The Private Lives of the Tudors by Tracy Borman

the-private-lives-of-the-tudorsEngland’s Tudor monarchs—Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I—are perhaps the most celebrated and fascinating of all royal families in history. Their love affairs, their political triumphs, and their overturning of the religious order are the subject of countless works of popular scholarship. But for all we know about Henry’s quest for male heirs, or Elizabeth’s purported virginity, the private lives of the Tudors remain largely beyond our grasp.

“In The Private Lives of the Tudors, Tracy Borman delves deep behind the public face of the monarchs, showing us what their lives were like beyond the stage of court. Drawing on the accounts of those closest to them, Borman examines Tudor life in fine detail. What did the monarchs eat? What clothes did they wear, and how were they designed, bought, and cared for? How did they practice their faith? And in earthlier moments, who did they love, and how did they give birth to the all-important heirs?

Delving into their education, upbringing, sexual lives, and into the kitchens, bathrooms, schoolrooms, and bedrooms of court, Borman charts out the course of the entire Tudor dynasty, surfacing new and fascinating insights into these celebrated figures.”

As far as I’m concerned, being fascinated with historical figures is no different from our modern fascination with celebrities.  People want to know every detail of the lives of movie stars, music icons, and political figures–and as you may know, Henry VIII was considered to be the rock star of the 1500s.  The difference is that knowing what happened behind closed doors of people like the famous king is more difficult for many reasons.

One of those reasons is that such a public figure would guard his private time carefully.  Another reason is that our only sources for the knowledge we want is written documents from the time period, many of which have been lost.  Yet another reason is the fact that some of those written sources may not be trustworthy.

Nevertheless, there is a wealth of knowledge out there if you know where to look for it.  Borman is able to go into exhausting detail about such things as clothing, meals, worship, and social status.  Clothing is especially prominent here, either because Borman finds it the most compelling aspect of Tudor private life, or because clothing really was that important.  I suspect it’s a little of both, since the impression I got from reading this was that clothing could give a lot of information about an individual.

For me, though, this book started slowly.  I think the author was having trouble deciding if this book was supposed to be a straightforward history or a true behind-the-scenes look at Tudor life.  This leads to the first third or so of the book being some broad strokes of historical fact interspersed with smaller nuggets of information on clothes, food, and other such subjects.  As it progresses, Borman seems to find a better balance between history and personal facts, but the history still feels a bit slapdash.  Granted, the story of the Tudor reign, and the story of Henry VIII in particular, are immensely complex, but perhaps the transitions between parts of this tale could have been smoother.

Nevertheless, I found this book to be enjoyable and to provide many tidbits of info that I wasn’t previously aware of.  I wouldn’t recommend this to someone who wasn’t already familiar with the historical facts, but for someone with that knowledge who wishes to go deeper, this book will satisfy a lot of curiosity.

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

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

Dead Mountain by Donnie Eichar

dead-mountainIn February 1959, a group of nine experienced hikers in the Russian Ural Mountains died mysteriously on an elevation known as Dead Mountain. Eerie aspects of the incident—unexplained violent injuries, signs that they cut open and fled the tent without proper clothing or shoes, a strange final photograph taken by one of the hikers, and elevated levels of radiation found on some of their clothes—have led to decades of speculation over what really happened. This gripping work of literary nonfiction delves into the mystery through unprecedented access to the hikers’ own journals and photographs, rarely seen government records, dozens of interviews, and the author’s retracing of the hikers’ fateful journey in the Russian winter. A fascinating portrait of the young hikers in the Soviet era, and a skillful interweaving of the hikers narrative, the investigators’ efforts, and the author’s investigations, here for the first time is the real story of what happened that night on Dead Mountain.

I wouldn’t have found this book if it wasn’t for the fact that it was a daily deal on Amazon around Halloween.  And admittedly, barring a true crime book about a horrible murder, this is a good one to choose for the season of spookiness.  Nine hikers all running half-dressed into sub-zero temperatures?  Mysterious injuries?  Creepy balls of light in the sky?  Possibly government cover-up?  This story certainly has all the elements of a horror tale (especially if you do any hiking beyond a paved state park trail), with the added bonus that it actually happened and has gone unexplained for over a half a century.

Author Donnie Eichar went on a personal quest to find answers, burning through his own savings and leaving his girlfriend and child behind on two different occasions to go to Russia and hunt for the truth.  Does he find it?  Well… not really.  There are tons of theories about what happened, and by the end of this book, Eichar’s theory actually comes across as the most likely, even if it does sound like something out of science fiction.  Obviously, we can never know what really happened that night in 1959, but with recent advances in scientific inquiry, I think that Eichar comes as close to the real story as we’ll ever get.

And the author does a good job of investigative journalism, considering how very cold the case is (in more ways than one).  He intertwines three narratives–that of the hikers, that of the rescue teams, and his own trek into Russia–to paint as complete a picture as possible of the circumstances surrounding the event and its aftermath.  The sections following the rescuers are especially gripping, because they intersect with the secretive Communist regime and raise questions that would be ludicrous in any other setting but are understandable here.  For example, why was the lead investigator so certain that the mysterious balls of light spotted around the time of the deaths key in understanding what happened?  And why, after a hush-hush trip out of town, did that same investigator forbid any further delving into, or even talk of, those lights?  It’s like a spy novel come to life… and again, this all actually happened, so it’s even more thrilling.

In the end, you won’t get anything truly definitive from this book as far as an answer to what happened to the Dyatlov group, but you will get a compelling picture of living in Communist Russia, hiking in an era with less high-tech gear than we now have, and of the efforts that it takes to solve a decades-old mystery.  I think this book is a worthy addition to the shelves of those who enjoyed Into Thin Air and other book in this genre.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

Grunt by Mary Roach

gruntGrunt tackles the science behind some of a soldier’s most challenging adversaries—panic, exhaustion, heat, noise—and introduces us to the scientists who seek to conquer them. Mary Roach dodges hostile fire with the U.S. Marine Corps Paintball Team as part of a study on hearing loss and survivability in combat. She visits the fashion design studio of U.S. Army Natick Labs and learns why a zipper is a problem for a sniper. She visits a repurposed movie studio where amputee actors help prepare Marine Corps medics for the shock and gore of combat wounds. At Camp Lemmonier, Djibouti, in east Africa, we learn how diarrhea can be a threat to national security. Roach samples caffeinated meat, sniffs an archival sample of a World War II stink bomb, and stays up all night with the crew tending the missiles on the nuclear submarine USS Tennessee. She answers questions not found in any other book on the military: Why is DARPA interested in ducks? How is a wedding gown like a bomb suit? Why are shrimp more dangerous to sailors than sharks? Take a tour of duty with Roach, and you’ll never see our nation’s defenders in the same way again.”

I absolutely love Mary Roach’s books and look forward to each new one with eager anticipation.  When I was given the chance to read Grunt early, I nearly singed the keyboard clicking on the “Request” button.  Even so, I was a little hesitant–I didn’t much like her previous book, Gulp, feeling that it was too narrow in its focus–but I am happy to report that my fears were quickly done away with.

Much like Bill Bryson at his geeky best, Roach has the ability to take a subject, find all kinds of disparate facts relating to it, and pull them together into a coherent narrative that draws you in completely.  I think the choice of military science was a great one, because it allowed for both a broad overview (a look at military science in general) as well as specific topics (sleep deprivation as it relates to submarine personnel).  This lets readers keep an eye on the overarching subject while also allowing them to deep dive into specific aspects of that topic.

If you’re the kind of person who enjoys random factoids, this is the book for you.  You’ll learn little tidbits of information that you never would have guessed at–for example, do you know how to do reconstructive surgery on a man’s genitals so that he can still have sex?  You will after you read this book.  But something else becomes clear as you go through the chapters: people in charge of research have to consider every aspect of their chosen field, and often they have to solve problems that most of us wouldn’t even recognize as problems to begin with.  Zippers on uniforms for snipers?… they’ll catch and unzip as a sniper crawls into position.  That’s just one of the surprising considerations you’ll find here.

With every book that Roach writes, I gain a new appreciation for science, and also for the scientists who have to think so far outside of the box that they might as well be on another planet.  Grunt is an excellent book to get to know Roach and her writing style, and I recommend it highly.

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

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

Sex in the Museum by Susan Forbes

sex-in-the-museum“Sarah Forbes was in graduate school when she stumbled upon a museum dedicated to . . . sex. The anthropology student hesitated when her boyfriend suggested she apply for a job, but apply she did, and it wasn’t long before a part-time position at New York’s MUSEUM OF SEX lead to a gig as the museum’s curator. That was over twelve years ago. Now Sarah—a married mother of two—proudly sports her title as Curator of Sex.

In SEX IN THE MUSEUM, Sarah invites readers to travel from suburban garages where men and women build sex machines, to factories that make sex toys, to labyrinthine archives of erotica collectors. Escorting us in to the hidden world of sex, illuminating the never-talked-about communities and eccentricities of our sexual subcultures, and telling her own personal story of a decade at The Museum of Sex, Sarah asks readers to grapple with the same questions she did: when it comes to sex, what is good, bad, deviant, normal? Do such terms even apply? If everyone has sexual secrets, is it possible to really know another person and be known by them? And importantly, in our hyper-sexualized world, is it still possible to fall in love?”

This book popped onto my radar due to a review in Publishers Weekly magazine.  Prior to that, I had no idea that there was a museum dedicated to sex (although having visited museums dedicated to things like hand fans, you’d think that I’d expect the unexpected).  Giving in to curiosity, and glad that I was reading this as an e-book so that no one could see the cover, I purchased it.

As memoirs go, this one is quite good.  This isn’t just a dry recitation of what exhibits the museum  has hosted, nor is it merely Forbes’s life story with a few titillating details from her job.  The author weaves her professional and personal stories together with great skill while also emphasizing how much she worked to keep those two different sides of herself from colliding.  Since she got her degree in gender studies, the joined “plotlines” paint a fascinating portrait of how men and women are perceived in today’s society and over the course of time.

Don’t get me wrong, though… there are plenty of eyebrow-raising facts and stories peppered throughout the book.  Readers meet porn collectors, burlesque performers, and people who make dresses out of expired condoms.  Kinks are talked about, fetishes are examined, and odd chastity devices are featured.  My favorite bit was a word that I’d never heard before: teledildonics, “loosely defined as the integration of computer-controlled technology with the goal of helping achieve sexual stimulation and orgasm”.  I was not aware that this word (or this concept) existed, and I’m not sure what to do with this knowledge, but I’m glad to know it.

I do have two minor complaints about this book.  First, I would have loved a recommended reading list at the end.  The author mentions several books that sounded kind of interesting, and it would have been nice to have a list compiled instead of having to hunt through the text for them.  Second, I feel like the last part of the book was a little rushed.  Forbes does a lot to parallel her dating life to her life at her job, but after she gets married and starts a family, there is little to see comparing her pregnancies to her work.  Given how well she integrated her life with the museum in earlier chapters, I think it was a missed opportunity not to explore what, essentially, happens after sex.  Maybe the museum has never done an exhibition on fertility and sex?

Otherwise, I found this book to be immensely enjoyable.  Other than the bit of rushed pacing at the end, the narrative flowed well and balanced the “OMG SEX” factor with real information on how a museum works and the behind-the-scenes looks at the people who make it happen.  Don’t let the subject matter put you off, because this is a great memoir!

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

Girl in the Woods by Aspen Matis

girl-in-the-woodsGirl in the Woods is Aspen Matis’s exhilarating true-life adventure of hiking from Mexico to Canada—a coming of age story, a survival story, and a triumphant story of overcoming emotional devastation. On her second night of college, Aspen was raped by a fellow student. Overprotected by her parents who discouraged her from telling of the attack, Aspen was confused and ashamed. Dealing with a problem that has sadly become all too common on college campuses around the country, she stumbled through her first semester—a challenging time made even harder by the coldness of her college’s ‘conflict mediation’ process. Her desperation growing, she made a bold decision: She would seek healing in the freedom of the wild, on the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail leading from Mexico to Canada.

In this inspiring memoir, Aspen chronicles her journey, a five-month trek that was ambitious, dangerous, and transformative. A nineteen-year-old girl alone and lost, she conquered desolate mountain passes and met rattlesnakes, bears, and fellow desert pilgrims. Exhausted after each thirty-mile day, at times on the verge of starvation, Aspen was forced to confront her numbness, coming to terms with the sexual assault and her parents’ disappointing reaction. On the trail and on her own, she found that survival is predicated on persistent self-reliance. She found her strength. After a thousand miles of solitude, she found a man who helped her learn to love and trust again—and heal.”

Being an amateur hiker, it’s not that big of a stretch for me to enjoy reading hiking memoirs.  My introduction to the genre was Bill Bryson’s excellent A Walk in the Woods, which set the bar pretty high in my mind.  In the following years, I found other great memoirs like Suzanne Roberts’s Almost Somewhere and Barbara Egbert’s Zero Days.  Most people, when you ask them to name a hiking memoir, will mention Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which was a decent book, if a bit overly heavy on the internal drama for my taste.  Of course, every memoir has its own focus, but I’ve found that the ones that work the best, in my opinion, have a good mix of the details of the hike itself, as well as the hiker’s inner experience.

I might have been more forgiving of this book had it come out before Wild, but since it didn’t, there’s no way to avoid comparisons with Strayed’s book.  And for me, this book suffers in the comparison to both Wild and just about every other hiking memoir I’ve read.  This book is heavy on the drama, heavy on the internal maundering indulged in by Matis, heavy on the seemingly stubborn refusal to learn anything from the constant inner turmoil.

I find it hard to criticize the author’s writing in this manner.  She was a rape victim, and everybody heals from such an experience at their own pace and in their own way.  I simply want to note that while I admire Matis’s openness about her thoughts and experiences, she doesn’t write herself in such a way as to get readers to empathize with her.  Perhaps a different approach, or a different form of editing, would have brought these elements across to the reader more skilfully.

I also felt that, with regards to many things in this book (but not the rape), the author’s credibility is in question.  Here’s what I mean: throughout this book, Matis talks about the mistakes she makes on the trail and the times that she nearly got into serious trouble due to lack of water, lack of food, or lack of navigation skills; however, she also claims to have walked the John Muir Trail on her own a year or two before this hike.  The JMT is one of the most remote trail sections in the High Sierras, and the author apparently walked it without incident.  She would also have us believe that she had previously walked 1000 miles on the PCT, also without incident.  Yet, at the time of this memoir, she had no more skills than an absolute beginner, and no ability to judge how much food and water she would need for the High Sierras.  I find it hard to believe that someone who had supposedly never dressed themselves before could successfully hike a thousand miles of wilderness.

On a technical level, this book again needed a stronger editor.  I’m sure it was a stylistic choice, but the constant use of strings of clauses joined by commas got on my nerves.  Because they were so clunky, they would often pull me out of the narrative because I’d be trying to parse out exactly what the author was saying.

As far as I’m concerned, this is neither a good hiking memoir, nor is it a good example to give to young women considering going into the wilderness.  Stick with Suzanne Roberts–she’s a much better role model.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson

the-road-to-little-dribbling“In 1995 Bill Bryson got into his car and took a weeks-long farewell motoring trip about England before moving his family back to the United States. The book about that trip, Notes from a Small Island, is uproarious and endlessly endearing, one of the most acute and affectionate portrayals of England in all its glorious eccentricity ever written. Two decades later, he set out again to rediscover that country, and the result is The Road to Little Dribbling. Nothing is funnier than Bill Bryson on the road—prepare for the total joy and multiple episodes of unseemly laughter.”

I make no apologies about my love for Bill Bryson’s writing.  His blend of dry British humor, love of odd facts, and storyteller’s sense of timing combine to make, for me, something pretty close to perfection.  And his newest book is more of the same, showcasing his observations of a Britain very different from the one he first encountered in Notes from a Small Island.

One of the things that first drew me to Bryson’s writing was his humor.  I think some of it comes from the tendency of Brits to employ that wacky, off-the-wall sense of what would be funny.  Think Monty Python and the things they pulled on their TV show and in their movies.  But some of it seems to be specific to certain British print humor–I’m thinking of Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams–wherein the author channels that wackiness into turns of phrase that sound absurd and yet are instantly recognizable as true or accurate.  It makes for some marvelous imagery, and rarely a chapter goes by in which I don’t dissolve into a giggle fit over something.

I also love Bryson’s sense of place.  What I mean by that is, he has this magical way of ferreting out the oddest bits of history concerning locations or time periods or the people in them, and then weaving it into his narrative.  You’d think that it would become boring or rambling, but it doesn’t.  Instead, you get this sense that absolutely everyplace has a forgotten history just waiting to be unearthed, and if you just look hard enough, you might find it.  Whether it’s the twisting streets and side-alleys of London or the broad sweep of the coast near Brighton, you can’t help but want to go there and see these wonderful places for yourself.

Bryon is a little bit more curmudgeonly in this book than in previous ones.  He’s never held back on acerbic observations, but in this book it’s a bit more on display.  Some of this is the nature of the book itself: the author is revisiting places that have gone through tremendous amounts of change and economic upheaval, and it’s natural to think “Yeah, but back in MY day…”  Mostly it’s tempered with his humor, but there’s a note of wistfulness here, a note of disappointment, that so much has changed.  At one point, he sums up the situation succinctly by saying that the things that make England so charming (old churches, hedgerows, etc.) add nothing to the economy and are therefore in danger of being swept aside.

And yet, the love of his adopted country is still evident.  He may at times think that it’s silly, or misguided, or plain weird, but he still loves it.  And that’s what I like to see most–I want to see that love in his stories so that I can get a bit of that vicarious pleasure.  With luck, I’ll visit England one day myself, but until then, I’ve got no better tour guide than Bryson and his stock of tales.

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

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)

Elena Vanishing by Elena and Clare B. Dunkle

elena-vanishing“Seventeen-year-old Elena is vanishing. Every day means renewed determination, so every day means fewer calories. This is the story of a girl whose armor against anxiety becomes artillery against herself as she battles on both sides of a lose-lose war in a struggle with anorexia. Told entirely from Elena’s perspective over a five-year period and cowritten with her mother, award-winning author Clare B. Dunkle, Elena’s memoir is a fascinating and intimate look at a deadly disease, and a must read for anyone who knows someone suffering from an eating disorder.”

I appreciate the opportunity to read books like this, because I always want to understand things that are unfamiliar to me.  In this case, it’s the mindset of someone suffering from anorexia.  When I was growing up, someone that I knew had problems with eating, and while I don’t think it was anorexia, it certainly took its toll.  For me personally, as someone who deals with an anxiety disorder, I have times when my anxiety is so high that it makes it hard to eat, but again, it’s not anorexia.  What drives someone to believe that starving themselves is a viable course of action?

Elena is completely forthcoming in this memoir about her struggles, not sugarcoating anything and definitely not hiding anything.  In the afterward, she states that the memoirs that she read about anorexia usually tried to show the brightest side of it or to highlight the hope of recovery.  Because of this, Elena decided to enlist the help of her mother, an established author and her staunch supporter through her sickness, to write this book.

I found this book to be incredibly hard to read.  Elena’s viciously critical inner voice is as much a character as Elena herself, and the reader isn’t spared the cruel way every little action is judged in the harshest possible light.  In some respects, it reminds me of the voice of my own anxiety telling me that everything will turn out bad, but in other ways, Elena’s thoughts are far beyond anything that I have gone through.  For me, the worst of those parts of the tale were kind of triggering, but they also forced me to examine how well I deal with my own inner critic.

It was also hard to read because there are times that you just want to take Elena by the shoulders and shake her.  How can someone do this to themselves and their family?  I’m willing to bet, though, that this is exactly what Elena wanted to convey–not only her own frustration, but that of those close to her.  Be prepared going into reading this, because it’s not easy.

And that’s why I think it’s an important book to get into the hands of teens.  For one thing, it will show them that they’re not alone in what they’re feeling and thinking.  For another thing, it will make them aware of the horrible consequences of not seeking help if they themselves are going through it.  Elena’s language is evocative and hard-hitting, and it spares you nothing.  Kudos to Clare Dunkle for taking Elena’s story and helping her to transform it into a memoir of such power and pain.

While I won’t say that I enjoyed this book, I did deeply appreciate reading it.  Elena Vanishing is a book that all teens should have access to.

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

(Description nicked from B&N.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.)

Complications by Atul Gawande

complications“In gripping accounts of true cases, surgeon Atul Gawande explores the power and the limits of medicine, offering an unflinching view from the scalpel’s edge. Complications lays bare a science not in its idealized form but as it actually is–uncertain, perplexing, and profoundly human.”

I work at a college bookstore, and every quarter I see this book on our shelves, being used by several writing courses and several different professors.  Having an interest in science myself, I finally decided to pick it up and see what a bunch of writing teachers found so fascinating about it.  The answer is: a lot.  This book is less of a memoir and more of an exploration of a puzzling dichotomy.

On the one hand, Gawande explores the mindset of the surgeon as someone who must have confidence in their decisions and in their diagnoses.  He details some of the training he received as a resident, learning procedures that he had previously only read about in textbooks. and carrying them out with at least the appearance of knowing what he was doing, even as he fumbled through the first few times.  Every doctor starts somewhere, and something as simple as putting in an IV must be learned at a teaching hospital under supervision.  Readers get a feel for how these young people develop the know-how and trust in their own abilities to go forward on their own.

On the other other hand, the author is up front about the fact that medicine is an inexact science and mistakes are made.  He discusses his own mistakes without sparing himself, but also without emotional self-flogging.  He admits that sometimes diagnosing an illness or injury is dependent on factors beyond anyone’s control, and that this can lead to tragedy.  He doesn’t seem to be doing so with the intent to scare; rather, he comes across as giving readers an honest assessment of the all-too-human people who take our lives in their hands.

Gawande manages to take these two very different views of doctors and marry them into a thoughtful and insightful look at the reality of surgery and critical care.  He goes into cases that stumped everybody who came across them, injuries that baffled surgeons with their suddenness and severity, and the occasional triumph when a hunch proved life-saving.  Gawande proves that he not only has the writing chops to tackle this subject, but he has the self-awareness to delve deep and explore the subject in a way that is both honest and respectful.

Now I understand why so many of our professors assign this book.  There’s a huge amount of skill on display in the writing, both in the technical aspects and in the storytelling.  If you have any interest in science, or in the realities of medicine beyond what you see on TV shows like ER, pick up this book.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Amazon.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.)

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