November 26, 2018

Book Review: Vactionland by John Hodgman

Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches

by John Hodgman

Genres: Nonfiction, Memoir, Humor
Publisher: Viking
Length: 272 pages
Published: October 24, 2017
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"Although his career as a bestselling author and on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart was founded on fake news and invented facts, in 2016 that routine didn't seem as funny to John Hodgman anymore. Everyone is doing it now.

Disarmed of falsehood, he was left only with the awful truth: John Hodgman is an older white male monster with bad facial hair, wandering like a privileged Sasquatch through three wildernesses: the hills of Western Massachusetts where he spent much of his youth; the painful beaches of Maine that want to kill him (and some day will); and the metaphoric haunted forest of middle age that connects them.

Vacationland collects these real life wanderings, and through them you learn of the horror of freshwater clams, the evolutionary purpose of the mustache, and which animals to keep as pets and which to kill with traps and poison. There is also some advice on how to react when the people of coastal Maine try to sacrifice you to their strange god.

Though wildly, Hodgmaniacally funny as usual, it is also a poignant and sincere account of one human facing his forties, those years when men in particular must stop pretending to be the children of bright potential they were and settle into the failing bodies of the wiser, weird dads that they are."


"There are transitions in life whether we want them or not."


"This country is founded on some very noble ideals but also some very big lies. One is that everyone has a fair chance at success. Another is that rich people have to be smart and hardworking or else they wouldn't be rich. Another is that if you're not rich, don't worry about it, because rich people aren't really happy. I am the white male living proof that all of that is garbage. The vast degree to which my mental health improved once I had the smallest measure of economic security immediately unmasked this shameful fiction to me. Money cannot buy happiness, but it buys the conditions for happiness: time, occasional freedom from constantly worry, a moment of breath to plan for the future, and the ability to be generous."

My Book Review:

I had no idea who John Hodgman was when I began listening to the audiobook of this memoir--the cover looked appealing, the book had high reviews, and a copy was immediately available, so I started it. As I listened, I looked him up and the only thing I recognized him from was the old Apple vs. PC commercials where he played the PC guy.

At first I did not know if I was really interested in Hodgman's storytelling. As the memoir progressed, however, he was increasingly candid about his life as an upper-middle-class, privileged white man going through a mid-life crisis. As he opened up and delved deeper, I was more invested in seeing him wade through his privilege, his guilt about his lucky circumstances, and his own mortality. I respected his honesty and and found parts to be humorous, though I was not at all impressed by his tales of drug use nor his obsession with local celebrity and name-dropping.

The memoir is most likable when Hodgman speaks about everyday experiences that most audiences can relate to even if they come from different backgrounds.

November 16, 2018

Book Review: The Indifferent Stars Above by Daniel James Brown

The Indifferent Stars Above:
The Harrowing Story of the Donner Party

by Daniel James Brown

Genres: U.S. History, Nonfiction, Biography
Publisher: William Morrow
Length: 352 pages
Published: April 28, 2009
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble
Note: Daniel James Brown is the bestselling author of The Boys in the Boat, a 5-star read.

My Goodreads Rating: 4 out of 5 stars 

Official Book Summary:

"In April of 1846, twenty-one-year-old Sarah Graves, intent on a better future, set out west from Illinois with her new husband, her parents, and eight siblings. Seven months later, after joining a party of emigrants led by George Donner, they reached the Sierra Nevada Mountains as the first heavy snows of the season closed the pass ahead of them. In early December, starving and desperate, Sarah and fourteen others set out for California on snowshoes and, over the next thirty-two days, endured almost unfathomable hardships and horrors.

In this gripping narrative, Daniel James Brown sheds new light on one of the most infamous events in American history. Following every painful footstep of Sarah's journey with the Donner Party, Brown produces a tale both spellbinding and richly informative."


"Aghast at their predicament, Parrado fell to his knees in the snow and took in a staggering realization. Death was the rule, life the exception. Life was at best a transitory dream, set in a universe that was entirely indifferent to his fate. Whether to cling to that fragile dream, Parrado realized then and there, was up to him as it is up to all of us, moment by moment. Whether to embrace what we are all thrust into, squealing with astonishment and rage, or to fall back into the comfortable, dark, quiet realm of the insentient. Nando Parrado decided to fight for the dream. Charles Stanton, it appears, after all his heroic efforts to aid his fellow travelers, had chosen to slip back into the darkness." 

Excerpt (from the Author's Note):

"Even well after the tragedy was over, Sarah Graves's little sister Nancy often burst into tears for no apparent reason. She mystified many of her schoolmates in the new American settlement at the Pueblo de San Jose. One minute she would be fine, running, laughing, and playing on the dusty school ground like any other ten- or eleven-year-old, but then suddenly the next minute she would be sobbing. All of them knew that she had been part of what was then called the 'lamentable Donner party' while coming overland to California in 1846. Recent emigrants themselves, most of them knew, generally, what that meant and sympathized with her for it. But for a long while, none of them knew Nancy's particular, individual secret. That part was just too terrible to tell."

My Book Review:

Very well researched.

I absolutely loved The Boys in the Boat and after reading The Indifferent Stars Above, I feel eager to read most anything Daniel James Brown publishes in the future. Through this book, I learned about not just the Donner party but about the nineteenth-century American backdrop to their tragedy.

The story of the ill-fated pioneers trying to make their way to California says much about the human will to live. Though it is pitched as a biography of just one of the female members of the group, the book is really more of a narrative of all party members. At times it is difficult to keep all of the names straight, but ultimately the book is a shocking, sad, and horrifying account of the winter of 1846-47. It is undeniably depressing and what readers learn about the corrupt business practices that added to the party's ill-advised path and deaths is gut-wrenching.

If you are interested in U.S. history or the Donner party, I recommend Brown's book though it might be too upsetting for some readers.

November 14, 2018

Book Review: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods:
Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail

by Bill Bryson

Genres: Nonfiction, Memoir, Travel, Humor
Publisher: Anchor Books
Length: 397 pages
Published: republished December 26, 2006
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"The Appalachian Trail trail stretches from Georgia to Maine and covers some of the most breathtaking terrain in America–majestic mountains, silent forests, sparking lakes. If you’re going to take a hike, it’s probably the place to go. And Bill Bryson is surely the most entertaining guide you’ll find. He introduces us to the history and ecology of the trail and to some of the other hardy (or just foolhardy) folks he meets along the way–and a couple of bears. Already a classic, A Walk in the Woods will make you long for the great outdoors (or at least a comfortable chair to sit and read in)." 


"That's the trouble with losing your mind; by the time it's gone, it's too late to get it back."

Alternate cover


"We hiked till five and camped beside a tranquil spring in a small, grassy clearing in the trees just off the trail. Because it was our first day back on the trail, we were flush for food, including perishables like cheese and bread that had to be eaten before they went off or were shaken to bits in our packs, so we rather gorged ourselves, then sat around smoking and chatting idly until persistent and numerous midgelike creatures (no-see-ums, as they are universally known along the trail) drove us into our tents. It was perfect sleeping weather, cool enough to need a bag but warm enough that you could sleep in your underwear, and I was looking forward to a long night's snooze--indeed was enjoying a long night's snooze--when, at some indeterminate dark hour, there was a sound nearby that made my eyes fly open. Normally, I slept through everything--through thunderstorms, through Katz's snoring and noisy midnight pees--so something big enough or distinctive enough to wake me was unusual. There was a sound of undergrowth being disturbed--a click of breaking branches, a weighty pushing through low foliage--and then a kind of large, vaguely irritable snuffling noise.


My Book Review:

This is not only the first Bill Bryson book I have read, it was it was the first time I had heard of him. I know--ridiculous for an avid reader--I am not sure how that happened. I really enjoyed his mix of memoir, dry humor, and research and I look forward to reading more by him.

One day on a bit of a whim, Bill Bryson, an avid traveler and travel writer, decides that now that he's returned to living in the U.S. he'd like to get to know the geography better, and what better way to do it than to hike the entirety of the Appalachian trail. This in and of itself is humorous knowing what a vast undertaking it is and how unprepared Bryson admittedly is to do it. Even funnier, Bryson begs basically everyone around him to considering joining him on the journey to no avail, that is until his equally unprepared frenemy-of-sorts agrees to hike with him and keep him company.

Bryson is very skilled at interweaving the story of his hike with dry humor, history, and a vast amount of research about the Appalachian trail. I thoroughly enjoyed laughing at his stories with him and I learned so much about hiking and this part of the country. I wish I had known about this book before I had read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild as this seems to be part of her inspiration. I’d definitely like to read more by him--I am still surprised I had not encountered his books before--and so I am open to recommendations on which of his titles I should try next.

November 12, 2018

Book Review: Gulp by Mary Roach


Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

by Mary Roach

Genres: Science, Nonfiction, Humor

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Length: 348 pages
Published: April 1, 2013
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 2 out of 5 stars (did not finish)

Official Book Summary:

"The irresistible, ever-curious, and always best-selling Mary Roach returns with a new adventure to the invisible realm we carry around inside.

'America’s funniest science writer' (Washington Post) takes us down the hatch on an unforgettable tour of our insides. The alimentary canal is classic Mary Roach terrain: the questions inspired by our insides are as taboo, in their way, as the cadavers in Stiff and every bit as surreal as the universe of zero gravity explored in Packing for Mars. Why is crunchy food so appealing? Why is it so hard to find names for flavors and smells? Why doesn’t the stomach digest itself? How much can you eat before your stomach bursts? Can constipation kill you? Did it kill Elvis? We meet scientists who tackle the questions no one else thinks—or has the courage—to ask. And we go on location to a pet-food taste-test lab, a bacteria transplant, and into a live stomach to observe the fate of a meal.

Like all of Roach’s books, Gulp is as much about human beings as it is about human bodies."


"People are messy, unpredictable things."

Other books by Mary Roach


"In 1968, on the Berkeley campus of the University of California, six young men undertook an irregular and unprecedented act. Despite the setting and the social climate of the day, it involved no civil disobedience or mind-altering substances. Given that it took place in the nutritional sciences department, I cannot even say with confidence that the participants wore bell-bottomed pants or sideburns of unusual scope. I know only the basic facts: the six men stepped inside a metabolic chamber and remained for two days, testing meals made from dead bacteria.

This was the fevered dawn of space exploration; NASA had Mars on its mind. A spacecraft packed with all the food necessary for a two-year mission would be impracticably heavy to launch. Thus there was a push to develop menu items that could be 'bioregenerated,' that is to say, farmed on elements of the astronauts' waste. The title of the paper nicely sums the results: 'Human Intolerance to Bacteria as Food.' Leaving aside the vomiting and vertigo, the thirteen bowel movements in twelve hours from Subject H, one hopes the aesthetics alone would have tabled further research. Pale gray Aerobacter, served as a 'slurry,' was reported to be unpleasantly slimy. H. eutropha had a 'halogen-like taste.'

Some in the filed looked askance at the work. I found this quote in a chapter on fabricated space foods: 'Men and not ingest nutrients, they consume food. More than that, meals. Although to the single-minded biochemist or physiologist, this aspect of human behavior may appear to be irrelevant or even frivolous, it is nevertheless a deeply ingrained part of the human situation.'

The point is well taken. In their zeal for a solution, the Berkeley team would appear to have lost a bit of perspective."

My Book Review:

As always with books I did not finish, keep that in mind when considering this review.

I usually love researched nonfiction. In the past few years, this genre has increasingly become one of my favorites for pleasure reading and I've grown to love, love, love authors such as Judith Flanders, Peter Ackroyd, Daniel James Brown, Nathaniel Philbrick, Erik Larson, and Malcolm Gladwell--I highly recommend each of them.

Mary Roach is a very popular researched, nonfiction author and she's been on my to-read radar for years, particularly since the success of Stiff. I started listening to Gulp with high expectations, but as a I said earlier, I did not finish it.

Much of this was due to the fact that I am a vegetarian purely because eating meat grosses me out and much of her digestive-track narrative is based on meat-eating, gag-inducing stories. In the promotional, kid-friendly video above, it looks like the book is lighthearted; moreover, it stars broccoli. Reading page after page of Roach's attempts to gross out her audience with meat would make a non-vegetarian gag. Tell me about what happens when you eat grains, fruits, vegetables, and the like and I could probably have kept going, but I literally could not stomach it.

I was surprised by my reaction to this book, so I very much want to read another one of her books at some point. If you have a title recommendation, let me know in the comments section below!

November 5, 2018

Book Review: City of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab

City of Ghosts (Cassidy Blake #1)

by Victoria Schwab

Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy, Paranormal, Mystery
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Length: 285 pages
Published: August 28, 2018
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 2.5 or 3 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"Cassidy Blake's parents are The Inspectres, a (somewhat inept) ghost-hunting team. But Cass herself can REALLY see ghosts. In fact, her best friend, Jacob, just happens to be one.

When The Inspectres head to ultra-haunted Edinburgh, Scotland, for their new TV show, Cass—and Jacob—come along. In Scotland, Cass is surrounded by ghosts, not all of them friendly. Then she meets Lara, a girl who can also see the dead. But Lara tells Cassidy that as an In-betweener, their job is to send ghosts permanently beyond the Veil. Cass isn't sure about her new mission, but she does know the sinister Red Raven haunting the city doesn't belong in her world. Cassidy's powers will draw her into an epic fight that stretches through the worlds of the living and the dead, in order to save herself."


“Embrace your strange, dear daughter. Where’s the fun in being normal?”


"People think that ghosts only come out at night, or on Halloween, when the world is dark and the walls are thin. But the truth is, ghosts are everywhere. In the bread aisle at your grocery store, in the middle of your grandmother's garden, in the front seat on your bus.

Just because you can't see them doesn't mean they aren't there.

I'm sitting in History class when I feel the tap-tap-tap on my shoulder, like drops of rain. Some people call it intuition, others second sight. That tickle at the edge of your senses, telling you there's something more.

This isn't the first time I've felt it--not by a long shot. Not even the first time I've felt it here at my school. I've tried to ignore it--I always do--but it's no use. It wears away at my focus, and I know the only way to make it stop is to give in. Go and see for myself."

Alternate cover

My Book Review:

The premise and setting are interesting, but the plot seems a bit oversimplified even for a middle grade audience.

Cassidy Blake has the ability to see ghosts since she “died” (or rather didn’t die and was given a second chance...or something...she drowned but lived--this is not clearly explained). Her parents are famed ghost hunters who get a reality tv deal to travel the world visiting the world’s most haunted locations (cue the series’ continuation hopping from location to location).

The family first travels to Edinburgh, Scotland accompanied by the narrator’s best friend, a twelve-year-old named Jacob. Oh, and he's a poltergeist that only she can see.

If you’re on board for all of that, it’s a good story so far. As an anglophile, I loved the setting in Scotland and Schwab's descriptions of the streets, downtown areas, and famous cemeteries. This was all very engaging and perhaps the strongest element of the novel.

What I struggled with was the anticlimactic climax, a moment predictable for a number of chapters. It all seemed too simple. Schwab can trust her middle grade readers with more complications, red herrings, and twists and turns. Perhaps adding another forty or fifty pages to its overall length by providing some more scenes that flesh out characterizations and add backstory would have helped heighten the novel's suspense.

Cass’s parents are also portrayed as unbelievably absent in their daughter’s life. I understand this trope--get rid of the parents so the kids can be independent and explore--but it felt inconsistent. For the first 2/3 of the novel, Cass's parents don't seem anything other than loving and intelligent. The fact that she wanders alone in not just a foreign city but a foreign country at only twelve-years-old is a head-scratcher. It's also unclear how Cass purportedly drowned/died and her parents are none the wiser. And if they're ghost hunters, can't she trust them with the truth of her gift? Again, developing the narrative throughout would have helped.

That being said, I wonder how many installments Schwab has planned for the series. If there are enough to give the story some extended arc--maybe three to five instead of just a couple--there's definitely room for her to go back and explain some of these elements while taking readers further into Cass's journey as a paranormal go-between exploring this world and the world beyond. Victoria Schwab has a huge, loyal fanbase so she can count on her readers coming back for more.