David Sedaris is a humorist who writes about his life, making unique observations which resonate. I picked up one of his books a few years ago and wasn’t impressed. I found him arrogant and the laughs sparse. However, a review of Calypso said it focused primarily on aging and mortality so I decided to give him another go. I’m glad I did. This is a funny book. I laughed out loud more than once. Make no mistake, Sedaris has a strange offensive brand of humor so he’s definitely not for everyone. For me, I was happy to find someone who’s ideas are quirkier than my own. For instance, Sedaris has a benign tumor which needs removing. He asks the doctor if he can keep it, with the idea of feeding it to a snapping turtle near his North Carolina vacation home, but the doctor says no it’s against federal law. So he allows a Hispanic woman he meets at one of his book lectures do it in less than ideal conditions. Weird, I know, but oddly satisfying. If you like funny; you’ll love Calypso.
Weirdly fascinating non-fiction book charting the history of psychedelic drug use by the 1960s counterculture, and the resulting backlash, to the recent resurgence of LSD as a tool to help with mental illness. Pollan explores how such drugs were invented as well as the more traditional use of plant-based psychedelics like mushrooms. It came as news to me but research into these substances is being conducted by many respected medical institutes like Johns Hopkins. Clinical trials suggest psychedelics help with depression, addiction and the terror that accompanies terminal illness. The author also looks at mystical aspects, with many test subjects reporting a better understand of God and collective consciousness. In the right circumstances, psychedelics can open the mind to experiences our brains shut down as we age and neural pathways become fixed. Authenticity is provided by Pollan having tried several of these substances himself. Fear would probably prevent me from volunteering for this kind of research, but I enjoyed reading about the possibilities. While the book stalls sometimes due to excessive detail, like the mind numbing discussion of mushroom species, it’s a unique, well-written read.
Katy Tur was an NBC television reporter with an enviable posting in London when asked to report on Donald tRump’s presidential campaign. She was given the assignment over more seasoned reporters with the expectation the run would be short-lived. But seeing the reaction of fans, Tur began to believe the impossible might actually happen. For a year and a half, she lived out of a suitcase, following him to forty states, living on junk food and struggling to keep up her appearance in more than 3,800 TV reports. Along the way, she endured taunts from tRump for calling him on his lies, at one point needing Secret Service protection from rabid fans. In some ways this is a difficult book to read because we know tRump wins. It’s painful reliving the experience. But Tur doesn’t shy away from revealing his pettiness; the difficulty of life on the road; the character of his followers; and the obsequiousness of staff. All in all, a fascinating look at a political reporter on the road during an election year covering the circus that is Donald tRump.
Preston is one of my favorite science-based thriller writers. When I saw this book I snatched it up not realizing it’s non-fiction. It made no difference. The book-based on his adventures in Honduras-is every bit as fascinating as one of his thrillers. There have long been rumors about a lost city in the Honduran interior. In 2012, Preston joined a team of scientists on a quest to find it. Going off findings from lidar (an amazing new mapping technology), Preston ventured into the densest kind of rainforest; terrain which hasn’t seen human habitation in hundreds of years. Battling impenetrable foliage, torrential rains, disease-carrying insects and deadly snakes, the group makes one of the greatest discoveries of the 21st century. Preston covers every inch of the battle from challenges posed by an ever-changing Honduran government to unchecked drug lords to environmental hostility. Intriguing glimpses are granted into a culture which predated the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors but vanished shortly after. Why? Preston’s answer presents a chilling reality for societies which all coalesce, peak and ultimately disappear.
I still remember the day Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris walked into Columbine High School in Colorado, killed twelve students, a teacher and wounded twenty-four others before committing suicide. It wasn’t the first such shooting, but it was the biggest at the time, ushering in a new era of fear for school aged children. Many of us wondered how such a tragedy could occur. Where were Dylan and Eric’s parents? In this book, Dylan’s mother, Sue, shares her grief and shame, and with unflinching honesty, describes the signs she might have missed. What’s truly alarming about her story, though, is that the Klebolds were a normal middle class family. There may have been subtle signs Dylan was in trouble, but no large red flags. The Klebolds could be any of us. And, until we remove all impediments to treating people for mental health, the scenario is bound to happen again and again. A frightening, yet fascinating, glimpse inside the life of a mass murderer in the making.
Okay, so maybe this isn’t one of the best books of all time, but it’s an enjoyable non-fiction read, an interesting glimpse into the life of an EMT/Paramedic. After 9/11, Kevin Hazzard feels something’s missing so he decides to train as an EMT, working his way into an ambulance position with Grady, a hospital serving the worst sections of Atlanta. Frightened at first, he quickly gains mastery and thrives on the adrenaline rush. He describes the calls: a car crash so devastating he finds his hand resting in someone’s brain; a heart attack victim who insists on walking to the ambulance and dies as a result; drug deaths and situations where he and his partner are in grave danger from dealers and unruly crowds; and domestic calls where responders are attacked by the women they are trying to help by arresting their abusers. Hazzard lasted a decade in an industry where months or a year or two is the norm. A very well written, fascinating look into an arena where any of us may suddenly be thrown.
In 1936, boys from the University of Washington vied for gold in the eight-man crew in the Berlin Olympics. They had to beat the heavily favored Ivy League to represent the United States. Their efforts were impressive given German and Italian teams were government-sponsored. The boys, including the coxswain, came from lower middle class families, and struggled to earn their way through school during the Depression. This magnificently written non-fiction saga, chronicles their quest for glory, illustrates the importance of teamwork in rowing, and showcases the grueling sport of crew which is equal parts exhaustion and pain. Rowing was big news in the 1930s. Millions followed the sport on the radio. This team put Seattle on the international map. Also covered, are Hitler’s efforts to gloss over the inhumane treatment of Jews and other “undesirables,” and win public support for the Third Reich. Although lengthy descriptions sometimes slow the narrative, it’s worth the read as the book builds toward a breathtaking showdown in Nazi Germany.
Bill Bryson is a king of non-fiction. He has a way of writing about historical events both extraordinary and mundane that makes them interesting and accessible. In this book, he tackles the summer of 1927 in America, a busy period in the nation’s history. The stock market was booming, President Calvin Coolidge worked just four hours a day, a sculptor came up with a crazy idea to carve four giant heads into Mt. Rushmore, and a young aviator named Charles Lindbergh flew a flimsy airplane across the Atlantic for the first time-among other things. It was the summer that ushered in the talking picture, television was invented, Al Capone was terrorizing Chicago, and an over-the-hill baseball player named Babe Ruth returned to greatness. The book is an entertaining read, a brawling tale of adventure and reckless optimism. Bryson is best known for his book, A Walk in the Woods. However, this one with its cast of eccentric characters, when America began flexing its muscles for the first time, remains my favorite.
This is a non-fiction book about the treatment of a woman for multiple personality disorder. “Sybil” suffers extreme childhood abuse which causes her to separate into sixteen different “alters.” She has huge memory gaps given the differing personalities in charge. With help from her psychiatrist, these selves gradually become co-conscious, ending with Sybil’s integration as a whole person with full knowledge of past and present. The book was wildly successful when published, spawning two movies, and an upsurge in cases of reported dissociative identity disorder. However, it remains highly controversial as critics suggest Sybil was a simple hysteric, manipulated for profit by her psychiatrist. They cite tapes in which the psychiatrist is heard describing to Sybil her personalities. They also suggest the fabrication of material to protect her identity does not constitute a proper case history as would appear in a peer-reviewed journal. Supporters claim critics left out important facts, distorted evidence and didn’t reveal certain information until all the principles were dead. Whatever your opinion, the book remains a truly fascinating read!