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.]

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

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
Above, 
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.

Ratings

  • 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.

Review: Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident, by Donnie Eichar

San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2013

ISBN 9781452112749

Subjects: Dyatlov Pass Incident; Russia; Ural Mountains Region; Hiking; Mountaineering accidents; Travel

Summary: Dead Mountain recounts the 1959 tragedy known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident. Nine young people from the Ural Polytechnic Institute (now the Ural State Technical University) trekked deep into the Siberian wilderness in the hopes of earning a prestigious hiking certification. Their goal was Otorten Mountain. The day before they were to make their ascent, they camped on the slope of Holatchahl (Kholat Syakyl), or Dead Mountain. That night, an unknown force drove all nine hikers from their tent in subzero temperatures without their shoes. There were no survivors. What happened that night remains a mystery, but theories, both wild and mundane, proliferate. In this book, Donnie Eichar offers his own theory and also details how he arrived at his conclusions. Impressively, this process involved traveling to Dyatlov Pass himself, as well as speaking with the only living survivor of the trip — Yuri Yudin — who would have been the tenth member of the group, but was forced by ill health to turn back before the fatal incident.

Evaluation: Eichar presents the story as a gripping narrative and offers a thorough exploration of a puzzling and chilling mystery that has fascinated people around the world for over fifty years. Most importantly, he doesn’t lose sight of the human story of nine young hikers who met a tragic end one freezing night in the Russian wilderness. The many black and white photos included in the book, as well as the author’s descriptions, gives the reader a very endearing and real-seeming sense of what the hikers were like as individuals and as a group. Eichar offers his own theory concerning the incident at the end of the book, which is based on the premise that a natural phenomenon led to the hikers’ deaths. He lists many of the most prominent other theories and offers his reasoning on why he does not find them feasible. He expresses his own belief in his theory, but while the reader can decide how satisfying an explanation it is, ultimately the mystery remains unexplained.

Other thoughts: I vaguely knew the story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident from a horror movie I saw a few years ago (Devil’s Pass, 2013), as well as the video game “Kholat” (IMGN.PRO, 2015). However, I recently fell in love with the Astonishing Legends podcast, and their 2-part series on Dyatlov Pass is excellent. They mention this book in their coverage of the topic, and I enjoyed those episodes so much I decided to read it. I would highly recommend checking out the Astonishing Legends page for the Dyatlov episodes, as well as listening to the podcasts, for anyone interested in seeing more documentation about the incident, as well as more in-depth coverage of the “fringier” theories: http://www.astonishinglegends.com/portfolio/ep023-dyatlov-pass-part-1/

Review: The Witches: Salem 1692, by Stacy Schiff

Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2015

Subjects:

Rating: ★★★★

Summary: A thorough, clear-eyed, and penetrating look into one of the most infamous incidents in early American history.

Thoughts: This was not a light or quick read for me. Even at the end of 417 pages, I feel that I’ve only brushed the surface of the events, barely developing a grasp on understanding the political and social forces. While the author clearly relishes historical discovery, this relish is not always communicated to the reader (in the sense of passed on to). This is not a book for those interested in the subject purely for its sensational aspects; those readers will quickly find their attention waning as the narrative wends its way through sociopolitical structures, the effects of 17th century Puritanism on adolescent psychology, and gender constructs. Readers who stick with the book through to the end will be rewarded by a deeper understanding of the infamous Salem incident, and perhaps gain some insight into how the events of 1692 may contain lessons for current times as well.

Review: The Witch of Lime Street: Seance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World, by David Jaher

 

Subjects:

Rating: ★ ★ ★

Summary: The Witch of Lime Street chronicles Harry Houdini’s fascination with spirit mediums and his obsession with revealing fake mediums as frauds. The book focuses on his rivalry with the controversial medium Mina Crandon, known as “Margery,” and covers the era roughly from the end of the First World War to the beginning of the Second. It features an ensemble cast, with Houdini and Margery at the forefront, and such personages as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Oliver Lodge in the background. It reveals an intriguing era in Western history when interest in the paranormal spiked and grew into a national obsession on both sides of the Atlantic.

Thoughts: Well, it was an interesting read. I learned a good amount about Sir Arthur, Houdini, and the Spiritualist movement. However, I found it unsatisfying in a number of areas. First, I would have liked more history and less rumor. Second, much of the book seemed based on hearsay, making it seem to amount to little more than gossip. For example, often things were said about one character or another but never substantiated. Additionally, I wanted to know how Houdini did his tricks. The author would say things like how Houdini’s tricks were so great they seemed like they could only be pulled off with real magic — and then not explain how they were actually done. Maybe no one knows, but he didn’t say that either. The same with the mediums. All in all, I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the subjects covered, but not if you are looking for serious history.