Book Review – The Cactus Eaters: How I Lost My Mind and Almost Found Myself on the Pacific Crest Trail

One star. To make it through their physically and mentally demanding PCT thru-hike, author Dan White and his girlfriend Allison shared a soundtrack of songs. I too found myself with a mental soundtrack while reading The Cactus Eaters: How I Lost My Mind and Almost Found Myself on the Pacific Crest Trail: “I can change, I can change!” “What if you remain a sandy little butthole?” from South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut, in honor of Dan’s overbearing selfishness, total lack of decency to his trail companion, and utter refusal to display a modicum of common sense on the trail.

First, to hit the good points: White’s descriptions of trail life are intriguing. His account of the walk from Mexico to Canada is lucid and readable. He neither romanticizes nor overstates the total challenge of his thru-hike. Nor does he shy away from painting himself in a negative light as he makes repeated mistakes and ignores pretty much every bit of rational advice–in fact, I went so far as to wonder why on earth anyone would ever pen such an unflattering picture of themselves.

Unfortunately, the author is an utter and complete nimrod when it comes to how he treats other people, most especially Allison. He consistently values his satisfaction, goals, and judgment over hers, to the detriment of their hike and relationship. For example, in the Mojave Desert stretch, he unilaterally decides to lighten his pack of some of the water load, dumping quite a bit without telling her, and then concealing as long as he can before fessing up that they face a long, dry march towards questionable water sources. Overrun with thirst, he takes a bite out of a prickly pear cactus, and then whines while Allison tweezes thorns out of his tongue. He pushes her over and over to perform beyond her knee pain. Later, when both of them get sick, any concern for her well-being is merely an afterthought.

Even worse, when a real-world commitment requires Allison to be off the trail for a week, he whines and moans the whole time about how it’s going to cost them their goal of reaching Canada. The one non-text item reproduced in the book is an image of the churlish and petulant screed he scrawled about how the time off trail was interfering with his obsession with reaching the Canadian border that looked and sounded like it was written by a foul-mouthed thirteen year old with poor impulse control whining that he wasn’t getting his way. (Perhaps he wanted the reader to see the string of sad faces he drew on the right side of the text?)

Allison discovers that her knee pain is due to rheumatoid arthritis. Despite her begging, he can’t be bothered to even read a brief pamphlet about her condition, much less muster any kindness or sympathy–it’s all about how her arthritis interferes with his dream.

The only real description we get of Allison is that she’s blonde, a feminist, and he lusts after her more and more as she gets more tanned and toned from the rigors of trail life. We find out very little more about her; I posit that the author himself never bothered to find out any further detail about her.

All I can say is that Allison must be a saint to endure what she did… to paraphrase Silent Bob, there’s a million fine looking women in the world, but they don’t all tweeze cactus thorns out of your fool tongue when you’re stupid.

It’s not just Allison either. He treats the other hikers he encounters with derision, such as referring to them as unflattering names. In one extreme case, he forces them to make a 5 AM start to avoid hiking with someone that he doesn’t like because he thought the guy was boring and downcast when they met while eating dinner the night before. When he gets off the trail, he recounts a pathetic string of neurotic dead-ends that quashed any trace of sympathy I might have had for him.

The writing is good, and the story itself is interesting. What makes this book grossly obnoxious is the insipid behavior of the author. Dan White proves in The Cactus Eaters that an accomplishment like completing the Pacific Crest Trail is not enough to keep one from being a sandy little butthole.

Book Review – Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

3 stars. For a book about “murder! prophets! sex! revelations! polygamy! exodus!”, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith manages to be somewhat, well, boring and pedantic. That’s especially a disappointment when it comes from a writer with Jon Krakauer’s talent for utterly engrossing prose, even when I’m not as committed to the people he portrays (Into the Wild) or the axe he has to grind (Where Men Win Glory) as he is.

Under the Banner of Heaven is the tale of the 1984 murder of Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter Erica by two of her brothers-in-law, Ron and Dan Lafferty, purportedly acting on a divine revelation that they must be killed. Krakauer intertwines the brothers’ history of fundamentalism–with a strong fixation on the concept of polygamous plural marriage–with an account of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints from Joseph Smith’s revelation of The Book of Mormon to modern day. This history centers around plural marriage, with occasional detours to less-than-proud moments in Mormon history such as the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the possibility that some of the expedition members of John Wesley Powell’s exploration of the Grand Canyon died at the hands of Mormons.

The real problem with this book is that the lack of focus caused me to disconnect from the narrative and people. The Lafferty brothers feel like caricatures, and so little time is spent on Brenda that there’s no emotional resonance to her horrific murder. This would have been a much stronger book had it told the story of Brenda and her murderers than if it had tried to tell the story of a whole religion. Out of the book’s 26 chapters, 18 of them are devoted to Mormon history or an exploration of splinter fundamentalists groups, polygamist communities, and events such as the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping that are only tenuously connected to the Lafferty murders.

Krakauer writes people and reconstructs events well; witness the vibrancy with which he gave the story of Pat Tillman’s life and the bulldog tenacity with which he explores the life and death of Chris McCandless. He’s not a terribly engaging writer of history, though, giving seemingly endless lists of names, places, and happenings without bringing them to life. I feel that this book was a tedious lecture rather than an enlightening read. He attempted to highlight the lurid, extreme, and violent of the fringes of the Mormon church, combine it with the horrible acts of the Lafferty brothers, and somehow turn it into an indictment of mainstream Mormonism and religion in general. For what it’s worth, I do think he did a good job of impartially recounting events; it’s simply that an argument from the specific to the general doesn’t work because it’s logically fallacious.

Krakauer’s inability to choose whether to tell about the dirty laundry of the Mormon church or the story of Brenda Lafferty’s murder and the poisonous religious fundamentalism of her killers makes Under the Banner of Heaven a strictly pedestrian effort.

Book Review – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

2.5 stars, which in no way does justice to the strength of the theme and my love for the characters, nor shows my bitter disappointment at a transparently derivative story that values nostalgia over narrative.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is likely the most loved story published in my lifetime. The heartfelt characters, gripping story, deeply imaginative world, and enduring themes resonate deeply with me and millions of other readers. I am an unabashed fan; it is a series that I treasure and will re-read over and over.

The screenplay Harry Potter and the Cursed Child begins literally where the absolutely perfect final words of The Deathly Hallows fade away, with young Albus Severus Potter departing Platform 9 3/4 for his first year at Hogwarts. He quickly befriends Scorpius Malfoy, and the two find themselves entangled in conflict both of legacy and of their own making.

The chief error of The Cursed Child is that it looks backward rather than forward. Far too many passages are simply alternate versions of what we have seen before. Rather than inventing new conflict, story lines, and settings, this play gloms on to The Goblet of Fire and never lets go–which means, sadly, that it is never able to breathe as its own entity.

Returning characters do not seem to be grown versions of the ones we love, either seeming contrary to their past or never moving beyond it. Harry is rather unlikable and authoritarian; Hermione seems only focused on her current duties; Ginny is barely noticeable. Ron’s earnest oafishness was one of many endearing qualities of a brave and loyal boy, but as we see him in this play, he is simply a caricature providing merely comic relief. Even when he does the right thing–join his friends to face peril–he does it with a flippancy that would have been unworthy of his school-age character and is far less endearing as an adult. And the weirdly flirty cameo by Moaning Myrtle? Very out of place.

Even some of the best moments are milked for their emotional impact. The scene with Hagrid is a rehash of emotions that is totally unnecessary; we lived through that one before. Perhaps on stage this plays better than on page?

For all of its failings, there is enough magic within The Cursed Child to delight. Albus and Scorpius are fantastic characters, and the whimsy of their madcap adventures is a pleasure to read. The valedictory moments are wonderful, as relations between Harry, Albus, Draco, and Scorpius develop and mature.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was neither allowed to stand on its own nor to be part of the original series of Harry’s tale. While I suspect I would like it far more as a play, I wish this story had been so much more than it is. It is a testament to Rowling’s creation that I did not need another story of Harry, Ron, and Hermione; within the pages of this play was an astounding tale of Albus and Scorpius that was not allowed out.

Book Review – Planetfall

3 stars. Emma Newman’s Planetfall does a lot of things right–interesting world, great characterization, thought-provoking themes–yet wound up only garnering a middling reaction from me, thanks to a muddled ending and too much emphasis on the theme of mental illness.

A group of colonists, bound together by the personal charisma and vision of Lee Suh-Mi, undertook a pilgrimage away from polluted and over-populated Earth, establishing a community at the base of so-called God’s city. The founding of the town was marred by the loss of several colonists. Suh-Mi ascended into the city, where she communes with a higher power, sending yearly messages to the group. Out of the jungle, Suh-Mi’s grandson emerges, threatening the secret that has held the community together.

The greatest problem that I had with this book is that it requires stringing the reader along with a Mysterious Secret Buried in the Past–normally, a pretty effective trope. The first-person narrator, Ren, is one of the two colonists who is privy to this secret, but the author chooses not to reveal it until long after its concealment has crossed the fine line to melodrama. It’s being withheld simply to artificially preserve the suspense. Had this volume been third person, this would have worked much more naturally than the first-person narration allows.

I also never really connected with Ren. I sympathized with her mental illness, but never felt empathy for her–she made her own bed by taking the path of least resistance at virtually every opportunity. The ending further perpetuated my disconnect with Ren. She never grew as a character, just kept doing her best to conceal her mental illness until the deus ex machina (or more accurately, deus ex planta!) ending dissolved all the conflicts to nothingness.

The ending is abstract, non-explanatory, and seemed out of place. I suppose it’s one of those things that the author chose to leave open to the reader’s interpretation, but it didn’t seem to serve a purpose in either storytelling or character development.

Despite all this, Planetfall was still a worthwhile read. Newman’s imaginative colony and the rich cast of personalities worked well, and the science fiction parts of it were realistically created. Perhaps much of my faint praise is due to the unsatisfied feeling I had at the last page; I expected something great and was left with merely good.

Book Review – Witches: The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem

4 stars. I picked up Rosalyn Schanzer’s Witches: The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem after a visit to the Salem Witch Museum (interesting, despite being too much dramatic attraction and too little museum for my taste, but that’s another story). This slim, no-frills account factually narrates the 1692 witchcraft hysteria that led to the executions of 20 and the deaths of another 5 in prison. The tone is very straightforward, with no sensationalism whatsoever.

It’s sign of progress that so much of the legal system of the day feels foreign to us: the admissibility of spectral evidence, the fees that the accused had to pay for the “privilege” of being jailed, even if they were found not guilty, and the way the judge ordered a jury that delivered a non-guilty verdict to reconvene and deliberate again (they then returned a guilty verdict). Reading about these abuses of law made my skin crawl!

Schanzer masterfully lays out the events in appropriate detail for young readers, and she wisely lets the themes speak for themselves, especially about judicial corruption, the way property was seized from the accused, and how, in many cases, the accusers benefited from the plight of the accused.

The illustrations accompanying the text are absolutely perfect, done in a period style to convey the feel of black-and-white engravings, with occasional shots of red. Though fairly simply done, there is a depth and resonance to them that makes this book come to life.

A well-done example of how history should be written for young readers, with plenty that adult readers will find appealing as well.

Book Review – No Dream Is Too High: Life Lessons From a Man Who Walked on the Moon

BuzzAldrin 4 stars. An easy, breezy read by one who has long been my hero, No Dream Is Too High is wisdom from moonwalker Buzz Aldrin. Through each chapter, he presents a precept that has guided him and discusses events where that lesson was learned or used. We gain some glimpses into his life and mind.

Dr. Aldrin was signing this book at my local bookstore, so I bought a copy and waited in line. And waited. And waited. Fortunately, that was pretty good reading time, so I was halfway through the book when I finally got mine signed.

Normally, I’m not a huge fan of inspirational work; it’s too often an exercise in either the author’s vanity or blowing sunshine up the reader’s posterior. I found his precepts moderately cheesy. What made this book interesting for me was his stories–he’s quite a character! Most of the narrative is told with warmth and humor, and more than anything else optimism and enthusiasm for science, learning, and exploration.

Dr. Aldrin cannot be accused of being a shrinking violet–occasionally he’s pretty full of himself! That’s tempered by his willingness to laugh at himself, such as when he was trying to get into a frequent flier lounge at an airport and finally resorted to trying to use his celebrity for access. The receptionist replied that she knew who he was, but she was not going to let him in without paying. He laughed it off and moved on to McDonald’s!No Dream Is Too High

By far the best stories dealt with his Gemini and Apollo days, and the intense competition/cooperation between the astronauts. His recounting of the Apollo 1 tragedy was heartfelt and touching. The rivalry with a purpose between the astronauts perfectly illustrated his point about one’s friends and associates being such important factors in life. I also particularly enjoyed his passionate advocacy for a Mars landing.

No Dream Is Too High: Life Lessons From a Man Who Walked on the Moon was an entertaining read presenting an entertaining look at a true hero.

Book Review – The Phantom Tollbooth

4 stars. The Phantom Tollbooth is the tale of Milo, a young boy who embarks on an adventure in a strange land when a mysterious tollbooth appears in his room. What follows is a rollicking journey through two kingdoms abandoned by Rhyme and Reason.

Norton Juster’s wordplay is the main star of this book. He is a master of both the literal (Milo lands on the Island of Conclusions after he makes an unfounded statement) and the pun (Milo’s faithful companion Tock is a watchdog–a dog with a clock face on his side). The dialog rewards attentive readers with a love for words with witty and pithy observations, making it a delight to read. Even when the book is at its silliest, there are plenty of subtle jokes to be found.

If I have a small complaint about The Phantom Tollbooth, it’s that the story is definitely secondary to the wordplay. Occasionally it felt like characters and events were contrived to make the next joke, sometimes making it feel like it was an endless string of “go here, have a witty conversation, repeat” events.

There’s plenty here for both adults and children. I’m sure I would have adored this book had I read it as a kid; instead, I merely enjoyed it for the razor-sharp wit.