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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Cactus Eaters by Dan White

“The Pacific Crest Trail stretches from Mexico to Canada, a distance of 2,650 grueling, sun-scorched, bear-infested miles. When Dan White and his girlfriend announced their intention to hike it, Dan’s parents—among others—thought they were nuts. How could two people who’d never even shared an apartment together survive six months in the desert with little more than a two-person tent and some trail mix? But when these addled adventurers, dubbed “the Lois and Clark Expedition” by their benevolent trail-guru, set out for the American wilderness, the hardships of the trail—and one delicious-looking cactus—test the limits of love and sanity.”

So, here’s my dilemma: I hate it when readers allow their perception of the author, or their judgments about an author, influence their review of their writing; however, when reviewing a memoir, you have to make judgments about the author in order to review the content. As a result, this review is going to be mostly content-oriented, which will by necessity include some statements about how I perceive the author. You have been warned.

Let’s start drilling down into this thing from the top. First of all, we’ll look at the writing. Technically, the writing is… adequate. White is often quite descriptive of the landscape through which he passes, and gives a good sense of where he and his girlfriend are. It’s nothing outstanding, though. At times, he almost gets too monofocused on the minutiae of the surroundings and kind of misses the forest for the trees (sometimes quite literally). The author unfortunately gets quite crude at times, dropping profanities and talking about how much he wants to have sex with his girlfriend.

As a memoir of hiking the PCT, this book leaves much to be desired. I realize that California takes up the lion’s share of the trail, but White devotes almost no time to his hike in Oregon and Washington. Even the California portion is more about the ways in which he and Allison screw up—the cactus-eating incident that spawned the title is a prime example. Most of their struggles come about from their own stupidity—seriously, who dumps out their water in the desert?—and there’s little sense that they learn from their mistakes.

Now comes the part that I usually would avoid. As the author writes so much about his own actions and his state of mind during the hike, I feel that it would be remiss not to address that as a commentary on the book’s content and on the author’s choice of subject. And frankly, it boils down to the fact that I view the author as an asshole. He spends the entire book getting angry at his girlfriend for things that are not her fault, he has no compassion for her physical issues (she ends up with rheumatoid arthritis in her knee and he has no sympathy), and he basically uses the trail as an excuse to lose his mind. I mean that literally. He starts talking to trees and rocks, hiding from other people and abandoning any shreds of self-respect. And he revels in this! There’s no sense of regret for how he treated other people (he gives lip service to it, but it doesn’t come across as sincere), and he seems almost proud of his faults, as though they give him character.

In the end, this book doesn’t work as a hiking memoir because the focus isn’t on the hike, and it doesn’t work as a memoir of personal growth, because the author doesn’t grow. Near the end of the book, White has lunch with an ex-girlfriend and she says that he hasn’t changed at all, and she would never have known that he’d just got off a national scenic trail if he hadn’t told her. That’s a pretty accurate sum-up of the book.

Prospective hikers, take note: do not use this book as a guide to a long-distance hike. There are so many better books out there. The Cactus Eaters did nothing but make me disgusted with the author and had nothing new or unique to say about one of the most stunning trails in the country.

This review was originally posted on September 12, 2014.

This book was a personal purchase.

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Geek Wisdom by Stephen H. Segal (ed.)

“Computer nerds are our titans of industry; comic-book superheroes are our Hollywood idols; the Internet is our night on the town. Clearly, geeks know something about life in the 21st century that other folks don’t—something we all can learn from. Geek Wisdom takes as gospel some 200 of the most powerful and oft-cited quotes from movies (“Where we’re going, we don’t need roads”), television (“Now we know—and knowing is half the battle”), literature (“All that is gold does not glitter”), games, science, the Internet, and more. Now these beloved pearls of modern-day culture have been painstakingly interpreted by a diverse team of hardcore nerds with their imaginations turned up to 11. Yes, this collection of mini-essays is by, for, and about geeks—but it’s just so surprisingly profound, the rest of us would have to be dorks not to read it. So say we all.”

Being the kind of person who incessantly quotes books and movies, this book had an automatic appeal to me.  Granted, I got it on discount through Amazon, but that was mostly because I wasn’t aware of the book’s existence until the sale popped up.  And it ended up being a quick read–and I don’t really think that’s a good thing.  There is so much about geek culture that can inspire thought, or simply inspire, that this book should have taken the time to really dig into the ideas it was exploring.  When the synopsis says “mini-essays”, they weren’t kidding.  99% of the “essays” were only about a page long… so, less an essay and more of a sum-up of the ideas being presented.

This is a shame, because it looks to me like this book falters most in its structure.  There are some excellent ideas raised with the quotes chosen and the ideas brought up by exploring them, but there’s no significant time given to them.  I think the book would have worked better if it had kept the sections (quotes on relationships, quotes on the universe, etc.) and had longer essays that incorporated many of the quotes.  The short bits of writing, as they stand, give the book a choppy feel.  Yes, they’re grouped by general subject, but the lack of cohesion makes it feel like the authors are just bouncing around with no concrete idea of what they want to convey.

Also, it seemed like a stretch to include some of the quotes that they did.  It’s one thing if you’re collecting catchphrases and lines that people often quote, but if you’re going to look for deeper meanings in them, they need to be more than just catchphrases.  For example, it seems a bit silly to include Optimus Prime’s usual command “Roll out!” and then try to ascribe some wisdom to it.  The authors take a valiant stab at it, but honestly, it just didn’t work for me.  In this case, keeping the “mini-essays” short and sweet was best, but I think it would have been better to not use quotes with such a thin excuse.  The title and presentation of this book leads readers to believe that we’re going to be getting nuggets of wisdom, Zen sayings from the sacred tomes of Tolkien and Rowling.  Instead, it’s a few of those thoughts mixed in with a lot of mostly fun but ultimately shallow drivel.

I can’t be completely down on this book, though.  It does manage to highlight some interesting thoughts along the way.  And there are amusing bits of trivia as footnotes to almost all of the entries.  (I actually didn’t make the connection that the actor who played Mr. World in American Gods was also George McFly!)  Readers looking for something not too mentally taxing might enjoy this book if their own expectations don’t trip them up, like what happened to me.  I thought I’d get more, and I was disappointed when I didn’t.  It made me think about doing a feature on this site that explores geek wisdom, though, so that’s something else positive that came from my reading.

I’m not sure I can recommend this book, because of its choppy pace and because of the inclusion of quotes that don’t really have much to offer wisdom-wise.  But if you’re able to pick up a cheap copy, you should, because you might find something in here that resonates for you.  Personally, this book was a portrait of missed opportunities.

This book was a personal purchase.

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Tudors by Peter Ackroyd

“Rich in detail and atmosphere and told in vivid prose, Tudors recounts the transformation of England from a settled Catholic country to a Protestant superpower. It is the story of Henry VIII’s cataclysmic break with Rome, and his relentless pursuit of both the perfect wife and the perfect heir; of how the brief reign of the teenage king, Edward VI, gave way to the violent reimposition of Catholicism and the stench of bonfires under ‘Bloody Mary’. It tells, too, of the long reign of Elizabeth I, which, though marked by civil strife, plots against the queen and even an invasion force, finally brought stability.

Above all, however, it is the story of the English Reformation and the making of the Anglican Church. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, England was still largely feudal and looked to Rome for direction; at its end, it was a country where good governance was the duty of the state, not the church, and where men and women began to look to themselves for answers rather than to those who ruled them.”

This review is going to be a bit different from the ones that I usually do.  You see, I didn’t finish this book, so I’m going to discuss the reasons why.  I firmly believe that you can learn a lot about a book by reading both the positive and the negative with regards to other people’s opinions about it.

I’ve been interested in the Tudor dynasty for a long time.  The history of that era reads like the most sensational novel ever penned, and it encompasses love, hate, passion, politics, religion, war, and a host of other things.  It’s a complicated time in history, when many forces came into play and shaped the way the world looked for decades, if not centuries.

My primary sources of info have been, as you may imagine, books written on the subject.  I’ve also watched media presentations like The Tudors on Showtime and The Other Boleyn Girl on the big screen, and while these favor entertainment over accuracy in many respects, they still inspire me to go looking for information on my own.  A few documentaries round out my experience with delving into the period.

When I saw that Peter Ackroyd was writing a book the covers the Tudor dynasty, I was immediately interested.  I hadn’t read anything by him, having mostly read books by Alison Weir, but I’m always open to a new author.  His first book about English history, Foundation, had many excellent reviews, so I had high hopes for Tudors.

I freely admit that I only made it through three of Henry VIII’s six wives before I gave up in boredom.

How did that happen?  How did a historical period that I find so fascinating get reduced to something that I was slogging through long before I gave up on it?

Part of my disappointment seems to have sprung from my own expectations.  For one, this book is slightly mistitled in that it does not cover the entire Tudor dynasty–it leaves out Henry VII.  This seems a bit odd to me as the Tudors were brought to power on the battlefield and readers don’t get to see that piece of history in conjunction with the rest of the family’s deeds.  For another, prime movers and shakers of the period get short shrift here: Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell, and others show up much less frequently than I expected.

The rest of my inability to finish the book lies in the author’s writing and presentation style.  I was surprised to find that Ackroyd’s writing felt fairly unfocused to me.  This may be because so many books about this period look heavily through the lens of Henry VIII’s actions, which makes sense given how many changes he introduced to England during his reign.  But while Ackroyd covers a lot of ground, many of the events he writes about seem unmoored from everything else and are presented in isolation.  The passing of laws that were the result of specific chains of events seem to pop up suddenly in a way that makes them feel abrupt. People come and go from the narrative with awkward irregularity, such as the way the Spanish ambassador (who, if I remember rightly, was never named in this book although he was present at the court for many years) occasionally appears in references to his letters back to Spain.

At the point that I gave up, I didn’t feel that I was going to get a good overview of the Tudor era by reading this book.  It isn’t that I feel that a comprehensive look at the era is impossible; rather, I don’t think Ackroyd’s approach works well either stylistically or as a collection of facts.  I’ll stick with Weir for my history fix.

This review was originally posted on November 26, 2013.

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

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Caesar’s Last Breath by Sam Kean

“It’s invisible. It’s ever-present. Without it, you would die in minutes. And it has an epic story to tell.

With every breath, you literally inhale the history of the world. On the ides of March, 44 BC, Julius Caesar died of stab wounds on the Senate floor, but the story of his last breath is still unfolding; in fact, you’re probably inhaling some of it now. Of the sextillions of molecules entering or leaving your lungs at this moment, some might well bear traces of Cleopatra’s perfumes, German mustard gas, particles exhaled by dinosaurs or emitted by atomic bombs, even remnants of stardust from the universe’s creation.

Tracing the origins and ingredients of our atmosphere, Kean reveals how the alchemy of air reshaped our continents, steered human progress, powered revolutions, and continues to influence everything we do. Along the way, we’ll swim with radioactive pigs, witness the most important chemical reactions humans have discovered, and join the crowd at the Moulin Rouge for some of the crudest performance art of all time.”

Along with Mary Roach and Bill Bryson, Sam Kean is one of my “must-read” non-fiction authors.  One of the things that has always made his writing stand out from the crowd for me was not only his storytelling ability, but the way he links many disparate tales into a cohesive whole.  For instance, in his last book, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, his saga of neuroscience was structured to parallel the brain itself.  The vignettes illustrated functions and parts of the brain starting with the brainstem (unconscious functions) and moving ever upwards and outward to the most “human” parts of the brain.  It gives what can be dense science writing a flow that keeps you engaged, even if you have to take it slow to digest all the info you’re being given.

Unfortunately, this book doesn’t accomplish that nearly as well as usual.  Mostly this is due to Kean’s subject matter–the composition of air.  There is no inherent underlying structure to air, so there’s no ready-made framework for talking about it an a linear manner.  It seems to be sort-of arranged by how common each molecule is, from most common to least, but that’s not a scaffolding that lends itself to telling a comprehensive tale about air as a whole.  To return to my earlier example, while the brain can easily be visualized, air can’t.

The solution I found to enjoying this book was to read it in small chunks.  When I tried reading more than a couple of chapters at a time, I found my attention wandering–there wasn’t anything pulling me to the next chapter to see how the connections played out.  However, when I read a single chapter at a time and then put the book down for a while, I enjoyed it much more.  Because of this, I can’t really call the book’s structure a flaw.  It just means that I think it’s better if you read it piecemeal.  I will still say, though, that Kean did a better job with his earlier works when he was able to write something that you could read straight through and enjoy as a larger whole.

Even so, the stories are interesting.  One of the first ones is about a man who stayed on the slopes of Mount St. Helens until he was literally blown away by the eruption.  Another deals with a man who created an entire stage routine around farting.  There are intriguing tidbits about how sound bounces around the atmosphere, and why.  And of course, there’s the scientific breakdown of why you are probably breathing in molecules exhaled by Caesar as he died on the floor of the Roman senate.  That thought experiment alone is worth the price of admission, because it’s going to make you ponder what’s in your lungs right now as you’re reading this.

Although not one of his best works, Caesar’s Last Breath still has a lot going for it.  Just take it bit by bit and  you’ll likely enjoy this exploration of what’s in the air you breathe.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Alex and Me by Irene Pepperberg

“Alex & Me is the remarkable true story of an extraordinary relationship between psychologist Irene M. Pepperberg and Alex, an African Grey parrot who proved scientists and accepted wisdom wrong by demonstrating an astonishing ability to communicate and understand complex ideas. A New York Times bestseller and selected as one of the paper’s Top Ten Books of the Year, Alex & Me is much more that the story of an incredible scientific breakthrough. It’s a poignant love story and an affectionate remembrance of Pepperberg’s irascible, unforgettable, and always surprising best friend.”

Although this book obviously tackles an ongoing and complicated scientific experiment, Pepperberg never talks over her audience’s heads. Some scientific information is needed to get the context of some of Alex’s tests, but they’re presented simply and concisely. Readers are likely to learn a lot about the process of testing for results in the sciences. And such information allows readers to more fully appreciate Alex’s accomplishments.

There’s actually a lot going on in this book. It covers Alex’s tests during the ongoing experiment, his owner’s journey into a completely unexpected career and where it took her, the response of the scientific community in general over the course of time, and even touches on a few of the other studies going on (such as Koko the signing gorilla). The stories are so intertwined, though, that no one thread usurps any of the others. Alex is the main binding agent in all of these disparate yarns, and the author never loses sight of that fact. This book is, first and foremost, about Alex, and so Pepperberg never deviates far from him and his charming antics.

It’s a smart bit of editing that allows readers to follow Alex’s triumphs in a linear matter, each one building on the ones before it. There’s nothing scattershot about the author’s approach. Maybe having written so many scientific papers detailing Alex’s progress has paid off in this book. The writing is concise yet personable, straightforward yet humorous. I would be surprised if readers didn’t laugh out loud a time or two at some of the tricks Alex pulled on his hapless human friends.

There’s no telling what Alex would have accomplished, had he lived. His death is not only a great loss to the scientific community, but also a great loss to one wonderfully stubborn and creative researcher who was determined to change the world’s definition of “bird-brain”. Read Alex and Me and prepare to be amazed and touched.

This review was originally posted on August 2, 2010.

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

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Left for Dead by Beck Weathers

“In 1996 Beck Weathers and a climbing team pushed toward the summit of Mount Everest. Then a storm exploded on the mountain, ripping the team to shreds, forcing brave men to scratch and crawl for their lives. Rescuers who reached Weathers saw that he was dying, and left him. Twelve hours later, the inexplicable occurred. Weathers appeared, blinded, gloveless, and caked with ice—walking down the mountain. In this powerful memoir, now featuring a new Preface, Weathers describes not only his escape from hypothermia and the murderous storm that killed eight climbers, but the journey of his life. This is the story of a man’s route to a dangerous sport and a fateful expedition, as well as the road of recovery he has traveled since; of survival in the face of certain death, the reclaiming of a family and a life; and of the most extraordinary adventure of all: finding the courage to say yes when life offers us a second chance.”

Ever since I read Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, I’ve had a fascination with the 1996 Everest disaster.  It’s not only me that feels this way—if the recent movie Everest is any indication, the tale’s staying power hasn’t diminished with time.  A recent Amazon Kindle deal led me to Weathers’s memoir, which I had heard of but hadn’t read.  Interestingly, this book is less about the actual event and more about Weathers himself, what led him to the mountain, and what happened after he returned.

The 1996 climb takes up the first small section of the book, and then readers get an intimate portrait of what might drive a man to climb a mountain that could conceivably kill him.  That’s a question that many people ask when they read about what it takes to summit Everest, or see a movie about it, or a documentary.  What would drive someone to undertake such a perilous endeavor?  In Weathers’s case, it was depression.

I admire the author for talking candidly about his struggles with depression over the course of many years and how they affected both him and his family.  The book is interspersed with sections by other people in Weathers’s life, most particularly his wife, Peach.  Neither of them make any attempt to hide how difficult it was to deal with what Weathers was going through.  He himself makes no bones about the fact that he climbed mountains because the sheer physical effort drowned out the blackness that he often felt.  He’s also unflinching in admitting that he never considered asking for help with what he was feeling.

Much like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Left for Dead focuses more on the person than on the physical feat, but unlike Strayed, Weathers doesn’t appear to wallow in his issues.  Rather, he faces them with the clarity of hindsight and never lets himself off the hook for the damage that he did to those he loves.  For this, I truly admire him.

This book was a personal purchase.

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