Book Review: Mobituaries

My first read of February was Mobituaries by Mo Rocca. Inspired by Rocca’s podcast of the same name, Mobituaries gives obituaries to people (or things) who are misremembered or altogether forgotten by society: mediocre presidents who accomplished great things outside of their presidency, revolutionary athletes who nobody’s heard of, and even dragons.

The book: Mobituaries by Mo Rocca
Genre: Historical non-fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

I enjoyed and learned so much from Mobituaries. My favorite stories were about famous people who are still remembered today (for acting or modeling or being president), but perhaps not as well as they should be. For example, I learned that Herbert Hoover – before he became president – was an engineer and humanitarian who saved hundreds of thousands of Europeans from starvation during World War I.

Also, for a book about people who have died, Mobituaries is extremely positive, and even funny! Author Mo Rocca injects his offbeat humor into his obituaries (excuse me, Mobituaries) at surprising times, but it never feels disrespectful or out of place. Instead Rocca’s humor lightens the mood of the book, and prevents the stories from getting heavy or dry.

I did have a couple issues with the book, though. The first is that, as a listener of the Mobituaries podcast, I was disappointed by the number of stories that were repeats of podcast episodes (except for the story of the poisoning of the famous Auburn tree – I will never tire of that story). This book was advertised as having unique stories not told on the podcast…but that wasn’t 100% true.

My second issue with Mobituaries was the size of the book! It is huge! I think the book is intended as a “coffee-table book.” It definitely would make a great coffee-table book, but the large size of the book made it a bit challenging to carry around or even to read in bed.

Minor inconveniences aside, I loved Mobituaries. Mo Rocca pays respectful tributes to individuals whose complete legacies have been forgotten, and tells each story in an upbeat (and oftentimes funny) way. If you want to learn a bit more about history, I definitely recommend this book!

Book Review: Midnight in Chernobyl

The book: Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham
Genre: Historical non-fiction
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

I recently finished reading Adam Higginbotham’s Midnight in Chernobyl. This nonfiction book tells the comprehensive story of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, as well as the events that followed it.

Overall, I enjoyed and learned a lot from Midnight in Chernobyl. Prior to reading the book, I knew very little about the Chernobyl nuclear accident – other than the fact that it happened. I didn’t understand why the accident happened, though, or how severe it was. Midnight in Chernobyl provided a comprehensive background of the Soviet Union’s nuclear industry in the 1970’s and 1980’s (plagued by ambitious goals and unrealistic timelines, which led to constant corner-cutting), and key technical details about the lead-up to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Author Adam Higginbotham also spends a great deal of time addressing the events that followed the Chernobyl nuclear accident – especially the Soviet government’s response to it. Reading about how the Soviet government responded to Chernobyl was eye-opening to me: it demonstrated just how secretive and obsessed with public-image the Soviet Union was. For example, Higginbotham describes how the Soviet government waited over 24 hours to evacuate citizens from the town of Pripyat (which was adjacent to the Chernobyl nuclear facility) because they worried that evacuation would cause panic and portray the USSR in an unflattering light.

My one critique of Midnight in Chernobyl was that its comprehensiveness sometimes came at the expense of a well-flowing read. By trying to fit in every pertinent detail – including distinct events occurring simultaneously in different places – the story is a bit disjointed and hard to follow at times. The last chapter of the book was the worst offender of this. I think that Higginbotham was trying to use the final chapter to tie up loose ends, but instead the chapter felt all-over-the-place.

Overall, I definitely recommend Midnight in Chernobyl. It is not necessarily an easy read (there is a lot of information to keep track of, and the story itself is tough to stomach), but it is fascinating. If you want to learn more about the events that led to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, how the government responded to the accident, or how the disaster was contained – you will definitely learn that (and more) from this book.

Boom Town (and the strawberry celebration cake it inspired me to make)

The book: Boom Town by Sam Anderson.

After nearly four weeks, I finally finished reading Boom Town by Sam Anderson. The book is a non-fiction account of the history and culture of Oklahoma City. From the city’s wild founding in 1889, to the dynamic of its professional basketball team (the Oklahoma City Thunder), to the professional and personal lives of famous Oklahomans, Boom Town truly covers it all.

400 pages of historical non-fiction about a medium-big city in an overlooked region of the United States might sound questionable; I was certainly skeptical at first of how interesting this book could actually be. But Boom Town quickly exceeded my expectations of it. I kept asking myself: “is the story of Oklahoma City really this interesting? Or is Sam Anderson just an amazing writer and story-teller?” The answer, I think, is both.

From the beginning of the book, Sam Anderson’s writing is captivating, punchy, and often humorous. Historical non-fiction can be dense, but Anderson finds ways to lighten it, like when he adds this detail about the first night that settlers moved into Oklahoma City: “centipedes swarmed all over the place, wondering what the f*** was going on.”

Anderson also keeps the story engaging by jumping from one sub-story to another. For example: the first chapter is a (surprisingly interesting) overview of Oklahoma City, the second chapter focuses on a (former) player for the Oklahoma City Thunder, and then the third chapter switches back to general information about the city. I appreciated this technique, because it helped break up the dense history of Oklahoma City into more digestible pieces. A few chapters focused on aspects of Oklahoma City that seemed irrelevant to the story at the time they were introduced, but Sam Anderson brilliantly connects all the different aspects of Oklahoma City in the last quarter of the book. Everything is interconnected, even if it isn’t immediately clear how.

My only critiques of Boom Town are the following: 1) Sam Anderson doesn’t use footnotes or endnotes to cite his references, and 2) he writes about his personal impressions of famous Oklahomans as though they are objective characterizations. Specifically, I disliked how Anderson was obsessed with finding flaws and secret “not-niceness” in NBA-player Kevin Durant, yet didn’t address any of the nuances in the character of weatherman Gary England (in my opinion, England seems grouchy and disgruntled).

Overall, Boom Town is a great book. It isn’t a quick read, but I wholeheartedly recommend taking the time to read it. The saga of Oklahoma City will leave you sighing in exasperation, laughing out loud, scratching your head, and – when you read the chapter “9:02” – weeping.

The bake: strawberry celebration cake.

For Boom Town, I baked a strawberry sprinkle cake, which is fitting for the book in a couple of ways. First, strawberry is the official fruit of Oklahoma. Second, and more importantly, a sprinkle cake captures the celebratory boom-or-bust spirit of Oklahoma City that was portrayed throughout Boom Town. (Also, there are good things going on in my personal life right now, so the cake was a nice way to celebrate that.)

To make the strawberry cake, I used this recipe from Beth Cakes, but I baked it in two 9″ round pans instead of the 9×13″ rectangle pan as stated in the recipe. I also added approximately 3 tablespoons of sprinkles into the cake batter. I frosted the cake using my own improvised strawberry cream cheese frosting recipe, sandwiched the two cakes with frosting and fresh strawberries, and decorated the cake with more sprinkles.

The frosted cake. I accidentally started assembling and frosting the cake while it was still on the cooling rack!

My only criticism of the cake is that it didn’t actually taste strongly of strawberries! One possible explanation is that the strawberries I used were underripe, and therefore didn’t add much strawberry flavor to the cake. That being said, the cake still tasted really good! It was buttery and rich, and the fresh strawberries and strawberry cream cheese frosting definitely carried lots of strawberry flavor. Overall, this was a very fun cake to make (and eat and share), especially after not baking for nearly a month!

A generous slice that shows: the sprinkle cake, the strawberry cream cheese filling with fresh strawberries, and frosting and sprinkles on top.