unique position to elegize the cultural ecology from which hillbillies spring. He chronicles poverty and addiction, honor and obligations, and the troubled heart of rural America. Credited for having his fingers on the pulse of the Trump phenomenon, Vance wrote one of 2017’s most celebrated books.

Opioid epidemics, unemployment, broken homes and despair plague shrinking towns and cities of the Rust Belt from Appalachia to the Great Lakes. It wasn’t always this way. For years, the American Dream was within reach for people with little formal education. People migrated from agricultural jobs in the South to industrial jobs in the North and made a proud living. Americans soon took this Post-War industrial boom as our birthright until globalization and automation interrupted our blue collar prosperity. CEOs shipped jobs to Mexico as they discovered Mexicans are also capable of working hard jobs but at a fraction of the wages. Robots work twice as hard and complain half as much. Politicians from Bill Clinton, to Barrack Obama to Donald Trump tell us they can solve our problems. We’ll put tariffs on the countries that are ripping us off. We’ll raise the minimum wage so fast food workers can support their families. We’ll make drugs illegal so people stop doing them… On and on they promise as the Rust Belt gets rustier and health and financial trends that had been on an upward trajectory for centuries are now on the downhill slope of the race to the bottom.

Against this narrative backdrop, Vance shines the spotlight on rural culture. How did the culture of people who developed a reputation for hard work become a victimhood culture of learned helplessness? How is it the government’s fault that husbands are leaving their wives and single mothers are smoking meth? How can schools educate kids who subsist on Coke and Pop Tarts? How can people be trained to work if they’re unwilling to clean up their yards, brush their teeth or take care of their own dogs?  Unlike the politicians with their promises, Vance doesn’t talk about grand solutions. He doesn’t suggest an easy trade war to solve the problems or more government spending. It’s not about Left versus Right. It’s not a self-help book either. There are no step by step solutions to getting us out of poverty but getting our own houses in order is a fine place to start.

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging
by Sebastian Junger
Published by Hatchett Book Group (134 pages)
Available at Aitkin Library in hardcover and  downloadable audiobook
Book Review by Marty Rheaume

In Tribe, Junger explores the social phenomenon of tribal membership. By diving into our psychological need for belonging, Junger discovers our most horrific experiences have a mysterious allure. In the aftermath of adversity, war, and national disaster, people look back nostalgically at the bonds they built and the intensity of being alive in the midst of threatening environments. This observation provides the canvas to trace these paradoxical feelings back to our tribal roots and show how our lack of connection and purpose manifest themselves in neurotic and pathological behavior.

Many of us suffer the ennui of modern life. Our basic needs are met with little direct connection to our daily tasks, so it can be hard to find meaning in our work. Families are spread out across the state, country, and globe disrupting familial bonds. Our human interactions are often reduced to social media and work, leaving people dissatisfied, lonely, and empty.  Ironically, when fate interrupts and we’re put in a position of survival where we work with a small group of people, we find these experiences enrich our lives with meaning, despite the trauma we also experience.

Viewed through the perspective Junger provides, so many of our curious modern conditions make sense. The partisan bickering, racist resentment, addiction, depression, mass shootings, suicide and everything else can be viewed as failures in man’s search for meaning. People are looking for their tribe and looking for meaning.  Even though societal affluence grows, we’re afflicted with alienation and angst, because our instincts and muscle memory are telling us to search for something that’s rapidly disappearing.

The allure for connection and meaning still has immense pull on our psyches. It helps explain human fascination with war. War acts as a pressure cooker for creating meaning and intimate bonds. As horrific as it can be, those who go through war can develop an attachment or even addiction to the intimacy, adrenaline, and sense of purpose war offers.  Returning veterans are challenged with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and a struggle to assimilate back into civilian life.  As horrible as war is, at least they had a purpose and each other.

Junger uses his own experience, studies, anecdotes and statistics to support his observations. His narrative makes intuitive sense to the reader. Most of us can remember the camaraderie of a sports team, along with the feelings of pride we held after our collective suffering or the impromptu barbeques after a big storm when the power goes out. We’ve witnessed this in our own lives, and he makes it easy for us to extrapolate these observations onto society. He doesn’t provide us with any answers, but he holds up a mirror, so we can observe our intense search for meaning and connection. Maybe it’ll help us form our own tribes.

The Force by Don Winslow

The Force
Don Winslow
Harper Collins Publishers, 2017
Available at Aitkin Memorial District Library
Book review by Marty Rheaume

In our America of 2017, tensions between the police and African American Community are as tight as they’ve been since Rodney King. Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter groups are at each other’s throats, white nationalists are marching in Virginia. Every day brings us headlines highlighting disturbing racial animosity stubbornly refusing to bury itself, and we all wonder if this is really happening. When suffering through this surreal and anachronistic reality, fiction is the only place we can turn. In “The Force” we view the complexities and ironies of the current racial conflagration through the eyes of an elite NYPD cop whose love/hate relationship with New York City and its Harlem residents moves him to lie, cheat, steal, and kill in order to save the city from itself, but who’s going to save the city from him and “Da Force?”

Sergeant detective Denny Malone is the baddest cop in New York City. He made his way to the top by breaking all the rules. He follows his own code, not the code written by bureaucrats in New York, Albany, Washington, or anywhere else. As long as he kept making New York Times caliber busts and putting criminals behind bars (or in coffins), they closed their eyes, but his own code is getting harder to define. He could justify cutting corners to make a bust or lying to get a warrant, but breaking the rules to enrich himself has left him disillusioned. Through flashbacks from a jail cell, we follow him step-by-step as he crosses lines from being an idealistic cop to a dirty cop to a filthy cop. At rock bottom and long beyond redemption, he’s plotting to go out in a sacrificial blaze of glory to prevent the rest of the city from burning to the ground.

Winslow reigns as king of epic crime fiction. His 2015 work, “The Cartel,” examined the brutal lives of Mexican Narcos and the people who sell their souls to fight them. “The Force” returns to our side of the border to explore the relationships between the police, the (mostly black) inner-city denizens whom they protect and serve, and the politicians who view both sides as a means to an end. Once again, Winslow captures the Zeitgeist, bringing the headlines to life. This novel is so strikingly topical, it’s hard to believe he’s been researching it for 5 years, but his willingness to put in work doing the research is what separates him from other crime writers. While making allowances for a larger than life anti-hero in Malone, the rest of the book is saturated in gritty realism. It’s a street level view of the messy complexities and contradictions of race relations, and a deep exploration into the human heart in conflict with itself.

Power of the Dog by Don Winslow

powerofdog_new2Power of the Dog by Don Winslow
Book Discussion
Wednesday, January 25 @ 6:30 pm

Exceptional books illuminate, allowing us to see the world or ourselves in a way previously obscured. Sometimes, this new light reveals something awe-inspiring, beautiful, and mysterious. Other times, it reveals something brutal and horrifying, and maybe the lights should have just stayed off, because what is seen can never be unseen. The “Power of the Dog” is one of those books.

Unofficially America’s longest war, the Drug War is a failure. The bodies pile up, but the drugs continue to flow into people’s lungs, up their noses and through their veins. Meanwhile, the cartels that peddle them amass wealth, power, and influence. Winslow dramatizes this brutal reality in “The Power of the Dog.” We view it through the perspectives of Art Keller, a rogue DEA agent, and Adan Barrera, Keller’s former friend who consolidated power to become the Drug Kingpin of all of Mexico, el patron. Through the eyes of these rivals, we witness 25 years of brutal violence, heartbreaking betrayals, and empty victories in a game that nobody ever wins.

The seriousness of the issue and the depth of the characters separate “The Power of the Dog” from the average crime fiction. The Drug War and Cold War intertwine, alliances tangle, and Faustian bargains are the only options available. Keller knows the battle against the cartels will cost him everything, but his addiction to this dogfight is as powerful as any drug. Barrera would like to run the cartel with the banality of a corporation, but the cost of being the king is paid in blood.

Wars aren’t fought by two people alone. Reluctant killers, left-wing priests, perspicacious prostitutes, Mexican cowboys and an alphabet soup of government organizations on both sides of the border have agendas of their own, and nobody comes out of this combat unscathed. Some pay in dollars. Some pay with their lives, and some pay with their souls.

Book Review: The Girl on the Train

girl-on-trainRachel is a hot mess. She drank herself out of her marriage, out of her job, and out of her friendships. In order to maintain the illusion of normalcy, she continues to take the train to “work” every single day. She uses this opportunity to stare out the window, pound gin and tonics, and fantasize about the life she had, the life she wanted, and the life that was stolen from her. Every day, she witnesses the “perfect couple.”  In the mornings, their smiling faces enjoy breakfast and coffee. In the evenings, they relax with their dinner and their wine. Rachel lusts after this life. This was her life, but her current life is little more than a boozy fog, so she takes comfort in the warm fantasies of the people she watches from the train. This fantasy too is steamrolled.

One morning, the perfect man isn’t there, and the perfect woman is kissing another man. That same day, the perfect woman goes missing. Rachel would be a key witness, except that she can’t be trusted. She stalks her ex-husband, harasses his new wife, and spends most of her life on the verge of being blackout drunk. Neither her memories nor her motives are trusted by the police. The dark cloud of an alcohol induced blackout hangs over that day, obscuring her recollection of the events. All she knows is that she woke up with bumps and bruises, along with the desperate feeling that key elements of the story have been buried deep within her psyche. Can she stay sober long enough to unearth the facts, and maybe even grasp the root of her addiction?

Book Review: Good and Cheap

good and cheap

Click image to find in library

Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4 a Day is an essential cookbook, not just one for those trying to eat on a budget. So many cookbooks are loaded with complicated recipes with ingredients that nobody can pronounce with a straight face. This book strips cooking down to it’s essentials, and is driven by the idea that simple, fresh ingredients are the key to eating well. It’s also a commentary on the assumption that one has to be rich to eat well these days, and that it’s cheaper to eat fast food or instant processed food. This book shows that with a few basic cooking skills and the knowledge of which ingredients to buy, one can eat for a day on less than what the average “value meal” at McDonald’s costs.

Lately, we have seen many books of this nature. Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan have become celebrities and best selling authors by promoting the “real food” movement. With such lines like, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” the real food movement has been rapidly gaining fans. This book is a perfect addition to those already on the bandwagon, or for those who are looking for an easy and inexpensive way to convert to a simple, nutritious, and delicious diet.

For those interested in the book, it can be borrowed from the library here, or the author has made it available for free via pdf download here.

The Martian

the martian by andy weir

Click image to check for availability

The Martian by Andy Weir

In The Martian, astronaut Mark Watney is abandoned by his crew and left for dead. He shouldn’t have survived the freak accident that appeared to kill him, and when he realizes it didn’t, he knows that his chances for long term survival are bleak. Despite having enough food to last a year, being the only inhabitant of Mars’s red desert presents numerous challenges to the unwilling Earthling immigrant. Nobody knows he’s there, and even if they did, it would take years to get a rescue ship to him.


The story is mostly told through Watney’s space log where we get an appreciation of his ingenuity and self-deprecating humor. The book brilliantly demonstrates humanity’s instinct to persevere in the face of impossible odds. Watney uses his engineering skills to continuously find ways to extend his lifespan, and his observational wit to keep him sane as Mars’s loneliest resident.


The book does a great job of mixing the tension of a sci-fi thriller with a constant stream of one-liners from Watncy. His ability to keep his sense of humor despite leap frogging from one life threatening emergency to the next makes him easy to identify with and pull for.
The Martian is a page turner, and one of the funniest science fiction books ever written. It’s a must read for all sci-fi fans, and also fans of survival stories and thrillers. It’s being made into a movie starring Matt Damon.

The Truth About Alice

Click image for availability.

Click image for availability.

The Truth About Alice by Jennifer Mathieu

The following review for “The Truth About Alice” deals with mature themes and uses strong language.

So basically this story is about a girl named Alice Franklin who is a “slut” because she slept with two different guys at the same party. It is also well known that she killed Brandon, the star quarterback, because she was sexting him while he was driving and he died in a car accident.

This story is written from four different points of view and then lastly Alice’s. Elaine, the popular girl. Josh, the average jock. Kurt, the nerd that nobody likes. And Kelsey, who is Alice Franklin’s ex best friend. All of these people (except Kurt) helped some way in Alice’s downfall.

This was a great story to read, although it had many clichés, and it was kind of predictable, the characters and their stories made the book pretty great. It definitely will tear you apart seeing how teenagers (or really anyone) can be so selfish that they would spread rumors to make themselves more popular. I’m looking forward to future books by Jennifer Mathieu.

–Alyssa Plowman