On Edge by Andrea Petersen (Review)

IMG_0001A courageous and engaging mix of personal account, scientific information, and historical background about anxiety and related disorders.

As someone who has experienced an anxiety disorder first hand, I found this book highly accurate, relatable, and encouraging

Although the author’s journey with anxiety is much more extreme than mine has been, it was vindicating to read about this condition from such a reliable and respectable source (The author is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal covering neuroscience and mental health).

This book resonated with me because much of the author’s experience lined up with my own, and because it ultimately has a positive and encouraging message.

I would recommend this book to anyone who has struggled with anxiety or who is close to a person experiencing this struggle.

[I received my copy of this book from bloggingforbooks.com in exchange for an honest review.]


The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party by Daniel James Brown (Review)


Most people in states along the old emigrant trails across the U.S. have at least heard of The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party by [Brown, Daniel James]the Donner Party and the unfortunate events that befell them. In The Indifferent Stars
Daniel James Brown retells the tale with a focus on a particular individual – Sarah Graves – and her family, who threw their lot in with the Donners and Reeds to tragic effect.

Brown’s style is intimate, novelistic, and readable, with an effective mix of historical detail, dramatic narrative, and science-fact analysis. For example, after relaying a captivating scene depicting the seemingly abnormal severity of the Sierran weather in 1846-47, Brown breaks to briefly explain what we know about the weather that year and how we know it.

While the author’s ability to mix a stirring historical account with informative detail is one of the book’s main strengths, the author’s tendency to also interject personal thoughts, conjecture, feelings, and opinions may be counted among its two primary weaknesses. However, these instances are rare enough to be overlooked in most cases, and some readers will recognize them as an effort to further humanize the people and the story, and to make them more immediately relatable. As the author points out, historical figures and events often seem so distant and removed from familiar experience that they are reduced to the names and faded daguerreotypes that have come to represent them, and it takes a special effort of imagination to restore them to full humanity.

The book’s second major weakness is its lack of supplemental materials. Besides a few photos of the primary characters and locations, there are none. Most glaringly,
there are no maps, and no index. Readers interested in photos, maps, and other historical artefacts will need a second source*.

Overall, The Indifferent Stars Above is an example of excellent narrative nonfiction, and is recommended for readers who enjoy this genre. The subject should appeal to a wide audience, but especially to those whose knowledge of the Donner Party is in the “none to moderate” range.

Personal Note

Growing up in Northern California, the Donner Party was always part of the fabric of regional history and folklore. In grade school I went on field trips to the Donner Memorial State Park, and drove over Donner Pass frequently on the way to camping trips near Lake Tahoe. That said, the story was never something I paid particular attention to. I knew the general outline of the history, but few details.

For my current job, I drive over the Sierras at Donner Pass three times a week and, when I think about it, it makes me wonder at the privilege we enjoy in modern technology and travel (especially in winter). Yet even today the Sierras in winter are still formidable. I’ve been stranded by snow storms on the wrong side of the pass on three separate occasions in the past two years, and although I weathered the inconvenience comfortably in a hotel room, the experience instilled a respect for the power of nature and the mountains in me nonetheless.

Reading this book brought home to me the stunning fortitude, effort, energy, faith, and hope it took just to embark on a journey such that undertaken by the emigrants of the 1840s, and the depth of the tragedy that befell the Donner/Reed party in the mountains. It is, as the subtitle declares, a harrowing tale, but well worth the read for anyone with an interest in American history. For me, it was particularly intriguing given my familiarity and acquaintance with so many of the places and regions in which the story unfolds.


  • Style: A (narrative; novelistic)
  • Tone: B+ (engaging; interesting; not sensational; somewhat personal)
  • Pace: A (steady; maintains interest; narrative flows nicely)
  • Format: A (very readable; chapters broken into segments and scenes)
  • Supplementals: C (no maps!?)
  • Appeal: A
  • Overall: A-

The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party / by Daniel James Brown; published by Harper Perennial, c2009; paperback, 337 pages.

*For a source of pictures and maps, I recommend The Donner Party chronicles: A day by day account of a doomed wagon train, 1846-47 by Frank Mullen, Jr.

February Reading Recap

It’s already March 4! I fell behind on my blogging last month; however, I did stick to my reading goal (exciting stuff, I know).

My February selections were:

  • Fiction – Human Acts by Han Kang
  • Nonfiction – Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia by David Greene
  • Book from the Past – The Story of My Boyhood and Youth – by John Muir
  • Other Format or Genre – Death of a Maid: A Hamish Macbeth Mystery – M. C. Beaton

Brief Reviews:

Image result for human acts han kangHuman Acts by South Korean author Han Kang is a novel of the Gwangju Uprising (Wikipedia).  In 1980, South Korean troops clashed with civilians protesting the government of Chun Doo-hwan. Although exact figures are disputed, some estimates put the death toll over 600, while over 3,500 were injured in the violence. Many of the casualties were young university students.

The novel is told through the perspectives of multiple characters who witnessed or took part in the uprising. Some chapters are written in the second person, which I found interesting. The tone of the writing is deceptively quiet in contrast to the violence of the content. I found myself wishing the title was Inhuman Acts, but maybe that’s the point, as the following quote from the book illustrates. In this scene, one of the witnesses is being interviewed by a professor for a book:

I heard a story about one of the Korean army platoons that fought in Vietnam. How they forced the women, children, and elderly of one particular village into the main hall, and then burned it to the ground. Some of those who came to slaughter us did so with the memory of those previous times, when committing such actions in wartime had won them a handsome reward. It happened in Gwangju just as it did on Jeju Island, in Kwantung and Nanjing, in Bosnia, and all across the American continent when it was still known as the New World, with such a uniform brutality it’s as though it is imprinted in our genetic code.

I never let myself forget that every single person I meet is a member of this human race. And that includes you, professor, listening to this testimony. As it includes myself.” – Han Kang, Human Acts, page 97.

This was the first book I’ve read by a Korean author, and I enjoyed the experience of learning a little bit about South Korea’s history, a topic on which I’m largely ignorant. I spent some time on Wikipedia researching the events portrayed in the book, and that helped alot with giving the story context and helping me understand it better. (I received a copy of this book from bloggingforbooks.com in exchange for an honest review).

Image result for midnight in siberiaMidnight In Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia is David Greene’s account of a trip he took on the Trans-Siberian express from Moscow to the Pacific port of Vladivostok. Not knowing much about Russia beyond what I read in the news and books, or see in films and games, it was interesting to get a closer perspective on the lives of everyday people across this vast and intriguing country. The author is a host of NPR’s Morning Edition, of which I am a frequent listener, and so it perhaps natural that the book had a journalistic tone and style. The book was interesting, although I did skim over some parts. It did not inspire me to travel to Russia.

Image result for john muirThe Story of My Boyhood and Youth is John Muir’s account of his early years growing up on his Scottish immigrant family’s Wisconsin farm, and was my favorite book this month. It’s relatively short (about 140 pages), and full of Muir’s beautiful prose and descriptions. After finishing it, I was astonished to discover that no major motion picture has yet been adapted from this story – it seems like it is ready-made for the big screen. Some of the highlights include the many formidable tasks his father expected him to complete on the farm, such as digging a 90 foot well through sandstone by hand with a chisel and hammer, and the many wonderful contraptions Muir invented, such as a clock that could light a fire in the stove. Muir’s deep passion for learning and for nature, and his empathy with living creatures is endearing and inspiring. I would recommend Muir’s writings to anyone who enjoys nature, but you do have to adapt to the somewhat old-timey language and slow pace. Reading a bit of it aloud in a slow, meditative way can help you get a feel for the language. If you do, you will enjoy Muir’s quiet humor, descriptive prowess, and charming storytelling.


Zika: The Emerging Epidemic by Donald G. McNeil Jr. [Book Review]

Zika: The Emerging Epidemic tells the story of the mosquito-borne virus from its emergence in Africa to the current health crisis in the South and CenImage result for zika book mcneiltral Americas. It is a compact, fast-paced, journalistic book, and it does an excellent job of covering multiple facets of its subject both thoroughly and concisely. The average reader will  find it interesting and readable.

I enjoyed how the author weaved his experiences as a journalist covering Zika (the back copy says he covers “plagues and pestilences for the New York Times“) into the story of the virus’ emergence, the discovery of the link between the virus and brain damage in fetuses, and the reactions of the public, governments, and health agencies of different countries. The relation of his phone and email conversations with various contacts in the scientific and public health communities gave the story a dramatic element, which it hardly needed but which helped lend momentum to the narrative.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about Zika virus, or who is interested in viruses and the natural history of disease.

Book details:

  • Title: Zika: The emerging epidemic
  • Author: Donald G. McNeil, Jr.
  • Date published: June 28, 2016
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • Format: Paperback, 208 pages
  • My Source: Public Library

The Secret Language of Dogs by Victoria Stillwell [review]

At a glance…

  • Title: The Secret Language of Dogs: Unlocking the Canine Mind for a Happier Pet
  • Author: Victoria Stilwell
  • Format: Paperback
  • Length: 152 pages
  • Price: US $17.99
  • Rating: ★★★★★ (5 out of 5)
  • Published by: Ten Speed Press, 2016
  • Description: Stilwell promotes a “positive training philosophy,” and argues that understanding how dogs communicate can help people be better, kinder dog owners. 


I’m so glad I picked up this book. When I selected it, I initially thought it would be nothing new to me, and expected little more than to be entertained by the cute, colorful photographs (of which there are many). I certainly didn’t expect a thought-provoking and well-supported argument for a compassionate and positive approach to dog training based on behavioral science.

Stilwell cites a lot of the research and types of research that have supported some of my other favorite books about animals and animal cognition, including Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation. She draws attention to the fact that while anthropomorphic views of our animal companions may not reflect reality, it has been shown that animal intelligence and emotional experiences are rich and complex. Recognizing that animals are sentient and understanding how they express themselves can help us interact with them more effectively and build stronger and more positive relationships with our animal companions.

The book is divided into two parts. Part one is called “The Secret Inner Experience of Dogs,” and explains dog cognition and emotional experience. The second part is called “The Secret Meaning of Body and Vocal Language,” and decodes dog behavior as communication. There is also a list of references, and a back of the book index.


This book is not a dog training manual, in that it does not include step-by-step instructions or a how-to guide for specific training goals such as basic commands. It is a guide to understanding what your dog is thinking or feeling, and how to use that information to positive advantage.

Here’s a personal example. This summer I adopted two senior border collies that had spent their lives working on a cattle farm. The male – Rocky – is goofy, affectionate, and independent. The female – Bonnie – is sweet, nervous, and intelligent. Bonnie’s more reserved personality makes it harder to tell what she’s feeling. She loves going to the park, but she is always nervous when we first get there, keeping her tail firmly tucked for a few minutes. After a bit, she will start to yawn. I’ve been interpreting this as her being tired or bored and ready to go home. After reading this book, I now think it’s more likely that she yawns to release tension and stress, and is just starting to relax. Rather than take her home, maybe I should let her continue to enjoy the park, and reinforce the positive experience with a treat.


This is a book for all kinds of dog owners – new and veteran. It offers a positive alternative to the old methods of training through domination and force, and backs itself up with evidence-based research.

It’s easy to read but not over-simplified, and will be accessible to a wide range of readers, including kids.

My rating: 5/5

Note: I received this book from BloggingForBooks.com in exchange for this review.

Book review: “Deep Down Dark” by Hector Tobar


Image result for deep down dark book

Title: Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free

Author: Héctor Tobar

Published 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Format: Audio CD

Source: Public Library

Summary: In August of 2010, a mine in Chile collapsed, burying 33 men deep underground. Miraculously, all were rescued an amazing 69 days later. This book tells the story of who the 33 men were, how they came to be working in the mine that day, and how they all survived in challenging conditions for an unprecedented length of time.

Thoughts: It was interesting, but not a “must read.” Not every book can be the most amazing book ever, and this is what I would categorize as a worthy filler — something interesting to fill the space between the last amazing book and the next, which I hope I’ll discover soon.

It’s certainly an intriguing story, but I felt it suffered from being too thinly spread between too many viewpoints and perspectives. However, given that this is a true story about real people, and not a novel, I think Tobar did a commendable job of relaying the experiences of the miners and the surrounding events and circumstances with clarity and respect. The reader for the audio edition (Henry Leyva) also did an excellent job.

Rating: ★★★★


Book Review: Life on the Edge: The Coming Age of Quantum Biology by Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili

Image result

McFadden and Al-Khalili present the lay reader with a fascinating and engaging explanation of how quantum physics might help explain life. From the nano-machine-like workings of enzymes, to the astonishing efficiency of photosynthesis, and many other examples, the authors describe how quantum physics can help us understand when classical physics cannot.

The book begins by explaining a bit about what quantum physics is. Central to the book is a challenge of the belief that quantum physics only work at the scale of the tiniest particles and only at extremely low temperatures – in other words, not anywhere near the temperatures friendly to life. Yet at the atomic scale, many processes within living organisms, such as photosynthesis, seem to rely on a quantum nature.

If you enjoy books like Stephen Hawking’s classic A Brief History of Time, you will probably enjoy Life on the Edge. It has plenty of nerdy science “wow” factor, and aims for accessibility without crossing into condescension.

  • Overall rating: ★★★★½
  • Subject: ★★★★★
  • Pace: ★★★½
  • Style/tone: ★★★★★

Note: I received this book from Blogging for Books (bloggingforbooks.com) at no cost in exchange for an honest review.