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A retired FBI profiler meets a retired serial killer.


Inside the Mind of BTK: The True Story Behind the Thirty-Year Hunt for the Notorious Wichita Serial Killer

Jossey-Bass, 2007, 344 pages




This incredible story shows how John Douglas tracked and participated in the hunt for one of the most notorious serial killers in U.S. history. For 31 years, a man who called himself BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill) terrorized the city of Wichita, Kansas, sexually assaulting and strangling a series of women, taunting the police with frequent communications, and bragging about his crimes to local newspapers and TV stations.

After disappearing for nine years, he suddenly reappeared, complaining that no one was paying enough attention to him and claiming that he had committed other crimes for which he had not been given credit. When he was ultimately captured, BTK was shockingly revealed to be Dennis Rader, a 61-year-old married man with two children.


Even the bloodthirstiest criminal minds are actually small and petty. )

Verdict: An interesting look into the banal mind of a very evil person. As psychopaths go, "murderous dog-catcher" is probably the best and most fitting way for Dennis Rader to be remembered. Inside the Mind of BTK: The True Story Behind the Thirty-Year Hunt for the Notorious Wichita Serial Killer is not a deep or thrilling book, being written decades later by a retired FBI agent only remotely involved with the case, but it does offer a few disturbing observations about things to look out for.




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The history of Islam told as a narrative, not as an apologetic, an indictment, or a treatise.


Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes

Public Affairs, 2009, 416 pages




Until about 1800, the West and the Islamic realm were like two adjacent, parallel universes, each assuming itself to be the center of the world while ignoring the other. As Europeans colonized the globe, the two world histories intersected and the Western narrative drove the other one under. The West hardly noticed, but the Islamic world found the encounter profoundly disrupting.

This book reveals the parallel "other" narrative of world history to help us make sense of today's world conflicts. Ansary traces the history of the Muslim world from pre-Mohammedan days through 9/11, introducing people, events, empires, legends, and religious disputes, both in terms of what happened and how it was understood and interpreted.


Whatever you think of Islam and Islamicists, this book is interesting in its own right and definitely educational. )

Verdict: Destiny Disrupted is a very well-written history that will be enlightening to anyone interested in that part of the world, and full of insight into the Muslim way of thinking, without trying to tilt the reader one way or the other with respect to current political conflicts. Tamim Ansary pulls off what few historical writers do, especially on such a dense and relatively obscure subject condensed into a book of readable length. I found it utterly interesting and enjoyable, educational, and the author's voice was a noticeable enhancement to the narrative without ever slipping into didacticism or soapboxing. So, in case it's not clear, I really liked this book and recommend it highly.




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A sober examination of the cult, delving deeply into the lives of L. Ron Hubbard, Tom Cruise, and Xenu.


Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011, 444 pages




Scientology, created in 1954 by a prolific sci-fi writer named L. Ron Hubbard, claims to be the world's fastest-growing religion, with millions of members around the world and huge financial holdings. Its celebrity believers keep its profile high, and its teams of "volunteer ministers" offer aid at disaster sites such as Haiti and the World Trade Center. But Scientology is also a notably closed faith, harassing journalists and others through litigation and intimidation, even infiltrating the highest levels of government to further its goals. Its attacks on psychiatry and its requirement that believers pay as much as tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars for salvation have drawn scrutiny and skepticism. And ex-members use the Internet to share stories of harassment and abuse.

Now Janet Reitman offers the first full journalistic history of the Church of Scientology, in an even-handed account that at last establishes the astonishing truth about the controversial religion. She traces Scientology's development from the birth of Dianetics to today, following its metamorphosis from a pseudoscientific self-help group to a worldwide spiritual corporation with profound control over its followers and even ex-followers.

Based on five years of research, unprecedented access to church officials, confidential documents, and extensive interviews with current and former Scientologists, this is the defining book about a little-known world.


Bonus Feature: I GO INSIDE A SCIENTOLOGY CHURCH! )

Verdict: An even-handed history of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, Janet Reitman did not set out to write an expose or a hit piece, but an objective piece of journalism. The result is still pretty damning; while sympathetic to the church's followers, Reitman can only describe what the church is — an abusive, money-grubbing cult. (My words, not hers.) Inside Scientology is about as informative and unbiased a view as you can get of the Church of Scientology, and I found it to be comprehensive, well-written, and fascinating, making this a highly recommended work of non-fiction.




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Dr. Hare, creator of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, toots his own horn.


Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us

The Guilford Press, 1993, 236 pages




Most people are both repelled and intrigued by the images of cold-blooded, conscienceless murderers that increasingly populate our movies, television programs, and newspaper headlines. With their flagrant criminal violation of society's rules, serial killers like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy are among the most dramatic examples of the psychopath. Individuals with this personality disorder are fully aware of the consequences of their actions and know the difference between right and wrong, yet they are terrifyingly self-centered, remorseless, and unable to care about the feelings of others. Perhaps most frightening, they often seem completely normal to unsuspecting targets. Presenting a compelling portrait of these dangerous men and women based on 25 years of distinguished scientific research, Dr. Robert D. Hare vividly describes a world of con artists, hustlers, rapists, and other predators who charm, lie, and manipulate their way through life. Are psychopaths mad, or simply bad? How can they be recognized? And how can we protect ourselves? This book provides solid information and surprising insights for anyone seeking to understand this devastating condition.


I'm sorry, but Silence of the Lambs and Cape Fear were not documentaries. )

Verdict: Maybe journalists are better writers than PhDs, or maybe Dr. Hare is just too interested in selling books, but while there were a few interesting bits of information to pull out of Without Conscience, I found this book to be mostly sensationalist, speculative, and horn-tooting, rather than a serious scholarly examination of psychopaths and what makes them tick. Read Martha Stout's book instead.




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The mean streets of Baltimore laid bare in true-crime police journalism that spawned two TV series.


Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets

Ballantine Books, 1991, 608 pages




Enter the workday of real policemen. Follow fifteen detectives, three sergeants, and a lieutenant, whose job it is to investigate Baltimore's 234 murders. You will get a cop's-eye-view of the bureaucracy, the highs of success, the moments of despair, and the non-stop rush of pursuits, anger, banter, and violence that make up a cop's life. Now an acclaimed television series, this extraordinary book is the insider's look at what you have always wondered about.


The POPO are not your friends, Bunk. )

Verdict: A non-fiction book that has it all. Class, race, politics, and the real lives of cops and criminals. Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets is the best true crime novel and one of the best non-fiction novels I've ever read. For The Wire alone I would adore this book, but it's simply an excellent, thick and engrossing work of journalism, and makes my Highly Recommended list.




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Psychopaths and the crazy, neurotic people who study them.


The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry

Riverhead, 2011, 288 pages




The Psychopath Testt is a fascinating journey through the minds of madness. Jon Ronson's exploration of a potential hoax being played on the world's top neurologists takes him, unexpectedly, into the heart of the madness industry. An influential psychologist who is convinced that many important CEOs and politicians are, in fact, psychopaths, teaches Ronson how to spot these high-flying individuals by looking out for little telltale verbal and nonverbal clues. And so Ronson, armed with his new psychopath-spotting abilities, enters the corridors of power.

He spends time with a death-squad leader institutionalized for mortgage fraud in Coxsackie, New York; a legendary CEO whose psychopathy has been speculated about in the press; and a patient in an asylum for the criminally insane who insists he's sane and certainly not a psychopath. Ronson not only solves the mystery of the hoax but also discovers, disturbingly, that sometimes the personalities at the helm of the madness industry are, with their drives and obsessions, as mad in their own way as those they study. And that relatively ordinary people are, more and more, defined by their maddest edges.


Scientologists, CEOs, and psychopaths, oh my. )

Verdict: An interesting if somewhat meandering trip into the perilous world of diagnosing psychopaths, The Psychopath Test is not exactly a weighty, heavily-researched book, but it will be of interest to anyone who has an, ahem, clinical interest in psychopaths.




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America's most embarrassing political exile until Edward Snowden.


Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall - from America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness

Crown Publishing, 2011, 416 pages




From Frank Brady, who wrote one of the best-selling books on Bobby Fischer of all time and who was himself a friend of Fischer’s, comes an impressively researched biography that for the first time completely captures the remarkable arc of Bobby Fischer’s life. When Bobby Fischer passed away in January 2008, he left behind a confounding legacy. Everyone knew the basics of his life—he began as a brilliant youngster, then became the pride of American chess, then took a sharp turn, struggling with paranoia and mental illness. But nobody truly understood him.

What motivated Fischer from such a young age, and what was the source of his remarkable intellect? How could a man so ambivalent about money and fame be so driven to succeed? What drew this man of Jewish descent to fulminate against Jews, and how was it that a mind so famously disciplined could unravel so completely? From Fischer’s meteoric rise, to an utterly dominant prime unequaled by any American chess player, to his eventual descent into madness, the book draws upon hundreds of newly discovered documents and recordings and numerous firsthand interviews conducted with those who knew Fischer best. It paints, for the very first time, a complete picture of one of America’s most enigmatic icons. This is the definitive account of a fascinating man and an extraordinary life, one that at last reconciles Fischer’s deeply contradictory legacy and answers the question, who was Bobby Fischer?


Batshit crazy or just a bigoted jerk? How come you never hear about great go players becoming unhinged? )




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Maybe golf courses and rice farms in the desert aren't such a great idea.


The Big Thirst

Free Press, 2011, 368 pages




The water coming out of your tap is four billion years old and might have been slurped by a Tyrannosaurus Rex. We will always have exactly as much water on Earth as we have ever had. Water cannot be destroyed, and it can always be made clean enough for drinking again. In fact, water can be made so clean that it actually becomes toxic. As Charles Fishman brings vibrantly to life in this delightful narrative excursion, water runs our world in a host of awe-inspiring ways, which is both the promise and the peril of our unexplored connections to it.

Taking listeners from the wet moons of Saturn to the water-obsessed hotels of Las Vegas, and from a rice farm in the Australian outback to a glimpse into giant vats of soup at Campbell's largest factory, he reveals that our relationship to water is conflicted and irrational, neglected and mismanaged. Whether we will face a water scarcity crisis has little to do with water and everything to do with how we think about water - how we use it, connect with it, and understand it.

Portraying and explaining both the dangers - in 2008, Atlanta came just 90 days from running completely out of drinking water - and the opportunities, such as advances in rainwater harvesting and businesses that are making huge breakthroughs in water productivity, The Big Thirst will forever change the way we think about water, our crucial relationship to it, and the creativity we can bring to ensuring we always have plenty of it.


Everything you drink was once dinosaur piss. )

Verdict: The Big Thirst is basically an extended piece of magazine journalism, like most microhistories, but it's a good read, and will make you appreciate your drinking water. It should also make you worry.





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The German telegram that propelled America into World War I.


The Zimmermann Telegram

Scribner, 1958, 244 pages




In the dark winter of 1917, as World War I was deadlocked, Britain knew that Europe could be saved only if the United States joined the war. But President Wilson remained unshakable in his neutrality. Then, with a single stroke, the tool to propel America into the war came into a quiet British office. One of countless messages intercepted by the crack team of British decoders, the Zimmermann telegram was a top-secret message from Berlin inviting Mexico to join Japan in an invasion of the United States. Mexico would recover her lost American territories while keeping the U.S. occupied on her side of the Atlantic.

How Britain managed to inform America of Germany's plan without revealing that the German codes had been broken makes for an incredible, true story of espionage, intrigue, and international politics, as only Barbara W. Tuchman could tell it.


In 1917, Americans were more afraid of the Yellow Peril and Pancho Villa than Germans. )

Verdict: Probably the definitive work about one of the deciding events of World War I, at least as far as the U.S. was concerned. One of those small things on which history hinged, but also illustrates how much individual personalities may also have swayed history. Also provides a broad look at America's political and geographical situation in the early 20th century, when the U.S. was still the big, dumb new kid and its borders were not so immutable.

I'm rather surprised no one has ever made a movie about this historical episode.




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Fiction and non-fiction about Earth's first interstellar voyages.


Going Interstellar

Baen, 2012, ~101,000 words




Essays by space scientists and engineers on the coolest ways and means to get humanity to the stars along with stories by an all-star assortment of talespinners abounding with Hugo and Nebula award winners: Ben Bova, Mike Resnick, Jack McDevitt, Michael Bishop, Sarah A. Hoyt and more.

Some humans may be content staying in one place, but many of us are curious about what’s beyond the next village, the next ocean, the next horizon. Are there others like us out there? How will we reach them?

Wonderful questions. Now get ready for some highly informative and entertaining answers.


This is for the NASA nerds, the hard SF enthusiasts, the true space geeks. )

Verdict: Going Interstellar is written to appeal to a very specific audience: if the title appeals to you, you are that audience. It's a decent collection of hard SF stories meant to rekindle the dream of space travel, and some physics essays for laymen explaining the reality of antimatter and fusion drives. We will never, ever see this dream come true, but at least we can read about it.




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Fiction and non-fiction about Earth's first interstellar voyages.


Going Interstellar

Baen, 2012, ~101,000 words




Essays by space scientists and engineers on the coolest ways and means to get humanity to the stars along with stories by an all-star assortment of talespinners abounding with Hugo and Nebula award winners: Ben Bova, Mike Resnick, Jack McDevitt, Michael Bishop, Sarah A. Hoyt and more.

Some humans may be content staying in one place, but many of us are curious about what’s beyond the next village, the next ocean, the next horizon. Are there others like us out there? How will we reach them?

Wonderful questions. Now get ready for some highly informative and entertaining answers.


This is for the NASA nerds, the hard SF enthusiasts, the true space geeks. )

Verdict: Going Interstellar is written to appeal to a very specific audience: if the title appeals to you, you are that audience. It's a decent collection of hard SF stories meant to rekindle the dream of space travel, and some physics essays for laymen explaining the reality of antimatter and fusion drives. We will never, ever see this dream come true, but at least we can read about it.




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The history of memory and how the invention of writing began to change our brains.


Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything View a preview of this book online Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

The Penguin Press, 2011, 307 pages




Foer's unlikely journey from chronically forgetful science journalist to U.S. Memory Champion frames a revelatory exploration of the vast, hidden impact of memory on every aspect of our lives.

On average, people squander 40 days annually compensating for things they've forgotten. Joshua Foer used to be one of those people. But after a year of memory training, he found himself in the finals of the U.S. Memory Championship. Even more important, Foer found a vital truth we too often forget: In every way that matters, we are the sum of our memories.

Moonwalking with Einstein draws on cutting-edge research, a surprising cultural history of memory, and venerable tricks of the mentalist's trade to transform our understanding of human remembering. Under the tutelage of top "mental athletes", he learns ancient techniques once employed by Cicero to memorize his speeches and by Medieval scholars to memorize entire books. Using methods that have been largely forgotten, Foer discovers that we can all dramatically improve our memories.

Immersing himself obsessively in a quirky subculture of competitive memorizers, Foer learns to apply techniques that call on imagination as much as determination - showing that memorization can be anything but rote. From the PAO system, which converts numbers into lurid images, to the memory palace, in which memories are stored in the rooms of imaginary structures, Foer's experience shows that the World Memory Championships are less a test of memory than of perseverance and creativity.

At a time when electronic devices have all but rendered our individual memories obsolete, Foer's bid to resurrect the forgotten art of remembering becomes an urgent quest. Moonwalking with Einstein brings Joshua Foer to the apex of the U.S. Memory Championship and readers to a profound appreciation of a gift we all possess but that too often slips our minds.


You could just Google 'Memory Palace' but it wouldn't be as interesting. )

Verdict: This was an utterly fascinating book. I genuinely learned a lot of interesting and useful things from it, and for a green journalist writing about brain science (something that would normally kick my skepticism meter up to eleventy), Joshua Foer does a great job of sticking mostly to what is known and yet uncovering a lot of stuff you probably didn't know. A great book for anyone who thinks they have a bad memory, who reads a lot, or who is interested in how the brain stores information.




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The history of memory and how the invention of writing began to change our brains.


Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything View a preview of this book online Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

The Penguin Press, 2011, 307 pages




Foer's unlikely journey from chronically forgetful science journalist to U.S. Memory Champion frames a revelatory exploration of the vast, hidden impact of memory on every aspect of our lives.

On average, people squander 40 days annually compensating for things they've forgotten. Joshua Foer used to be one of those people. But after a year of memory training, he found himself in the finals of the U.S. Memory Championship. Even more important, Foer found a vital truth we too often forget: In every way that matters, we are the sum of our memories.

Moonwalking with Einstein draws on cutting-edge research, a surprising cultural history of memory, and venerable tricks of the mentalist's trade to transform our understanding of human remembering. Under the tutelage of top "mental athletes", he learns ancient techniques once employed by Cicero to memorize his speeches and by Medieval scholars to memorize entire books. Using methods that have been largely forgotten, Foer discovers that we can all dramatically improve our memories.

Immersing himself obsessively in a quirky subculture of competitive memorizers, Foer learns to apply techniques that call on imagination as much as determination - showing that memorization can be anything but rote. From the PAO system, which converts numbers into lurid images, to the memory palace, in which memories are stored in the rooms of imaginary structures, Foer's experience shows that the World Memory Championships are less a test of memory than of perseverance and creativity.

At a time when electronic devices have all but rendered our individual memories obsolete, Foer's bid to resurrect the forgotten art of remembering becomes an urgent quest. Moonwalking with Einstein brings Joshua Foer to the apex of the U.S. Memory Championship and readers to a profound appreciation of a gift we all possess but that too often slips our minds.


You could just Google 'Memory Palace' but it wouldn't be as interesting. )

Verdict: This was an utterly fascinating book. I genuinely learned a lot of interesting and useful things from it, and for a green journalist writing about brain science (something that would normally kick my skepticism meter up to eleventy), Joshua Foer does a great job of sticking mostly to what is known and yet uncovering a lot of stuff you probably didn't know. A great book for anyone who thinks they have a bad memory, who reads a lot, or who is interested in how the brain stores information.




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Many, many charts illustrating the impending descent of the sky.


Endgame: The End of the Debt Supercycle and How It Changes Everything

John Wiley & Sons, 2011, 318 pages




"We all know we have seen the end of an era, and now we have courtside seats to watch the Endgame unfold. We are watching the end of Act I: The Debt Supercycle. Now we will get to see how Act II: The Endgame plays out."—John Mauldin & Jonathan Tepper (Chapter 1)

Hundreds of books have been written about the financial crisis that engulfed the world after Lehman Brothers went bankrupt. But what if the bigger financial crisis is ahead of us, not behind us? As John Mauldin and Jonathan Tepper deftly illustrate in this controversial audio book, the crisis was more than a half-century in the making. The Great Financial Crisis, however, was merely Act I. Act II has now begun.

The massive household deleveraging and historic shift of private debt onto government balance sheets now underway all over the world represents the end of a 60-year global Debt Supercycle. We have now entered the Endgame, a time when bankruptcies and defaults (disguised as "restructuring") will not be of households and companies but of governments. The stakes are now higher. The coming crises will offer policymakers few good choices and many bad ones. It will require extraordinary clarity and courage from leaders, courage that so far is largely completely lacking. Yet, despite the authors' dark forecast, the message in Endgame is not all gloom and doom. The book lays out positive steps governments can take to weather the worst of the stormy days ahead, minimize the inevitable pain and discomfort most of us can expect to experience, and chart a bold new course to sustained economic growth and prosperity. It also offers investors an abundance of useful analysis and expert advice on how to protect their assets during the worst of it and prosper from the many new opportunities that will emerge globally as they present themselves.

In Part 2, the authors take listeners on a country-by-country tour—including the United States, UK, European countries, and Japan—clearly explaining the problems each country faces, as well as the good and bad policy options open to each, and the investment pitfalls and opportunities likely to be found in each national economy.

Whether you call it the Great Recession, the Great Financial Crisis, or the Global Debt Crisis, what we are experiencing is unlike anything seen in 80 years. Now is not the time to succumb to panic and superstition. It is a time for courage and intelligent decision making informed by the brand of rational analysis and wisdom you'll find in Endgame.


Choose one: (a) Lots of pain. (b) Even more pain. (c) Pain pain pain pain OMG pain! )

Verdict: Endgame is only for people interested in crunchy macroeconomics full of graphs and tables, but it's not overwhelmingly technical, and if you want to know how your country's economy got so screwed up and just how much more screwed it could get, it's a good starting point. The authors are mildly opinionated, but their biases are not so great as to distort their credibility, so you can probably read it and extract useful insights regardless of your politics. If you're looking for a book that will give you advice on what to do about the various levels of worst-case scenarios the authors describe, though, Endgame doesn't have much in the way of useful advice for the 99%.




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Many, many charts illustrating the impending descent of the sky.


Endgame: The End of the Debt Supercycle and How It Changes Everything

John Wiley & Sons, 2011, 318 pages




"We all know we have seen the end of an era, and now we have courtside seats to watch the Endgame unfold. We are watching the end of Act I: The Debt Supercycle. Now we will get to see how Act II: The Endgame plays out."—John Mauldin & Jonathan Tepper (Chapter 1)

Hundreds of books have been written about the financial crisis that engulfed the world after Lehman Brothers went bankrupt. But what if the bigger financial crisis is ahead of us, not behind us? As John Mauldin and Jonathan Tepper deftly illustrate in this controversial audio book, the crisis was more than a half-century in the making. The Great Financial Crisis, however, was merely Act I. Act II has now begun.

The massive household deleveraging and historic shift of private debt onto government balance sheets now underway all over the world represents the end of a 60-year global Debt Supercycle. We have now entered the Endgame, a time when bankruptcies and defaults (disguised as "restructuring") will not be of households and companies but of governments. The stakes are now higher. The coming crises will offer policymakers few good choices and many bad ones. It will require extraordinary clarity and courage from leaders, courage that so far is largely completely lacking. Yet, despite the authors' dark forecast, the message in Endgame is not all gloom and doom. The book lays out positive steps governments can take to weather the worst of the stormy days ahead, minimize the inevitable pain and discomfort most of us can expect to experience, and chart a bold new course to sustained economic growth and prosperity. It also offers investors an abundance of useful analysis and expert advice on how to protect their assets during the worst of it and prosper from the many new opportunities that will emerge globally as they present themselves.

In Part 2, the authors take listeners on a country-by-country tour—including the United States, UK, European countries, and Japan—clearly explaining the problems each country faces, as well as the good and bad policy options open to each, and the investment pitfalls and opportunities likely to be found in each national economy.

Whether you call it the Great Recession, the Great Financial Crisis, or the Global Debt Crisis, what we are experiencing is unlike anything seen in 80 years. Now is not the time to succumb to panic and superstition. It is a time for courage and intelligent decision making informed by the brand of rational analysis and wisdom you'll find in Endgame.


Choose one: (a) Lots of pain. (b) Even more pain. (c) Pain pain pain pain OMG pain! )

Verdict: Endgame is only for people interested in crunchy macroeconomics full of graphs and tables, but it's not overwhelmingly technical, and if you want to know how your country's economy got so screwed up and just how much more screwed it could get, it's a good starting point. The authors are mildly opinionated, but their biases are not so great as to distort their credibility, so you can probably read it and extract useful insights regardless of your politics. If you're looking for a book that will give you advice on what to do about the various levels of worst-case scenarios the authors describe, though, Endgame doesn't have much in the way of useful advice for the 99%.




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The Alaskan outback is not the place to work out your daddy issues.


Into the Wild

Random House, 1996, 224 pages




What would possess a gifted young man recently graduated from college to literally walk away from his life? Noted outdoor writer and mountaineer Jon Krakauer tackles that question in his reporting on Chris McCandless, whose emaciated body was found in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness in 1992.

Described by friends and relatives as smart, literate, compassionate, and funny, did McCandless simply read too much Thoreau and Jack London and lose sight of the dangers of heading into the wilderness alone? Krakauer, whose own adventures have taken him to the perilous heights of Everest, provides some answers by exploring the pull the outdoors, seductive yet often dangerous, has had on his own life.


Alaska has plenty of snowflakes; you really aren't that special. )

Verdict: Into the Wild is an interesting story, and I've enjoyed previous books by Jon Krakauer. Krakauer tries to paint Chris "Alexander Supertramp" McCandless in a sympathetic light without glamorizing his untimely but hardly unpredictable demise, but you can't help shaking your head at this poor dumb kid. Every young man goes through a period where he thinks he's a superhero and does some stupid shit. Some of them die. Chris McCandless found a slightly more adventurous way to do it.




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The Alaskan outback is not the place to work out your daddy issues.


Into the Wild

Random House, 1996, 224 pages




What would possess a gifted young man recently graduated from college to literally walk away from his life? Noted outdoor writer and mountaineer Jon Krakauer tackles that question in his reporting on Chris McCandless, whose emaciated body was found in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness in 1992.

Described by friends and relatives as smart, literate, compassionate, and funny, did McCandless simply read too much Thoreau and Jack London and lose sight of the dangers of heading into the wilderness alone? Krakauer, whose own adventures have taken him to the perilous heights of Everest, provides some answers by exploring the pull the outdoors, seductive yet often dangerous, has had on his own life.


Alaska has plenty of snowflakes; you really aren't that special. )

Verdict: Into the Wild is an interesting story, and I've enjoyed previous books by Jon Krakauer. Krakauer tries to paint Chris "Alexander Supertramp" McCandless in a sympathetic light without glamorizing his untimely but hardly unpredictable demise, but you can't help shaking your head at this poor dumb kid. Every young man goes through a period where he thinks he's a superhero and does some stupid shit. Some of them die. Chris McCandless found a slightly more adventurous way to do it.




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Orchids, alligators, and Indians, and a scammer with a heart of... nah, he's still just a scammer.


The Orchid Thief

Random House, 1998, 284 pages




A modern classic of personal journalism, The Orchid Thief is Susan Orlean’s wickedly funny, elegant, and captivating tale of an amazing obsession.

From Florida’s swamps to its courtrooms, the New Yorker writer follows one deeply eccentric and oddly attractive man’s possibly criminal pursuit of an endangered flower. Determined to clone the rare ghost orchid, Polyrrhiza lindenii, John Laroche leads Orlean on an unforgettable tour of America’s strange flower-selling subculture, along with the Seminole Indians who help him and the forces of justice who fight him. In the end, Orlean–and the reader–will have more respect for underdog determination and a powerful new definition of passion.


A sharply handsome guy in spite of the fact that he is missing all his teeth and has the posture of al dente spaghetti. )

Verdict: A fascinating, weird book about fascinating, weird people, most of whom seem to live in Florida. Orchids are really only the beginning of the story. Orlean includes the obligatory chapters on the history, biology, and genetics of orchids, but the people are a lot more interesting, from John Laroche, the "orchid thief," to the audaciously opportunistic Chief Billie of the Seminoles, to Leonard and Julius Rosen, who sold thousands of acres of Florida swampland to Midwesterners looking for a nice place to retire. The Orchid Thief is a nice piece of non-fiction with stories too improbable to be fiction.
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Orchids, alligators, and Indians, and a scammer with a heart of... nah, he's still just a scammer.


The Orchid Thief

Random House, 1998, 284 pages




A modern classic of personal journalism, The Orchid Thief is Susan Orlean’s wickedly funny, elegant, and captivating tale of an amazing obsession.

From Florida’s swamps to its courtrooms, the New Yorker writer follows one deeply eccentric and oddly attractive man’s possibly criminal pursuit of an endangered flower. Determined to clone the rare ghost orchid, Polyrrhiza lindenii, John Laroche leads Orlean on an unforgettable tour of America’s strange flower-selling subculture, along with the Seminole Indians who help him and the forces of justice who fight him. In the end, Orlean–and the reader–will have more respect for underdog determination and a powerful new definition of passion.


A sharply handsome guy in spite of the fact that he is missing all his teeth and has the posture of al dente spaghetti. )

Verdict: A fascinating, weird book about fascinating, weird people, most of whom seem to live in Florida. Orchids are really only the beginning of the story. Orlean includes the obligatory chapters on the history, biology, and genetics of orchids, but the people are a lot more interesting, from John Laroche, the "orchid thief," to the audaciously opportunistic Chief Billie of the Seminoles, to Leonard and Julius Rosen, who sold thousands of acres of Florida swampland to Midwesterners looking for a nice place to retire. The Orchid Thief is a nice piece of non-fiction with stories too improbable to be fiction.

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