The Madness Test by Jon Ronson

madnessBook – Jon Ronson started out investigating a hoax being played on a group of neurologists, but ends up exploring the depths of what he calls the “madness industry.” A top psychologist teaches him how to recognize the signs of psychopathy in others, and he sets out to explore his new knowledge in the corridors of power.

This a was fun, funny, casual read.  And therein lies the problem: I felt that the fun, funny parts of the book were distracting severely from the actual serious parts of the book. While the implications of psychopathy as a category (that is, deciding it’s a real thing and treating psychopaths as people different from the rest of humanity) range from interesting to downright scary, Ronson kind of mentions this in passing and then goes on to spend quite a lot of time with the weirdest people possible, from the criminal who insists he can’t be a psychopath to the psychiatrist who insists that that insistence proves that he is. (Confused yet?)

Maybe I’m just weird in not liking nonfiction that doesn’t seem to teach you anything. But Ronson seems to me to have caught the “objective journalism” disease – he doesn’t give away any opinions on anything. No opinions other than “these guys are weird,” that is, which is pretty much the only opinion I don’t like my authors to have. Okay, they’re weird, but nobody ever thinks of themselves as irredeemably weird, so what else is going on here? Ronson never gets to the what else.

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

lost cityBook – Touted as a real-life Indiana Jones story, The Lost City of Z tells the adventures of Percy Fawcett. The last of the ‘amateur’ adventurers, Colonel Fawcett helped explore the Amazon and was instrumental in mapping the borders of Brazil and Argentina at the request of the Royal Geographic Society. He is most well-known for his exhaustive search for the ‘Lost City of Z,’ a city that he was convinced existed in the depths of the Amazon jungle. His expedition disappeared in 1925 and no verified account of what actually did happen exists. At least one hundred people have died in search of both the city and the fate of Fawcett’s party.

In addition to the story of what happened in Fawcett’s life, The Lost City of Z also tells the story of a writer in search of a story and how easily you can get caught up in a legend. David Grann undertook a trek of his own into the false paradise that is the Amazonian jungle and came out with a new understanding of what it meant to be an explorer in the golden era.

This book was a fascinating look at the Amazon through the eyes of anthropologists, archaeologists, and adventurers. The mystery still lingers and this book made me research so many things. I still want to know more about the events that led to the disappearance of Fawcett’s party and the subsequent discoveries made. This will be hours and hours of interesting reads.

I listened to this book and while the narrator had a dry almost monotone style, it worked for the topic.

Dead End Gene Pool by Wendy Burden

dead endBook – This is the memoir of the great-great-great granddaughter of the industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt. Burden’s look back at her life contains very little warm sentiment. Perhaps her writing is catharsis for dealing with painful memories. She is the product of a dysfunctional family and a distinctly un-maternal mother, yet she recalls her past with acerbic humor. That sense of humor, and material drawn from the lifestyles of extremely privileged relatives combines for an interesting read.

Burden’s biography is populated with over-the-top characterizations of her family, servants, and numerous pets. These descriptions are often un-flattering, scandalous, and frequently successful in their aim to amuse. I admire the fact that she does not spare herself from this lampooning treatment. Burden begins her chronology at a point immediately after her father’s suicide, when she was approximately six years old. Her forthright portrait of her youthful self as a troublemaker who strove to emulate Wednesday from The Addams Family is disturbing and intriguing. Perhaps these traits are understandable for an individual who felt impoverished of family love.

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

yes pleaseBookYes Please boldly presents personal stories and thoughts from the star of Parks and Recreation, Saturday Night Live, and Baby Mama. Rather than proceeding strictly chronologically, this autobiography humorously weaves through short chapters on topics such as being a teenager in the eighties, personal beauty, and her bond with her sons. Her passion for improvisational comedy is evident from several anecdotes relating to her starving artist days spent learning from “gurus” of the craft, co-founding The Upright Citizens Brigade, and working part-time at Chicago’s Second City.

It was refreshing to listen to this memoir narrated by a quick-to-laugh author and her assorted celebrity-friends that included: Patrick Stewart, Kathleen Turner, Seth Meyers, and Poehler’s parents. Poehler’s levity obviously infected them as well. Utilizing humor she effectively communicates deeper emotions when describing the difficulties of divorce, traveling in a third-world country, and dealing with guilt. Another advantage of the audiobook is the final chapter, which is recorded in front of a live audience at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater.

Living With a Wild God by Barbara Ehrenreich

Living With a Wild GodBook – Raised atheist by her upwardly-mobile, blue- and then white-collar parents, Barbara Ehrenreich set out on a quest when she was a teenager: to discover the meaning of life. She studied science and philosophy, but mostly she worked through the tough problems on her own, without any assumptions that the answers were already out there waiting for her. And then, when she was sixteen, she had an episode which she thought of then as a bout of schizophrenia, but which she now refers to as a mystical experience, a contact with an intelligence profoundly and completely other than herself.

Most famous for Nickel and Dimed, her analysis of the working poor in America in the late 90s, this book is a little outside Ehrenreich’s usual subject matter, but just as fascinating. She deconstructs her childhood journal entries and her present-day thinking ruthlessly, and she still never assumes that the answers are out there waiting for her, only that it’s important to look for them anyway, and to keep looking, even when what we find is different from what we expect.

I listened to the audiobook, read by the author, but I can’t recommend it – she reads like an academic presenting a paper at a conference. I loved the book despite the dry narration, however, and I think anyone interested in the intersection of science, religion, atheism, and spirituality would enjoy this as well.

Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

emptyBook – There is something about the extravagant mansions of the early industrialists that elicits morbid curiosity. In Empty Mansions : the mysterious life of Huguette Clark and the spending of a great American fortune true stories about some eccentric mansions and the people that lived in them are revealed. This bestselling book is written by Pulitzer Prize winner Bill Dedman, and a cousin of the heiress Huguette Clark, Paul Clark Newell, Jr. The mystery of Hugette’s life required an extra bit of investigative work on the authors’ parts because Hugette was shy and very reclusive. She passed away in 2011 at the age of 105.

I found the story of Huguette’s father, W.A. Clark, impressive. He was a risk-taking pioneer in Montana that worked his way up to becoming wealthier than Rockefeller during his lifetime. Unfortunately, his copper mining business also began widespread damage upon the Montana ecosystem. The large fortune he left to Hugette provided her the opportunity to make some outrageous decisions in how she chose to spend it.

No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty

no plotBook - Have you heard of NaNoWriMo? It’s a no-holds-barred, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing, an international challenge where thousands of people commit to an insane goal: to write a 50,000-word novel in the 30 days of November. No Plot? No Problem! is NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty’s instructional manual for the project. It covers everything from why you might want to try such a crazy project in the first place to how to motivate yourself past the week two slump, as well as offering tips and suggestions for how to plan your attack on your novel. I re-read this every year, a week at a time, to help me through my novel writing. I like Baty’s irreverant style and the attitude he brings to the project: it’s a nice reminder that even an insane goal is fun and worth pursuing.

If you’re interested in joining NaNoWriMo, it’s not too late! You can still sign up for an account on the official site to track your progress and meet other writers. Join us on two Saturdays this month, November 15th and 22nd, for afternoon write-ins. Share the companionship of other writers, compete in Word Wars, earn an entry into the 2014 Naperville Region Library Crawl prize drawing, and, of course – write!

Catch Me If You Can by Frank Abagnale

Catch Me If You CanBook - Catch Me if You Can is the story of Frank Abagnale Jr. Frank was a pilot, a doctor, a lawyer, and a teaching assistant at a college all before he was twenty years old and all without a high school diploma. Catch Me If You Can tells his exploits as one of the most successful con men in history. I was absolutely floored when I heard some of the things he was able to get away with. I had to remind myself over and over that the era was a very different one and that computers were nowhere near as sophisticated as they are now, but still, the things people will believe when wrapped up in a believable package were almost sad.

One thing that really struck me in listening to this book, which Frank Abagnale has stated was exaggerated to a degree due to the co-writer’s editor’s demands, was the complete lack of malice in all of his actions. Not once did he set out to ‘get’ the little guy, he always targeted big corporations or banks with his scams. The man is brilliant and has since transferred his way of thinking towards helping the FBI and banks combat fraud.

I listened to the audiobook version and loved it. His story was also adapted into a movie and he is the only living person with a Broadway play based on his life.

Virtual Unreality by Charles Seife

virtualBook – The subtitle on this book is “Just because the Internet told you, how do you know it’s true?” As anyone who’s ever spent much time on the Internet knows, a lot of what’s out there isn’t true at all, whether it’s from someone making a joke, someone who isn’t as informed as they thought they were, or from someone who’s actively trying to mislead you. Seife gives an overview of all these kinds of Internet-enabled misinformation as well as tips on how to spot tricks and scams.

While Seife’s writing style is entertaining, full of jokes and sarcasm, his hyperbole can be misleading itself. He mentions the immanent death of libraries at least twice, even though libraries are actually seeing more use now than they have in the past. That kind of thing makes me skeptical of the rest of the information he gives – just like he recommends that you be skeptical of a website when some of its information is wrong. Seife has a bias against online information in general, and that comes through loud and clear. Still, his advice for evaluating the things you find online is good, so readers can get practice by applying the same kind of critical reading skills to Seife’s own book before the venture onto the Web.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

funGraphic Novel- Fun Home is a graphic novel memoir depicting the childhood of author, Alison Bechdel, and her relationship with her father, Bruce. Bruce is obsessed with restoring their Victorian home, is a third generation funeral director, a high school English teacher, and a closeted homosexual. He has a wife, two other children, and several male lovers. This novel takes the reader on a journey through the last few years of his life, up until he dies because of a freak accident. Or was it suicide?

Bechdel inserts many literary references into her narrative, which, in my opinion, diminishes the story and the characters. I think the story had more potential than what was transcribed, and I would have liked it more if the writing wasn’t so erudite. I attempted her second graphic novel memoir, Are you my Mother?, but found it written in the same style, and quickly abandoned it. If you are intrigued by scholarly and intellectual writing, this novel is for you.