“Medallion Status” by John Hodgman

Medallion StatusIn my review of John Hodgman’s Vacationland, I referred to myself as “something of a John Hodgman superfan,” and that is still the case. Though I’m not enough of a superfan to pay $100 for a front-section meet-and-greet ticket for his upcoming show at San Francisco Sketchfest, I was willing to part with $49 for a seat in the rear orchestra.

However, I was not entirely sure that I wanted to read his new book, Medallion Status: True Stories from Secret Rooms, because I often found Vacationland to be overly humblebraggy and coy (I still don’t understand why he refuses to name the town in Maine where he has a vacation home in his books; he makes no attempt to hide it to his 77,000 followers on Instagram, where he often sports a Brooklin General Store cap and posts pics of the store’s famous egg sandwiches).

Would stories about how Hodgman—onetime star of Apple Computer commercials, “The Daily Show” correspondent, and gigs as “a variety of mustache creeps” in guest spots on several TV series—ultimately suffered “the greatest humiliation, that of not being on television at all,” prove simply too annoying? I’ve always felt it’s better to be a has-been than a never-was; after all, the closest brush I have with celebrity is when the guy pretending to be President Nixon on Twitter responds to one of my Tweets. Meanwhile, Hodgman got to meet LL Cool J at the Emmys!

But when I did read Medallion Status, I have to admit that I really enjoyed it. There’s something so nakedly honest and poignant about the way Hodgman writes about his experiences with celebrity, a pulling back of the curtain that gives the non-famous masses a peek at a world most of us will never experience. He draws a parallel between the world of airline mileage programs and fame, as he works his way up to Diamond Medallion status on Delta Airlines, aided by the many cross-country trips he takes while he’s filming a TV series in L.A. You may think you’re special because you are admitted into the airline’s first-class lounge, but there’s always an even fancier “double-secret Sky Lounge” for the extra-special people somewhere around the corner, just out of your reach. If only you could gain access to this sanctum sanctorum, surely that would finally make you happy, right?

Like Hodgman’s TV gigs, Diamond Medallion status is fleeting; it only lasts a year, and without that constant back-and-forth travel, you’ll “dwindle back to Gold, eventually to Silver, and then to nothingness.” (Silver “is a garbage Medallion. It is worse than nothing. It is strictly a teasing reminder of what you once held and now have lost. You are rarely thanked for being Silver, and if you are, it feels like they are making fun of you.”)

“Like all status, if you get into first class, you have to believe you deserve it. And for that reason, once you leave a first class cabin, you feel robbed, wronged, and unnatural, and so you spend your life anxiously, always trying to get back in.” That statement could serve as a metaphor for all kinds of things: fame, white privilege, American exceptionalism. Scoring that Diamond Medallion is only the beginning, and no matter how hard you struggle to hold onto it, someday, you’ll probably find yourself having to settle for silver.

“Conviction” by Denise Mina

ConvictionConsidering the enormous popularity of true crime podcasts, it’s surprising that Conviction is the first mystery I’ve come across that uses one as a jumping-off point. The main character, Anna, is a busy mum of two who loves to escape into audio stories: “A good podcast can add a glorious multi-world texture to anything. I’ve resisted an Assyrian invasion while picking up dry-cleaning. I’ve seen justice served on a vicious murderer while buying underpants.”

Unfortunately, her latest download (“Death and the Dana: A sunken yacht, a murdered family on board, a secret still unsolved…”) hits a bit too close to home for Anna when she realizes that one of the victims is Leon Parker, a former friend of hers. She had lost touch with him and had no idea that he’d married a billionaire and lost his life aboard a yacht reputed to be haunted. Anna listens to the podcast with increasing alarm, wondering if Leon could have possibly killed himself as well as his two children, who were also aboard.

Already shaken up, things for Anna get even worse when her husband tells her he’s leaving her for her best friend, Estelle, and taking her on holiday to Portugal. While they’re away, a desperate Anna teams up with Estelle’s partner Fin, a rock star who suffers from anorexia, in an attempt to figure out what really happened to Leon.

The first few chapters, where we get complete transcripts of the podcast, are incredibly gripping, but once Anna and the fragile Fin begin their quest, the book goes off the rails a bit as Fin decides to produce his own podcast. Despite the fact that he is recording it on the fly on his phone and posting it to Twitter, it becomes a major sensation. Perhaps Fin’s fame would help garner some extra attention, but today’s top podcasts have high production values and are carefully edited, not produced on the run during, say, a train journey, which is guaranteed to have lots of extraneous background noise.

Naturally, Fin and Anna start to get too close to the truth, which puts their lives at risk, and soon they’re outrunning hit men and leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. I stuck with the book because I’d enjoyed the first half so much, but the second half is significantly more implausible and less compelling.

“Well Met” by Jen DeLuca and “The Flatshare” by Beth O’Leary

Well MetSince the lead characters in Well Met are 25 and 27 years of age, I’m probably a little too old to be in the book’s target audience. But I still found it a delightful novel, and one with some significant wisdom that readers in the protagonists’ age range could benefit from.

Emily dropped out of college in order to work as a bartender and help put her fiancé through law school, but after he graduated and got a job with a high-powered firm, he broke up with her. When Emily’s older sister April, a single mom, is seriously injured in a car accident, she leaves Boston and heads to the small town of Willow Creek, Maryland, in order to help out.

Emily and April have never been particularly close due to their 12-year age difference. But moving in with April and her teenage daughter Caitlin at least gives Emily a place to live and something to do while she recovers from her broken heart. Emily quickly learns that every summer, Willow Creek hosts a wildly popular Renaissance Faire—and Caitlin is dying to participate in the cast. Since she’s too young to do so without an adult guardian nearby, Emily agrees to serve as a tavern wench, figuring her bartending experience will come in handy.

The festival is run by a local English teacher named Simon, who immediately strikes Emily as an uptight killjoy. However, at the fair, Simon dons the costume and persona of a charismatic pirate named Captain Ian Blackthorne. The pirate strikes up a flirtation with the wench, and Emily finds herself attracted to him… at least when he’s in character. Once he’s back in civilian clothes, the two of them always seem to be at odds.

Both Simon and Emily have a lot of personal baggage, and need to learn some serious life lessons before they can be together. Simon is mired in the past, due to family tragedy, while Emily is still bruised and deeply insecure because of her break-up. The happy ending in Well Met is truly well-earned, which makes it all the sweeter.

The FlatshareBeth O’Leary’s The Flatshare also has some insights to impart, wrapped in a high-concept romcom about two Londoners who wind up living in the same apartment—even sleeping in the same bed—without ever meeting. Tiffy desperately needs a cheap place to live after breaking up with her boyfriend; Leon is in dire need of cash to pay for a solicitor willing to take his incarcerated brother’s case. Since Leon works nights as a nurse, he figures he can rent his flat to someone with a 9-to-5 job, and their paths will never cross. (He plans to spend the weekends at his girlfriend Kay’s place.)

Kay interviews Tiffy and hands over the key to Leon’s flat (“Her expression could not be more obvious: It says, I was worried you might be hot and try to steal my boyfriend from me while you make yourself at home in his bed, but now I’ve seen you and he’d never be attracted to you, so yes! Come in!“). Weeks pass, then months, and the two roommates never bump into each other, but they do communicate prolifically via Post-It notes. Leon is so preoccupied with his brother’s legal issues—he’s in jail for armed robbery, but swears he’s innocent—that it begins to affect his relationship with Kay. Meanwhile, Tiffy’s ex-boyfriend begins to display an unnerving knack for popping up wherever she happens to be. It seems like he’s trying to win her back, but his reappearances cause Tiffy to develop PTSD-like symptoms as she gradually comes to realize that her ex was emotionally abusive.

Like Well Met, this is a novel that’s fun but not frivolous. Both O’Leary and DeLuca bring welcome fresh voices to the modern romantic comedy genre.

“The Most Fun We Ever Had” by Claire Lombardo

The Most Fun We Ever HadThe Most Fun We Ever Had was released last June, which indicates that the publisher thought of it as a summer book, perhaps something to take along to the pool. I would argue that this is a quintessential autumn or winter book, the sort of novel you want to read at home while sipping tea when it’s chilly outside. For one thing, it’s over 500 pages long, so it’s not practical to tote along with you (unless you’ve downloaded it onto an e-reader). From the orange gingko leaves on its cover to the often-awkward family holidays described inside (one Christmas is thrown into crisis when an older child hints to a younger one that Santa isn’t real), this is a book to keep you company during long, dark evenings.

Claire Lombardo’s debut novel tells the story of the Sorenson clan, David and Marilyn and their four adult daughters: Wendy, Violet, Liza and Grace. Prickly Wendy, having inherited great wealth after the death of her older husband, spends her days drinking too much and entertaining a variety of young men at her glamorous Chicago condo. Violet, a married lawyer with two kids, is thrown for a loop when the son she gave up for adoption years before, now a teenager named Jonah, reappears in her life. Liza, a professor of psychology, is pregnant by her boyfriend, a man so depressed he can barely pick himself up off the couch. And Grace, the baby of the family, is the only Sorenson who lives far away, which makes it easy for her to lie to everyone about how well she’s doing.

The novel alternates between scenes set in the present day, as Jonah’s arrival (his birth parents were killed in an accident some years before, and he’s been in and out of foster care ever since) creates upheaval in the lives of all the Sorensons, and flashbacks to the early years of David and Marilyn’s marriage and the girls’ childhoods. The complicated relationships between the siblings shift and change throughout the years as they experience tragedy and moments of joy.

I was shocked to find out after I’d read about 3/4 of the book that Lombardo was in her 20s when she wrote it. She is obviously an author in possession of great reserves of empathy and emotional intelligence, someone who is able to inhabit her characters fully, even when she doesn’t share their life experience. “Nobody’s ever prepared to care for a child full-time,” Marilyn tells her daughter Wendy at one point. “Nobody understands what that means until they do it for themselves. We’re all just holding our breath and hoping nothing catastrophic happens. And how deeply you get hurt doing that!… It takes such a long time to realize that it’s worth it. I wonder why we’re engineered that way. We’re sleep-deprived to the point of madness those first couple of years and then one day you wake up and you see the little person you’ve created and she says a sentence to you and you realize that everything in your life has been an audition for the creation of that specific person.”

This book isn’t for everyone—you have to be willing to commit to a book this long—but anyone who is willing to truly immerse themselves in a modern family saga will find themselves richly rewarded.

“Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life” by Amber Scorah

Leaving the WitnessWhen I went to the library to pick up my reserved copy of Leaving the Witness, I had to pass two Jehovah’s Witnesses standing near the building with a literature cart. There’s a Kingdom Hall just a couple blocks away from my house, and it’s common to see JWs out and about with their Watchtower magazines in hand. They used to come to my home fairly regularly, until one day I said I didn’t approve of their practice of disfellowshipping, and one of the Witnesses got rather indignant about it. Ever since, they’ve left me alone.

I love reading about religious cults, though, so I’ve continued to follow news about the JWs online, particularly through the work of a former member named Lloyd Evans. It’s gotten to the point where I know so much about the Witnesses now that if one of them did come to my door, I’d probably challenge them to see if they can name more members of the Governing Body than I can, or start singing a few bars of “We’re Your Family.”

However, the JWs have never gotten as much attention as Scientology, despite the fact that it also has big celebrity adherents (Venus & Serena Williams! Prince!). I hope Amber Scorah’s fascinating new memoir helps draw attention to this destructive cult masquerading as a religion.

Scorah, who grew up in Vancouver, was such a devoted Witness that she learned to speak Chinese in order to be able to move to Shanghai and preach. China was a particularly dangerous place to do this because the religion had been banned since the 1950s. Witnesses in China had to meet in secret and be extremely cautious about proselytizing. Literature had to be disguised in brown paper wrapping. It was risky, but important: “Most Witnesses were certain that the only reason Armageddon hadn’t come yet was because the entire Earth had not yet been preached to—and China was one of the last frontiers.”

Paradoxically, living in repressive China wound up giving Scorah a surprising amount of freedom, since she had to live her life in such a way that she wouldn’t give the authorities any reason to suspect her of being a Jehovah’s Witness. She wound up hosting a popular podcast about life in China, which led her into an online friendship with a screenwriter named Jonathan, who spent months trying to open her mind. But she knew all too well that if she left her religion, she’d lose all her friends and family, who would be forced to shun her. And if the Witnesses were right, she’d die in Armageddon as well instead of living forever in paradise.

Along with providing an inside look at what it’s really like to live as a faithful member and then leave the JWs, Scorah also offers plenty of anecdotes about adapting to Chinese culture, where “seemingly mundane tasks turned into perplexing challenges.” (One Witness causes a stir by giving a clock as a gift to a Chinese person, not realizing that it is considered very unlucky—the phrase “give a clock” sounds just like the one for “attend a funeral.”)

Because I hadn’t read anything about Scorah or her life before I started the book, I was unprepared for the emotional gut-punch of the last few chapters, in which she confronts a situation that might have been easier to face had she still had her old faith. However, by then she had come too far to turn back. “This alchemy of  life, this magical planet, they bewilder me, they awe me… I have called a truce with the unknown, and I am learning to live with the disquiet. I do not attempt to pray to a God who will not answer.”