In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

“Every time Bill Bryson walks out the door, memorable travel literature threatens to break out. His previous excursion along the Appalachian Trail resulted in the sublime national bestseller A Walk in the Woods. In A Sunburned Country is his report on what he found in an entirely different place: Australia, the country that doubles as a continent, and a place with the friendliest inhabitants, the hottest, driest weather, and the most peculiar and lethal wildlife to be found on the planet. The result is a deliciously funny, fact-filled, and adventurous performance by a writer who combines humor, wonder, and unflagging curiousity.

Despite the fact that Australia harbors more things that can kill you in extremely nasty ways than anywhere else, including sharks, crocodiles, snakes, even riptides and deserts, Bill Bryson adores the place, and he takes his readers on a rollicking ride far beyond that beaten tourist path. Wherever he goes he finds Australians who are cheerful, extroverted, and unfailingly obliging, and these beaming products of land with clean, safe cities, cold beer, and constant sunshine fill the pages of this wonderful book. Australia is an immense and fortunate land, and it has found in Bill Bryson its perfect guide.”

This year I started re-reading some old favorite books, and I had to include Bryson’s works in that category. His narrative A Walk in the Woods was the book that truly got me interested in non-fiction and sent me down the rabbit hole of learning about subjects that I never would have imagined being interested in. In the case of this book, it’s not that I was never interested in Australia, but more that I never really saw anything about it. The most that I thought I knew was that it is home to tons of things that can kill you.

In a Sunburned Country doesn’t gloss over the murderous capacity of the continent and its resident critters, but it also conveys the stark beauty of the place. From Uluru, the massive rock formation sacred to the Aboriginal people, to the beach where a former Australian prime minister was swept out to sea and vanished, Bryson’s wanderings take him to both large cities and isolated hamlets, to sweeping vistas and small forgotten corners.

What it turned out that I appreciated the most was Bryson’s commitment to learning about Australia’s history, politics, people, and culture. During his narrative, he writes about the books that he reads along the way, the newspapers he picks up, and the people that he talks to. He doesn’t shy away from touching on the plight of the Aboriginal people or the uncomfortable reactions of white Australians when the subject is raised. He delves into scientific discoveries and foolhardy ventures. All in all, Australia is a much more interesting place than its lack of prominence in the nightly news would lead you to believe.

And of course, being Bryson, he infused his narrative with his own signature brand of humor, that dry combination of American sarcasm and British absurdity. I always laugh out loud when reading about his attempts to body board with friends, or hearing his observations on some of that lethal wildlife. Learning and laughter–that’s what Bryson excels at.

Curious about the land of kangaroos and koalas? I wholeheartedly recommend this book as an excellent starting point.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

Everything Trump Touches Dies by Rick Wilson

“In Everything Trump Touches Dies, political campaign strategist and commentator Rick Wilson brings his darkly funny humor and biting analysis to the absurdity of American politics in the age of Trump. Wilson mercilessly exposes the damage Trump has done to the country, to the Republican Party he served for decades, and to the conservative movement that has abandoned its principles for the worst President in American history.

No left-winger, Wilson is a lifelong conservative who delivers his withering critique of Trump from the right. A leader of the Never Trump movement, he warns his own party of the political catastrophe that leaves everyone involved with Trump with reputations destroyed and lives in tatters.

Wilson unblinkingly dismantles Trump’s deceptions and the illusions to which his supporters cling, shedding light on the guilty parties who empower and enable Trump in Washington and the news media. He calls out the race-war dead-enders who hitched a ride with Trump, the alt-right basement dwellers who worship him, and the social conservatives who looked the other way.

Everything Trump Touches Dies deftly chronicles the tragicomic Trump story from the early campaign days through the shock of election night, to the inconceivable trainwreck of Trump’s first year. Rick Wilson provides not only an insightful analysis of the Trump administration, but also an optimistic path forward for the GOP, the conservative movement, and the country.

Combining insider political analysis, blunt truths, and black humor, Everything Trump Touches Dies is perfect for those on either side of the aisle who need a dose of unvarnished reality, a good laugh, a strong cocktail, and a return to sanity in American politics.”

Full disclosure before we get into this: I’m a registered Democrat, and as you can probably guess from that nugget of info, not a fan of our current president.  One thing I try to do, though, is to seek out points of view that I may not agree with so that I have a more rounded view of things.  Now admittedly, I haven’t been able to bring myself to read books by the likes of Cory Lewandowski or Newt Gingrich, but I have been trying to read books by conservative commentators who take a more neutral view of things.  By doing so, I have learned a lot about the way our two major parties and their politics have evolved (or devolved in some cases) since the Nixon era and how we got to the point we’re at now.  I’ve encountered critiques of the Democrats that I think have merit as well.

All of this is by way of saying that no, I’m not perfect and I do have my own personal views, but I make a conscious effort to not get caught up in a liberal echo chamber.

I was initially drawn to Wilson’s book not because of the title (although I’d be lying if I said it didn’t give me a snicker), but because he is described as a longtime conservative and Republican strategist.  I thought that he might have interesting insights into the current state of the country that gave me a few laughs in the bargain.  Goodness knows we can all use one nowadays.

Sad to say, this book didn’t live up to expectations.  That has nothing to do with the content, honestly; rather, it’s more a matter of how the book is written.  The whole issue of “dark comedy” that the book jacket espouses never quite materializes.  It’s obviously something that can be done–late night comedians do it all the time.  Seth Meyers, in particular, has excelled at blending comedy with in-depth looks at current issues, often devoting up to twelve minutes to his “Closer Look” segment.  In Wilson’s book, I think he was just trying too hard to be edgy.  He does have some witty bits, but there were many times that I wanted him to just stop looking for superlatives and get on with the book already.

On the other hand, the author does offer up some interesting food for thought on various topics.  One that sticks out in my head is his statement that it seems that China’s retaliatory tariffs were aimed squarely at industries in the mid-America red states.  If that’s true, that’s a fascinating tidbit of info about current global politics.  I wish these little factoids had been presented a little more cleanly, simply because some of the internal structure of individual chapters sometimes gets slightly messy, but there are there to be discovered.

All in all, this isn’t the worst book that I’ve read about our current political situation.  There are some thought provoking ideas scattered throughout, and even though I have issues with the author’s writing style, I think the book will appeal to some readers.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

Monkey Mind by Daniel B. Smith

“Daniel Smith’s Monkey Mind is the stunning articulation of what it is like to live with anxiety. As he travels through anxiety’s demonic layers, Smith defangs the disorder with great humor and evocatively expresses its self-destructive absurdities and painful internal coherence. Aaron Beck, the most influential doctor in modern psychotherapy, says that “Monkey Mind does for anxiety what William Styron’s Darkness Visible did for depression.” Neurologist and bestselling writer Oliver Sacks says, “I read Monkey Mind with admiration for its bravery and clarity. . . . I broke out into explosive laughter again and again.” Here, finally, comes relief and recognition to all those who want someone to put what they feel, or what their loved ones feel, into words.”

I don’t normally review non-fiction, or indeed anything besides science fiction and fantasy.  I felt compelled by this book, though, not only to read it but to write about my experience reading it.  And it’s going to be a hard review to write.

Allow me to explain.

The full title of this book is Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety.  I was diagnosed with panic disorder back in 1990, so you can imagine my interest in reading a story about someone living with a condition that is so familiar to me.  I didn’t go into it looking for wisdom or advice—I’ve gotten plenty of that over the course of time, useful and otherwise—but I was hoping to see the experience of anxiety through the eyes of another.  Knowing, as I do, that the anxious can be sensitive to criticism, I’m going to have a hard time being honest about how much I disliked this book.

I have no quibble with Smith’s actual experience of his anxiety.  Every person’s struggle with it is different and unique, although there are many symptoms and traits that tend to be similar no matter what.  But for a book that purports to be a “hilarious” look at the tragedies and triumphs, it’s incredibly negative.  I didn’t like the tone that the author often took, which was a cross between a self-deprecating “woe is me, this is all my fault” attitude and looking for anyone and anything to blame for his condition.  He also seems to think that anxiety sufferers are, by their very natures, toxic to those around them.  This is hardly encouraging to any readers who might be having their own issues with anxiety.

Now, a lot of what I just wrote is personal preference, and I freely admit that.  A “memoir of anxiety” needn’t take a positive tone to be successful, by any means.  I do, however, think that Smith’s stated aims in writing the book and what actually came out in the writing were two entirely different things.

Taking a more technical look at the writing, there was a quote from Pride and Prejudice came to mind: “He studies too much for words of four syllables.”  Far too much of the book is taken up with lengthy quotes from Kierkegaard, Philip Roth and the like.  I know that the author has spent a lot of time researching and reading about mental illness—he says as much in this book—and it feels like he wants to work as much of that material into this book as possible.  The quotes often slow down the narrative flow, and after a while, it felt like the author was trying to show how educated and well-read he is.  The story could easily have been written without so much literary navel-gazing.

Structurally, the book is all over the place.  Part of that is due to the proliferation of quotes from other sources, but I think it’s also due to the author trying to link his past and present in a bid to explain his anxiety’s roots.  The story is arranged in roughly chronological order, but there is some jumping around time-wise, and there are many asides about aspects of anxiety that seem shoehorned in at moments where they don’t really fit.  For example, during the section about his time working for The Atlantic, he suddenly goes into a dissertation on sweating.  Maybe better organization would have made this work better, but I don’t know.

I do have to wonder if all of the positive reviews for this book were from people who don’t suffer from anxiety.  After I wrote the bulk of this review, I went onto Amazon to see what others thought, and it does seem that the vast majority of the negative reviews are from people like me—those who live with anxiety.  I found that my reaction wasn’t atypical at all.  Monkey Mind may be a fairly accurate representation of one person’s experience with anxiety brought on by certain specific events, but it does not give a good picture of anxiety to those who don’t already know what it’s like.

This review was originally posted on November 4, 2013.

This book was borrowed from the Yolo County Public Library, Davis branch.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger

“October 1991. It was “the perfect storm”–a tempest that may happen only once in a century–a nor’easter created by so rare a combination of factors that it could not possibly have been worse. Creating waves ten stories high and winds of 120 miles an hour, the storm whipped the sea to inconceivable levels few people on Earth have ever witnessed. Few, except the six-man crew of the Andrea Gail, a commercial fishing boat tragically headed towards its hellish center.”

Have you ever gone into a book with a certain set of expectations, only to find that you built the book up to be something that it wasn’t?  That’s how I feel about The Perfect Storm.  The title is even a good representation of those feelings: disparate chunks of story being thrown together into a maelstrom that causes chaos where they meet.  It’s not that this isn’t a compelling tale, but I think Junger mis-stepped when he chose to focus on the fishing vessel Andrea Gail.  Maybe that’s the fault of the marketing folks who wrote the back cover copy, or those who sent out descriptions of the book to stores and libraries.  That’s what I went into this narrative believing that I’d find–a recounting of the last moments of the doomed vessel.  Instead, I got something quite different.

The book starts out zeroed in on the crew of the Andrea Gail as they readied to head out fishing despite storm warnings.  Through interviews with those close to the men, Junger can give readers an accurate portrait of the day the boat set sail.  The problem arises once the boat leaves dock.  The Andrea Gail crew only had a few communications with others once they left for the fishing grounds, and no contact with anyone from around 7pm or so on the night of their disappearance.  This forces the author to talk about what might have happened as the storms intensified, what they may have done as they found themselves in the teeth of the gale, what the boat might have gone through as it was destroyed.  But there is zero evidence for any of what he says.  Granted, he never tries to portray his scenarios as the gospel truth, but the mere fact that so little is known makes the choice to focus on them a little odd.  My thought is that the choice was made based on the fact that the Andrea Gail seems to have been the only boat to end up in the “perfect storm”, the area where three powerful storms met.  There is one moment in the book where Junger does seem to state something as fact with no supporting evidence, however: he says that around midnight is when the catastrophic event occurred (whatever it was) to bring the boat down, but at no point after that does he offer a shred of proof for that statement.  If I missed something in my reading, I’d be more than happy for a correction on that.

The second half of the book mostly follows other boats and their crews in different parts of the storm-ravaged sea.  These people are mentioned in the earlier chapters as well, but Junger abandons the Andrea Gail to tell the stories of other people who actually survived the storm.  This is where I thought the narrative got more compelling, because there are actual eyewitness accounts of the power and destructive nature of the storm.  Knowing that you’re following along as people fight for their lives is a much more nail-biting tale to read than one which relies on “maybe” and “could have” so much.  Part of the draw of this section also is the fact that one of the rescue helicopters sent out to help evacuate sailors from their doomed boats turned out to need rescuing too.  This section of the book definitely has more tension; you already know the Andrea Gail is lost with all hands, but you don’t know the fates of the people on the other boats.

So, if the Andrea Gail is one storm, and the other boats are the second one, what about the third?  That is comprised of all of the background material that Junger weaves into the narrative.  Some of what he showcases is information that is a great help in getting a sense of what happened over those few days, things like describing how such storms are formed and what makes them collide so disastrously.  I feel that the explanation of the fishing industry on the East Coast is helpful too, as he helps readers understand why the sailors went out in spite of storm warnings.  Some of the info, though, just isn’t needed.  There may be those who find the descriptions of every bit of gear on a swordfishing boat to be interesting, but there’s so much more included than is actually needed for clarity.

I think that this book’s main problem boils down to one of pacing.  I can see myself getting much more invested in the book as a whole if Junger had balanced all the various pieces more.  Relegating the Andrea Gail to the first half of the book and then having almost nothing about them in the second half gives rise to false expectations of what the book will be about.  Personally, I would love to see a re-editing of this book that spreads out the Andrea Gail‘s story through more of the book, interweaves the weather information at the same pace as the gathering storm, and then lets the events play out in the last third or so of the book.  What Junger has here is a mesmerizing tale of survival in one of the most hellish situations imaginable, and the fact that I found it to be somewhat choppy makes me feel like this book could have been so much more than it is.

I will still recommend it, though.  Just be aware that all of the hype about this book will give you an incorrect idea of what it covers, so please go into this knowing that there’s so much more to it than you  might expect.  Despite my misgivings about the pacing, the story is well-written and is most definitely going to draw you in to the life and death struggles of the men and women who faced one of the century’s greatest storms.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

Because I Said So! by Ken Jennings

because-i-said-so“’Ken Jennings reveals the truth behind all those things you tell your children’ (Parade) in this entertaining and useful New York Times bestseller ‘armed with case histories, scientific finds, and experiments on himself and his own children’ (Los Angeles Times).

Is any of it true? If so, how true? Ken Jennings wants to find out if parents always know best. Yes, all those years you were told not to sit too close to the television or swallow your gum or crack your knuckles are called into question by our country’s leading trivia guru. Jennings separates myth from fact to debunk a wide variety of parental edicts: no swimming after meals, sit up straight, don’t talk to strangers, and so on.

Armed with medical case histories, scientific findings, and even the occasional experiment on himself (or his kids), Jennings exposes countless examples of parental wisdom run amok. Whether you’re a parent plagued by needless concern or a kid (of any age) looking to say, ‘I told you so,’ this is the anti– helicopter parenting book you’ve been waiting for.”

This is the second book by Jennings that I’ve read, and I think I prefer the other one, Maphead.  Basically, I think that the author excels at his subjects more when he has the space to go into depth about things.  In this book, he never exceeds a couple of pages about any given saying or bit of folk wisdom.  While there may not be much to say about each one individually, he does group them loosely by subject.  I wonder what it would have been like if he had tied the sayings in each group together into a narrative.

There was some interesting information in here, and as many have noted, this is like a text version of Snopes.com or the TV show Mythbusters.  Jennings puts in a lot of detail about the research he did into each saying and whether or not he could find evidence to support it.  The thing is, the majority of these sayings fall into the categories of “possibly true” or “likely false” without any real definitive answers forthcoming.  That may be the nature of what he actually found out, but I guess I would have liked him to come down more firmly on one side of the other on the bulk of what he wrote about.

This all isn’t to say that this is a bad book, by any means.  I rather enjoyed it.  Taken as a font of informational snippets, it’s exactly as advertised.  Perhaps I’m just getting spoiled by the science/language books that manage to cleverly tie things together in unexpected ways, and this more straightforward approach feels a little too fragmented now.  Personal taste on my part, to be sure.  If you’re looking for some quick bites of facts and small nibbles of information, this is the book for you.  If you want more satisfying fare, this might not sate your appetite.

This book was borrowed from the Yolo County Public Library, Davis branch.

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)

Born to Walk by Dan Rubinstein

born-to-walk“The humble act of putting one foot in front of the other transcends age, geography, culture, and class, and is one of the most economical and environmentally responsible modes of transit. Yet with our modern fixation on speed, this healthy pedestrian activity has been largely left behind.

At a personal and professional crossroads, writer, editor, and obsessive walker Dan Rubinstein travelled throughout the U.S., U.K., and Canada to walk with people who saw the act not only as a form of transportation and recreation, but also as a path to a better world. There are no magic-bullet solutions to modern epidemics like obesity, anxiety, alienation, and climate change. But what if there is a simple way to take a step in the right direction? Combining fascinating reportage, eye-opening research, and Rubinstein’s own discoveries, Born to Walk explores how far this ancient habit can take us, how much repair is within range, and guarantees that you’ll never again take walking for granted.”

Boy, I wish this book would have been more anecdotal.  Rubinstein tackles a subject near and dear to my heart–walking for exercise, and specifically walking wherever you can and not just on long-distance treks–but he does so in a way guaranteed to put off most readers.  He does include stories of his own walking experiences, but it’s the organization of the book that buries them beneath mountains of data.

The Good: There are some truly thought-provoking ideas in this book.  My favorite came from an interview with someone the author met.  The theory she put forth is that the reason video games are harmful is not just because of how they keep kids from exercising, but because of how they impact problem solving.  Kids playing games are interacting with a created world–one with a definite order–and they know the solutions to their problems are there if they look hard enough (or go online to find cheats).  Because all kids playing the game encounter the same problems with the same solutions, they’re losing mental flexibility.  That idea had me thinking for a good little bit.

I also liked that Rubinstein attempted to link walking to many different areas of life.  The chapter titles are things like “Society”, “Spirit”, and “Family”.  It keeps the book from being too focused on any one aspect of our daily lives that can benefit from more walking.

The Bad: Unfortunately, the book has no real flow or continuity to it.  The author will start a story, and then jump to tons of scientific data meted out by people with long titles and lists of accomplishments.  Then he jumps into a different story from a previous chapter, then more data, then back to the original story.  I found myself skimming the text at times, because the long litanies of percentages and data sets could easily have been pared down to their most salient points.

The Ugly: This is a man who is fond of sentence fragments.  I’m pretty sure he was trying a stylistic choice to drive home certain points, but all it did for me was to underscore the faults in the writing.  Also, those moments when he mentions a new person and then lists everything they’re involved in gave some sentences the feeling of run-ons when they really weren’t.  Or, at least, I think they weren’t… I lost track in the middle of a few of them.

What this boils down to is simple: What we have here is a book with a good premise and some interesting ideas that is bogged down by poor choices in structure and style.  I think it was worth the effort to wade through, but this book is likely to be a difficult read for most people, including myself.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)