Command and Control by Eric Schlosser

6452798Written with the vibrancy of a first-rate thriller, Command and Control interweaves the minute-by-minute story of an accident at a nuclear missile silo in rural Arkansas with a historical narrative that spans more than fifty years.  It depicts the urgent effort by American scientists, policymakers, and military officers to ensure that nuclear weapons can’t be stolen, sabotaged, used without permission, or detonated inadvertently. Schlosser also looks at the Cold War from a new perspective, offering history from the ground up, telling the stories of bomber pilots, missile commanders, maintenance crews, and other ordinary servicemen who risked their lives to avert a nuclear holocaust.  At the heart of the book lies the struggle, amid the rolling hills and small farms of Damascus, Arkansas, to prevent the explosion of a ballistic missile carrying the most powerful nuclear warhead ever built by the United States.


While I’ve read books about nuclear power this was my first about nuclear weapons and woah. By all rights we should all be dead by now, maybe ten times over. There are two interleaving story arcs, one about the history of nuclear weapons from the Manhattan Project through the early 2000s, and another that covers a Titan II missile accident.

I had no idea that there were so many mishaps, mistakes, and close calls – planes holding H-bombs catching fire on the runway, nukes lost at sea, early warning systems that misinterpret the moon rising over Sweden has incoming ballistic missiles.  I thought everyone would be behind more safeguards against human error because no one wants to blow up their town by mistake, but it turns out the military was largely against safety measures.  A well-protected weapon requires more checklist steps and time before launch, and those minutes would be crucial in a nuclear attack.

The narrative structure is similar to Columbine in that two separate timelines are alternated – here the history of atomic weapons and a missile accident in Arkansas.  I had never heard of the accident and didn’t know how it ended up so Schlosser’s account kept me riveted.  It also serves to break up the history portions and keep the narrative fresh.

I listened to this as an audiobook and really enjoyed it.  I had no problems with the reader and was able to push the speed over 2x, which is a help when the book is over 20 hours long.

My school history books didn’t do a good job covering the Cold War so Command and Control helped me reach a much needed deeper understanding. We should all know this history, if only to make sure we don’t repeat it.

You may also enjoy:

20820098 Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters by James Mahaffey


The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden (Winternight Trilogy #2)

34050917The magical adventure begun in The Bear and the Nightingale continues as brave Vasya, now a young woman, is forced to choose between marriage or life in a convent and instead flees her home—but soon finds herself called upon to help defend the city of Moscow when it comes under siege.


I was worried this wouldn’t be as good as The Bear and the Nightingale but you know what? I think I like this one better.

If you liked the slow set up and epic scale of the first book you may be disappointed, as there isn’t as much here.  Instead we have Vasya off on an adventure, seeing new places and meeting all kinds of people.  Even so Arden reintroduces us to characters in a gentle, non-jarring way, making it easy to follow the story even if you’ve forgotten who is who.

While some parts made me cringe – Vasya is young and makes her share of foolish mistakes – they’re in character and part of her development.  The only regrettable part for me is when she runs headlong into danger near the end.  I get the reason, and in a twisted way it was a smart thing to do, but it was a little too close to heroine bait/meaningless self-sacrifice for my liking.

Morozko is my favorite character and we get a lot of time with him here.  Everyone else, from Vasya’s siblings on down to servants is fleshed out and well characterized.

There’s no slump in Arden’s sophomore effort and I eagerly await the last book of the trilogy.

Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot

35840657Heart Berries is a powerful, poetic memoir of a woman’s coming of age on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest. Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalized and facing a dual diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Bipolar II, Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma. The triumphant result is Heart Berries, a memorial for Mailhot’s mother, a social worker and activist who had a thing for prisoners; a story of reconciliation with her father—an abusive drunk and a brilliant artist—who was murdered under mysterious circumstances; and an elegy on how difficult it is to love someone while dragging the long shadows of shame.


(First some trigger warnings, especially for suicidal ideation and an attempt, abuse, and eating disorders.)

There is so much to admire here.  Allow me to list the ways:

  • Mailhot puts her story on the page in a way that’s both spare and evocative, simultaneously emotional and unsympathetic.  It’s like she takes the glass form of a memoir, smashes it at her feet, and rearranges it best for her truth, complete with stray debris and blood from her cut hands.
  • The writing is amazing.  Some chapters have an intricate internal logic that I’ll need to revisit to fully appreciate, and the one liners are art.

    I think of you often, but there are still spaces unchanged by you.

    I learned that any power asks you to dedicate your life to its expansion.

    Men objectify me, to such a degree that they forget I eat.  You feed your dog more kindly than you feed me.  That’s men.

  • Some chapters fairly jump off the page – the first is one of these and I was sure I had a five star read in my hands.  The good is blow the roof off amazing so maybe I’m greedy to want that all the way through, but some of the middle essays fell flat for me.  I’m hoping that changes on a reread.
  • The forward and Q&A afterward provide context and helped me build a framework to situate my thoughts.  Skip them at your own peril as they add so much to the work.  I’d also recommend reading Heart Berries in as large gulps as possible.  My own reading was spread over two weeks and feels diluted because of it.

Overall this is an unrelenting, masterfully written work – not my usual fare but I loved it all the same.

Thanks to Counterpoint and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

35656812After the death of elder statesman Lord Slane—a former prime minister of Great Britain and viceroy of India—everyone assumes that his eighty-eight-year-old widow will slowly fade away in her grief, remaining as proper, decorative, and dutiful as she has been her entire married life. But the deceptively gentle Lady Slane has other ideas. First she defies the patronizing meddling of her children and escapes to a rented house in Hampstead. There, to her offspring’s utter amazement, she revels in her new freedom, recalls her youthful ambitions, and gathers some very unsuitable companions—who reveal to her just how much she had sacrificed under the pressure of others’ expectations.


I hoped I would like this book and I did – the writing is wonderful, the story is both of its time and timeless, and the characters are lovingly drawn and realized.   What I did not expect, however, was to unsettle my husband as I read the last chapter on an airplane, wiping stray tears as I raced to finish before we landed.

“There there,” he joked as the plane taxied to the gate.  “It’s all over now.”

“Hush,” I sniffled, head down.  “Two pages to go.”

Sackville-West’s writing grabbed me from the first page. It is beautiful without being flowery and it strikes on truths with the surety of a practiced ironsmith.

They all know that nobody cares for them; that’s why they talk so loud.

Characters are fleshed out in the usual away as well as through asides that are tiny yet enlightening.

“Besides, dear Lady Slane,” said Lavinia – she had never unbent sufficiently to address her mother-in-law by any other name….

The story is about a woman who, as the wife of a politician, put her own desires aside in order to be a respectable lady that is an asset to her husband’s career.  Her children, now elderly themselves, have only seen her this way.  Now that her husband has died the offspring debate ‘what to do with mother’, not realizing that she may have plans of her own.

All Passion Spent was written almost 90 years ago but some aspects struck close to home. Women putting aside their own ambitions in order to fit more neatly into a man’s idea of them.  Women being questioned, doubted, or ignored when they are honest about how they want to spend their life.  ‘She’s old, so let’s decide this for her’, ‘she’s young, she doesn’t know her own mind, surely’, ‘she must not be a good judge of character, that guy is obviously fleecing her’, ‘she’s not acting like herself, dad’s death must’ve broken her’.  Only one daughter gets that Lady Slane is a strong soul that has finally gained some freedom and is going to do what she damn well pleases with it, thank you:

Edith alone frolicked in her mind. She thought her mother not mad, but most conspicuously sane.

I think the ending got to me as much as it did because the character work is so well done.  Lady Slane is a woman I care about, am mad on behalf of, and root for the entire novel.  And while sitting beside her as death approaches I can’t help but think about my own old age, and who I will share it with.

My point about the people I like, is not that they dwell morbidly on death, but that they keep continually a sense of what, to them, matters in life. Death, after all, is an incident. Life is an incident too. The thing I mean lies outside both.

Very nearly five stars.

The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich

34127677Ehrlich visited Wyoming on assignment and, while there, her partner died.  She decided not to leave.  Her essays are a thoughtful, deep, well-observed look at the life, places, and people of the American West.

First things first – you should know that despite being raised in the country I’m a city girl, happier in canyons of concrete than wide open spaces.

My mother is the exact opposite and would be most at home at a ranch like the one Ehrlich worked on, and Solace has helped me see why.

Everything in nature invites us constantly to be what we are.

She takes the myth of the cowboy straight on and describes how life on a ranch, mostly alone if not for the animals, molds them.

To be “tough” on a ranch has nothing to do with conquests and displays of power.  More often than not, circumstances – like the colt he’s riding or an unexpected blizzard – are overpowering him.  It’s not toughness but “toughing it out” that counts.  In other words, this macho, cultural artifact the cowboy has become is simply a man who possesses resilience, patience, and an instinct for survival.

The writing is gorgeous, flowing, evocative.  Ehrlich’s love for this unforgiving landscape seeps from the page and while I won’t be moving out West any time soon I finally get the appeal.

The Solace of Open Spaces invites you to inhabit and know a place on its own terms and I’m so glad I did.

Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life by Jessica Nutik Zitter

32311672In medical school, no one teaches you how to let a patient die.

Zitter started her career as an ICU doctor, one of the more intense specialties in medicine.  It’s your job to do stuff to turn around patient problems – put them on breathing machines and kidney machines when organs stop functioning, place a tube so they can be fed, use medications to stabilize blood pressure or prevent a clot.  It’s your job save a patient’s life, so why would you stop when there’s another procedure or a different medication you’ve yet to try?

This, she says, is why doctors are so awful at helping their patients have a good death.  A patient dying is akin to failure and no one, especially highly trained professionals with a wealth of options and technology at their disposal, wants to fail.  Add in a family that wants you to “do everything”, and it’s a recipe for more and more machines and care that will make it impossible for the patient to die peacefully at home.  Zitter calls it the “end-of-life conveyor belt” and she got certified in palliative care to help people navigate and possibly avoid it.

This book is an extension of that work.  She details how and why we got to this point and what we – both patients and health care professionals – can do to guide people towards the death they want.  Patient stories are woven through to illustrate what things look like when they go right, go wrong, or just… go.  End of life care is a minefield of pitfalls and potential missteps and she doesn’t shy away from any of it.

It’s a bit of a side note, but I want to give Zitter a great big hug for discussing my profession of medical interpreting in a chapter about cultural values.  She includes the interpreter as part of the care team, asking about cultural differences and how to approach a thorny topic.  In my experience interpreters can be treated like walking dictionaries, more a thing than a person, and it means a lot to me that Zitter accurately depicts and advocates for the important work we do.

The author reads the audiobook and I really liked it, though I did have to crank up the speed a little bit more than usual.  I liked it so much that I went back and relistened to sections so I could add them to my notebook word for word.  Here’s some of the wisdom she drops:

The human being is unknowable.  Unless, maybe, you ask.

While I may be the expert on the patient’s disease I am not the expert on the patient.

Sometimes it isn’t that the doctor needs to work harder to elicit the patient’s values, but that those values are simply different from the doctor’s.  Yet another lesson in listening.

An amazing must read for anyone with anything do to in medicine, and highly recommended to everyone else.

…and because I have an inkling it will come up in the comments – no, I haven’t read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal yet. 🙂  I hope to get to it sooner rather than later.  I’m curious to see how a surgeon approaches these same issues and where the two doctors’ views converge and divide.

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson

33395053As the country grapples with racist division at a level not seen since the 1960s, one man’s voice soars above the rest with conviction and compassion. In his 2016 New York Times op-ed piece “Death in Black and White,” Michael Eric Dyson moved a nation. Now he continues to speak out in Tears We Cannot Stop—a provocative and deeply personal call for change. Dyson argues that if we are to make real racial progress we must face difficult truths, including being honest about how black grievance has been ignored, dismissed, or discounted.

“The time is at hand for reckoning with the past, recognizing the truth of the present, and moving together to redeem the nation for our future. If we don’t act now, if you don’t address race immediately, there very well may be no future.”


A must-read primer to race in America, especially for people who are new to racial justice.  Aimed specifically at white people but readable by anyone, Dyson explains why history, police brutality, and white fragility matter.

Don’t be put off by the fact that the author is a minister – he’s not pushing a god on anyone, much appreciated by this agnostic.  Using the framework of a sermon Dyson goes through the stages of white guilt, the construction of whiteness, the specter of slavery, and more.  As a primer he avoids going overly deep, which is perfect for what he’s doing.  Other authors have covered the specifics elsewhere and he lists dozens of them if you’d like to read more.

What gets to me is that the people who need to read this most – whites with no grounding in racial justice – are the least likely to pick it up.  So read it yourself and put it in other people’s hands.  We need to get the message out.

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers (Lord Peter Wimsey #2)

192888Rustic old Riddlesdale Lodge was a Wimsey family retreat filled with country pleasures and the thrill of the hunt – until the game turned up human and quite dead. He lay among the chrysanthemums, wore slippers and a dinner jacket and was Lord Peter’s brother-in-law-to-be. His accused murderer was Wimsey’s own brother, and if murder set all in the family wasn’t enough to boggle the unflappable Lord Wimsey, perhaps a few twists of fate would be – a mysterious vanishing midnight letter from Egypt … a grieving fiancée with suitcase in hand … and a bullet destined for one very special Wimsey.


I loved the first Peter Wimsey book, Whose Body?, and have been doing my best not to blast through the entire series.  I’m saving them for when I need a fun, thinking, comfort read and Clouds of Witness delivers.

This time I went with the audiobook and I have a much better grasp of the characters now that I’ve heard them.  It must be hard to do British narration, having to take into account geographical accents as well as those of class, and Ian Carmichael does a great job.   The scene with a drunk Wimsey is pure gold that left me giggling.

The mystery itself kept me interested and guessing… the latter isn’t a high bar considering this is me, but hey.  I enjoyed the twists as well as the meta comments Sayers puts in here and there.

Here’s the thing, though – I don’t know if I want to continue the series in print, which shows off the writing, or on audiobook, where the characters come to life.  Have you read the Peter Wimsey series?  Do you prefer audio or print?

Sunshine by Robin McKinley

23384972Although it had been mostly deserted since the Voodoo Wars, there hadn’t been any trouble out at the lake for years. Rae Seddon, nicknamed Sunshine, head baker at her family’s busy and popular café in downtown New Arcadia, needed a place to get away from all the noise and confusion—of the clientele and her family. Just for a few hours. Just to be able to hear herself think.

She knew about the Others, of course. Everyone did. And several of her family’s best regular customers were from SOF—Special Other Forces—which had been created to deal with the threat and the danger of the Others.

She drove out to her family’s old lakeside cabin and sat on the porch, swinging her feet and enjoying the silence and the silver moonlight on the water.

She never heard them coming. Of course, you don’t when they’re vampires.


I love this book so. much.

The good:

  • As much as I love vampires they have been done (and overdone) poorly in the years since Twilight. McKinley builds a believable, gritty world that includes them.  They don’t sparkle or do anything weird.  In fact humans don’t know too much about them because anyone who interacts with a vampire ends up dead.
  • The first person perspective is used to perfection.  Our narrator Sunshine has a defined voice that rambles, but is exact in that rambleyness. She makes me smile and she fleshes out the story in a way that should feel like an info dump but is anything but.

    There are always cats around Charlie’s, but they are usually refugees seeking asylum from the local rat population, and rather desperately friendly.

  • Sunshine goes through a lot of traumatic experiences and her psychological experience feels right on.  I never questioned or doubted her inner life.

    It was easier, saying I didn’t remember.  I walled it all out, including everybody’s insistent, well-meaning concern.  And it turned out to be easy – a little too easy – to burst into tears if anyone tried to go on asking me questions.  Some people are mean drunks: I’m a mean weeper.

  • The plot kept me riveted and pages flew by.  Instead of many small chapters the book is split into only four parts… so I devoured it in four gulps. Yum.
  • Sunshine has a healthy sex life and a grounded view of what she wants from relationships.  There’s no guilt tied up with sex, no apologizing for banging people in college, none of it.  Hey world – more of this, please!
  • The ending is slightly ambiguous, and the lack of a neat-as-a-bow resolution means I can think about Sunshine and Con like they’re still “alive”. What will they do now that this part of their story is over?  What does the future hold for them?  I like thinking about the possibilities.

The not-so-good:

  • In one or two places the awesome rambleyness becomes only so-so rambleyness.
  • That’s pretty much it.

One of my requirements for a five star read is thinking “I can’t wait to reread that” as soon as I close the book.  Sunshine barely misses on that point so I’m giving it an enthusiastic four stars.  Vampire and urban fantasy fans, you’ve found a home.

The Red by Tiffany Reisz

30755704Mona Lisa St. James made a deathbed promise that she would do anything to save her mother’s art gallery. Unfortunately, not only is The Red painted red, but it’s in the red. She soon realizes she has no choice but to sell it.

Just as she realizes she has no choice but to sell it, a mysterious man comes in after closing time and makes her an offer: He will save The Red if she agrees to submit to him for the period of one year.

The man is handsome, English, and terribly tempting…but surely her mother didn’t mean for Mona to sell herself to a stranger. Then again, she did promise to do anything to save The Red…


Reisz has been in mainstream mode lately (The Night Mark, Her Halloween Treat) so I’m thrilled to see she’s come back to hot, kinky erotica.  Huzzah!

The good:

  • This is porn with a plot.  Mona agrees to have sex with a mysterious man over the course of a year in order to save her art gallery.  Each encounter is based on a painting and could easily become episodic but the thread of the story carries through wonderfully.
  • Ooo boy, the sex is hot.  The kink is thick and there’s guaranteed to be something that challenges you… which is just way I like it.
  • There’s a twist at the end that I didn’t see that brings everything full circle.  Well done.

The not-so-good:

  • The ending is a bit rushed, and while it didn’t bother me too much it could have used a little more development.
  • The characters are rounded but lack some depth.

All in all I’m sooo happy to see Reisz stretch her kinky wings again.  On Twitter she teased an upcoming title, calling it a “sexy sex cult”… so it looks like I have more to look forward to!

Thanks to 8th Circle Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.