“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.

“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.”

“Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World” by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter

DeweyEarlier this year, my mom’s book club read Katarina Bivald’s The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, and in an email, the Swedish author shared some information on how she managed to write about small-town Iowa despite the fact that she’d never even visited the U.S. “I chose Iowa because the only thing I knew about the state was that they had a lot of corn, and that they had a world-famous library cat named Dewey Readmore Books,” she said in an email. “If you haven’t read the book about Dewey, I heartily recommend it!”

I had heard of Dewey—he was pretty famous for a cat, after all—but I guess I assumed that the book would be 300 pages of cute-animal anecdotes. However, the Wikipedia article on Dewey stated that it “told the story of Dewey’s life at the library, interspersed with the difficulties faced by the town and [Vicki] Myron in her personal life,” which made it sound like it would be more interesting than I’d originally thought.

Librarian Myron, who discovered Dewey as a kitten in the book drop box one brutally cold morning, gives a lot of background about the town of Spencer, Iowa, a community hit hard by the financial crisis of the 1980s, in which half the farms in the area went into foreclosure. Then Land O’Lakes, one of the town’s biggest employers, closed its plant. “In 1979, there wasn’t a vacant storefront in town for Santa to set up shop in. In 1985, there were twenty-five empty storefronts… There was a running joke: the last store owner out of downtown Spencer, please turn off the lights.”

Then Dewey arrived, and his story “resonated with the people of Spencer. We identified with it. Hadn’t we all been shoved down the library drop box by the banks? By outside economic forces? By the rest of America, which ate our food but didn’t care about the people who grew it? Here was an alley cat, left for dead in a freezing drop box, terrified, alone, and clinging to  life. He made it through that dark night, and that terrible event turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to him.”

Dewey took up residence in the library, where he charmed almost everyone in town (Myron makes it clear that there were a few anti-feline cranks and curmudgeons, including several on the city council). Dewey was not shy; he loved people, and posed happily for photos, which undoubtedly helped spread his fame. In 1990, a profile in the national magazine Country exposed millions of readers to the handsome feline. Eventually, a film crew from Japan flew to Iowa to shoot footage for a documentary, and visitors from far and wide started stopping by the library in order to meet Dewey.

Hundreds of people believed that they had a special relationship with the cat, but Myron is the one who took him home when the library was closed for Christmas, brought him to the vet, and gave him occasional baths (which he hated). Myron suffered from serious health issues and was also raising her daughter as a single mom after divorcing her alcoholic husband, so she grew to rely on Dewey for comfort and solace, as well as moments of laughter and fun.

The author’s task is to make the case that Dewey truly was a special cat, and I think she does the job. “Dewey had that personality: enthusiastic, honest, charming, radiant, humble (for a cat), and above all, a friend to anyone and everyone. It wasn’t just beauty. It wasn’t just a great story. Dewey had charisma, like Elvis or any of the other people who will live in our minds forever. There are dozens of library cats in the United States, but none came close to accomplishing what Dewey accomplished. He wasn’t just another cat for people to pet and smile about. Every regular user of the library, every single one, felt they had a unique relationship with Dewey. He made everyone feel special.”

Dewey lived to a ripe old 19 years of age, and his obituary ran in over 270 newspapers. He died in 2006, and I would imagine that if he were around today, he’d have his own Instagram account and Facebook fan page. It’s easier for an animal to become famous now; a tabby named Nala Cat has over four million Instagram followers, as well as her own brand of cat food and lucrative sponsorship deals. It’s not difficult to imagine a scenario in which Dewey could have become such a celebrity that his fame would have interfered with the day-to-day operations of the library.

But while Dewey was an international icon, he was first and foremost a part of his local community, there to provide smiles and companionship to the library patrons of Spencer, Iowa. Thanks to Myron’s open-hearted and moving account of his life, his memory will live on.

“Kitchen Yarns” by Ann Hood and “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean

Kitchen YarnsA couple of years ago, Ann Hood was the subject of the New York Times’ “Vows” column, which reported on her wedding to the food writer Michael Ruhlman. The article made it clear that both of these divorced people had finally found true love, and their previous spouses simply didn’t measure up.

“I get the sense that from the moment I was born, I started knowing her,” said Ruhlman of Hood. “There is the platonic notion of love in which Plato postulated that one soul is separated from the other at birth and they each spend the rest of their lives searching for the other half. Well, if that’s true, then I’ve finally found the soul I’ve been searching for.” The article then went on to quote a lifelong friend of Ruhlman’s, who said that “in all the years I’ve known Michael, I’ve never seen him happier.”

It has to be awkward for an ex-spouse to see that sort of thing in the Newspaper of Record. It made sense, though, that Ann Hood would consent to have her wedding covered by the Times, since she’s never exactly been shy about discussing her personal life, from the tragic death of her daughter Grace to her first divorce (in the 1995 anthology Women on Divorce: A Bedside Companion).

Hood’s divorce does come up several times in her memoir Kitchen Yarns, which is rich in anecdotes about her life as reflected through the food she cooked and ate. From her mother’s meatball recipe and her grandmother’s Italian red sauce, to the Silver Palate Chicken Marbella recipe Hood cooked as a young single woman in New York, we learn about her life, loves and losses. When she’s struck with memories of her daughter, she reaches for comfort food, like a grilled cheese sandwich; exhausted from a trip, she concocts Italian rice and peas; to feed a crowd, she bakes tomato pies.

Ruhlman contributes a couple of recipes, but he plays a fairly small role in Kitchen Yarns. At several points, I felt that certain aspects of Hood’s life were being repeated over and over again—on page 221, she writes, “In 1978 I became a flight attendant for TWA,” something that had already been mentioned numerous times earlier in the book. The last page informed me that many of the essays in Kitchen Yarns had already been published elsewhere, so that explains why it doesn’t always seem like a cohesive whole, and why there’s not more content about her relationship with soul mate Ruhlman. Still, it’s a fun light read for anyone who enjoys the stories behind cherished family recipes. And I’m looking forward to tomato season so I can make that pie.

The Library BookIt’s rare that I read two nonfiction books in a row, but I received a notification that my copy of Susan Orlean’s The Library Book had come in at (where else) my local library. I love libraries. The first thing I did when I moved to my current town was get a library card. Like Orlean, I was an avid library user as a child. “The place was so bountiful,” she recalls of the suburban branch she frequented with her mother. “In the library I could have everything I wanted.”

That’s still a little miracle, isn’t it? And yet I am sometimes guilty of taking libraries for granted. A great way of deepening your appreciation is to read The Library Book, which is not just the story of the 1986 Los Angeles library fire which destroyed 400,000 books, but a story about libraries themselves, and all the ways they serve their communities. Almost every detour Orlean takes, from the way modern libraries must grapple with homeless people using the facilities, to how remote communities are served (Colombia has a donkey-powered “Biblioburro” service, in which the animals are outfitted with saddlebags of books), to literacy classes helping adults learn to read, could fill an entire volume. Each chapter begins with a list of three or four book titles, including their Dewey decimal classification, that gives a hint as to what the next few pages will contain. (How Everyday Products Make People Sick: Toxins at Home and in the Workplace, 615.9 B638, precedes a chapter that discusses health issues faced by the librarians who worked in the building post-fire.)

There’s also a true-crime element, since the case was never definitively solved, though a man named Harry Peak was accused of starting the fire. Orlean dives into Peak’s past, trying to unravel the shifting alibis he presented. He died several years ago, and the difficult nature of investigating arson means we’ll probably never know exactly what happened. “A fire can smolder slowly. The arsonist has plenty of time to walk away before anything seems amiss,” she writes. “Of all the major criminal offenses, arson is the least successfully prosecuted… An arsonist has a ninety-nine percent likelihood of getting away with the crime.” The old building was also a bit of a fire-trap, so it could have been caused completely by accident.

Happily, the Los Angeles main library is thriving today, and so are libraries in general, despite the occasional cries that they’re irrelevant in the age of the Internet. “A library is a good place to soften solitude; a place where you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of years even when you’re all alone,” writes Orlean. “The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen.” Orlean is certainly worth listening to, and The Library Book is a must-read for anyone who believes in the power of libraries.

“The Incomplete Book of Running” by Peter Sagal

The Incomplete Book of RunningI used to be a runner. I am very proud of the fact that I trained for and completed a half-marathon, along with a variety of shorter races, including San Francisco’s iconic Bay to Breakers (which attracts a mixture of serious runners and elderly nude men, people dressed in gorilla suits, and day drunks).

However, one day I just decided that I didn’t want to run anymore, and that was that. I still try to walk at least four miles per day, but I fully realize that’s not real exercise. (A big part of what I didn’t like about running was that I had to change clothes in order to do it, while even brisk walking seldom makes me break a sweat, especially in the chilly climes of the Bay Area.)

So I’m not exactly the target audience for a running memoir. As a longtime fan of NPR’s quiz show “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me,” however, I couldn’t resist picking up host Peter Sagal’s book, which is also a bittersweet meditation on aging and loss. His daily runs helped Sagal escape from his deteriorating marriage; at one point, he accepts an out-of-town speaking engagement, writing that “My absence was wished for so often and so vividly by my wife that the relief of giving in and leaving was greater than the satisfaction of defying her and staying… In the declining years of my marriage, as our fights became more constant, and more frustrating, my runs became the place where I could say the things I was either too weak or wisely cautious to say out loud, condemnations and defenses that were never contradicted or interrupted because I was saying them into the air.”

Sagal volunteers for an organization called Team With a Vision, which pairs sighted runners with blind ones, and travels to Boston in 2013 in order to run the marathon with a man named William Greer. Hoping to set a personal record, Greer instead finds himself beset by cramps a few miles from the finish line. He tells Sagal that he’s going to have to walk the last mile, but instead, he breaks into a sprint, and the two of them are only a hundred yards away from the finish line when they suddenly hear an explosion. If William Greer hadn’t managed to find his second wind, he and Sagal could well have been injured or killed in the Boston marathon bombing.

That dramatic account, plus the heartbreaking misery of his divorce and strained relationship with his children, may make you wonder if this is really the same Peter Sagal who brings laughter to public radio audiences every weekend. And indeed, I wouldn’t exactly call this book a laugh riot, though there are some poop jokes (ever since he was injured in a bike-riding accident, Sagal’s digestive system tends to act up when he’s running) and witty asides. But primarily, this book shows a different, more serious side of Sagal, one that his fans—runners and non-runners alike—will no doubt appreciate getting to know.

“All the Answers” by Michael Kupperman

All the AnswersWho were the Quiz Kids? I had never heard of them, but my guess is that the name will definitely ring a bell for anyone who was around in the 1940s and 50s. The Quiz Kids were brainy children who answered tough questions on a radio program based out of Chicago, and eventually a TV show, that ran between 1940 and 1956. It was a phenomenon, especially during the WWII years, when the Kids toured the country to sell war bonds and boost morale.

The Kids hobnobbed with celebrities like Milton Berle, Bing Crosby and Henry Ford. When each Kid turned 16, now more of an adult than a cute child prodigy, he or she “graduated” and left the show. Except for one, the most famous Kid of all: Joel Kupperman, the math genius who first appeared on the show at the age of six and continued until he was in college. Despite his dad’s decade-plus of fame, Joel’s son Michael knew very little about the Quiz Kids years; now a college professor, Joel shunned Quiz Kid reunions and didn’t give interviews, and treated his childhood as a “forbidden subject.”

After Joel is diagnosed with dementia, Michael realizes that it’s his last chance to find out what really happened to his father. An exhaustive search of the family home finally turns up several scrapbooks stuffed with Quiz Kids memorabilia. Michael begins to research the life of Joel Kupperman, kid genius, and makes some disturbing discoveries.

This graphic novel is a quick read, with bold, simple and effective black-and-white drawings, but the author manages to develop a lot of big themes in the book’s 220 pages, including the importance of several of the Kids’ Jewishness (particularly during WWII and its aftermath), the way “special” children were commonly put on display back then (the Quiz Kids had some things in common with the Dionne quintuplets, who were a tourist attraction in a sort of human zoo until they turned eight), and the game show scandals of the 1950s.

Quotes at the beginning of each chapter show what a pop-culture phenomenon the Quiz Kids were in their day. (Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Philip Roth referenced Joel Kupperman in his 1983 novel The Anatomy Lesson.) All the Answers is often tragic, and constantly fascinating.

“Boys Keep Swinging” by Jake Shears

Boys Keep Swinging by Jake ShearsI picked up Jake Shears’ memoir Boys Keep Swinging because I was a fan of his glam-rock/disco band the Scissor Sisters, who have been M.I.A. over the past few years. (In case you’ve never heard them, here’s a popular track from 2009.) Shears also wrote songs for the “Tales of the City” musical that I loved so much back in 2011; I still nurture a hope that it’ll go on to have a second life someday.

As it turns out, Boys Keep Swinging doesn’t deal at all with the band’s lengthy hiatus, or “Tales of the City”—it stops around the time he’s about to start working on the Scissor Sisters’ second album. So this is really a book about how a kid named Jason Sellards, who grew up feeling like an outcast, became the platinum-selling rock star Jake Shears, and hints at why he had to walk away from it all for a while.

I’ve seen Shears on Dan Savage’s husband Terry Miller’s social media, but until I read Boys Keep Swinging, I had no idea that Shears was a frequent caller to Savage’s radio call-in show when he was a high school student. Savage became something of a mentor to Shears after telling him on air that he should come out as gay to his parents; he took the advice, but it didn’t go very well, unfortunately. Savage even brought young Jason to the funeral of someone who had died of AIDS to demonstrate the importance of staying safe.

Eventually, Shears moved to New York and studied fiction writing at the New School, picking up gigs as a go-go dancer at clubs and writing for the fashionably hip Paper magazine. (He also dated Anderson Cooper back when the future CNN newsman was hosting a TV game show!) In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, Shears and his pal Scott Hoffman made their first appearance as the Scissor Sisters—”People were sad,” he writes. “They needed to be entertained.” Performing a goofy song called “Bicycle of the Devil,” while wearing nothing but a kimono plus “a leather G-string, combat boots, and a harness,” a star was born. “When the number ended, people clapped and hooted. I felt like my heart was going to explode out of my body.”

Relentless hard work and self-promotion paid off with a record deal and enormous success in England, where the band’s self-titled debut became the best-selling album of 2004. However, Shears’ self-doubt, personality clashes within the band and the physical and mental grind of constant touring took its toll. Shears was forced to come to terms with the fact that he was suffering from depression. Of course, this is a rock star’s memoir, so that process was a little bit different than it is for the average guy: “It was Elton [John] who finally had the talk with me about going on antidepressants,” he writes, going on to quote Sir Elton: “David [Furnish, John’s husband] and I are very worried about you. If you don’t like them, then just get off them. But you have to at least try it.”

Fortunately, Shears today seems like he’s in a pretty good place: he’s starring in Broadway’s “Kinky Boots” and he has a solo album due out later this year (“some of the best music I’ve made,” he notes in the epilogue to his book). Boys Keep Swinging does a great job of capturing the highs and lows of rock stardom, as well as providing a moving coming-of-age story.