Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, 3/5
I have never read a more enjoyable book about a less likeable person. In fact, I could not put it down and finished it in one day; the story had all the fascination and horror of a slow-motion train wreck. I’m generally a big fan of people doing their own thing, and if your thing is starving to death in an abandoned bus 30 miles from a major highway in a poorly-planned attempt to commune with the essence of Existence or whatever, that’s fine. But what is not fine is being a melodramatic, inconsistent, ignorant, self-righteous douchebag who hurts the people who care for you. Or renaming yourself in all seriousness “Alexander Supertramp.” That is also not fine.
Big shout-out to author Jon Krakauer, who is not only a fantastic writer, but, despite obviously feeling sympathetic towards his ill-fated protagonist, did not refrain from revealing unflattering facts and details about him. I hope Krakauer made a ton of money off the movie (which I will not be watching).
Why I read it: Found it in my boyfriend’s old high school stuff.
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger, 4/5
Disjointed, unscholarly, easily debatable and offering no real solutions, this book nevertheless makes a tiny but very specific contribution towards understanding the complexities of U.S. mental health issues. Junger postulates that mental health declines as societies lose their tribal features, becoming more complex, prosperous, elitist and individualistic. Further, he attempts to prove that people’s resilience actually increases in troubled times, when society temporarily becomes more communal and egalitarian. His final claim is that long-term PTSD in soldiers is not so much caused by wartime trauma, but the difficulty of transitioning between these two cultures.
Junger makes some controversial statements and is up-front about his book’s origin (a Vanity Fair article) and purpose (nonacademic). Because of this, I feel Tribe transcends its pop-psychology characteristics and can be forgiven for feeling like a very preliminary exploration of a complex topic.
Why I read it: When the title was recommended separately to me by two of my brothers, I knew it was worth checking out.
Night by Elie Wiesel, 5/5
This firsthand account of a Jewish teenager’s experience in four German concentration camps during World War II is short, stark and brutal. While most other historical accounts from this era that I have read contain some sliver of hope, faith, humanity, and closure, there is none to be found in Wiesel’s testimony. Presumably these elements are explored in the following, fictional, books of the trilogy, Dawn and Day. There are many disturbing and moving scenes in this book, but strangely, the thing that hit me most was the author’s brief mention of electrical fences around the camp. Some irrational part of me pictures the Holocaust as happening in the dark and distant past, before modern civilization. Realizing that something as thoroughly modern as an electric fence was used to contain innocent men, women and children, 11 million of whom were doomed to die, brings the horror of the Holocaust back to the very near past, where it belongs.
Why I read it: My boyfriend and I found the battered little paperback in a box of his high school relics. If it’s still not required reading, it should be.
Show Your Work! 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered by Austin Kleon, 3/5
This is a helpful little book for anyone who struggles with the culture of self-obsession and inauthenticity that the Instagram era seems to encourage. Social networking can be a great tool for creating opportunities and growing business, but for some people, their internet persona easily takes on a faux life of its own that stifles real, personal growth.
Kleon addresses this issue in part by shifting the focus from product (ultimately, your ideal version of self) to process (your life experiences). Instead of just showing your artwork, you show your art work (33): the real-life, behind-the-scenes depiction of what you learn about what you love, in the spirit of true sharing not self-aggrandisement. His approach is genuine, carefree, messy, organic and much more likely to stimulate personal and professional growth, as well as lasting and meaningful connections with others, than any contrived attempt to impress could achieve.
While the book’s organization is a bit all over the place, it loosely expands on the following 10 rules:
- You don’t have to be a genius.
- Think process, not product.
- Share something small every day.
- Open up your cabinet of curiosities.
- Tell good stories.
- Teach what you know.
- Don’t turn into human spam.
- Learn to take a punch.
- Sell out.
- Stick around.
Why I read it: My library was discarding it and I remembered liking Kleon’s previous book.
The Edge of the World: A Visual Adventure to the Most Extraordinary Places on Earth, by the editors of Outside Magazine, 5/5
What’s not to like about a collection of high-quality action photos accompanied by descriptions that provide interesting context from the photographers’ perspectives?
Why I read it: Part of an armload of photography books I checked out of the library.
Castles: Their Construction and History by Sidney Toy, 2/5
Never has a book more sadly lacked a glossary! In retrospect, I should have created one of my own as I encountered endless, undefined technical terms like “barbican,” “corbel,” and “machicolation.” Because the author is very good at describing castles in painstaking detail and creating architectural drawings, this book has historical value as a record of the condition of various castles at the time of the author’s visits (pre-1939). Unfortunately, however, Sidney Toy is more focused on presenting data than interpreting it, so there is very little narrative flow or sense of the bigger picture as far as castles’ construction and history in general is concerned.
Why I read it: With several castles on the itinerary for a recent trip to Ireland, I was hoping to gain some knowledge on the subject, but this book was disappointingly unhelpful.
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson, 5/5
It’s been a long time since I picked up a book that I couldn’t put down again (especially a nonfiction one), but I read this for 3 hours straight one morning and finished it almost in one sitting. This true story takes place in an odd slice of history–the years directly preceding the outbreak of WWII, as Hitler consolidated his power in Germany and gradually revealed the extent of his aspirations to the tentative but growing concern of the rest of the world. The characters on whom the story focuses are even more odd: an elderly academic, appointed in desperation to the role of American Ambassador to Germany when more qualified men turned it down, and his free-spirited daughter who lets few opportunities to party and sleep with the enemy slip through her fingers, despite the delicacy of her family’s situation in Nazi Germany. Even more interesting than the political twists and turns of this turbulent time are the many appearances of famous and infamous entities, portrayed from a more personal, intimate perspective than the hard, cold light that history usually shines on them. Author Erik Larson somehow achieves a well-researched tone without diminishing the natural drama of events.
There were, as might be expected, many horrifying things in this book. What was unexpected to me, however, was the source of this horror. I was most shocked, not by Hitler and his Nazis’ iconic atrocities, but by the greedy, irresponsible, antisemitic attitudes documented in the behavior of many U.S. politicians and other high-profile citizens. Many influential policy-makers were more than willing to identify a so-called “Jewish Problem” in the U.S. and seemed more interested in Germany’s ability to repay high-interest war loans than any human rights concerns. Wealth and social prestige, unbelievably, seemed to be acceptable qualifications for positions of world-event-affecting influence and politicians trusted by the U.S. public to guide their country in perilous times floundered without coordinated priorities or plans. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20, but knowing in retrospect the millions of lives that were at stake makes the outcome of events documented in this book seem even more tragic.
Why I read it: My friend, Peggy, passed it on to me.