Book Review: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt (1994)

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Review 2.12

 

Shots rang out in Savannah’s grandest mansion in the misty, early morning hours of May 2, 1981. Was it murder or self-defense? For nearly a decade, the shooting and its aftermath reverberated throughout this hauntingly beautiful city of moss-hung oaks and shaded squares. John Berendt’s sharply observed, suspenseful, and witty narrative reads like a thoroughly engrossing novel, and yet it is a work of nonfiction. Berendt skillfully interweaves a hugely entertaining first-person account of life in this isolated remnant of the Old South with the unpredictable twists and turns of a landmark murder case. [Source]

The murder-mystery at the center of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil doesn’t occur until almost halfway through the book. First, Berendt takes his readers on a tour of Savannah, Georgia in the early 1990’s. He introduces us to a cast of characters so bizarre they can only be real. Among the colorful denizens of Savannah are Joe Odom, the charismatic thief who swindles his closest friends one evening and then attends their parties the next. There’s the Lady Chablis, the outspoken transvestite drag queen who nominates Berendt as her personal chauffeur. The pampered former beauty who is a near recluse. The eccentric who claims he has a bottle of poison powerful enough to kill the entire population of Savannah. I could go on and on. These voices serve as quirky and often hilarious backdrop to the trial of James Williams for murder.

Of course the star of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is the city of Savannah herself, and Berendt describes the small coastal city with language usually reserved for beautiful women. Savannah is sultry and mysterious, seductive and veiled with secrets. She’s wary of outsiders, but still honors the Southern tradition of hospitality. People go to church on Sunday and then hire the local voodoo woman to work charms in the graveyard the next night. I dare anyone to make it through this book without stopping at some point to look up flights to Savannah. I think I got to page fifty.

The central plot deals with the murder of a male escort by a prominent member of Savannah society, and the nearly ten-year series of trials that followed. How Berendt became privy to so many intricate details of the case is never made entirely clear, but I wonder if Williams didn’t keep Berendt well-informed as a way of ensuring that his version of events was the one people would remember. Either way, Berendt’s fly-on-the-wall perspective gives a unique insight into a case that got little national publicity, but which rocked the insular community of Savannah to it’s core.

Overall, I can see why Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil has received so much praise from high circles. After this book was published in 1994, the city of Savannah saw a boom of tourism that continues to this day. For me, Savannah has now joined cities like Boston and New Orleans on my list of must-see places in the United States.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel (2017)

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Review 2.9

Many people dream of escaping modern life, but most will never act on it. This is the remarkable true story of a man who lived alone in the woods of Maine for 27 years, making this dream a reality–not out of anger at the world, but simply because he preferred to live on his own. [Source]

Right from the title, something rings false about The Stranger in the Woods. Finkel (or his publisher) draws us in with the promise of the last “true hermit”, and then spends a large amount of the book’s length debating whether or not Christopher Knight was even technically a hermit at all.

This book was odd. I don’t quite know how else to describe it. Author Michael Finkel doesn’t seem to know exactly what point he is trying to make. The sections describing his interviews with Knight are juxtaposed with chapters detailing the history of hermits and the psychological need for human interaction. However, Knight’s particular case is so unusual that he shares almost nothing in common with what we often think of as a hermit. Knight did not enter the forest seeking wisdom. He wasn’t running from something or trying to hide from the government. He did not embark on a spiritual journey. There are really only two pieces of information that I took away from this book.

1. Knight was just a guy who wanted to be left alone.

2. He committed hundreds of burglaries in order to achieve that goal.

Those are essentially the only ideas that Finkel was able to convey in The Stranger in the Woods. Knight was not some noble hero; he stole every single thing that kept him alive during his decades in the forest. He made people feel insecure and ill-at-ease in their own homes. He said in court that he was deeply ashamed of his actions, but was he truly sorry for stealing or only sorry that he was finally caught? Finkel doesn’t explore any of those questions, and instead adopts an almost fanboy-esque attitude towards Knight.

One of my goals this year was to read more nonfiction, but it wasn’t until The Stranger in the Woods that I fully understood how important a role the author plays in this kind of narrative. As readers, we need to be able to trust Finkel and his motivations in order to accept his version of events as the truth. Finkel, who was fired from the New York Times in 2002 for false reporting, does not inspire that kind of trust. But even before I knew about the NYT incident, something felt off about Finkel and his attitude towards Christopher Knight.

Finkel becomes increasingly stalkerish as The Stranger in the Woods progresses. He shows up announced and uninvited to visit Knight in jail. He shows up unannounced and uninvited at Knight’s family home. He refuses to listen to Knight’s frequent pleas to “stay away” and “leave me alone”. During the course of his time spent with Knight, Finkel traveled through the dense Maine woods no fewer than eight times in order to visit Knight’s “camp”, spending the night on several occasions in a kind of pilgrimage. He asks psychiatrists who have never met or heard of Christopher Knight to talk about whether or not Knight might be autistic. It all adds up to a narrator who is unreliable, unprofessional, and potentially unethical. I felt a cringy, awkward sort of empathy for Knight as Finkel refused to leave him alone. After all, that’s all Knight ever wanted in the first place.

My rating: 2/5

You can find The Stranger in the Woods here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. The Audible version is narrated by Mark Bramhall and can be found here.

Happy reading everyone!

Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way by Jon Krakauer (2011)

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Review 2.7

Greg Mortenson has built a global reputation as a selfless humanitarian and children’s crusader, and he’s been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He is also not what he appears to be. As acclaimed author Jon Krakauer discovered, Mortenson has not only fabricated substantial parts of his bestselling books Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, but has also misused millions of dollars donated by unsuspecting admirers like Krakauer himself. [Source]

Here’s the twist. I’ve never read Three Cups of Tea, the 2007 mega-bestseller coauthored by David Relin Oliver and Greg Mortenson. I saw it for years in various airport bookstores; I even picked it up once or twice and glanced at the book jacket. I never felt the urge to read the book despite the glowing praise it had received, because something about the whole premise rang false. I’ve never trusted people who feel the need to strike million dollar book deals before imparting the “wisdom” they’ve supposedly learned while traveling. Similar to the odious Eat Pray Love, I assumed Three Cups would be full of self-aggrandizing humble-bragging, complete with pithy statements about how “the children of Afghanistan taught me more than I ever taught them”.

I tend to be a bit cynical.

So when I stumbled across short e-book entitled Three Cups of Deceit, I was immediately intrigued. Written by Jon Krakauer, an author who is quickly becoming of my favorite nonfiction writers. And when the subtitle read How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way, I felt the sweet, sweet confirmation bias wash over me.

Three Cups of Deceit is a seventy-page arrow aimed directly at the heart of Greg Mortenson, coauthor of Three Cups of Tea and founder of the Central Asia Institute, a charity that ostensibly exists to build schools in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. By educating the children of these war-stricken regions, Mortenson claims, they are less likely to become radicalized by Islamic extremist groups.

Unfortunately, Krakauer claims, Mortenson has fabricated nearly every aspect of the narrative that surrounds his personality and his supposed charitable works. The “origin” story in Three Cups of Tea, in which Mortenson stumbles upon a remote village in the mountains of Pakistan never happened, or at least not in the village Mortenson claims. Mortenson’s eight-day kidnapping and abduction by terrorist groups was a complete lie. Many of the schools built by CAI have been abandoned due to lack of materials, funds, and teachers. Many more of the schools were simply never built at all. All the time, Mortenson was using donations from the non-profit to fund a never-ending book tour, complete with five star hotels and private planes.

Three Cups of Deceit is my third book by Krakauer, and I have never been given a reason to doubt his journalistic integrity. I was surprised then, to see how closely he toes the line here. Krakauer is clearly angry, his words nearly simmer off the page with his fury at having been duped by Mortenson (Krakauer was a financial supporter of CAI). While his anger is certainly understandable, it is obvious that he was too close to this issue to maintain a professional demeanor. This is as much personal take-down as it is journalistic expose.

You can find Three Cups of Deceit here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. The Audible version is excellently narrated by Mark Bramhall and is available here.

My rating: 3.5/5

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: American Prison by Shane Bauer (2018)

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Review 2.6

In 2014, Shane Bauer was hired for $9 an hour to work as an entry-level prison guard at a private prison in Winnfield, Louisiana. An award-winning investigative journalist, he used his real name; there was no meaningful background check. Four months later, his employment came to an abrupt end. But he had seen enough, and in short order he wrote an exposé about his experiences that won a National Magazine Award and became the most-read feature in the history of the magazine Mother Jones. 

Still, there was much more that he needed to say. In American Prison, Bauer weaves a much deeper reckoning with his experiences together with a thoroughly researched history of for-profit prisons in America from their origins in the decades before the Civil War. For, as he soon realized, we can’t understand the cruelty of our current system and place in the larger story of mass incarceration without understanding where it came from. Private prisons became entrenched in the South as part of a systemic effort to keep the African-American labor force in place in the aftermath of slavery, and the echoes of these shameful origins are with us still.  [Source]

This is my first time reviewing a book that I’ve listened to on Audible instead of actively reading in print. I wondered how it would affect my enjoyment and also if it would impact my ability to remember and retain information. I wanted my first book to be nonfiction and I chose Shane Bauer’s follow-up novel to his acclaimed 2016 Mother Jones exposé My Four Months as a Prison Guard. In American Prison, Bauer goes into greater depth and detail regarding his time at Winnfield Prison. He also takes a look at how we got to this sad state of affairs.

Roughly half of American Prison is taken from Bauer’s personal accounts and observations during his time as a prison guard in Louisiana. He details his application process, which was less in-depth than an interview for KFC. Mainly, his potential employers just wanted to make sure Bauer was okay with low wages and mandatory overtime. No psychological review was necessary for the job, which becomes readily apparent once Bauer meets his fellow coworkers. He chronicles his interactions with the inmates as well, and establishes a connection with some of them. I was particularly fascinated by an inmate named Derek, who seems close to actually being friends with Bauer. They discuss the hardships faced by both inmate and guard and the shortcomings of the prison to deal with the needs of both. Derek seems like an intelligent, thoughtful young man. Bauer later informs us he is in prison for multiple counts of rape. Bauer’s keeps a personal account of the ways his personality changed during his time as a corrections officer. His stress level rose, his empathy plummeted, and he suffered from high blood pressure and insomnia. All for nine dollars an hour.

The other half of the book is a supervillain origin story of sorts. Bauer looks at the history of the American private prison system in the hopes of determining at what point it became acceptable to treat humans as business commodities. Sadly the answer is a bit like the hypothetical chicken and egg. Private prisons saw increase an in popularity during the latter half of the 19th century, and Bauer argues that this was connected to the ending of slavery after the Civil War. State-run plantations which previously relied on slaves for free labor now had to look elsewhere, and a few enterprising eyes fell upon the convict population. By using convict labor, the plantations could continue operating at minimum cost and everyone from the wardens to the politicians could continue lining their pockets. Bauer follows the history of various state-run prison systems in the southern American states as they went from being for-profit farms to being for-profit holdings pens for millions of incarcerated individuals.

American Prison offers a bleak but realistic depiction of the current state of affairs in America’s private prison. The epilogue, in which Bauer recounts the fallout from his Mother Jones expose, was particularly bittersweet. Apparently, his story caught the attention of the Obama administration, and a law was passed abolishing private contracts for federal penitentiaries. Two years later, the Trump administration revoked the law, and now more inmates than ever are behind the bars of private prisons. On a more positive note, the shareholders are doing swell.

My rating: 4/5

You can find American Prison here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. The Audible edition of this book is narrated by James Fouhey, and can be found here.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

 

Book Review: Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (1996)

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Review 2.4

In April 1992 a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. He had given $25,000 in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself. Four months later, a party of moose hunters found his decomposed body. How McCandless came to die is the unforgettable story of Into the Wild. [Source]

 “I now walk into the wild.” – Christopher McCandless

The story of Christopher McCandless has become something of an urban legend crossed with a cautionary tale. I’m sure parents have warned their children that if they aren’t careful they’ll end up “dying in a bus somewhere in Alaska”. When I mentioned to my husband that I was reading this book, he scoffed and muttered something about idiot kids and white privilege. For some, McCandless is a cultural admonition about the foolishness of youth. For others, he is a symbol of wanderlust, that powerful urge to explore the wild places of the world and reconnect with nature that exists somewhere within all men.

It’s easy to write McCandless off as just a spoiled boy from an affluent background who got what he deserved when he walked into the Alaskan wilderness with no supplies. It’s easy to say that he was mentally ill, or suicidal, or just plain crazy. What Krakauer has done with Into the Wild is to tell the harder story, one of a charismatic and talented young man whose obsessive desire to connect with nature ended up costing his life.

“At long last he was unencumbered, emancipated from the stifling world of his parents and peers, a world of abstraction and security and material excess, a world in which he felt grievously cut off from the raw throb of existence.”

Last year I read Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, which chronicles the violent history of the Mormon faith and how it led to the death of an innocent woman and child. Krakauer has the remarkable ability to write nonfiction as if it were fiction. He weaves his plot and characters together with meticulous attention to detail and exhaustive research. Reading Into the Wild, it is obvious that Krakauer was profoundly moved by the death of McCandless. The book represents an homage of sorts, a chance to tell Christopher’s story in a way that makes him look brave but naive instead of just incredibly stupid. Krakauer brings a sense of tragic nobility to Christopher’s life and death while trying to explain what drove him to venture alone into the wilderness. He looks at journals, interviews friends and family members, and ultimately journeys to the hollowed out bus where McCandless’ body was found.

I am writing this review more than five days after finishing it, and I can’t get Christopher McCandless out of my head. At random times of the day, when I’m washing dishes or marking homework, the image of a lonely boy dying in a lonely bus in a cold, lonely forest comes into my mind. I had before heard the story of the idiot kid who died in the wilds of Alaska. Now I feel like I actually know the story of McCandless’ life. This book was amazing.

My rating: 5/5

You can find Into the Wild here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. In 2007 it was adapted into a film starring Emile Hirsch and directed by Sean Penn.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2004)

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Review #77

This graphic novel tells the story of Marjane Satrapi’s life growing up in Iran during the tumultuous years that include the fall of the Shah and the beginnings of the Islamic Republic. Marjane, raised by well-educated intellectuals and the great-granddaughter of one of Iran’s last emperors, finds herself struggling to understand the difference between the freedom of her home life and the sudden restrictions of public life.

Surprise graphic novels are the best kind of graphic novels! I was unaware when I requested this book from my local library that the story was going to be told using simple yet powerful black-and-white illustrations. I was expecting a painful story of a girl whose freedom was stripped away by a regime change. Instead, Persepolis is something far more unique. It is equally parts funny, heartbreaking, and triumphant.

The best part of Persepolis is its heroine. Marjane (Marji) is outspoken, honest, and at times contradictory. Spanning her life between ages ten and fourteen, Persepolis focuses on her changing attitudes towards religion, family, politics, and Iran itself. She begins the novel with a strong belief in God, and tells her parents that when she grows up she wants to be a prophet. Marji’s faith is shaken as the people she loves are exposed to persecution and violence. For a twelve year old girl to turn her back on religion is a devastating life choice, and we share Marji’s sadness and anger as she realizes that faith can be used as a tool for suppression.

This is a smaller, more personal viewpoint of a historically volatile time period. Marji has very little knowledge of exactly why these things are happening, and couldn’t get less about the larger international implications. Instead she just knows that one day she has to wear a veil to school when last year she didn’t, and she finds it uncomfortable and restrictive. She leaves her house one day in “modern” clothes and is accosted by a woman who shouts that she is a whore. Things go from bad to worse when her family experiences the loss of a beloved family member.

I loved this novel because even though the graphic panels are in a stark black and white, the plot itself exists in shades of gray. Marjane Shatrapi illustrates the horrors that were perpetuated during the Islamic Revolution, but also makes room for lightness and laughter. She presents the Iranian people as having a “philosophy of resignation”. When the Ayatollah rose to power, the vast majority of people went about their lives and loved their families and found small victories in listening to modern music and drinking contraband alcohol. The love between Marji and her family shines through every page of Persepolis. I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on the sequel.

Going in, I realized that I did not have enough information about Iran during the fall of the Shah and the rise of the Ayatollah. I did a little bit of research so that I could truly understand what was happening in this novel. I found this video to be particularly helpful if you are also interested in learning a little bit more about this time in history.

My rating: 5/5

You can find Persepolis here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Bonobo and the Atheist by Frans de Waal (2013)

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Review #60

Acclaimed primatologist Frans de Waal presents the argument that human morality predates and exists outside of religion and spirituality. He uses years of research on groups of great apes such as bonobos and chimpanzees as evidence that it is evolution, not religion, that gives humanity their moral center.

I’m having a difficult time trying to define how I feel about this book, partially because I’m not sure how the author felt about writing it. I got the sense that Frans de Waal was trying to capitalize on the increasingly popularity of the anti-religion movement, but didn’t really have anything new to say on the subject.

The basis of de Waal’s book relies on two simple questions. First, are animals capable of demonstrating basic morality and altruism? And does our belief in a deity define humanity’s concept of morality, or are humans capable of acting in a moral fashion without the strictures of organized religion? The problem is that both of these questions is that they can easily be answered with a resounding YES. There are thousands of viral videos on YouTube of animals helping one another with no expectation of personal gain, and “unlikely animal friendships” is one of the most popular channels on Instagram. In terms of morality predating religion, toddlers as young as two are capable of demonstrating altruistic and moral behavior. As it is highly unlikely that they have been indoctrinated into believing in a deity at such a young age, it can be determined that morality is trait shared by all of humanity.

Frans de Waal seems to realize that he doesn’t have a lot to say on this issue, and instead bounces wildly from topic to topic, sharing anecdotes and thoughts without really offering any new evidence to back up his statements. The most interesting chapters of this book are the ones that share various observations and studies on animal behavior. No on can look into the eyes of an ape without seeing a bit of ourselves reflected back. Dozens of anecdotes and studies from scientists around the globe have shown that apes are capable of interpreting fairness, social welfare, and empathy. The title The Bonobo and the Atheist is a bit misleading, since the overwhelming bulk of de Waal’s remarks come from the study of chimpanzees. I can only guess than he chose to put bonobos in the title because they are known as the “hippies” of the ape kingdom. They have a matriarchal society that relies heavily on sex as a peace-keeping and bonding tool. But there were very few instances of de Waal ever working directly with bonobos, so I assume that the title choice just felt sexier somehow.

Another distraction was de Waal’s constant need to play art critic. He draws constant references to Hieronymus Bosch’s 16th century painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. These references are completely out of place in a book about the morality and social bonds of apes and humans. He uses the painting to draw references to the religion portion of his argument, which is most definitely the thinner side. But these observations fall flat, mainly because I don’t care about art theory in a book about morality. I still can’t figure out exactly what the point was of these numerous interjections, except perhaps that de Waal really enjoys the work of Bosch.

If this review seems a bit all over the place, it’s because that was the overall tone of The Bonobo and the Atheist. Frans de Waal may be a renowned primatologist, but this does not give him any weight to make pronouncements on the need and desire for religion among societies. He spends a fair bit of time disparaging atheists for fighting so furiously against something that they view as imaginary. But de Waal shies away from making any grand declarations on the existence of nonexistence of a higher power. He seems to understand that no one can make that statement, and focuses much more of his time and attention making an argument for the existence of morality in mammalian species.

Overall, this book contained a lot of interesting observations on the animal kingdom. I enjoyed learning more about chimpanzee and bonobo society. But at no time did I ever feel that the author had a strong opinion on the argument he was trying to make. Which made this book feel ultimately like a cynical cash grab. Which if you think about it, is not a terribly moral action.

My rating: 2/5

You can find The Bonobo and the Atheist here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

This post is dedicated to Koko the gorilla, who taught us so much about the existence of souls in animals.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Ten Amazing Books to Take on a Camping Trip

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I absolutely love camping. Every year I await the chance to get away from all the noise and crowds of the city and just drive into the middle of nowhere for a week. My husband and I are avid campers who are both from “indoor” families. Growing up, my mother’s idea of camping would have been a night at the Motel 8. I think part of that may have been because we already lived in the country, where open space, fresh air, and solitude were readily available. As much as I adore living in the Toronto area, I feel more at home in the country.

My husband and I generally go camping rather early in the season, around the end of June. This means that the temperatures average in the low twenties (70*F). For comparison, today it was 33* (93*F) in my Midwestern hometown.  There are numerous benefits to camping at the start of summer in Canada. First of all, schools are still in session so we don’t have to deal with hoards of families crowding the area. We’re both teachers, so our vacations generally mean trying to avoid small children as much as possible. Also, the insects haven’t had the chance to truly come out in force. And my remarkably Day-Glo pale skin has a better chance of avoiding a blistering sunburn. There are a myriad of benefits to camping in cool weather.

Nevertheless, it does have its drawbacks, mainly in that it isn’t exactly bathing suit season yet. This year we are headed to the Bruce Peninsula, near Lake Huron. If you’ve ever wondered how Jack Dawson felt when he went into the waters with the Titanic, take a quick dip in Lake Huron in June. Due to the cooler temperatures, recreational swimming isn’t really an option. Instead, we spend our time kayaking, naming the squirrels that invade our campsite, drinking beer, and reading.

The reading is what has most likely brought you to this post. As I would hate to become one of those horrid cooking blogs which feel the need to bore you with two thousand words of personal nonsense before giving you what you came for, let’s get to the books!

I’ve put together a list of ten books that would be perfect for reading around a campfire or while relaxing in a tent on a rainy day. The first five are all horror novels, because being scared in the woods is fun for everyone. The next five are more family-friendly, in case you don’t want your children waking up at three in the morning because a stick cracked in the darkness and they’re certain it was a beast from the depths of hell.

1) The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King

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Nine year old Trisha is separated from her family while hiking in the woods of northern New England. Lost for days, dehydrated and scared, Trisha relies on her small radio for solace, tuning into the Boston Red Sox and her hero, pitcher Tom Gordon. But hunger and insects aren’t Trisha’s only problems. Something is stalking the small girl as she wanders through the forest. Something hungry and unnatural.

No list of horror novels is complete without at least one addition from Stephen King . This book is short (for King), atmospheric, and draws on the readers’ fear of the small noises that seem huge when you’re alone in the dark woods.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Keep on the path!

2) The Ritual by Adam Nevill

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A group of four middle-aged men reunite for a hiking trip in the wilds of northern Sweden. When they attempt to take a shortcut through a patch of untouched forest, they find more than they bargained for.

This novel was on my list of favorite books that I read last year. It is a masterpiece of suspense and dread as the four men realize that their formerly fit bodies are beginning to betray them, and they are unable to outrun that which is hunting them.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: If you see a creepy cabin in the middle of the woods, keep walking!

3) The Ruins by Scott Smith

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Hoping to find a lost friend in the jungles of Mexico, four friends stumble upon an ancient ruin and a creeping horror instead. As they become increasingly hungry and panicked, paranoia and hysteria begin to set in.

This novel is also a really great horror film by the same name. It is a creepy combination of psychological and physical horror. What is more dangerous, the jungle or each other?

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Don’t touch unidentified plants! 

4) Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

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Five short stories centered around the woods and the horrors within, combined with truly disturbing illustrations.

I wrote a review for this graphic novel just a few weeks ago, and I still can’t get it out of my head. The haunting prose and unsettling drawings come together to create a really creepy reading experience.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Curiosity killed the camper!

5) Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz

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A collection of short folktakes from around the world. This is still a favorite with older and braver children, and continues to send shivers up the spine of many an adult. Make sure you get an edition with the original artwork by Stephen Gammell, as they are an integral part of this reading experience!

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Close your eyes and hope for the best.

 

6) A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

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The Appalachian Trail stretches from Georgia to Maine, and is a bucket-list item for any avid hiker. Bill Bryson is not an avid hiker, yet he and an equally unfit companion set off to complete the AT in the course of one summer. Bryson details the ecology and history of the area as well as his encounters with the local people and wildlife.

Not so long ago, the Appalachian Trail was a relatively unknown area of the United States, favored only by experienced backpackers and campers. From what I hear, it is now overridden by idiot hipsters who think a hiking GPS makes them an expert. This book is a fun expedition through the woods from someone who knows the does not belong there.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: A sense of humor is essential.

7) Hatchet by Gary Paulson

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This ever-popular children’s novella centers on a boy named Brian who finds himself stranded in the wilderness of Northern Canada after his bush-plane crashes. Armed with only a small hatchet, Brian must find a way to survive until he can be rescued.

Hatchet has been a hit with people of all ages for more than thirty years because we as readers identify so strongly with Brian. His early cluelessness and mistakes are the results of a boy growing up away from nature, as so many of us do. This would be a fun novel to read with children.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Never give up.

8) The Call of the Wild by Jack London

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Buck the dog is kidnapped from his easygoing life in Santa Clara and forced into work as a sled dog in the unforgiving winter of the Yukon. Faced with constant danger from the climate, the wildlife, and the cruelty of both his fellow dogs and man, Buck must struggle to survive and reclaim his position as master.

Another book that is very popular with young readers, The Call of the Wild is an enduring story of survival and spirit. Because the main character is a dog, he is easy to root for and we celebrate Buck’s victories as much as we weep for his setbacks.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Be kind to animals.

9) Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

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Laura Ingalls and her family live in a small wood cabin in the forests of Wisconsin in the mid 18th century. This book describes the struggle and successes of the Ingalls family as they work hard to make a life for themselves in a harsh and unforgiving environment.

Eternally beloved author Laura Ingalls Wilder as captured the imaginations of generations of children with her Little House books. They are a good reminder of how much the world has changed, and yet how many things remain the same.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Your family is there to love and protect you.

10) The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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In the dense forests of medieval Russia, a small village is buried in snow for eight months out of the year. Vasilisa Petrovna grows up wild in the woods, giving offerings to the various sprites and spirits that inhabit the wilderness. When a Catholic priest begins to interfere with village life, Vasilisa must make a choice that will affect her entire future.

I reviewed this novel earlier in the year and I absolutely adored it. A dark fairy tale with religious undertones, The Bear and the Nightingale features a wonderful protagonist who never behaves quite as expected.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: When in doubt, trust your instincts.

Well there you have it, folks! I hope that you enjoy some of these books on your next venture into the forests. Whether you are looking for a scare or for more tame entertainment, you can’t go wrong with a good book! I’ll be on hiatus next week while I am on a camping trip. I hope to return with more recommendations for our readers who love the woods.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge (2017)

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Review #43

In 2014, journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote a blog post to try and express her frustration with the way race and racism are discussed in Britain. The post, “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race”, triggered an immediate and intense response from both white and black voices. In her first book, Eddo-Lodge expands upon her initial idea with a series of essays exploring topics such as white dominance, race in feminism, and the link between race and class.

In her preface, Eddo-Lodge explains that she finds it difficult to converse with white people about race because they tend to become either disinterested, defensive, or deflective. Because race is a topic that largely does not affect white people, the author feels that they instead try to turn the conversation around to focus on things from their perspective, and by doing so they shut out the minority viewpoint. On one hand, I completely agree. I have attempted to have conversations about race with my family and friends and the results have been uncomfortable at best or aggressive at worst.

On the other hand, it is generally difficult for humans  to imagine a viewpoint outside of their own. Sympathy and empathy are developed by asking ourselves that age old question, “How would I feel if this happened to me?” By asking that question it seems only natural that one would need to use their own life experiences as a lens through which to view the question. In order to open a dialogue about race and racism in the modern world, we first have to view the world through our own lens and come to an understanding before we can attempt to view the world through the lens of another. If Reni Eddo-Lodge wants to have a conversation about race and racism, this would be a good place to start. But, in this reader’s opinion, she doesn’t want to open a dialogue. She wants to lecture.

Right away, I hear voices in my head saying that I missed the entire point of the book and that I can never understand because I am white. However, I am simply referring to the preface. I actually found the majority of the book to be thought-provoking and insightful. My initial interest was sparked when I found out that it was focused primarily on race in Britain. When it comes to racially charged controversy, so much of the attention is focused on the United States that one tends to forget that it is alive and thriving in other areas as well. In her first essay, “Histories”, Eddo-Lodge points out that while Great Britain greatly benefited financially from the slave trade, they never had to witness the horrors of slavery at their doorstep, due to most of their “assets” being shipped to the Caribbean islands. So while America continues to deal with the aftershocks of slavery and segregation, Britain has allowed itself a certain level of moral superiority that it certainly hasn’t earned. Eddo-Lodge goes on to detail the difficult and violent history of racial minorities and immigrants in England, particularly when it comes to police violence and mob mentality.

The other essay that I particularly enjoyed was entitled “The Feminism Question”. Here, Eddo-Lodge and I agree very closely. Her argument is that the feminist movement is largely made up of white, middle-class women who have more liberty to expound their feminist views both in the workplace and in society at large. I was strongly reminded of the Women’s March last year, wherein thousands of women around the world took the day off of work to march through the streets. I recall reading about women walking in to restaurants and other stores and disparaging the women who had not taken the day off. What I feel that feminism often forgets to take into account is that not everyone has the support structure to just take a day off work. If you are a salaried employee whose children are in daycare, it’s easy enough to take a vacation day. However, if you are an hourly paid worker who is struggling to make ends meet at forty hours a week, it simply isn’t feasible. And since a disproportionate number of these service and hourly waged jobs are occupied by minority race, that they are often left out of the feminist discussion simply by not being invited to the conversation.

The one section of the book that I had serious issues with was the one entitled, “What is White Privilege”. Now do not get me wrong, I have absolutely benefited from white privilege. I accept this fact without condition. My problem is when Reni Eddo-Lodge equates white privilege with racism. At one point she says:

“White privilege is the perverse situation of feeling more comfortable with openly racist, far-right extremists, because at least you know where you stand with them; the boundaries are clear.”

Really? Would she really prefer to live in a world of active racists rather than a world of people who are trying (and perhaps failing but trying) to understand an outside perspective? The problem is that in Eddo-Lodge’s worldview, she leaves no room for disagreement. Either I accept everything that Eddo-Lodge states or I am somehow complicit in the racist treatment that she has had to endure in her life. There’s no room for conversation here. All white people have benefited from white privilege, there’s no denying that. But I actively disagree with the premise that this makes all white people inherently racist. Which, according to her, makes me a racist? One cannot prove a negative, so how am I meant to convince anyone that I am not a racist? Is it even possible if they already assume that you are?

If Reni Eddo-Lodge wanted to challenge people’s views on race and racism, she definitely succeeded with me. Consider that most of my reviews on this site average around 400 words, and this one is pushing one thousand. While reading this book I found myself constantly pausing and re-reading, going back over her arguments to think about them and how they pertain to the larger conversation of racism in the world. And while I did not agree with everything, this is definitely a book that will continue to stick in my brain for a long time.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race here on Amazon and here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Republican Like Me by Ken Stern (2017)

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Review #38

In the days leading up to and following Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency, the former CEO of NPR Ken Stern realizes that his social and professional circles are comprised entirely of liberal progressives. He then proceeds to spend a year immersing himself in “Trump’s America”, attending gun shows and NASCAR events, and speaking with the people who feel that the American dream has left them behind. He wonders if the gap between Democrats and Republicans can’t be solved by a little human empathy and understanding.

I need to begin this review on a personal note. I am a liberal progressive from a family with deeply conservative, evangelical roots. To this day I cannot for the life of me figure out how I ended up on the completely other end of the ideological spectrum from the majority of my relatives. Part of me blames Harry Potter. Or the fact that I was one of the first members of my family to attend university (a liberal arts university at that). Whatever the reason, I can state with utter honesty that the 2016 election was a devastating blow towards my relationship with my family. I felt personally betrayed by their decision to vote for Donald Trump. I felt that they had been brainwashed by Fox News and the NRA, and that they had chosen to side with racism, intolerance, and misogyny. Was I being close minded, unfair, and more than a bit immature? Most definitely. But this knee-jerk offense that people tend to take in reaction to those who have different views from them is part of what author Ken Stern seeks to unravel in his book. I went in with very high hopes of a liberal’s fair and reasoned perspective on rural, white America.

It must be immediately addressed that Stern’s book focuses almost completely on white conservative America. At no point does he acknowledge the white, male privilege that allows him to blend in at a gun show, or to interview people in a depressed mining town. The entire book consists almost entirely of one middle-aged white man talking to other middle-aged white men, which gives an extremely limiting perspective. A young black man asking questions of Trump supporters at a NASCAR race would likely have written a very different book. And possibly a more interesting one.

In Republican Like Me, Stern tackles major “hot button issues” such as gun control, evangelism, climate change, and attitudes towards the media. His research is meticulous and well-cited. I enjoyed his use of statistics to blow holes in both conservative and liberal ideologies. For example, during his chapter on gun control he mentions that the majority of firearm deaths in the United States are committed using handguns, not assault rifles. And the vast majority of firearm homicides are either individual murders or suicides. Stern uses this data to draw the conclusion that the Democrats frenzied screaming for a ban on assault weapons will not significantly lower the percentage of gun deaths in the United States.

It might lower the rate at which (white) gunmen walk into public schools and shoot a bunch of children, but Stern doesn’t talk about that.

He does delve heavily into the economic factors which led people to vote for Trump. If a person from a West Virginia mining town sees Hilary Clinton speaking at an exclusive Manhattan banquet about “shutting down the coal industry”, of course they are not going to view her with favor. Stern does not address Clinton in his book, but I wish he had. I had to bite my cheek and grimace as I checked her name on the ballot in 2016. I imagine that a great deal of conservatives had to do the same thing when they voted for Trump. It was this idea more than anything else which caused me to pause and think.

I’ve been a liberal all my life, and I can say without pause that the Democratic party comes off as arrogant, condescending, patronizing, and sanctimonious. They have ceased to be the party of the working people. And while liberals, myself included, pat ourselves on the back and tell ourselves that we will at least be on the “right side” of history, it doesn’t change the fact that 33 governorships, 51 senate seats, and 237 house seats are held by the GOP. If the Democratic party hopes to succeed, they need to remember that not everyone in the country lives in New York or California. But I digress.

I found myself consistently irritated and annoyed by this book. Stern wastes an opportunity to point out the hypocrisy that thrives on both sides of the aisle. He has a wonderful soapbox from which to describe the extreme discrepancy between the majority of reasonable Americans and the frothing lunatics who have been elected to represent them. Instead, he offers pithy platitude on top of condescending comment. “If we just listened to one another…” “If we just took the time to get to know one another…” “Republicans aren’t all that bad…”

On one hand he is absolutely correct. Republicans demonizing liberals and Democrats bashing conservatives doesn’t help anyone except the lobbyists and the corporations they serve. And it is much easier from a psychological standpoint to cater to our own confirmation bias than it is to logically and rationally consider new ideas. It’s easier to point the finger at the “dumb rednecks” who got duped into voting for Trump because they were to stupid to know any better. Most Republican voters are decent, middle-class people who are just trying to support their families and build a better life in a country that they perceive as falling into chaos. This is not new information, and it is not presented here in a new way.

The problem is that it is very difficult to have a logical and rational conversation regarding these ideas. I will absolutely listen to someone from a small, dying Rust Belt town as they lament that all of the factories are closed and the jobs are gone. I can and have discussed fracking versus solar versus coal as a viable form of energy for the future. But I cannot in good conscience listen and nod as someone lays all the blame for their misfortune on “the Muslim African” who got elected illegally by putting mind-control substances in America’s drinking water. I’ve had those exact words said to me by a former coworker. What does Ken Stern think a person should do in that situation? Am I supposed to say, “Ah, yes that’s a very good point and I respect it”? What about the man from my hometown who thinks that all Muslims should be deported whether or not they are legal American citizens? I would wager ninety-to-one odds that he has never met a Muslim in his life. But am I meant to shake this xenophobe’s hand and strive to find common ground?

I realize there are no easy answers, and this is not a conversation that can be solved with one book, or ten, or a thousand. But at the end of the day, Ken Stern pulls too many punches, wastes too many opportunities, and only acknowledges the “white working class” facet of an extremely convoluted issue. For now I will have to accept that we cannot “just all get along”. I guess I’ll just have to continue avoiding political conversations at family gatherings.

My rating: 2/5

You can find Republican Like Me here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!