Book Review: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal (2017)

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

Review 2.17

 

What separates your mind from an animal’s? Maybe you think it’s your ability to design tools, your sense of self, or your grasp of past and future—all traits that have helped us define ourselves as the planet’s preeminent species. But in recent decades, these claims have eroded, or even been disproven outright, by a revolution in the study of animal cognition. Take the way octopuses use coconut shells as tools; elephants that classify humans by age, gender, and language; or Ayumu, the young male chimpanzee at Kyoto University whose flash memory puts that of humans to shame. Based on research involving crows, dolphins, parrots, sheep, wasps, bats, whales, and of course chimpanzees and bonobos, Frans de Waal explores both the scope and the depth of animal intelligence. He offers a firsthand account of how science has stood traditional behaviorism on its head by revealing how smart animals really are, and how we’ve underestimated their abilities for too long. [Source]

Last year I read Frans de Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist, which asked whether or not animals are capable of demonstrating selflessness and empathy towards themselves and towards us. I wasn’t a huge fan of that book, partially because anyone who has spent even a small amount of time observing the animal world will tell you that the answer is a resounding “Duh”.

I was unaware at the time that there is a surprising amount of resistance to the idea of altruism in the animal kingdom. For decades the idea of true animal awareness was laughed out of universities and scientific journals. Man, it seems, needs to maintain a moral superiority over morality itself.

In Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, de Waal begins by lambasting his fellow scientists in a highly informative and highly enjoyable tirade against modern testing methods. He lists study after study designed to test the difference in cognitive abilities between toddlers and apes that failed, not due a fault of intelligence on behalf of the ape, but by unfair testing standards. For example, toddlers were tested while sitting on their mothers lap in a warm and comfortable environment, with scientists there to reassure them. The apes were alone in a steel cage, with no explanation of the test or comfort from the testers. Until recent years it was considered unprofessional even to give personal names to the “test subjects”.

De Waal is a passionate advocate for animal rights. After thoroughly beating his colleagues about the head in the first part of Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, he then begins giving case study after case study of animals that not only rivaled our own intelligence, but often surpassed it.

My favorite thing about this book is that it is not ape-centric. We have long ago learned to recognize a thinking mind behind the eyes of a chimpanzee, an orangutan, or a gorilla. But what about a crow? Any pet owner will gush about how smart their dog is, but is can their intelligence be measured using any kind of objective scale that we understand? Cats, elephants, dolphins, and monkeys all get their place in this book, as well as less “traditionally” intelligent animal such as cuttlefish. I loved the section on the octopus, which is my favorite animal to show off to my science students.

in The Bonobo and the Atheist, I felt that de Waal struggled to stay on topic. He would give a few interesting anecdotes about the animal world, and then pause for a discussion on medieval art, or the rise of atheism. Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? is more tightly edited, and jumps merrily from subject to subject while maintaining the central theme that animals are capable of more than we ever thought possible.

I love animals. I love learning interesting things about animals. If you love learning interesting things about animals, you will enjoy this book.

My rating: 5/5

You can find Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. The Audible version is narrated by Sean Runnette and can be found here.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala (2013)

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Review 2.17

 

On December 26, 2004, an earthquake of record proportions struck off the coast of Indonesia, triggering a series of tsunamis that swept through the Indian Ocean, ultimately killing more than 200,000 people in fourteen countries.

Two hundred thousand people.

Our brains aren’t quite capable of making sense of it. Two hundred thousand is simply a very large number, and our minds try to view it as such. It’s difficult to imagine two hundred thousand individual voices, with hopes and families and dreams and fears, being simultaneously snuffed out by a wall of water on a cloudless day.

Wave tells one of those stories. On the day of the tsunamis, Sonali Deraniyagala lost both her parents, her husband, and both her sons to the wave. She herself was swept two miles inland after being separated from her family. In her memoir, Deraniyagala gives voice to the pain, confusion, and grief that she has felt since the wave, and asks whether or not it’s possible to truly recover from such a loss.

I will say this for the author, she is brutally, unflinching honest. The rawness of her pain was almost unbearable to listen to, and I don’t know if I would have been able to get through a print copy of the book. Wave is a swirling maelstrom of grief. Deraniyagala is frank about her contemplation of suicide, her descent into binge drinking, her wish for madness to relieve her of the continued burden of life. Given the circumstances, one could expect little different. This was a book that made me want to hug my husband a little closer at night. I paused on one occasion to call my mom. Wave works as a reminder to never take our happiness for granted.

This is not a story of grief and healing in the wake of loss, it is an outpouring of grief from a woman who has been struck by unfathomable sorrow. It’s difficult to criticize a book like this without looking like an asshole. After all, this person is baring her soul to the world, who am I to deign even to reply? That said, Deraniyagala was difficult to connect with. She is self-centered and self-absorbed. At no point does Deraniyagala ever extend her grief to include any of the other two hundred thousand people who died that day. She never bothers to thank the friends and family who rallied to support her. She doesn’t seem to recognize that not everyone who suffered that day could then take the next seven years to recover, grieve, travel, and go whale-watching.

Deraniyagala mentions that actually, at some point in Wave. The enormity of her loss is simply too great, and people react defensively when faced with such uncomprehending sadness. Listening to Wave was difficult and imperfect and gut-wrenchingly painful, and that is what makes stories like this so important.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find Wave here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. The Audible version is narrated by Hannah Curtis and can be found here.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (2016)

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Review 2.15

Acclaimed scientist Hope Jahren has built three laboratories in which she’s studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Her first book is a revelatory treatise on plant life—but it is also so much more. 

Lab Girl is a book about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through Jahren’s stories: about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom’s labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science, and learned to perform lab work done “with both the heart and the hands”; and about the inevitable disappointments, but also the triumphs and exhilarating discoveries, of scientific work. [Source]

If you’re lucky, outside your window you will be able to see at least one tree. What kind of tree is it? How old is it? When was the last time you really paid any attention at all to the goings on of this tree?

In LabGirl, noted biogeologist Hope Jahren asks us to take a closer look at the plants that share our Earth. In part, her memoir is a love letter to the grasses, flowers, and trees which are so necessary to life on this planet and yet are so often overlooked or disregarded. These sections, in which Jahren speaks with an enraptured voice on the many fascinating aspects of the botanical world, are what works about LabGirl.

From the introduction, Jahren makes the case that anyone who observes something interesting about the natural world is officially a scientist. Children are born scientists, exploring and cataloging their environment with every sense they possess. It’s only as we get older that science becomes an intimidating, closed-off world with its own secret rules and language. Girls in particular often feel discouraged when entering STEM fields because they are given little respect or acknowledgement. Jahren’s struggles trying to scratch out a niche for herself in the scientific community are some of the funniest and more infuriating part of this book.

What doesn’t work so well is Bill. Bill is Jahren’s closest friend, valued colleague, and general right-hand man. A large portion of the novel is given over to how important Bill is, what a good friend he is, and how Jahren just couldn’t survive without him. The problem was I just didn’t get it. I could not for the life of me figure out why she is so enamored by Bill. Far be it from me to say that two friends are mismatched, but I almost felt like Jahren forces my hand by focusing so much of her narrative on how impossibly wonderful this person is. It started to feel less like a working relationship between scientists and more like two codependent people clinging together for no other reason than that they know no other way to exist.

I’ve always loved science in a “stars are pretty” kind of way, though I readily admit that the technical aspects go right over my head. I would recommend LabGirl for anyone interested learning more about plants and the scientists who study them.

A quick note on the Audible version. The audio book for LabGirl is narrated by the author, and makes for an uneven listening experience. Jahren is obviously going to be personally moved when detailing her own past experiences, but one more than one occasion she sounds as if she is going to burst into tears. During other sections when she is waxing romantic about her relationship with her colleague, her voice takes on a soporific effect that had me nodding off. A large portion of the book deals with Jahren’s ongoing battle with bipolar disorder, so perhaps the tone was an intentional choice made by the author and publisher. Either way, I found it jarring.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find LabGirl here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.  The Audible version is narrated by the author and can be downloaded here.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Lost City of Z by David Grann (2009)

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Review 2.13

In 1925, British explorer Percy Fawcett ventured into the Amazon to find an ancient civilization, hoping to make one of the most important discoveries in history. For centuries Europeans believed the world’s largest jungle concealed the glittering kingdom of El Dorado. Thousands had died looking for it, leaving many scientists convinced that the Amazon was truly inimical to humans. But Fawcett, whose daring expeditions inspired Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, had spent years building his scientific case. Captivating the imagination of millions round the globe, Fawcett embarked with his 21-year-old son, determined to prove that this ancient civilization–which he dubbed Z–existed. Then his expedition vanished. Fawcett’s fate, & the tantalizing clues he left behind about Z, became an obsession for hundreds who followed him into the uncharted wilderness. [Source]

For centuries, the Amazon jungle has represented the some of the greatest examples of man’s hubris. Countless explorers, adventurers, cartographers, and scientists have ventured grandly into this impenetrable rainforest never to be seen again.  The Lost City of Z is a biography of one such individual, a man whose obsession with finding the ruins of an advanced civilization in the Amazon consumed both his personal and professional life. In his debut novel author David Grann attempts to retrace Fawcett’s path, both historically using letters and journals and literally by flying to Brazil and embarking on a trek through the Amazonian region.

Grann’s novel will draw inevitable comparison to Douglas Preston’s The Lost City of the Monkey God, which I read and reviewed last year. The difference is that while Monkey God is the story of a region and all the countless expeditions that had failed, City of Z is the more personal story of one man and his restless desire to find a hidden culture. Both novels were highly successful in convincing this reader never to visit the Amazon rainforest. One of the phrases that I enjoyed from The Lost City of Z described the area as a “counterfeit paradise”. The lush vegetation and abundant life of the jungle conceals a surprisingly lack of food, and what wildlife there is seems specifically designed to inflict the most discomfort possible before killing you.

While there are numerous disgusting descriptions scattered through this novel, it still a straightforward biography rather than an exciting book of exploration. Grann refuses to speculate on or romanticize the fate of his subjects. The bulk of City of Z is a more or less straightforward account of Fawcett’s various expeditions into the Amazon and the efforts of his fellow explorers to find him after his disappearance. The reminder of the book is an interesting and occasionally humorous first-hand account of Grann’s preparations for jungle travel and his eventual attempt to retrace Fawcett’s last known trail.

While The Lost City of Z was not the thrilling adventure novel advertised by it’s book jacket, I nevertheless found myself intrigued by the story of Fawcett and his ill-fated adventures. Only in recent years, with remote satellite and lidar technology, are we even coming close to forming a definitive picture of the secrets hidden under the Amazonian canopy. Perhaps more evidence of this ancient civilization will be discovered with time.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find The Lost City of Z here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. The Audible version is narrated by Mark Deakins and can be found here.

Happy reading everyone!

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, author John Berendt takes his readers on a tour of Savannah, Georgia in the early 1990’s and introduces us to a cast of characters so bizarre they can only be real. Among the colorful denizens of this insular community 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. An 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 a 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 close-knit 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: The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X. R. Pan (2018)

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Review 2.2

Leigh Chen Sanders is absolutely certain about one thing: When her mother died by suicide, she turned into a bird.

Leigh, who is half Asian and half white, travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. There, she is determined to find her mother, the bird. In her search, she winds up chasing after ghosts, uncovering family secrets, and forging a new relationship with her grandparents. And as she grieves, she must try to reconcile the fact that on the same day she kissed her best friend and longtime secret crush, Axel, her mother was taking her own life.

Alternating between real and magic, past and present, friendship and romance, hope and despair, The Astonishing Color of After is a novel about finding oneself through family history, art, grief, and love. [Source]

Depression is such a tricky subject to write about. It’s so mercurial in nature, so difficult to define and diagnose and treat. The Astonishing Color of After triumphs as a portrayal of depression from all perspectives. The repercussions of Leigh’s mother’s suicide reverberate down the plotline when Leigh becomes convinced that her mother has transformed into a bird. Fearing for her mental state, Leigh’s father sends her to Taiwan to visit her grandparents for the first time. Once there, Leigh begins the long, slow process of healing.

The Astonishing Color of After blew me away with its depiction of depression and the effect it can have on a family. Instead of focusing on Leigh’s mother as she battles her inner demons, the perspective is Leigh’s, which helps to convey the constant stress and strain that mental illness places on family members. Humans can adapt to almost anything, and it’s sad that the warning symptoms of suicide can be overlooked because we see a person as always being “up and down” or just “having a rough patch”. For Leigh, her mother’s depression was just another part of life until it wasn’t.

Leigh’s adventures in China add a welcome lighter tone to the story. All the descriptions of the Mandarin language and culture and food made me miss my days spent living there. One scene set in an outdoor night market was particularly vivid, I could almost taste the stuffed bao buns and room temperature beer. For Leigh, the trip to Taiwan offers a chance to grieve her mother while learning more about her childhood and the circumstances that drove her to cut off all contact with her family.

The Astonishing Color of After evoked a stronger emotional reaction than I had anticipated. The combination of magic realism with the themes of loss and grief was a heady mix, and I found myself ugly crying towards the end. But it was a cathartic, healing kind of cry. The kind you didn’t know you needed until it’s over.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Astonishing Color of After here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!