Review – Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill

beyond belief large w border

Next, we had to yell at square glass ashtrays at the top of our lungs. The idea was to train ourselves to express absolutely clear intentions, and by mastering this we’d be able to guide our future preclears to successfully confront things. And it didn’t end there. Directing our intentions into particular parts of the ashtray, we’d ask our ashtray very specific questions. The belief was, that whenever you asked a question, you had the intention of getting that question answered, as you should when you had a preclear in session. The ashtray was required to be square. We were to direct questions into each of its four corners.
“Are you an ashtray?”
“Are you a corner?”
“Are you made of glass?”
The same principles that we were trying to learn and understand as auditors were the principles that prevented us from questioning these ridiculous tasks. We’d been trained to follow instructions, just as we were now learning how to make others follow ours. Outlandish as all these tasks were, none of them ever struck me as odd, but remembering the scene now, they were. . . . All these courses were supposed to be about training auditors to be smooth with their communication, and less distracting to preclears in session. But the result is that it made all of us more robotic. It automated our responses, turning everything we said into a script.
-Beyond Belief, Jenna Miscavige Hill

Jenna Miscavige Hill (via)

Jenna Miscavige Hill was raised in an alternate reality, with its own hyper-abbreviated lingo, strict work ethic, and complicated belief system. She was raised as a Scientologist, and amazingly survived her bizarre upbringing of manual labor and indoctrination to leave the church and write a memoir, Beyond Belief. As Scientology is a relatively new development (started in 1952), it seems safe to assume these stories (and memoirs) may become more common as more children are raised in these situations, flee, then report back to the outside world what exactly they experienced inside the secretive church.

Beyond Belief is simply written, as Hill doesn’t spend much time waxing poetic. She documents her experience, and allows the reader to infer from her life what they choose. She repeated L. Ron Hubbard mantras over and over in what was called “Chinese School”; she and other kids did manual labor at the ranch they lived on, after class and on weekends; she saw her parents once or twice a year at times; and when she and others encountered the usual trials and tribulations of adolescence they were interrogated or banished. What seemed like fun and games to Hill as a young child began to cause pain and heartbreak as she aged and thought more independently.

Some of the situations recounted in Beyond Belief seem so ridiculous they are almost comical (Hill is asked to sign a one-billion year contract when she is seven years old), others are painful to read about. Much of Scientology’s power over its members seems to be derived from separating family members, and Hill struggles to communicate with family and loved ones throughout the book.

Certainly one of Hill’s intrigues is her last name. While both her parents held prominent positions in the church, her uncle, David Miscavige, ultimately took over the church and is still its leader today. Those seeking insider information regarding David Miscavige or an overview of the church’s intense and nefarious business dealings may want to look elsewhere before reading Beyond Belief. This is ultimately Jenna’s personal story, as it should be. For a thorough overview of the church, I suggest Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion by Janet Reitman (although I realize there is high praise for Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright I haven’t had a chance to read it yet). Without some background on the Church of Scientology, you may find yourself lost amidst all the practices unique to the church in Hill’s story: abbreviations and talks of preclears and auditing, which are explained briefly in Beyond Belief but examined in more detail elsewhere.

Even after reading other books about Scientology, I was surprised by how extreme Hill’s childhood experience was. She now works with the website Ex-Scientology Kids to provide support to others leaving the church. In this type of situation, where Scientology values its image so much and markets itself as a church, it does seem like one of the most powerful things to do is to make these voices heard.

Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill on

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The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon – What went wrong?


I recently read the “highly anticipated” novel The Bone Season, by Samantha Shannon.  Reading this book just confirmed two of my beliefs:

1)  Marketing campaigns can easily hurt the books they are promoting.

2)  The best non-fiction authors do an amazing job of incorporating facts seamlessly into their stories.

First, point one.  Marketing campaigns can hurt books and disappoint their readers.

All the readers who reviewed The Bone Season on Goodreads seemed to feel the same way about it I did.  Way too much information being thrown out, with a beginning that is almost comical thanks to its info-dumping.  I wanted to love this book so much (as did every other reviewer on Goodreads, it seemed).  A cool young woman publishing a hit?  What isn’t there to love about that story.  Someone, somewhere compared this poor girl to JK Rowling and immediately set her up for failure.  As we saw with The Cuckoo’s Calling, JK Rowling’s writing can’t even build a new JK Rowling-level of success.  The blurbs for this book are also overly optimistic–U.S.A. Today called The Bone Season a combination of George Orwell and J.R.R. Tolkein!  No pressure, right?  What this means is the expectations for The Bone Season were incredibly high.  Readers were expecting an Orwellian brand-new Lord of the Rings series that could create a Potter-worthy hysteria.  With that sort of hype, of course readers are going to be disappointed.  I often feel this way when a book is declared a “hit of the summer” or “next Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” or “new Hunger Games”.

In Janet Maslin’s brilliant and brutal review of The Bone Season at the New York Times, she calls it “a human interest story, not a book.”  She points out that much of the hype around the book has been on the author and her success-the movie options, the money.  Obviously the average reader isn’t looking for a literary masterpiece, but the fact that books have become hollow hype machines similar to blockbuster movies is something to notice.

And that brings me to point two:  The Bone Season’s writing itself.  It takes skill to make information become digestible  and the best non-fiction authors are masters of this.  I think studying how great non-fiction incorporates facts into vivid stories would absolutely help The Bone Season become readable.  This is such an information-laden book (granted, the information conveyed is regarding a fictional world but there is a ton of it), I think it would have benefitted from a more journalistic narrative.  Great non-fiction books pack an incredible amount of information into a readable story.  I think The Bone Season would have benefited from the focus on creativity and details which build a picture of the facts.  There is a saying in writing that you “Show, don’t tell,” and The Bone Season is a book of telling.  Great non-fiction manages to show all its information.  Spillover, a non-fiction book by David Quammen about the spread of zoonotic diseases, is 600 pages of scientific facts and history.  Quammen is such a brilliant writer that these facts go unnoticed in the story.  Bad Pharma, a huge non-fiction book covering the pharmaceutical industry’s faults, reads more clearly than The Bone Season.  I think great non-fiction has the ability to place the reader in a story rather than simply conveying a story’s information.  I also think this was exactly what The Bone Season was lacking.  The Bone Season was a textbook of information, a list of ideas with little explanation as to why we should care.

How would I fix The Bone Season?  Clearly there is a world inside Samantha Shannon that needs to get out.  We all want to hear about this world she has created and fall in love with it, we just need her to show us what its like there.  I would start with Paige at the protests in Ireland when she was six.  Make that the introduction to a book entirely based upon Scion’s beginnings in a world which sees ghosts, and Scion’s growth from Paige’s view.  Cut the rest of the plot, with its aliens and secret islands.  Get rid of some action and focus on the context.  I would focus on conveying all that information thrown at us in The Bone Season’s first chapter into an entire book, tidbit by slow tidbit.  Once we understand the creepy world under Scion rule in a clear way, other books could bring in more information.  The second book could focus on Paige’s gang, and allow us to get to know them better.  And maybe, by the third book, when all this information is embedded into our memories in a less overwhelming way, we could approach the whole alien demon species thing.  We’re all cheering for you, Samantha, but please give us something we can work with next time!

There is some absolutely great and really dark stuff in The Bone Season.  The idea of masks that seal to a person’s face, making them unrecognizable, was wonderful.  The terms of endearment were beautifully executed in the dialogue, pulling off a new-world slang that rang true.  There is a lot of great stuff here, and I will definitely read the next book with hopes of a smoother story.

The Bone Season on

Review – Everything Bad Is Good For You by Steven Johnson


Steven Johnson begins Everything Bad Is Good For You with a claim:  “This book is an old-fashioned work of persuasion that ultimately aims to convince you of one thing:  that popular culture has, on average, grown more complex and intellectually challenging over the past thirty years.”

This is a brave stance to take, as we’ve all been calling television a wasteland for years, shaking our heads at kids who stay glued to a screen playing games and watching shows.  Johnson avoids covering well-trodden ground by refusing to discuss the morality of content.  As he explains, “No one complains about the simplistic, militaristic plot of chess games.”  If you can get past this purposeful exclusion (it seems like a lot of other reviewers can’t), this is a book of simple and brilliant concepts.  Flash bulbs were going off in my head on each page.

A book that covers current culture dates itself quickly – Everything Bad is Good For You was originally published in 2005, and although the games and TV shows cited may not be relevant today (Joe Millionaire?) the ideas presented here seem timeless.  Other media theorists, such as Marshall Macluhan (who Johnson cites), presented concepts 40 years ago which we still refer to today.

Everything Bad Is Good For You is at its best exploring the evolution and cognitive advancement of games, television, and reality television.  Film and the internet are mentioned briefly, almost in passing.  As a reader of The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, Johnson’s stances on the internet made for a great opposing argument.  Johnson does come across as theoretical, and I think this works well as many of his arguments are simple and make sense.

Johnson points out the development of multiple threading in prime time television – television’s increasing use of weaving many complicated threads throughout a show rather than having a single narrative plot.  When he compares Dragnet (from the 1950’s) to the Sopranos (of 2000’s) the difference is striking.  He talks about reality shows as tests of social skill, sort of live action video games.  Drop a group of people in a controlled but unpredictable environment and see how they behave, and observe how they use their emotional intelligence to deal with those around them.  This explains to me the appeal of reality television much more plausibly than other claims out there (we’re all watching to zone out, we’re all watching people be humiliated).  Everything Bad Is Good For You also points out that as a nation our intelligence is rising – would it make sense if our entertainment didn’t advance with us?

I love to think serious thoughts and read big books, but I’m hooked on The Bachelor and Game of Thrones like everyone else.  Arguments which state I’m watching this stuff because it is violent garbage, exploitative and simple-minded, don’t ring true to me.  This book helped me feel a little less guilty about what I’ve always considered my “bad” habit of TV watching.  I also downloaded Lumiosity for my phone, an app that claims to build your brain with simple mental games.  They are fun, and who knows?  Gaming could be good for me.

Everything Bad Is Good For You by Steven Johnson on

Steven Johnson’s website

Review – Paleofantasy by Marlene Zuk


Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet, and How We Live was an enlightening, if expansive, book for me.  I don’t think I read the subtitle before buying the book on, or I may have been a tad bit less surprised by the evolution and anthropology lessons I received.  I expected more of a straightforward discussion of the Paleo-type diet – they say eat these foods, Marlene Zuk says eat these foods.  Diet books often play out this way.  Paleofantasy is so much more than a diet book, however.  It is a series of lessons behind many of the concepts in evolution, with studies cited to explain certain points.

The chapters are:  1) Cavemen in Condos, 2) Are We Stuck?, 3) Crickets, Sparrows, and Darwins — or Evolution before Our Eyes, 4) The Perfect Paleofantasy: Milk, 5) The Perfect Paleofantasy:  Meat, Grains, and Cooking, 6) Exercising the Paleofantasy, 7) Paleofantasy Love, 8) The Paleofantasy Family, 9) Paleofantasy in Sickness and in Health, 10) Are we still Evolving?  A Tale of Genes, Altitude, and Earwax.

Zuk does a great job of staying neutral, addressing the misconceptions and assumptions that many Americans have about our Paleolithic ancestors.  Instead of trying to make a specific case (stop doing this, do it this way instead) she just wants to set the record straight.  She addresses everything from the idea of cavemen needing to spread their seed for the survival of our species, to our paleolithic ancestors’ ability to consume grains and evolution of the digestion of grains, to barefoot running.  Paleofantasy is filled with the usual inconclusive terms of science Americans hate to hear, such as “it is hard to know for sure” and “this is more complicated than it seems”.

As you can imagine, in a book that takes an entire chapter to discuss a human’s ability to digest milk, there is a huge amount of information presented.  I was listening to this on audiobook, and at some points I felt like it was too much to be hearing rather than reading on the page.  I listened to some chapters twice just to absorb their info.  Some Goodreads reviewers mentioned, and I agree, that this is “just the facts” journalism, not dressed up in a more pop non-fiction style like many current non-fiction books that aim to create a more vivid experience.

The only thing that stood out as completely incorrect in Paleofantasy was the source of Zuk’s paleo-fan quotes.  She seemed to repeatedly quote commenters from paleo chat boards or blogs.  This seemed a bit odd to me – it felt like lazy journalism in a book full of studies from researchers at various universities, and felt like picking out the most purposefully uneducated members of a community (let’s be real – message boards aren’t known for the breadth of their knowledge base).  There are a ton of highly educated and respected Paleo people out there, who have published books and speak regularly and would have been much more logical and worthy opponents to address.

Another thing I would have liked to hear more about, and I realize this may have been out of the scope of Zuk’s book, was a theory of what psychological motivation is behind the Paleo movement at this time in our society.  I think Paleo is more a backlash to our current culture than anything else.  People are uncomfortable with processed foods, pervasive and rapidly developing technology, desk jobs, television, media and pressures of a passive consumption culture — all of these modern developments that don’t feel right.  Whether or not it scientifically makes sense, a group of folks out there are yearning to be more like our ancestors (disconnected from elliptical machines, eight hours a day behind a computer screen, the pervasiveness of the internet, processed food).  I see this yearning coming from a place of unhappiness with the status quo, a feeling that we aren’t going down the right road.  I think Paleo is an odd reaction to the massive level of technoshock we’re all living through.  So many of us struggle to know simply how to eat, so many Americans struggle just to move regularly – there is something appealing about becoming more animalistic, getting in touch with our natural history, and listening to our instincts more.  Returning to nature has its appeal- regardless of current or past evolution.  In a way Zuk’s ability to look beyond her science here might have been interesting, I would have liked to hear her insights.

Zuk also only briefly mentions the Paleo diet’s ability to help people visualize the elimination of processed foods from meals.  Processed foods are often the least nutritious, and choosing to eat what our ancestors ate before the food industry developed easily eliminates an entire range of junk foods (not to mention beverages) from a diet.  Of course there are other ways to do this, such as just realizing processed foods are unhealthy and avoiding them (I think Michael Pollan suggests not to eat anything your great-grandma wouldn’t recognize as food), but I think people like to have a bit more of a story than that around their diets.

This book affirmed my faith in the advice Michael Pollan:  “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”.  Pollan often talks about how little we truly know about the food we eat and what happens to it inside our bodies, he talks about how limited the science of nutrition and digestion is today.  Paleofantasy illustrates we don’t know much, and we have a long way to go before finding the “best” way to eat, move our bodies, and be with each other.

Paleofantasy by Marlene Zuk at

Review – The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout.


Yes, I gave The Sociopath Next Door a chance despite its fairly cringeworthy cover and title.  Being a huge lover of mystery fiction, I do find myself drawn to explanations of the icy cold killers and the master manipulators among us.  I discovered this book via Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, a fabulous audiobook that I highly recommend. noticed my interest in the so-called Madness Industry and recommended I give The Sociopath Next Door a shot.

Martha Stout does a great job of not only explaining what makes a sociopath different, but discussing what bonds most of us as humans together.  She talks about empathy as a human sense that sociopaths seem to lack.  I found most interesting her digressions into the psychology of empathy – how most humans make horrible soldiers and fail to fire their guns at the enemy unless directly ordered to, etc.

The pitch of Dr. Stout’s book is that sociopaths are rampant among us – there are more of them out there, she says, than there are schizophrenics or certain types of cancer sufferers.  We are mainly just unaware of this specific disorder as it isn’t discussed or is more debatable in the mainstream.  I’m not too concerned about meeting sociopaths in my day to day life or how to wrangle with them on the daily, but I did find Dr. Stout’s examinations of and extrapolations from the human psyche to be interesting and well worth a read.

The Sociopath Next Door at Powell’s Books

Review – Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story by Daphne Sheldrick.


I’m going to be real, I gave up on this book after dragging myself through 11 hours of the 14 hour long audiobook. My breaking point came when – shocker! – the millionth animal struggling to survive under Daphne’s care, or trying to survive in the wild after leaving her care, dies.

I love animals, and I want to love people’s heart-warming stories of living with animals. I like the idea of these stories. I like my own life, lived with two cats. I worked at the Humane Society and fell under the spell of fluffy unfortunates on the daily. But here’s the deal: I can’t get through these books. The quirky Enslaved by Ducks by Bob Tarte, the kitschily titled book about the PTSD dude with a dog, this dame’s adventures interfering with wildlife after her people (she greatly regrets) fail to colonize Africa. I find these books sweet and mildly irritating and vaguely un-notable. I think Daphne’s descriptions and view of the jungle as enchanting and full of delight is beautifully expressed, and I’d love for her to write a fiction novel that focuses more on people and events in that sort of rare environment – I’d find that intriguing.

I also do find a bit of her cultural belief system the elephant (ha! obvious pun there) in the room. At one point she talks of how she fears a one vote per one person system for an independent Kenya, stating this would give Africans a majority vote over whites. The concept of someone publicly believing Africans should receive less of a vote than white settlers based on skin color is so offensive/racist it made me question if I should have purchased the book at all. On a more debatable thought level than every human being equal to one vote, her husband devotes himself to ending poaching in their area only to be confronted with ideas of overpopulation and arguments for culling. I wonder if this “we know best” attitude of cultural interference is healthy for anyone – the wildlife they have decided needs saving, the indigenous people whose ways of life they have decided to interfere with, etc.

Interestingly enough, when I posted my review of this book on Goodreads and read the other reviews I discovered another reviewer had taken these non-discussed issues, as well as his personal relationship with Daphne Sheldrick, and written a book called, aptly enough, The Elephants in the Room: An Excavation. It was written by Martin Rowe, is launching in September from Lantern Books, and I’m sure it will be an interesting read.

As a final note, this is another book I listened to on audio, and it was read by the author.  This rarely works and always disappoints me.  Daphne Sheldrick is now an older woman, telling the stories of a younger one.  It was harder for me to get over the older voice – like I was being told a bedtime story of a yesteryear, the bygone days that I’m sure Sheldrick pines for.  I think a younger narrator may have suited the story better.

Love, Life, and Elephants on Barnes &

Important book of the day – The Shallows by Nicholas Carr.


No doubt the connectivity and other features of e-books will bring new delights and diversions. We may even, as Kelly suggests, come to see digitization as a liberating act, a way of freeing text from the page. But the cost will be a further weakening, if not a final severing, of the intimate intellectual attachment between the lone writer and the lone reader. The practice of deep reading that became popular in the wake of Gutenberg’s invention, in which “the quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind,” will continue to fade, in all likelihood becoming the province of a small and dwindling elite. We will, in other words, revert to the historical norm. As a group of Northwestern University professors wrote in a 2005 article in the Annual Review of Sociology, the recent changes in our reading habits suggest that the “era of mass [book] reading” was a brief “anomaly” in our intellectual history: “We are now seeing such reading return to its formal social base: a self-perpetuating minority that we shall call the reading class.” The question that remains to be answered, they went on, is whether that reading class will have the “power and prestige associated with an increasingly rare form of cultural capital” or will be viewed as the eccentric practitioners of “an increasingly arcane hobby.” —The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr

A young acquaintance who had been an English major, when I asked her what she was reading, replied: “You mean linear reading? Like when you read a book from start to finish?”  –Jonathan Franzen, Why Bother? an essay from the book How to be Alone

Some books have a tendency to haunt.  They stick to me long after I’ve read them, and I compulsively begin to tell people the anecdotes they contain at dinner tables and in cars.  “But taxi drivers have a larger part of the brain that visualizes the road!”  “Did you know deep reading hasn’t always been a part of various societies’ popular cultures?”  These tidbits of info floating in my mind are thanks to Nicholas Carr, who has some serious business with our brains and the internet.

I’ve felt the internet’s impact on novels, and especially been aware of it as of late.  I realize it is partly just a trend, but so many popular fiction novels aren’t linear anymore.  As with the internet, they’re hopping from place to place or time to time or narrator to narrator.  Some non-linear novels are great, but I do want to pause and ask – why are we, as a society, writing like this?  Why do we all want to read books which use this single literary device, the non-linear narrative?  What about settling in with a more traditional book, which plays out start to finish and beginning to end, has lost its appeal?  Nicholas Carr has the answer to this question in The Shallows.

The Shallows website

Why hello there!

I’m a lover of books. I can’t stop reading them, telling people (who aren’t asking) about them, buying them, selling them, browsing them, adding them to wishlists, checking them off my lists, reading reviews of them, listening to them. I’m creating this little site to share my love with you – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I mainly read mystery (currently Broken Harbor by Tana French, just finished Red Dragon by Thomas Harris), popular fiction (on my to-read shelf: the first four Game of Thrones novels by George R. R. Martin), literary fiction (trawling through 2666 by Roberto Bolano, just started and then sort of put off Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, listening to The Dinner by Herman Koch), memoir (currently in the middle of In the Body of the World by Eve Ensler), and non-fiction and essays (on the to-read shelf: The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, and currently in the middle of How to Be Alone by Johnathan Franzen). Oh, and I love a good science fiction or speculative fiction story but for some reason these aren’t in my spotlight right now.

This site will be full of reviews that I won’t insist to be unbiased, chock full of my own opinions. I like to take into account our current cultural climate while considering the medium and the message of the books I read.

All for now.