Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction, Travel

From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty

Another book club pick! I’m really enjoying having a book club again, particularly one that reads exclusively nonfiction! This book was originally recommended by a former book store coworker and I can’t wait to tell her what everyone else thought of the book.

Synopsis

From the Back Cover:
Fascinated by our pervasive fear of dead bodies, mortician Caitlin Doughty embarks on a global expedition to discover how other cultures care for the dead. From Zoroastrian sky burials to wish-granting Bolivian skulls, she investigates the world’s funerary customs and expands our sense of what it means to treat the dead with dignity. Her account questions the rituals of the American funeral industry – especially chemical embalming – and suggests that the most effective traditions are those that allow mourners to personally attend to the body of the deceased. Exquisitely illustrated by artist Landis Blair, From Here to Eternity is an adventure into the morbid unknown, a fascinating tour through the unique ways people everywhere confront mortality.

Review

As someone who has lost their fair share of friends and family members, as well as pets, almost exclusively to cancer, I’ve never really come to terms with how we, in the US, process death. A friend, who is currently going to school to be a mortician/funeral director, introduced me to Caitlin Doughty, an L. A. based mortician and founder of the Order of the Good Death, a nonprofit organization that focuses on helping people come to terms with their mortality and make decisions regarding the care and keeping of their body after they die.

These facts, when the book club picked it, made me a bit wary – I’m still not entirely at peace with my grandmother’s passing in the fall. I don’t like to talk about death. I don’t like to talk about dead bodies. I have difficulty with viewings and other death-related occasions. But, with an open mind, I started reading, with the hope that Caitlin would help me develop a better relationship one of the only facts about our lives on earth – they will end.

My husband often says he wants a Viking funeral, or a Tibetan Sky Burial, and each time he brings it up, I ask him to stop. I can’t stomach it. But Caitlin has gone all over the world, and her own country, exploring different cultures’ death rituals. And maybe it’s her writing, maybe it’s the distance, but it is absolutely fascinating! I really could not put From Here to Eternity – the travel aspect also helped me stomach the content. And at times, I cried, but for good reasons – Caitlin expertly goes back and forth between being detached and un-emotional, to feeling all the things when listening to her coworker recount the circumstances of the loss of her unborn son.

People die all the time, and she also goes into why cremation has become such a large part of the modern funeral industry, as well as the monopolies, corruption, and out-of-date laws that govern the industry in the US. To say I learned something would be a massive understatement. I was freaked out significantly less than I anticipated being while reading Packing for Mars last month.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback – $15.95 – 9780393356281 – 272 pages – originally published October 2017, this edition published October 2018 by W. W. Norton & Company – average Goodreads rating 4.29 out of 5 – read in June 2019

Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction, Travel

Second Wind by Nathaniel Philbrick

This weekend my father came out to visit and stay with my husband and I in our new house to help us do some outdoor work. He was the first overnight visitor to the new abode, and he slipped and fell, injuring his shoulder. I blame myself, and was reminded of all the other times he’s told me not to worry about him, and one that stands out is when he flipped his little Sunfish sailboat over in the lake. I gave him Second Wind for Christmas last year and now that we’ve both read it, it felt time for a review.

Synopsis

From the Inside Flap:
In the spring of 1992, Nathaniel Phibrick was in his late thirties, living with his family on Nantucket. Feeling stranded, he longed for that thrill of victory he once felt after winning a national sailing championship in his youth. Was it a midlife crisis? It was certainly a watershed for the journalist-turned-stay-at-home dad, who impulsively decided to throw his hat into the ring, or water, again.

With the bemused approval of his wife and children, Philbrick used the off-season on the island as his solitary training ground, sailing his tiny Sunfish to its remotest corners, experiencing the haunting beauty of its tidal creeks, inlets, and wave-battered sandbars. On ponds, bays, rivers, and finally at the championship on a lake in the heartland of America, he sailed through storms and memories, racing for the prize but finding something unexpected about himself instead.

Review

My father has loved sailing for as long as I can remember. As a builder and contractor, he’s had the opportunity to build many houses, but the one that made him happiest was his own, lakefront house in south central Pennsylvania. And with said house, came the opportunity to sail. And for just as long, it’s been my favorite pastime of his, and one to share. Just don’t ask me to get in the boat with him – the aforementioned flipping was done for fun.

Second Wind seemed like a logical book to give him for Christmas, now that he’s starting to slow down with the building a bit (though this recent injury may lay him up for longer than he would like) and take some more time to pursue leisurely activities. The sailboat is no longer one of them (he no longer resides on a lake), but can vicariously live through Nathaniel Philbrick.

If looking for a leisurely story about one man’s journey to find himself and reclaim some lost youth by reconnecting with nature and the seemingly distant past of sailing, Second Wind is perfect. It’s not my favorite Philbrick, but it certainly like the breath of fresh air that powers his sails – the perfect recovery book – one to be read after heavier fare or finishing a long series. It asks little of the reader’s brainpower and seeks only to share a story. As I’m also reading A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, I can definitely recommend it to readers who enjoyed his adventure of the Appalachian Trail.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Second Wind

Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction, Sociology, Travel

Travels with Myself and Another by Martha Gellhorn

In continuing my war correspondent memoir/biography trend, I figured it was time I pick up Martha Gellhorn’s Travels with Myself and Another. Those who know who she is typically think of her as Hemingway’s third wife, but those who care about journalism, know her as one of the first female war correspondents, and inspiration to my favorite journalist, Marie Colvin.

Synopsis

As a journalist, Gellhorn covered every military conflict from the Spanish Civil War to Vietnam and Nicaragua. She also bewitched Eleanor Roosevelt’s secret love and enraptured Ernest Hemingway with her courage as they dodged shell fire together.

Hemingway is, of course, the unnamed “other” in the title of this tart memoir, first published in 1979, in which Gellhorn describes her globe-spanning adventures, both accompanied and alone. With razor-sharp humor and exceptional insight into place and character, she tells of a tense week spent among dissidents in Moscow; long days whiled away in a disused water tank with hippies clustered at Eilat on the Red Sea; and her journeys by sampan and horse to the interior of China during the Sino-Japanese War.

Review

Martha Gellhorn has fascinated me for quite some time, given my present obsession with female war correspondents this should not be surprising. Her life, one wholly unconventional for her time, is inspiring, but also, in light of twenty first century sensibilities, one I had to remind myself, began over a century ago.

A feminist at her core, Martha, M as UC (unwilling companion, AKA Hemingway) calls her, sets off on each “horror journey” as she’s dubbed them, without a great deal of pre-planning, other than the bare minimum required by her destination. The era of traveling by your bootstraps, hopping flights when you need them, hoping to stumble upon a hotel with available rooms each night, etc. is simply unheard of today. Even when Ewan MacGregor and Charley Boorman went around the world and south through Africa on motorcycles, they still had reservations and accommodations, or at least tents to sleep in each night. Did Martha? No.

When I think of a single woman traveling in the 1940s, ’50s, and early ’60s, I feel a sympathetic sense of dread. I keep waiting for something to go thoroughly wrong, but by her wits or the kindness of others, she avoids any great gender related danger. M doesn’t typically discuss how her gender has anything to do with her ability to travel and I LOVE IT. I felt the real sense of, “If M can do it, so can I!” much more so than when reading Lynsey Addario’s autobiography and Lindsey’s biography of Marie Colvin (apparently a disproportionate number of my favorite journalists are Lindseys…) – they went to the front lines of war. Martha, due to either her gender or the time period, goes to the back lines of war. The war that we don’t see that isn’t quite as dangerous as the war everyone saw on the newsreels each night.

When M and UC (Hemingway) go to China during World War II, it never feels like there is a great threat on their lives. When M goes to the French islands of the Caribbean, I learned a great deal about how the Vichy government affected their lives, but I was never fearful of M’s survival. These adventures, and M’s quite frequent poor decision making – when the pilot of the boat tells you he won’t wait for you to scale a dormant volcano because he can’t dock safely, you should probably heed his warning and not be surprised when you get up in the morning and he’s gone – just a thought. But all these adventures are learning experiences for M and for us, her readers, 40 years after the original publication, 70 years after the adventure. But the real sticking point for this collection for me is M’s trip to Africa.

Holy mother of colonialism. In January of 1962, Martha Gellhorn went to Africa. I found the map in my photo in my collection of vintage maps with a copyright date of 1960 – pretty darn close to how the continent was divided politically at the time of Martha’s travels. Given that Martha’s trip to Africa is by far the longest and move life-affecting of this collection of essays, it seemed a fitting backdrop for the book. But to think of Martha’s approach to the continent, it makes me retch a bit inside.

It seems so foreign to me that we, as human beings, particularly white people, could stereotype an entire continent of people and refuse to get to know them, learn about their communities, and simply label them as selfish, liars, etc. The thing that terrifies me the most is that M was probably considered progressive for her time. While I’m sure there are readers who would find it difficult to turn off their 2018 filters and would find her recounting of her trip to Africa offensive, at it’s core it is a compelling historical and sociological exploration into the changing nature of how we travel and interact with people, and is definitely worth reading.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.00 • 9781585420902 • 320 pages • first published 1979, this edition published May 2001 by TarcherPerigee • average Goodreads rating 3.83 out of 5 stars • read in December 2018

Travels with Myself and Another

Non-Fiction, Travel

Everyday Adventures by Lonely Planet

I love fun travel books, especially ones that are easy enough to explore or implement close to home. This one in particular caught my eye as I have a little elephant, Ellie, traveling companion who joins me on not only big overseas adventures, but also close to home adventures and I always need pictures for her Instagram account! (@adventuresofellietheelephant). *This book comes out this coming Tuesday, July 17th*

Synopsis

Weave a little wonder into daily life with these fun and challenging activities – and experience your local area in a whole new way. Invite friends on a social adventure, follow your senses to somewhere new and embark on a cultural odyssey. Lonely Planet shows you how to embrace the traveler spirit and discover a new side to where you live.

Review

If asked my hometown, I usually tell people it is Carlisle, PA. If asked where I grew up? Gettysburg. If asked where I went to college, Pittsburgh, where I live now, Phoenixville, all in Pennsylvania. So I generally consider my state to be my hometown to explore. I have great loyalty for my state, particularly the southeastern corner where I live now.

When we first moved to Gettysburg, a BIG tourist town (major battle of the Civil War, led to 1 million + tourists every summer), my mom used to make us play tourist on the weekends and we (my sister and I) hated it. If I had to go back to Gettysburg and do the suggestions in this book, I’d still hate it. So I took Ellie the Elephant off on an adventure around Phoenixville, our current home of the past 6 years.

Ellie and I did adventures #3 Fly By Night, #8 Memory Lane, #23 Plastic Challenge, #27 Counter Tourism, #32 Movie Magic, and #43 Alternating Travel. In addition to the challenges mentioned, we gave into the Stars Hollow-y nature of Phoenixville and attended the local festivals that we usually avoid like the plague. We learned a lot about the town, and I learned a lot about myself and how I experience different places.

All in all, it was an enjoyable, interactive adventure book, but there were definitely adventures that were not quite applicable towards small town life – the book skews pretty significantly urban.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.99 • 9781787013582 • 208 pages • published July 2018 by Lonely Planet

Lonely Planet’s Website

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Everyday Adventures

Non-Fiction, Travel

Atlas Obscura by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras & Ella Morton

Fun and eccentric travel book with lots of random and unknown places in it? Can I have a copy now please? These may or may not have been my exact words to my boss when this book first showed up at the store. 

Synopsis

It’s time to get off the beaten path. Inspiring equal parts wonder and wanderlust, Atlas Obscura celebrates over 700 of the strangest and most curious places in the world.

Talk about a bucket list: here are natural wonders–the dazzling glowworm caves in New Zealand, or a baobob tree in South Africa that’s so large it has a pub inside where 15 people can drink comfortably. Architectural marvels, including the M.C. Escher-like stepwells in India. Mind-boggling events, like the Baby Jumping Festival in Spain, where men dressed as devils literally vault over rows of squirming infants. Not to mention the Great Stalacpipe Organ in Virginia, Turkmenistan’s 40-year hole of fire called the Gates of Hell, a graveyard for decommissioned ships on the coast of Bangladesh, eccentric bone museums in Italy, or a weather-forecasting invention that was powered by leeches, still on display in Devon, England.

More cabinet of curiosities than traditional guidebook, Atlas Obscura revels in the unexpected, the overlooked, the bizarre, and the mysterious. Every page expands our sense of how strange and marvelous the world really is. And with its compelling descriptions, hundreds of photographs, surprising charts, and maps for every region of the world. It is a book you can open anywhere. But with caution: It’s almost impossible not to turn to the next entry, and the next, and the next.

Review

Christmas shopping each year for my brother-in-law and his wife is next to impossible. As corporate lawyers in New York City (now in Miami), they want for just about nothing, so getting them a present that speaks to the interests and sensibilities is the only way to go. And it’s hard. Easier now than it was before they had children back in 2016 when this beauty arrived in the store and for once, in the 6 years I’d been buying them presents, I knew exactly what to get them. I made the book one of my staff picks for holiday gift giving and, as my boss gets each of the staff a book of their choice for Christmas each year, I asked for a copy of my own.

As regular world travels (I have great and excessive envy of their passports), my brother-in-law and his wife delighted in picking out the places they’d been and where they’d want to go. They spent hours on Christmas Day pouring over the pages and it was passed around the family for hours after that. When visiting them at their apartment, it was the only book they had out on the table, the edges now worn and clearly turned repeatedly with care.

Now, as I plan my trip to the UK to visit my sister in June, I’ve post-it noted the places I want to go, and also marked them on the Atlas Obscura website because the book is too precious (and heavy) to travel with. I’ve altered my travel plans with her to suit visiting some of the places included in this book (as well as Lonely Planet’s Global Coffee Tour) and in my researching and paging through, I was pleasantly surprised to find it included some places I had already traveled too!

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $35.00 • 9780761169086 • 480 pages • published September 2016 by Workman Publishing • average Goodreads rating 4.25 out of 5 • referenced repeatedly since December 2016

Atlas Obscura Website

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Atlas Obscura

Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction, Travel

The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson

My mother had a copy of A Short History of Nearly Everything in our minivan for pretty much my entire adolescence. Intrigued, I figured that when I finally wanted to read nonfiction (once it was done being assigned to me), I would read a book by Bill Bryson, especially as I planned a trip to visit my sister in the UK.

Synopsis

Twenty years ago, Bill Bryson went on a trip around Britain to discover and celebrate that green and pleasant land. The result was Notes from a Small Island, a true classic and one of the bestselling travel books ever written. Now he has traveled about Britain again, by bus and train and rental car and on foot, to see what has changed–and what hasn’t.

Following (but not too closely) a route he dubs the Bryson Line, from Bognor Regis in the south to Cape Wrath in the north, by way of places few travelers ever get to at all, Bryson rediscovers the wondrously beautiful, magnificently eccentric, endearingly singular country that he both celebrates and, when called for, twits. With his matchless instinct for the funniest and quirkiest and his unerring eye for the idiotic, the bewildering, the appealing, and the ridiculous, he offers acute and perceptive insights into all that is best and worst about Britain today.

Review

I think I made a mistake… I picked my first Bill Bryson book based on which one was available on the library Overdrive app as an audiobook for me to listen to while driving to my grandmother’s one day last week. According to everyone I talked to about Bill Bryson books once I was halfway through listening to it, I made the wrong choice.

For a little context, the description does not make is abundantly clear that you really should have read Notes from a Small Island prior to reading The Road to Little Dribbling. Not just for a bit of context for why Bill travels to the locations he visits in this book, but also to acclimate yourself to his writing and voice. Because without a little context, well, The Road to Little Dribbling reads like an alternate draft of Grumpy Old Men.

Some of the observations that Bryson makes about how Great Britain has changed are reasonable based in reality. Other times, it seems like he’s complaining and for the sake of being a jerk. One of my coworkers tried to tell me that that was the basis of his writing and he was being sarcastic, but I feel like I’m not so dense that I cannot tell when someone is being sarcastic, it is my second language after all.

And then, the more I listened, the more I felt like it was probably a generational thing. Bill Bryson is clearly a member of the Baby Boomers and I am thoroughly a millennial. And while I often rag against people disparaging against other generations, I find it is quite clear that there is absolutely a difference in each generation’s approach to life. So while I’ve decided that I’m not a fan of The Road to Little Dribbling, I might still be a fan of Bill Bryson’s and just have to accept that this one is not for me.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.95 • 9780804172714 • 400 pages • first published January 2016, this edition published October 2016 by Anchor Books • average Goodreads rating 3.71 • read in January 2018

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Road to Little Dribbling

Non-Fiction, Photography/Art, Travel

The Grand Tour Guide to the World by Jeremy Clarkson, James May & Richard Hammond

It’s all my husband’s fault. When we first started dating, he asked if I wanted to watch a little British show call Top Gear. “What is Top Gear?” I asked, ignorant of it’s cultural relevance. “Oh, well it’s kind of a car show, kind of a comedy show,” he answered. “Ok,” I shrugged, “let’s watch it.” Oh how little I anticipated that it would quickly become my favorite show of the decade.

Synopsis

The world is a big place full of interesting thins… And The Grand Tour has seen several of them. That’s why few people are better placed to lead you around this vast planet of ours than Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May. As long as you don’t mind getting hot and lost.

In this indispensable guide you’ll discover an abundance of information, most of which is probably wrong and potentially dangerous. Alongside occasionally accurate guides to the places visited on the show, you’ll find exclusive interviews with the presenters and see how some of the show’s most spectacular sequences were made.

As well as being a factually dubious encyclopaedia, The Grand Tour Guide to the World is also a companion for anyone inspired by the Grand Tour traveling circus. Learn how to blend in with French car enthusiasts, how to speak Welsh (wrongly) and how to wow people with amazing facts about Swindon. And on top of all this, we reveal the world’s fastest cop cars and the planet’s greatest car makers. And there’s a picture of James May in an anorak.

Review

So I rambled about Top Gear at the beginning and you’re probably thinking, but Sarah, the title of the book says it’s called The Grand Tour! Yes, because the BBC fired the top presenter, Jeremy Clarkson, so he and his mates got picked up by Amazon to make a new show call The Grand Tour.

The Grand Tour started its second season shortly before Christmas and, when you’re working in a retail environment during the holidays as I was, you look for just about anything and everything to cheer yourself up and The Grand Tour fit the bill. Most of the original features of Top Gear (the news, celebrities driving cars, making fun of each other, races, etc.) are in the new series but with slightly different names. The boys can be counted on to make even the most mundane topic intriguing and entertaining. Even if you don’t really care about cars, like my sister… (ahem, Laura), you can still find something to laugh about.

The book is organized into 10 sections, one for each episode/location the show traveled to in the first series of The Grand Tour. The graphic design is stunning, and the content is, for the most part, informative. Would I recommend it as an actual travel guide? Of course not. But, if you are a fan of The Grand Tour, or you want to see what Clarkson, May and Hammond are all about, I suggest at least flipping through the pages of The Grand Tour Guide to the World. At the very least, their irreverent humor will occasionally bring a smile to your face.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $29.99 • 9780008257859 • 272 pages • published October 2017 by HarperCollins • average Goodreads rating 3.83 out of 5 • read in January 2018

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Grand Tour Guide to the World 2

 

Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction, Photography/Art, Travel

My Holiday in North Korea by Wendy E. Simmons

In January 2016, I went with my boss to an ABA (American Booksellers Association) event called “Winter Institute.” It is the biggest gathering of independent booksellers and my boss reminded me that in addition to learning lots about the book world and being starstruck by all the authors present, I should bring a book back for each of my coworkers. My coworker Su is the most difficult person to pick out books for, so this is the one I brought back for her. She thought I was nuts, until she started to read it. And then she couldn’t shut up about it! On her recommendation, my book decided to read it last September.

10 - September 2016 - My Holiday in North Korea

Synopsis

Most people want out of North Korea. Wendy Simmons wanted in.

In My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth, Wendy shares a glimpse of North Korea as it’s never been seen before. Even though it’s the scariest place on earth, somehow Wendy forgot to check her sense of humor at the border.

But Wendy’s initial amusement and bewilderment soon turned to frustration and growing paranoia. Before long, she learned the essential conundrum of tourism in North Korea: travel is truly a love affair. But, just like love, it’s a two-way street. And North Korea deprives you of all this. They want you to fall in love with the singular vision of the country they’re willing to show you and nothing more.

Review

If you’ve ever wondered what life is really like in North Korea, this is not the book for you. If you’ve ever wondered why North Korea wants you to think life is really like there, then this is the book for you. Wendy Simmons is one of a very limited number of Americans granted access to a tour of the country, a fully planned, fully monitored, full devoid of any genuine moments, tour of the “empire.”

We’ve all heard stories about how the people are brainwashed into thinking that their country really is the greatest on Earth and far better than any other in the world, but few have witnessed the truth firsthand as Wendy has, the truth being, that they really do seem to believe it.

This review is so brief because words really cannot describe the incredulity I experienced while reading – simply to say that you should go read it. Read it now. Read it immediately.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Edition: Paperback • $19.95 • 9780795347047 • 312 pages • published May 2016 by Rosettabooks • average Goodreads rating 3.7 out of 5 • read in September 2016

Wendy E. Simmons’ Website

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My Holiday in North Korea
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