Messenger staffers share thoughts on good books

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(Posted Jan. 2, 2020)

Looking to curl up with some good books this winter? Here are some reading suggestions from staffers at the Columbus Messenger Co. The company publishes the Madison Messenger, Southwest Messenger, Westside Messenger, Southeast Messenger and Eastside Messenger.

Kristy Zurbrick, Madison Messenger editor

Looking back over my reading journal for 2019, I realize just how much I diverged from my usual penchant for fiction. In fact, I read twice as many non-fiction books as I did fiction. I chalk it up to the influences of an old friend and a new friend, both of whom are voracious readers of non-fiction. I picked two of my favorites to share here.

“Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” by David Grann is about greedy people killing Native Americans in Oklahoma in the 1920s after oil deposits are found beneath the tribe’s land. All of it shows how terrible people can be, from the government displacing Osage tribe members and allotting to them what they thought was “nothing” land to the people who conspired to and were complicit in murdering tribe members to get at the wealth that “nothing” land produced.

It is awful that the government assigned guardians to manage the wealth of Osage tribe members they deemed to be incompetent; corruption ran rampant. It is awful that law enforcement, initially, didn’t bother to investigate the murders or purposely botched investigations. It is awful that so many of the apparent killers were never brought to justice.

What isn’t awful is that the Osage were eventually successful in getting their dire situation noticed and their rights protected. What isn’t awful is that someone, despite grave danger, finally stayed above the corrupt fray and brought down the kingpin who orchestrated at least two dozen of the killings.

Grann does an excellent job of laying out the facts and research and unfolding the story.

If you’ve never been to the Buckeye Book Fair, you gotta go. It takes place once a year in the fall on the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center campus in Wooster and features 100 authors from Ohio. They sit at tables that fill Fisher Auditorium and happily talk about and sign their books. I went this year and walked away with a heavy bagful of books, everything from mushroom hunting guides to children’s stories.

Once I got home, the first book I pulled from the stack to read was “If I Live to Be 100” by Neenah Ellis. A decade ago, Ellis did a project for National Public Radio for which she traveled the country, talking to people who were at least 100 years old. She put the experience into a book.

I really enjoyed this one. I read it quickly over the course of two days and, as soon as I finished it, I knew I wanted to read it again soon and more slowly.

Ellis’s process, trials and errors, growth and epiphanies as an interviewer and journalist are what made the biggest impression on me in this first read-through. I could relate to preparing questions and a framework for an interview, relying on it to a fault and, as a result, faltering when the interview goes another way. I know the feeling of walking away from an interview in which the subject and I were never in synch. On the flip side, I also can relate to what Ellis describes as “falling,” letting go of control and rolling with wherever an interviewee or story takes you and being happily surprised and sometimes humbled by the results.

Of course, I appreciated Ellis’s actual stories about the centenarians, too, and they will get my full attention the next time around.

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Andrea Cordle, Southwest/Westside Messenger editor

The most interesting book I read this year was “No Exit” by Taylor Adams. A young woman is traveling home from college to be with her sick mother. When driving through the Rocky Mountains, she encounters a dangerous snowstorm and must pull off the highway into a rest area, where four others are also stranded. She goes outside of the rest area to find cell reception to get in touch with her family to explain her situation. While outside, she sees something odd in a van parked in the lot. Upon further inspection, she realizes that a child is being held in a dog crate in the back of this van. One of the people she is stranded with is, at the least, a kidnapper.

Without giving too much away, “No Exit” is quite suspenseful and features a superb cat-and-mouse game between the main character and the perpetrator. The characters are well developed, and I enjoyed how one person would have the upper hand then it would shift.

I read in bed before I go to sleep. This book kept me up, reading longer than I intended. I could not wait to find out what would happen next. If you choose to read this, the book did take a darker turn near the conclusion and may be disturbing for some readers.

The only other book I read recently that I would recommend is “Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng. This is a story that asks the question, “How well do you really know anyone, even your own family members?”

The book is about a young girl who is found dead. What happened? Her family tries to come to terms with the answers while struggling to relate to one another.

“Everything I Never Told You” is a heartbreaking but poignant story about a young girl and her family trying to fit in with their peers and meet the demands of those they love. It’s a very relatable story. We all play roles in life but few people, if any, truly know what is going on inside your mind or heart.

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Rick Palsgrove, Columbus Messenger Co. managing editor

One of the wondrous things about books is that they can take on a variety of forms in which to present information, provide entertainment, and generate insight.

Two books I enjoyed this past year are  examples of how the traditional narrative form of a novel or short story can be molded into something else entirely and be just as delightful and intriguing.

The books are “Humans of New York: Stories” by photographer Brandon Stanton and “Notes From a Public Typewriter,” edited by Michael Gustafson and Oliver Uberti. The strength of both books is that they provide personal and philosophical insights from everyday people in a mere paragraph, or sometimes, one sentence. Though short, these passages are, in essence, fully formed short stories in their own right.

“Humans of New York: Stories” sprang from Stanton’s online blog, “Humans of New York.” Over the past few years, Stanton has photographed and interviewed about 10,000 strangers of all ages he met on the streets of New York. Each page of the book has a photo of the interviewee and some statements from Stanton’s interviews with them. It is personal storytelling with a face. Stanton’s photos appear to capture the personalities of the anonymous people being interviewed.

There’s a photo of a pensive man, who looks to be approaching middle age, sitting in a park. He observes to Stanton that, as we age, there are fewer things to experience for the first time and, even when one does, the excitement is muted. But he adds one also does not feels as hurt. He then ponders what it will feel like when he reaches age 70.

Another photo shows a man walking with a cat on his head. The man matter-of -factly tells Stanton that one can make more money with a cat on one’s head than if the cat is on one’s shoulder.

Some of the people’s comments express alienation. Some are joyful. Some people are forthcoming with their words and others are more reticent. Some are sad. Some are funny, such as the little girl who told Stanton she wanted to be a princess hairdresser. When he asked her what the hardest part of that job was, she answered that it would be cutting Rapunzel’s hair.

I often make notes in the books I own of  the page numbers and passages I like and will revisit in the future. My copy of “Humans of New York: Stories” has dozens of such notations.

The content in “Notes From a Public Typewriter” was gathered when a typewriter with paper was set up in a Michigan book store and people were invited to anonymously type a message. Much like in “Humans of New York: Stories,” the passages in “Notes From a Public Typewriter” can be a paragraph, a sentence, or one word. Where “Humans of New York: Stories” presented storytelling with a face filtered through an interview, “Notes From a Public Typewriter” brings the typists’ thoughts directly to you from their brains, through their fingers on the typewriter keys, to the typefaced word all can read.

The many typed messages collected in the book are widely varied in temperament and can be described as poignant, humorous, hopeful, raw, sad, philosophical, romantic, questioning, and more. Some examples include: someone who typed that they race snowflakes to see who falls first; a writer comparing their lover’s eyes to that of wonderful August skies; another noted that they were on a date, but  their bladder was leaking; and, in what had to be more youthful typists, asking where the power button is on the typewriter and another who wrote if they had to type an essay on “this thing” they would quit school.

Both books are a random sampling of the thoughts that go through our heads on a daily basis. A dominant theme in both books is love and relationships which indicates the age-old battle of loneliness marches on.

One typist’s comment seemed to sum up both books’ contents, as well as the human condition, as they wrote that, in the end, we are all stories.

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