Book Review: The Demon-Haunted World

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The Demon-Haunted World

by Carl Sagan

Published the year he died, Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World is a haunted book. I haven’t read his other work (Though now I plan to), but this one seems darker than what I had imagined his work would be like. It’s not hopeless or despairing; it’s a serious warning about a serious problem, and what seemed to me like a fairly frustrated attempt to cut through a thick layer of hogwash on a specific issue that obviously bothered Sagan quite a lot: namely the idea of alien abduction.

The general warning about the serious problem is the overall thrust of the book, and it is about the need for a free people to think skeptically. Sagan being who he was, he came at the idea from a scientist’s perspective; he describes at length the need for scientists to be skeptical, to be willing to question anything, most particularly their own most cherished beliefs. He gives example after example of scientists describing the need to build beautiful, elegant theories that explain great answers to great questions – and then tear them down completely when those theories are contradicted by the evidence. He talks about the shift from Newton to Einstein to quantum mechanics, and he talks about how astrophysicist Fred Hoyle was able to contribute as much to the field of astronomy when he was wrong as he was when he was right (and in both cases his contributions were prodigious, Sagan says).

Because Sagan is not only talking about science, and because he practiced what he preached, he makes a concerted effort in this book to talk about the flawed nature of scientists, the scientists who did more harm than good, the ones who told themselves they could ignore the ethical responsibility of considering the potential uses of their discoveries – a deception, Sagan argues, as he states unequivocally that the extraordinary power of modern scientific discoveries and the technology that comes from them imposes a greater responsibility than ever before for scientists to act as ethically as possible in considering what potential harm could be done by their work, and taking action to minimize that harm. He talks about the various ways that science can be manipulated and used to do harm; though he is also clear that none of that harm tells us that science is itself harmful or bad or should be feared or avoided. Knowledge is power, and power can be used to do – well, anything; but ignoring the power doesn’t protect us from it, it simply makes it easier for someone else to use it harmfully.

What else is Sagan talking about other than science itself, than the beauty and power of the scientific mindset, of skeptical thinking and a reliance on repeatable experiment and observable data? He’s talking about everything, really. There isn’t an aspect of life or modern society where a skeptical mindset would be inappropriate. The book covers a lot of aspects of society and culture; the exploration of the alien abduction myth, rather than simply being a screed against a continuing falsehood that Sagan, as an astrophysicist, took personally; he goes back through history and connects the alien abduction myth to past myths, of fairy abductions, of divine intervention in the lives of mortals. In addition to showing how a skeptical mindset quickly takes the alien abduction story apart, he also shows how it could be used to remove a dozen other pernicious ideas in our culture, including racism, sexism, and nationalism.

It’s beautifully done. This is a lovely book, fascinating in its ideas and easily digestible in the presentation of them. And as I said, it isn’t hopeless: Sagan also makes sure to express to the reader his unquenchable curiosity and his enormous capacity for wonder, which he also says must be fostered and encouraged along with the skeptical mindset; because when our cherished ideas are disproven by the evidence, when the flaws in our reasoning are found by our own penetrating, skeptical questions, it is our sense of wonder and our need to feel awe that makes us look again for a new answer to replace the one we just discarded. Wonder makes us get up and try again, after we knock ourselves down; and the combination of those two qualities is what gives this book its hope.

The thing that makes it scary is that Sagan wrote it twenty years ago. And on the first page – the first damn page – he said this:

Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.


The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.

Yeah. This book scared me, all right. I hope it also inspired me. I do intend to use one entire chapter/essay in my classes this coming school year, to try to make that candle burn a little brighter, if I can; and I would like to recommend that everyone read this book when you get the chance, because after Sagan finishes talking about alien abduction, he talks about democracy, and the need for scientific skeptical thinking and also scientific wonder and awe, to save our democracy, to save our country. And I for one think he was right.

Book Review: Essays by Virginia Woolf

A former student of mine, who graduated just this past June and is now halfway through his freshman year in college, came back to give me a gift. This was cool. It’s never happened quite this way before: he wanted to give me something to thank me for teaching him how to write. I’m not sure that I did, but I’m sure that I helped him get better at writing; I was his English teacher for three of his four years of high school at the tiny charter school where I work, so yeah, I suppose I deserve a fair amount of the credit and the blame for whatever he can do in terms of literary achievement in school. He said he did well in his English 101 class, and so he wanted to give me something. First Thank-you-for-teaching-me gift I’ve ever received. (I’ve gotten thanks, I’ve gotten several really glowing compliments, and I’ve gotten presents; never gotten one like this before.)

He got me this:

It’s a first edition of a collection of essays by Virginia Woolf. It’s awesome for a number of reasons: it’s a first edition, which is neato; it’s essays, which I love and always want to write and to read; it’s Virginia Woolf, who is one of my absolute favorite writers and strongest influences; and it’s called The Captain’s Death Bed, which has a nice pirate-y feel to it. Awesome.

So I read it, of course. It did take me two tries: not because it’s terribly complicated – Woolf is too good and too clear a writer to make her reading that hard to understand – but for two reasons: first, because this is the last of four volumes of her unpublished essays collected after her suicide in 1941, and so a number of the pieces in it are more obscure in subject; and second, because right when I started reading this book, I was finishing up my semester and grading about twenty thousand student essays, and then the day after the semester ended, I had a wisdom tooth removed, which included a half-day fast, my first 24-hour period without coffee in over 25 years, my first time under general anaesthesia, my first time taking Percocet, and of course, a whole lot of pain. So I read about a third of the way through the essays, and then stopped; and then picked it up again two days ago, when my head was a bit straighter on my neck and my brain was readier to read.

I’m glad I picked it back up. Turns out it was really the first several essays that were too obscure for me to enjoy: they are mostly responses to literature which Woolf read, and which I never have – never read Carlyle, never read Turgenev, and certainly never read the half-dozen diarists and memoirists she wrote about, mostly English pastors from the last 300 years. I also couldn’t relate at all to those kinds of books, as I am not a big reader of biography or published diaries; so the first several essays really didn’t speak to me.

But the rest of them did. Did they ever.

There’s a lot here. There’s a wonderful piece about being a good writer versus being a great writer; I don’t know that I agree with Woolf’s examples of a great writer (She includes Jane Austen, Dostoevsky, James Joyce, all of which I can take or leave – and Joyce I’d rather leave; she doesn’t include herself, who I would prefer over all of ’em. Though of course I understand not putting herself into the list of great writers in her own essay.), but her essential idea is this story she tells of getting into a train car and seeing the end of a conversation between two strangers. One of those strangers she calls Mrs. Brown, and describes her in some detail; it’s never clear if this is a real person or not, a real event or a created example. She says that the writers she considers good, who include H.G. Wells and a couple of Brits I’ve never read, would talk about everything in the world other than Mrs. Brown; they’d talk about the town where she lives, about the educational or economic system that created her, but not about her. The great writers would tell you about Mrs. Brown, and they’d do it poetically.

This gave me pause. I don’t know that I write about Mrs. Brown. I think I actually do. Though I am not and never will be a great writer, I like that I’m at least focused on the right subject: the characters. The people.

Then there’s a great piece about reviewing books, in which she ends with the conclusion that reviewers should shut the hell up except to give their honest, informed opinion to the author of the book they read. I don’t know what to do with that, either. This piece caused a conflict for me, because at the end of it, her husband and literary executor, Leonard Woolf, added a note in which he disagreed with her, and said that reviewers are necessary to give the reading public an idea of what books to buy and where to spend their time and money; I like that answer better, but I found it so incredibly distasteful that the guy would throw his two cents into the argument of HIS DEAD WIFE when she couldn’t respond back that I can’t agree with anything he said. So I’ll have to think about the way I write reviews.

Then there are the beautiful pieces: there’s one called The Sun and the Fish, one called Gas (about going under anaesthesia at the dentist; how perfect is that?), one called Reading, and my favorite, Flying over London, that are all nothing more or less than a lovely experience packed into a few pages. It’s magic, really.

I recommend reading Virginia Woolf. I haven’t read a lot of her fiction, but I’ve read a fair amount of her non-fiction, and it’s all fantastic. Especially if you’re a fan, as I am, of essayists – David Sedaris, George Orwell, Diane Ackerman, and especially David Foster Wallace, who wrote like Woolf (and died like her, too), then you should read her essays. I have no doubt there are dozens of collections of her work in various editions, and probably one that collects the good ones out of this book without the obscure ones; but it doesn’t matter, because any collection of her writing is going to be beautiful.

How to Read the Book “How to Write a Sentence”

How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One

by Stanley Fish

This was a good book that, for me, just missed being a great book.

I wanted to read this one because I am planning to give my AP Language and Composition class some kind of writing guide next year; I am considering Strunk and White, and William Zinsser’s On Writing Well; I went to Barnes and Noble looking for those two (Which I used to have, dammit, and I don’t know what I did with – presumably I donated them both at some point. The book-hoarder in me is righteously pissed.) and came up with this one, instead. It’s a slender book, which will appeal to my lazy-ass students, and I really liked the beginning of this, when Fish starts talking about how you have to master the basic building blocks of writing before you can really read well or write well – and the basic building block, he says, is the sentence.

Professor Fish (A title I cannot resist using) goes on to talk about what a sentence is and what a sentence does, and he does it without resorting to grammar, and he does it with some wonderful examples from literature; this was where this book was on its way to being a great book. Reading the first four chapters or so, I was getting more and more excited about giving this one to my students: it is in plain English, and it breaks down the sentence beautifully, talking about form and content both, showing how the rules of English allow for magnificence that is only magnified if you really understand what the author is doing. Professor Fish also recommends a writing exercise that I appreciate (though honestly, I don’t do it enough; I will start) that I learned in my upper-division college composition course, which is imitation of the form of beautiful sentences with original subject matter.

So I was loving it: and then I got to about the fifth or sixth chapter. This is where Professor Fish divides sentences into two basic structures: hypotaxis and parataxis. Hypotaxis is a sentence where the elements are subordinated, put into a definite structure with a basic root element and then other elements that branch off of that basic root. Parataxis is basically (I’m oversimplifying. Poorly.) stream-of-consciousness, where the pieces of the sentence are added without any particular relationship other than an additive one. This is a weird lens to view sentences through, and it isn’t one that my students will get. He spends two chapters on it, one on each structure, and while the hypotaxis (The simpler and more common sentence type, despite the complex definition I have given and failed to clarify) chapter is easy enough to follow, the parataxis one is not. The few chapters right after that don’t get any simpler, and Professor Fish lost me – which means he hasn’t a prayer of keeping my students.

I also have to say: I wish he had branched away from the classic canon of literature in finding his examples. I am not particularly enamored of Jane Austen; I prefer James Baldwin, maybe Edward Abbey, certainly Diane Ackerman. I have more recently been re-reading Douglas Adams, and I have to say: I have found my sentence examples for my students. To wit:

“The dew,” he observed, “has clearly fallen with a particularly sickening thud this morning.”

–from Life, the Universe and Everything

Now: with more effort from me, this book will likely be perfect for my students; I’ll need to explain those later chapters for them, and spend some time finding better examples of good sentences. I’m thinking I may just have them read excerpts from this book – and then buy Strunk and White.

This was a good book for me to read, as a writer and teacher of writing. Not sure it’s great for a student of writing, but I will put it to my students, in some way, and then report back.

Book Review: Homage to Catalonia

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Homage to Catalonia

By George Orwell


In 1937, when he was in his mid-30’s, George Orwell decided he needed to take an active role in the fight against fascism. Orwell was already a published author and fairly well-known critic and journalist; he was even better known as a socialist. His first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, had been published by a leftist publisher, and in early 1937, he published The Road to Wigan Pier, a book about the living conditions of coal miners in the north of England. Both books describe the terrible conditions faced by the poor and working class, and both are strong indictments of the capitalist system. Orwell, deeply concerned by the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, watched closely as the Spanish civil war began and intensified; when General Franco’s fascist forces, backed by Germany and Italy, began to rise to power, Orwell went to Spain to join the other side. He had trouble finding a place that suited him; he was already growing disillusioned with the corruption of Communism in Soviet Russia by Stalin, and the weak way that European socialists knuckled under to Stalin’s will – The Road to Wigan Pier is as much a criticism of English socialists as it is of the mine owners, and the publisher added a disclaimer to the book, hoping to prevent a backlash from the left. Orwell tried to join the English Communist Party – but was refused because he wouldn’t do what he was told. He eventually connected with John Macnair, who was a member of the Independent Labour Party, and who got Orwell a spot in the militia of the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification, the POUM in Spanish.

This is where Homage to Catalonia, the book that Orwell wrote about his experiences, begins: when he goes to boot camp as a new member of the POUM militia. It covers the next eight or ten months, which was all the time that Orwell spent in the war and in Spain before returning to England, eventually to write Animal Farm and 1984, two of the most effective criticisms of Soviet Communism ever created. This time, these experiences in this war, contributed to his disillusionment with Communism under Stalin’s influence.

Those two themes, the experience of actual warfare and the criticism of European leftists, especially the Communists, are the meat of the book. Orwell turns all of his remarkable ability as a journalist, his ability to describe and explain a scene, and his gift for clear and sharply-drawn imagery, bring the war to life: for half of the book, you could very well be in the trenches with him, or in Barcelona, where he was on leave from the front lines when fighting broke out in the streets between different factions of the Republican forces who opposed Franco’s fascists. Orwell talks about inadequate supplies, the freezing and filthy conditions, and, interestingly enough, the generally plentiful food and wine, and the overly abundant lice, which he experienced as a member of the militia. He was involved in several battles, most of them inconclusive, though he managed to escape the battle that eventually ended the POUM’s militia, a battle for the town of Huesca that killed thousands of militiamen and won nothing at all; Orwell was seriously wounded before that when he was shot through the throat by a sniper while standing in a Republican trench — targeted probably because he was quite a bit taller than most of the Spaniards in the trench with him. The bullet missed his carotid artery by a slim margin and left him unable to speak and in considerable pain.

When he is not describing life at the front, Orwell explains the convoluted situation on the leftist side of the war: Spanish Republicans included labor unions, Communists, socialists of all kinds; they had rebelled against the monarchy when Franco’s coup began, but had also led the successful resistance against the fascist general’s military forces. When Orwell was still in England, and then when he first arrived to join the militia, Spain was apparently the first successful people’s revolution: the bourgeois had fled or been eliminated, the Catholic church had been broken, churches looted and the clergy all but vanished. The POUM had attempted to create a classless militia, where the officers and the enlisted men received the same pay and lived in the same conditions, sharing tents and food and equipment regardless of rank. Members of the militia did not salute their superiors, and orders did not have to be followed if the men did not understand or agree with them; officers could not force compliance, but had to rely on persuasion, explaining to the men why the orders should be followed. (In a rather strange coincidence, the book I read two days after finishing this one, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, talks explicitly about this phenomenon, the POUM militia in the Spanish Civil War, where the men could refuse their superiors’ orders. I wonder if Haldeman read Homage to Catalonia.) But the POUM was a small piece of the Republican forces: much larger and more influential were the Communist Party, a different Spanish socialist party, and the two largest labor unions. And all of these groups soon took their lead from Stalin’s Russia, essentially because the Soviets supplied them with weapons and materiel for continuing their fight.

This does not sit well with Orwell. Several chapters break down the conflicts between the leftist parties, showing clearly which side Orwell himself was on; he meticulously tears apart the reporting of the war by the European Communist papers, particularly the fighting in Barcelona while he was on leave: it was begun when the police tried to take over the telephone exchange which was held by the labor unions, and led to several days of nasty fighting in the streets which eventually left something like 400 dead and over 1000 wounded (Though the numbers are reported by Orwell’s enemies and so seen as basically unreliable). After it was over, however, every major Communist and socialist media outlet blamed – the POUM. At the end of the war, after he is recovered from his wound, the Communists and socialists cracked down on the POUM, jailing hundreds of their leaders, usually without trial or even an accusation of a crime. Orwell, assuming that he would also be on the list for arrest, has to flee the country with his wife, leaving behind his friends and compatriots to die in dank prison cells, or to be shot by police and thrown into mass graves.

This war, these crimes, are what eventually create Napoleon of Animal Farm and O’Brien of Room 101 in 1984. Having read those books – several times – it was fascinating to read this book and see the seeds of what would come, a decade later. There is even a moment when Orwell expresses his visceral hatred of rats; and all I could think was, That’s why O’Brien uses them on Winston Smith.

As a description of a war experience, the book is vivid and interesting. As a political commentary, it is largely obsolete, but still fascinating if one is interested in Orwell’s fiction. This is the truth that is almost – but not quite – stranger than it. And the writing, of course, is brilliant. After all, it’s Orwell.

Spring Break Book Review #1: Angels and Ages

(So here’s the deal: it’s my Spring Break, and I plan to spend it reading. I will be posting as many reviews as I can. Here’s the first, for the book I finished reading Saturday, March 18 — first day of Spring Break.)

Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life

by Adam Gopnik

This was an interesting one: one of those “slow burn” sort of books. I came across it at my local used bookstore (Bookman’s in Tucson – Woo! Bookman’s!) in the discount rack, marked down to $1. I had just a day or two before read an article by Mr. Gopnik (Who is a 30-year veteran at the New Yorker) online, and so I recognized the name; even though I have been trying not to buy new books until I clear off my To Be Read shelf –or, rather, shelves – I couldn’t resist the subject matter. So I bought it, and even though I haven’t been able to find time or energy very well of late, what with school-before-Spring-Break, I decided to give it a read.

Odd phrase, that. Am I being generous with my time, granting Mr. Gopnik, and Mr. Darwin and Mr. Lincoln, a few of my hours, growing ever more precious as I age? I am acting as an audience, without which they would be forgotten (Well, at least a little bit. But then, the whole point of the Darwin half of this book is that those little bits, little bits of time and little bits of life, are all there are.). But then again, they are giving me something even better: they are inspiring me.

Mr. Lincoln, who comes off a little bit worse than his iconic status (and rightfully so) nonetheless inspires me to believe in the power of a single man to change things; particularly in the last summative chapter, this book points out how incredibly influential Lincoln was with this analogy: imagine if Boris Yeltsin had been able to maintain the Russian empire, and also install a functioning democracy obeying the rule of law. That is Lincoln’s accomplishment, and though the Civil War likely would have happened without him, and the subsequent events of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and eventual ongoing equality, the country wouldn’t have been the same. He also inspires me because he was a freethinker, an atheist, an introvert, and a deeply literate man.

Mr. Darwin, who comes off a bit better than most depictions and associations of him (and rightfully so) inspires me with his ability to be focused on both the infinite and the infinitesimal. Gopnik shows how Darwin had extraordinary powers of concentration and observation, and these, along with a constant need to ask, “Why is this so? How did this get to be this way?” are what led him to his great world-changing theory – which he knew was world-changing, also knew was absolutely correct (as far as science can ever be absolute or correct), and sought, and found, the best way to pour this thought into the collective consciousness of the world. It is remarkable, Gopnik shows, that a theory that in most people’s hands would have been a mere footnote in biology and likely would have taken generations if not centuries to percolate up through the strata until it hit the top – like, as Gopnik says, Gregor Mendel’s work on genetics – was able to completely shift the world’s conversation from a Young Earth creationism to the truth in a single generation. I also love that Mr. Darwin was so deeply in love with his wife that he delayed publication of his work because it would upset her, and also that his own atheism was softened by the same knowledge: that his devout wife would be upset by too-vigorous protestations of what he knew to be true. Though I don’t have to make the same compromise, I appreciate that he did it for her.

I am inspired, last but not least, by Mr. Gopnik. This is a complicated book; too complicated, in some ways, because the ideas and the writing are dense, and for me, the subject matter a touch too abstract to hold me down while I work my way through it. It’s written like an essay – unsurprisingly, it started as two essays in the New Yorker, one on each great man (United in this book first by the coincidence of a shared birthday – February 12, 1809 – and second by their impact on the world) – and it’s tough to follow, because Gopnik intentionally didn’t write it as a historical/biographical book. Since I haven’t ever read a good biography of either man, some of this book was lost on me. But I appreciate the enormous effort and scholarship that went into all the thought in this book, and the basic thesis that the two men are equally important to the creation of the modern world, Lincoln in the proof of the ability of liberal democracy and the rule of law to survive, Darwin in the revolution he led that changed essentially everything in the world about how we live with science. I appreciate the effort it shows in the density and complexity and beauty of the language Gopnik uses. I appreciate that he shows how Darwin and Lincoln are Darwin and Lincoln – and not, say, Alfred Russel Wallace and Stephen Douglas – because of how extraordinarily good both men were as writers. Both masters of rhetoric. Both able to accomplish what they did because of how Lincoln spoke, and how Darwin wrote, and how both of them argued.

I like this argument. I like how it’s written. I would like to be able to do the same thing as any or all three of these, at least as a writer.

Thank you, gentlemen. I appreciate your time.

Double Book Review: Bryson and Bryson

A Walk in the Woods

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

by Bill Bryson


Bill Bryson and I have nothing in common.

Mr. Bryson has four children; I have three, but they have fur and feathers and shells. He moved to England after only a year in college, and spent the next twenty years or so in Europe; I haven’t been out of the United States since I was 13, and that was only for a week. He grew up in the 1950’s, when America was ostensibly at its peak; I grew up in the 70’s when America had disco. He grew up in, and has a deep nostalgic love for, the Midwest; I’m strictly coastal, and have never even driven through Iowa, where Bryson spent his entire childhood, in the same house in Des Moines. We are both the youngest, he of three and me of two, and we come from literary traditions: his parents were both journalists, his father one of the best sportswriters (Bryson the Younger tells us, but he has a valid argument) in the history of baseball; though neither of my parents are terribly literary, my grandmother and great-grandmother were both authors, teachers, and librarians. But of course, Bryson is an award-winning and best-selling author, and I just cracked 60 followers on my blog. (I thank and adore every one of you, don’t think I don’t.)

And perhaps most importantly, Bryson is a man who would, one, walk the Appalachian Trail, or at least a lengthy segment of it, and two, write a memoir about his American Heartland youth; and I am a man who would – read about both of those things.

Bryson’s writing is beautiful. This is why I keep reading his books, despite having no real common ground with him; this was never truer than with The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, when Bryson waxes poetic for nearly 300 pages about an America I know nothing about. I mean, he was the archetype: he loved baseball, did crappy in school, and had a freaking paper route, for the love of Clark Kent. Me? I played D&D and Nintendo. Hated sports. Straight A’s until I got to high school, when my grades slipped – to mostly B’s. (I did get a few D’s and F’s, and another thing Bryson and I had in common was a whole lot of truancy in high school.) He writes wonderfully about how simple and perfect was that world, a world I didn’t know and therefore don’t long for. And honestly, even Bryson’s excellent writing didn’t make me long for it. Even though the freedom of unsupervised playtime and the Golden Age of comic books do call to me, as do the unique character of a city made up entirely of local businesses, run by local people, catering to the specific needs and wants of their neighbors, whom they know personally: the department stores, the grocery stores, the restaurants, they all sound lovely indeed. But I don’t want ’em.

The same for the Appalachian Trail, the focus of A Walk in the Woods. I had two friends who walked the whole thing one college summer, and I have always envied them their experience; no more, man. No chance. I wouldn’t even do the abbreviated hike that Bryson writes about. He talks about the exhaustion, the misery, the crappy food, the monotony of the scenery, the irritating other hikers – even a little about the murders that were committed near where he was hiking while he was there, when two female hikers were killed on the trail. Never solved, at least not by the time Bryson wrote the book. It all adds up to a great big No Thanks: even with Bryson’s excellent descriptions of the glorious vistas, the fascinating (Seriously) history of the trail and the regions it meanders through, the sense of accomplishment so palpable you can feel it coming off the page.

Actually, I thought that was the best thing about both of these books: while Bryson does talk sincerely and at length about the good things about these two experiences, he doesn’t shy away from the negative side. His mother was a crappy cook, and that experience is made much worse by the total lack of culinary adventurousness of the era. His parents didn’t worry about anything, giving him great privacy and freedom – but they also painted everything with lead, asbestos, and radiation; Bryson lived through the end of the polio era, and in a time when people, who grew up in the Depression, were frequently missing limbs. In A Walk in the Woods, as I said, he goes through every painful, plodding step, making them even more vivid through the inclusion of his out-of-shape former-alcoholic friend Katz, who walks the trail with Bryson, but slower and with even more suffering. And that’s a lot of suffering.

You hear all about the bad parts, which really does serve to make the good parts seem more genuine and more warmly appreciated. It’s easy to understand how much Bryson loved his family’s unexpected road trip to a still-new Disneyland when he also talks about the usual family vacation to visit family that nobody wants to see, not even the family themselves. It’s easy to see how happy Bryson was to go home when he finished his Appalachian Trail hike when he takes you through every terrible day before that; it’s easy to see the beautiful woods he walks through when he talks about the rain and the mud and the cold.

So even though we’re nothing alike, and Bryson writes personal non-fiction, which should make it hard for me to relate to and understand his work, I am going to keep reading it: because Bryson is a hell of a writer, and he makes me like his books even if I doubt I would like him very much. Nothing personal, Bill. But thank you for everything personal you have shared with me. You keep writing it, and I’ll keep reading it.

Book Review: How to Ruin Everything

How to Ruin Everything

by George Watsky


Well, I hate to say this, because I liked this book, but it’s a lie. Watsky completely deceived me.

This didn’t show me how to ruin everything.

It did show me that George Watsky is a remarkable essayist. He is a humorist in pieces like Tusk, about smuggling a narwhal’s tusk into the U.S. from Canada (I don’t know why we’re building a wall along the Mexican border when there are over 5,000 miles of Canadian border that someone can just walk right through carrying a narwhal tusk! Sad!), and the excellent Good Hook, in which he compares a fly-fishing trip to watching a middle-aged man try to join the Mile-High club with a pneumatically pulchritudinous seatmate who is not his wife. Watsky is profoundly personal, almost uncomfortably so, when he writes about his experiences with a seizure disorder in What Year Is It? and about his father’s connection to the San Francisco Giants in Crying & Baseball. And then, in essays like Three Stories, about the run-down house where he lived with oft-appalling roommates during college, and with Concert Tickets, about tripping on mushrooms, Watsky is me.

Except he’s a better writer.

Honestly, I don’t know how to feel about this book. It’s not perfect: there were some essays I really didn’t see the point of; which may have been the point, of course, but that still left me shrugging my shoulders and souring my mouth, thinking, “Well, what now?” When the same book has these great insights and fascinating stories, why exactly am I reading about Pauly Shore? But then, Watsky is not me: my ideas of what an essay should look like or be about are not his. But the writing is so very good, and the essays that did work for me worked so astonishingly well, that the ones that didn’t work for me generally had me questioning, not what was wrong with the essay or the author, but what was wrong with me. But I’m almost certainly overthinking it.

I guess that’s how to ruin everything.

It’s a fun book, with some ice-water revelations and eye-melting poignant moments, and really splendid writing, detailed and smooth and casually lyrical. I’m going to add Watsky to my list of essayists whose work I will always check for when I hit the bookstores. Since my list includes two men who are no longer in this world (David Rakoff and David Foster Wallace), I’m happy to get a new guy into the rotation.

Batter up!

Book Review: Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

I liked this book. I didn’t love it.

Which leaves me a little puzzled as to why this book did quite so well as it did. I mean, it’s popular science, so it makes an otherwise esoteric subject – in this case, the intertwined subjects of cellular research and medical ethics – more accessible to people; that, it does remarkably well. Skloot humanizes Henrietta Lacks, whose tissue was used to start the HeLa line of cells, which have been in constant and widespread use in medical research since the 1950’s when the cells were first collected, without Mrs. Lacks’s informed consent. The book is very good at helping us to understand the woman and her family and the impact that the medical research community had on them.

However, it doesn’t do a terribly good job of explaining the impact the Lacks family – or at least Henrietta – had on medical research. Which feels like a missed opportunity.

It’s an interesting story at the start: Mrs. Lacks had an aggressive form of cervical cancer, and was treated for free at Johns Hopkins Medical Center. The treatment, appropriate at the time, is horrifying to think of now; not much less horrifying is the idea that as part of it, doctors took tissue samples from Mrs. Lacks, one from a healthy spot on her cervix and one sample from the actual tumor, without informing Mrs. Lacks why they would be doing so. The sample from her tumor turned out to be the perfect cellular replicator, and it became a standard research tool over the next several decades; any time anyone needed some cells, they just had to order some HeLa samples from one of the several businesses that eventually made a fairly sizable profit from – well, from farming cells from Mrs. Lacks’s sample. The HeLa cells were used in all kinds of things from polio vaccine research to the Human Genome project; the science and the scientists behind it were the most interesting part of the book, at least for me. The woman herself died from her cancer, leaving behind a husband and five children; none of them had any idea that their mother had been turned into a medical experiment.

But from there, the story sort of goes off the rails. It’s understandable, because Henrietta Lacks died in the 50’s, and so cannot be a part of the current story; Skloot goes to the next best source: the Lacks family. And she tries very hard to humanize them, to allow us to understand how they feel knowing that their mother was used to supply labs with human cellular material for research, for profit, for decades after her death. The problem is that the Lacks family is kind of freaky.

I don’t mean to cast aspersions; anyone coming in to probably any family to get to know us and talk to us would likely have a strange view of the family; especially if the topic is, “So did you know that thousands of scientists have used cells grown fro your mother’s tumor in experiments?” But the Lacks family, while I sympathize with their situation, was hard to relate to. They are strangely religious, for one (At least more religious than me, which on a scale of 1-10 would be “Nuh-uh”), and have some ideas about their mother living on through her cells that I couldn’t relate to. They switch between wanting to get their share of the money made from their mother, since they all live in some level of poverty and ill health, and just wanting their mother recognized for her vital contributions to medical science, to wanting all of the doctors to pay for what they did. It made me jump around from agreeing with them to raising an eyebrow, and so it made them seem strange, to me. Then I felt guilty (still do) about finding the family strange. The biggest factor is that the family is just – kind of strange. They are entirely standoffish half of the time, and the other half of the time, they are breaking down in tears or erupting in anger, or in gales of laughter. Maybe it was just the way it was written, focusing on the most dramatic moments in what was actually a long period of research for this author, but the whole family seemed manic to me.

Then there was one other issue: I read this book because it was featured in the Engage NY curriculum, which the school where I teach has informally adopted as – well, they’re not rules so much as “guidelines.” The curriculum is online, free, and incredibly detailed and extensive. It also annoys me endlessly because it uses almost exclusively excerpts. The students don’t actually read Romeo and Juliet, for instance; they read a few key scenes and speeches, and analyze those bits. The analysis is great, but I’m a literature teacher: which means I want my students to read literature. You know, to the end of the story. One exception to the excerpt rule is – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The students read the whole thing in 10th grade as a jumping-off point for a research project. And I saw this (I should note that I may have misunderstood the curriculum map, and this novel is also excerpted; that makes more sense, but I think it said the whole book.) and thought, “Well, if they’re not going to read all of Shakespeare, but they DO read all of Skloot, this must be the best book ever!”

It’s not. It’s pretty good. But it’s no Shakespeare. And in terms of actually teaching this book, there is some cussing and language, and a fairly graphic scene of child molestation, so I wouldn’t recommend it. If it was brilliant, the scenes could be taken out or glossed over; but it’s not brilliant enough to fight over.

All in all, I’d rather read Frankenstein.

Hey — You Wanna See a Dead Body?

Working Stiff
By Dr. Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell

This was an outstanding book. And it was extraordinarily gruesome.

It’s not the first non-fiction book I’ve read about corpses and cadavers and the like; Stiff, by Mary Roach, was another excellent book that explored the different ways that we in the modern world deal with our dead — burial, cremation, preservation, repurposing, and the like. And if you want to include fiction, forget about it: I read a pile of the Kay Scarpetta mystery novels, not to mention all the zombies. And it’s a lot of zombies.

But this book is the first memoir I’ve read by an actual medical examiner (co-authored with her husband, who is a writer), a fully trained pathologist who examines the dead in order to determine how they got that way.

And Dr. Melinek holds nothing back: she describes the procedures (Including how they remove and examine the organs), the tools (Including a butcher knife and a pair of long-handled pruning shears), and the responses: her own as well as those of the victims’ families. It is a detailed, up-close guided tour to the world of the medical examiner.

She talks about gunshot wounds, about stabbings, about poisonings; she talks about drug overdoses; she talks about heart attacks and strokes and TRALI, the incredibly rare syndrome when one receives a blood transfusion with just the wrong sorts of antibodies (Or, as in this case, one has just the wrong antibodies already in the bloodstream when that transfusion happens) and the lungs fill with fluid, causing death within hours. She talks quite a lot about falls and drownings and car accidents.

And she talks about being pregnant, and being a mother; she talks about her career and her marriage; she talks about her attempt to become a surgeon before she settled on pathology. She talks about living in several different cities in pursuit of her goals. She talks, entirely candidly and at length, about her own father’s suicide by hanging at the age of 38, when she was 13.

And yeah: she talks about 9/11. You see, Dr. Melinek began working as a medical examiner in New York City in July of 2001. She was one of the 30 medical examiners that dealt with all of the human remains recovered from the World Trade Center and the subsequent events.

So: if you don’t mind hearing about blood and guts, and perhaps most disturbingly, what happens to the blood and the guts when things go wrong, I think this is definitely a book worth reading. It is honest, it is genuine, it is clear, it is informative. It is really gross. And it is really good.


I Am Malala
by Malala Yousafzai and Patricia McCormick


I saw Malala on The Daily Show, after hearing about her, of course, when the shooting happened and she became the international cause celebre; I was impressed by her poise and her humility, as well as her courage and her dedication to her cause.

I had no idea.

After reading this book, I am more than impressed: I am amazed. Because she just doesn’t make that much of it. She talks mostly about her family and her homeland and her childhood: about fighting with her brothers, about gossiping with her best friends at school, about how disappointed she was when she didn’t win first place in her class. She talks about how close her relationship is with her parents, and her parents’ different roles in the family: her father, the idealist, pushing for change, trying to do what he thought was right; her mother the steady one, the rock that the family held onto and held itself together. She herself comes of as very much an ordinary girl: when the Taliban began invading her homeland, the Swat River valley in Pakistan, she doesn’t even mention at first when she began giving interviews and talking to community leaders about the importance of education; at one point she just says, “I had already appeared on television a few times talking about these matters.” This when she was eleven.

The shooting itself, she doesn’t remember. Understandable, considering that she got shot in the left temple, and bone splinters stabbed into her brain, and an infection led to emergency surgery that removed part of her skull, which was eventually replaced with a titanium plate. But still: her main concern when she awakes several days later in a hospital in Birmingham, England, is: How is my family going to pay for this?

It’s remarkable, really, how this young woman manages to be so incredibly courageous and dedicated, and yet see herself as nothing special. She’s just doing what she feels she has to do, what she believes God requires of us all: to speak the truth and let falsehoods wither in the face of it.

It’s an interesting story, because it shows the slow progression of the Taliban’s invasion of the Swat valley, how it began with a radio show that called for the rejection of Westernization and “modern” ideas like allowing girls to be educated. Malala’s father had founded a school, which taught both boys and girls from primary through secondary grades; so he, of course, held on to his passion for education and tried to bring attention to the plight of the area as the Taliban grew more and more powerful, first through influence and propaganda, and then through violence and terrorism. Meanwhile, beginning about age eleven, Malala took up her father’s cause, as well, keeping a diary for the BBC that showed the daily life of a Pakistani schoolgirl under the Taliban’s rule, and then giving more and more interviews and speeches fighting for the right to an education for everyone, especially young women. Until, of course, she gained the attention of the Taliban, and they tried to silence her.

Boy, did that not work.

I would highly recommend this book for everyone, but most especially for young people — of course for young women. It’s a lot like Anne Frank’s diary in that Malala really does seem like a regular school girl; she worries about her appearance, she constantly fights and makes up with her best friend; and — oh yeah, incidentally, she fights for her right to learn against violent madmen. She is both relatable and a wonderful role model, and her story should be an inspiration to all of us to focus on what is actually important, in this violent world we are all trying to live in.

Excellent book. Read it, and give it to your daughters, and your sons.