“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.

“Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup” by John Carreyrou

Bad BloodLike millions of others, I was fascinated by the HBO documentary “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley,” which recounted the saga of wunderkind Elizabeth Holmes and her heavily hyped company Theranos, which claimed that it was revolutionizing health care with its one-drop blood test. It’s such a crazy, truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story that I wanted to know more, and Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup provides 300 juicy pages. But there’s plenty more to come; both Jennifer Lawrence and “Saturday Night Live”‘s Kate McKinnon are slated to portray Holmes in rival projects.

I do feel I benefited from watching “The Inventor” first so I could see and hear the deep-voiced blonde founder. A true 21st-century startup, Theranos’ brief lifespan was exhaustively documented, most notably in a ton of footage shot by acclaimed filmmaker Errol Morris, who directed several ads for the company. But Bad Blood is the ultimate insider chronicle, written by the Wall Street Journal reporter whose series of articles first brought the company’s misdeeds into the public eye. Before John Carreyrou came along, Theranos was one of Silicon Valley’s brightest stars, a company that seemed destined to change the world and make a lot of people very wealthy. A surprisingly large number of people already knew that Theranos was not what it purported to be, but Holmes had so many powerful friends and lawyers that anyone who dared speak out would live to regret it.

The first several chapters of Bad Blood follow a similar pattern: Somebody gets a job at Theranos, comes to realize that the amazing blood-testing system is a joke and a fraud, and  either quits or gets fired. Everyone has to sign a sheaf of nondisclosure and nondisparagement agreements on their way out the door. Many of the employees try to inform Holmes or someone else in upper management about the problems with the machines, only to be rebuffed for not being a team player. At one all-hands meeting following a slew of resignations, “Elizabeth told the gathered employees that she was building a religion. If there were any among them who didn’t believe, they should leave.”

Carreyrou emphasizes that unlike many other startups, Theranos was playing with people’s lives; covering up the inaccuracy of test results produced by its machines could have dire consequences for the patients who were relying on them. Nevertheless, Holmes and her second-in-command/romantic partner Sunny Balwani resolutely pressed on, inking deals with Walgreens and Safeway. (When a consultant hired by Walgreens to evaluate the Theranos deal warned an exec that it was bad news, he was told, “We can’t not pursue this. We can’t risk a scenario where CVS has a deal with them in six months and it ends up being real.”)

It turns out that what Theranos was trying to do may be impossible: “running seventy different blood tests simultaneously on a single finger-stick sample… Thousands of researchers around the world… had been pursuing this goal for more than two decades… But it had remained beyond reach for a few basic reasons,” including the fact that different types of blood tests require different methods of testing. One micro-sample just isn’t enough.

Holmes managed to stock her board of directors with a bevy of rich, powerful old white men, including Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, four-star general James Mattis, and superlawyer David Boies, who provided legal work for Theranos in exchange for company stock. It’s hard not to draw the conclusion that these men were drawn to Holmes in part by her youth and beauty, and she obviously knew how to turn on the charm. Shultz, in fact, went so far as to side with Holmes after his grandson Tyler blew the whistle on Theranos after working at the company for a few months. Holmes, but not Tyler, attended Shultz’s 95th birthday party.

Finally, it all comes crashing down, despite the strong-arm tactics of Boies and his associates. It’s sobering to think what might have happened if Carreyrou had not pursued this story, and the Wall Street Journal had not backed him (despite the fact that the paper’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, had invested over $100 million in Theranos). Theranos “was first and foremost a health-care company,” not a tech company, he writes. “Doctors base 70 percent of their treatment decisions on lab results. They rely on lab equipment to work as advertised. Otherwise, patient health is jeopardized.” It’s pretty obvious that sooner or later, Theranos would have been discredited—its machines simply didn’t work—but it could have come at the cost of people’s lives.

Holmes and Balwani seemed to think that if they just pushed their beleaguered employees hard enough, eventually they’d come up with a breakthrough. Holmes’ “ambition was voracious and it brooked no interference,” Carreyrou concludes. “If there was collateral damage on her way to riches and fame, so be it.” And while the case against Holmes will go to trial in 2020, she appears to be enjoying a pretty cushy lifestyle in the meantime: she’s attended Burning Man, she recently married a wealthy heir, and she owns a Siberian Husky dog she claims is a wolf. After reading Bad Blood, it wouldn’t surprise me if she manages to escape the consequences of her despicable actions. She certainly seems to display zero remorse for the things she did during the years she ran Theranos.

“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.

“An Unexplained Death: The True Story of a Body at the Belvedere” by Mikita Brottman

“For as long as I can remember, certain kinds of mysteries have enthralled me, especially those that contain an element of the uncanny—an odd coincidence; a mysterious stranger whose presence can’t be explained; an element of missing time; a prophetic dream the night before. To me, these wonders are dropped stitches in the universe, windows left uncovered for a moment, permitting us a quick glimpse into the unknowable.”

So writes Mikita Brottman in this fascinating chronicle of her growing obsession with a death that took place in the building she calls home, the Belvedere in Baltimore. A former hotel, which opened for business in 1903, the Belvedere was converted to condos in the early 1990s. By the time Brottman moved in, it was a place of “shabby grandeur,” with worn carpeting in the hallways and elevators that regularly broke down.

About a year after taking up residence in the downtown landmark, Brottman notices “Missing” posters posted around the neighborhood. Rey O. Rivera, age 32, 6’5″, brown hair, brown eyes. Eight days after his initial disappearance, Rivera’s body is found at the Belvedere, inside an empty room that used to house the building’s swimming pool back in its hotel days. He had apparently leapt off the top of the Belvedere and plunged through the roof of the annex, where his body had lain undiscovered for over a week. Out walking her dog, Brottman sees police swarming the building; later, from her apartment window, she has “an almost perfect view of cops climbing around on the annex roof,” and she even visits the room after everyone has left: “the carpet is stained almost black and scattered with what look like grains of rice, which, when I get down on the floor to study them more closely, turn out to be dried insect larvae.”

An Unexplained Death chronicles Brottman’s effort to find out what happened to Rivera. Was it suicide, or murder? Rivera had been working for a company called Agora that many of the people she talks to seem to consider somewhat sinister. He and his wife had been planning to move to California and everything seemed to be going well for them, so why would he kill himself? Brottman also reports on the many suicides and deaths that have taken place at the Belvedere over the years, along with the riddle of suicide itself. (This is the kind of book which matter-of-factly serves up sentences like, “Full urban mummification is not as common as you might think.”) You have to be willing to follow Brottman through her digressions, as this is not a linear true-crime tale. She even turns her gaze toward herself, and her lifelong conviction that she’s somehow invisible, forgettable.

I thoroughly enjoyed the twists and turns of her amateur investigation, and while anybody hoping that she will somehow come up with a definitive solution to the mystery may be left disappointed, I found the conclusions she does reach at the book’s end to be well-reasoned and utterly plausible. “What makes a death mysterious?” she muses. “What happened to Rey Rivera transpires every day. People die alone; their bodies are undiscovered for days. It happens everywhere… Nobody feels compelled to solve the puzzle.” Readers can feel lucky that Brottman took a crack at this one.

“The Happiness Curve” by Jonathan Rauch

The Happiness CurveA few years ago, Jonathan Rauch’s Atlantic article “The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis” was passed around avidly on social media by many people in my 40-something cohort. Rauch’s piece discussed research on the “U-curve,” which indicates that youth and old age are periods of relative happiness, while middle age is often a time of discontent and sometimes even despair. This holds true not just for people, but for primates, implying that the origins of the phenomenon “may lie partly in the biology we share with closely related great apes.”

Many of us middle-agers can identify with Rauch when he writes how he “would wake up feeling disappointed, my head buzzing with obsessive thoughts about my failures. I had accomplished too little professionally, had let life pass me by, needed some nameless kind of change or escape.” (Rauch is an award-winning and very successful journalist and author, proving that even the highest achievers are prone to this particular malaise.) Now 57, Rauch is happier and feels he’s emerged from the trough of the U and that his life is on the upswing.

He has expanded his Atlantic article into a new book, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50. The research he presents is quite convincing, though it’s not difficult to come up with anecdotal counter-examples. For instance, I read this passage—”With age, apparently, we lose not our emotional sharpness, but our tendency to have our day ruined by annoyances and setbacks. Perhaps, then, positivity comes about because older people lose their emotional edge… when storms do boil up, older people have better control over their feelings”—shortly after one of the president’s more apoplectic tweets hit the news cycle. (Luckily, most people in their 70s don’t have to worry about whether or not they’re under investigation by the FBI.)

Rauch’s main goal in The Happiness Curve is to reassure people in their late 40s and early 50s that it will get better; science says so. Economist Hannes Schwandt studied people who had grown up in two very different cultures, East and West Germany, under varying economic circumstances; he found that younger people usually overestimated how happy they’d be in five years, while older Germans greatly underestimated their future life satisfaction. “‘If [people] know that life satisfaction tends to be U-shaped in everyone and previous expectations don’t match up with outcomes for most people, that could make people feel less unhappy about their life,’ Schwandt told me. Normalization, he believes, can have a double-whammy effect. ‘If you tell people there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, this already helps you. And the second thing that helps you is maybe you can break the cycle of this vicious feedback effect. By knowing this is a normal developmental stage, you will also suffer less.'”

Many of us fear aging because we fear ill health and infirmity. However, Rauch quotes a study showing that “even as people became more afflicted with disability, their self-rated successful aging increased… most people remain surprisingly happy despite getting frail and infirm.”

The Happiness Curve will provide readers with a lot of food for thought, but the scientific study of happiness is still a relatively young field and I’m sure there is still more work to be done. Ultimately, perhaps this research may one day give us insights that could help the enormous numbers of people in their 50s who struggle with issues like opioid addiction and suicide. Meanwhile, those of us with garden-variety middle-aged ennui should read the book and take its lessons to heart.

Note: The Happiness Curve will be published on May 1, 2018. Thanks to Thomas Dunne Books (via NetGalley) for the review copy.