You won't find reviews of Hike Your Own Hike or The Hidden Europe here (that's a lie: there's one review for The Hidden Europe). Instead, this section is for my review other books, although I may occasionally review a movie or even a gadget.

I've put my best reviews here, but if it's not enough, then you'll find hundreds of reviews on Amazon.

http://www.amazon.com/rss/people/A37FFWZUGO8L7W/reviews/ref=cm_rss_member_rev_manlink
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attractive unattractive book coverIt's hard for me to review Attractive Unattractive Americans: How the world sees America because I'm torn. 

Background on me

I've been to 100 countries and I speak 6 languages, so I'm quite familiar with what the world thinks about America. Moreover, I have three passports (USA, Chile, and France). My parents were American immigrants, I went to a French school for 10 years, I grew up speaking Spanish, and I've lived abroad for many years. As a 1st generation American, I am less attached to the US than most Americans - so I can see it a bit more objectively than most, almost like a dispassionate foreigner, which is what Zografos is.

Lastly, I've written The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us, which is 750 pages of what Eastern Europeans can teach us Americans. In it, I discuss what Eastern Europeans think about Americans, which makes me quite familiar with this complex subject. Currently, I'm writing a book my travels to all 54 African countries - and I'm sharing some of their thoughts about America there too. 

Most importantly, I have a lot of sympathy for René Zografos, because I'm just like him: I've written books that cover generalities and stereotypes about other countries. I had to write about how the Polish, Romanians, and Russians really are like. I explained the differences between Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians. It's hard to write such books, because if it's easy to either say incorrect generalities (which is what bold people do) or say nothing meaningful (which is what politically correct people do). It's a thankless task that is guaranteed to provoke endless disagreement. Therefore, I feel quite guilty and hypocritical about disagreeing with this book. But first.....

What I liked about Attractive Unattractive Americans

+ It covers every possible opinion. You hear voices from all over the spectrum. No stone is left unturned. 

+ It's good toilet-seat reading. Pick it up, read 1-2 pages, put it down. You can do that easily. You can also skip around without any problems.

What I disliked about Attractive Unattractive Americans

Book cover of The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us

Two French authors, Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, take you on a historical journey that shows how humans altered the planet. Their 2016 book, The Shock of the Anthropocene, is disappointing, despite the excellent translation by David Fernbach.

Around 11,500 years ago, Earth entered an interglacial period during an ice age that has lasted for 2.5 million years. Interglacial periods last roughly 10,000 years, so we're due for another glacial period. Instead, the planet is warming. 

Welcome to the Anthropocene. 

In Greek, antropos means human being, while kainos means recent; hence, we're in the Age of Humans.

The Anthropocene began in 1784 when James Watt patented the steam engine that signaled the start of the Industrial Revolution.

The Shock of the Anthropocene documents some of the events since the start of the Anthropocene:

⦁ Carbon dioxide has increased 43% - from 280 parts per million to 400 ppm.

⦁ Methane has gone up 150%.

⦁ Nitrous Oxide up 63%.

⦁ Acidification of the oceans has increased by 26%.

⦁ Human population has gone from 1 to 7.5 billion.

⦁ Energy consumption has increased 40 times.

⦁ The extinction rate is 100-1,000 times greater than the geological norm.

⦁ By 2030, 20% of all species will be extinct.

Indeed, the Anthropocene has another name: the Sixth Mass Extinction.

Krakauer is one of my top 5 favorite authors. I love his work. Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town is his only so-so book.

Krakauer has a writing formula: deeply investigate something extraordinary.

Examples:
Into Thin Air: covers the most deadly Mt. Everest disaster of its day
Into the Wild: follows an unusual hermit who fails to live off the land in Alaska
Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith: covers polygamy in an American small town
Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman: covers a superstar athlete who dies in Afganistan

You get the pattern: these are pretty unusual people.

Therefore, if he wanted to write about rape, then he should have written about an extraordinary case of rape and dug deep on that.

Example: the Suryanelli rape case in India, where a girl was allegedly lured with the promise of marriage and kidnapped. She was allegedly raped by 37 of the 42 accused persons, over a period of 40 days. It's going to India's supreme court. It's a HUGE case that would have been perfect for Krakauer to explore.

If he preferred something in the USA, he could have found a high-profile rape case to focus on. For example, he could have focused on the 1993 rape and murder of 16-year-old Elizabeth Pena and 14-year-old Jennifer Ertman in Houston, Texas. Of the six people convicted, five were sentenced to death. Now that's a Krakauer-like story to sink his teeth into.
Moreover, he could have used that case as a springboard to talk about the general problem of rape in America.

Instead of doing what he normally does (laser-focus on person/event/group), he takes the shotgun-blast approach: he covers MANY rape cases in Missoula. As horrific as they all are, it's sad to say that none of them count as truly extraordinary (like the two rape cases I mention above). Instead, they are pretty straightforward rape cases, with all the headaches, trama, and nuances that such cases have.

Besides the graphic detail (which is useful), there's a lot of he-said-she-said, which would have been fine if he had focused on one extraordinary/famous case, but when you're covering lots of rape cases, it gets a bit repetitive.

Here are some analogies to help explain why this book departs from his other books; imagine if:

- Into Thin Air had been about tales of hikers who die in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
- Into the Wild had been about many random people who try to live off the land - and some succeed and some don't.
- Where Men Win the Glory had been about the many soldiers who tragically die in Iraq due to friendly fire.

Such books would be informative (as Krakauer always is), but they would lack that laser-focus that Krakauer excels out. They would lack a clear protagonist and an extraordinary event to cover. That's why "Missoula" isn't as engrossing as Krakauer's other books, which all deserve 4-5 stars.

I hope that Krakauer's next book goes back to his tradition of finding extremely unusual people/situations and delving deep into them.


AUDIOBOOK: I listened to the audiobook, which was read by a woman, which is unusual. Usually, most audiobooks are read my someone with the same gender as the author - and sometimes even the same accent (e.g., Michio Kaku's books have a man with a Japanese accent read it). Perhaps the audiobook producer thought it would be more effective for a woman's voice read about rape. Regardless, she's an outstanding narrator.

 

Winter in the Wilderness book cover

Cover of Winter in the Wilderness A Field Guide to Primitive Survival Skills by Dave Hall, Jon Ulrich

Before sharing my thoughts of this book, I'll share my background and experience to illustrate my expertise, ignorance, and bias.

Background on the reviewer

I've spent many weeks backpacking in the winter or in winter-like conditions. For example, when I did a round-trip on the Continental Divide Trail, I walked across Colorado in May. When you're in the Rocky Mountains in May, it sure looks and feels like winter, even though officially it's spring. The mountains are buried in snow and freezing temperatures are the norm.

My most memorable winter trip was when Lisa Garrett and I did a 4-day backpacking trip in Yosemite during Thanksgiving (late November). You can see some photos from that snowy experience.

I've also climbed many snowy peaks, such as nearly all the peaks in Cascade Mountain Range (e.g., Mt. Rainier, Mt. Hood, Mt. Baker, Mt. Adams, etc...), as well as snowy mountains outside the USA, such as Mont Blanc.

Despite all these situations, I have only once been in a true winter survival situation. That was in late March 2006 when Maiu and I got lost in the Olympic National Park. I've wanted to write about that life-threatening experience for a while years, but until I do, let's just say that we almost died. We spent two nights (one of which snowed on us) in a diabolical ravine. We both ended up with frostbite, but we got out on our own.

Another close call was when I was snowshoeing in Idaho for the day with Julia, my Ukrainian girlfriend at the time. We got lost as the sunset and kept walking until we ran into a man running a snowplow at 3:00 a.m. We were walking the wrong way and he took us back to safety.

Therefore, it was with great interest that I read Winter in the Wilderness. Here are the pros, cons, and verdict of the book.

My brother, Philippe Tapon, wrote two books. His second book, The Mistress, had a good review in the New York Times. However, I loved his first book, A Parisian From Kansas, much more. It's one of my favorite books of all time! Really. Here's why...

A Parisian From Kansas

Instead of reviewing it in a traditional way, I will give you my unique perspective into my brother's novel and tell you stories you wouldn't otherwise hear about the making of the novel.

Background of A Parisian From Kansas

A Parisian From Kansas by Philippe TaponMy brother sent three chapters of the book to a famous semi-retired editor, William Abrahams. After reading the 3 chapters, Mr. Abrahams asked for the rest of the book. Although he had vowed to never edit someone's first attempt at a book (and kept that vow for over 40 years), he decided to break it for Philippe's novel. Moreover, he decided to come out of his semi-retired state to edit it. Obviously, this book must have been extremely compelling to make such a famous editor take such a significant action. 

Mr. Abrahams did it, "Because I've never read anything like this." In fact, that's what most people say after reading it, and I can almost guarantee that you will too. I cannot promise that you'll love it (though nearly everyone has), but I can promise you that you'll agree that it is extremely original.

Allusions to great works

Throughout the work, the author makes allusions to great works such as T.S. Eliot's Waste Land, Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby, and Irving's The World According To Garp. It is a self-referential novel so it makes reading it exciting. Even though the work is considered fiction, about 80% of the novel events actually occurred; so one can certainly say that it is based on a true story.

Look for "Ghosts" in the novel

I'll share with you a secret you would probably never pick up unless you knew the author. If you pay close attention you will notice that in a few places Philippe mentions some fairly nondescript characters in the novel. 

For example, near the end of Chapter 2 Philippe and Darren say goodbye to the tarot card reader. Then he writes:

This is my first ereader and I love it! I've been researching them for years and finally I've found one that worth buying: Amazon's Kindle Paperweight. Here's my review of it.

Kindle Paperwhite technologyPros

  • Super long battery life: it was half-charged when I pulled it out of the box. It's been over a week and I have yet to charge it, even though I've been using it a couple of hours every day. Amazon claims a 2-month battery life, assuming you use it 30 minutes per day, no wifi, and at 40% brightness. That seems reasonable. Yet even if it's half that, it's amazingly good.
  • Multi-touch display: Although it's not as responsive as a iPhone/iPad, you can swipe and pinch all you want. Typing is less responsive than a standard LCD touch screen, but you can certainly type and even use the free to-do-list app.
  • The screen is as bright as you want it: The Kindle Paperwhite targets people who like to read black text on a white background. Ironically, I prefer black text on a gray background. I find it easier on my eyes, so I usually leave the brightness setting at only 5% brightness. That saves battery life and, for my tastes, it's what looks best in complete darkness AND a bright environment. It's only in semi-lit environments where I will boost the front light. Still, it is amazing how bright it can get and that you can have a nice white background even in a bright room.
  • The double helix nanoimprinted light guide technology: It lights up the eink perfectly and evenly, unlike any other ereader in the market today. (See pic on this page.) A few reviewers have complained that there are extremely minor shadows at the very bottom of the reader (see them in the video). It's true. They are there. However, it's so incredibly subtle that only the most picky person would care. If you're one of those, I suggest you go to therapy.

Lyubov Fadeeva, Professor of Politics in Perm, Russia, wrote this review of The Hidden Europe in Russian. It's translated below in English (the translation is imperfect). And now Dr. Fadeeva's....

Review of Francis Tapon's The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us

The Hidden Europe book cover

The book by Francis Tapon book The Hidden Europe. What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us is estimated by reviewers as an excellent travelogue or travel book. In my opinion, it is a travelogue only in form; in content it is a profound cross-national socio-cultural study. It offers a comparative analysis of 25 countries based on sociological and statistical data, numerous interviews with both common people and intellectuals, inclusive observation, etc. I will strongly recommend it to my students in Comparative Politics.

Tapon warns: "I am not a historian. I am an explorer". He seems to be a real discoverer of "the hidden Europe".

The author pretends to be simple in his explanation: Eastern Europe is the territory situated to the East of Western Europe. But he warns that "Eastern Europe" as a term has a lot of complications and not very pleasant connotations for the people: "Because the world had such a low opinion of Eastern Europeans" as "losers who were on the wrong side of Iron Curtain nowadays nobody wants to admit that they live there" (P.13).

And Eastern Europe (25 countries) is still hidden not only for Americans, but for most Europeans too. From the beginning Francis Tapon allows himself a sharp jokes like "the only people who don't seem to care are the Moldovans. They are just happy that Moldova exists" ( P.15).

Most reviewers note the author's brilliant humor. I totally agree: I had a great laugh while reading the book, and I tried to pass on Tapon's humor to my friends and colleagues and to my students. His humor is hot and spicy but not offensive. On the other hand, his book is not entertaining fiction. I would estimate his humor as a research tool because it helps him to analyze, to compare different cultures and customs including offences and prejudices. "The main purpose of this book is positive – to learn the best things about Eastern Europeans; nevertheless, we'll also learn about the stupid and idiotic things in Eastern Europe" (P.16).

HYOH

Hike Your Own Hike and The Hidden Europe are book 1 and 2 of the WanderLearn Series, respectively. Although they're part of the same series and have some common themes, they have significant differences. For example:

  • Hike Your Own Hike has about 84,000 words in 352 pages for $24.99.
  • The Hidden Europe has 330,600 words in 752 pages for $25.99.

Math geniuses will note that when compared to HYOHThe Hidden Europe has twice the page length, but four times the word count, yet costs just $1 more!

As you can guess, HYOH has a big font and healthy margins, while The Hidden Europe has a normal-sized font and small margins. It's the old college trick that we all did - play with the fonts and margins to make the page count where you want it. Anamarija Mišmaš did the layout and did a fantastic job!

What does this mean to you? The Hidden Europe is a bargain! Four times more information, for practically the same price! It's a bad deal for me: I had to work four times as much for the same wage. It's like getting paid a fourth of what you got before. You win.

Moreover, there's no fluff or filler in my writing. It's tight, thanks to my awesome editors, Melissa Finley and Andreja Nastasja Terbos. As one reviewer wrote: "Francis is able to weave humor, history, and himself in such a way throughout the pages that you don’t realize just how much information you’re absorbing." Read more reviews of The Hidden Europe.

The Arrivals documentary is dead on arrival. The opening scene doesn't inspire much confidence. It steals scenes from The Lord of the Rings (as it does throughout this seven hour video), integrating them with Islamic doomsday prophecy. This conspiracy filled movie attempts to be serious, but ends up being comical. It's a documentary that feels more like a mockumentary.

Why did I torture myself for seven hours? I have degree in Religion and specialized in Islam. My thesis was on eschatology. Thus, an Islamic documentary about the end of days naturally interested me. However, the more I watched, the more I giggled.

The "arrivals" refers to the beings who will arrive at the end of the time: Satan, the anti-Christ, and God's army. This video attempts to show that these "arrivals" are due any moment. Don't hold your breath.

The Drunkard's Walk book coverI've never drunken alcohol in my life, but I'm drunk all the time. That, at least, is the conclusion I draw after reading The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives.

The book argues that we vastly underestimate how our lives (and most things around us) are a product of chance. Although we know that luck is important, we don't realize just how important it is. By the end of this book, you may end up believing that randomness is the most important factor in life.

Leonard Mlodinow's Drunkard's Walk gets a bit heavy at times, which may turn off people who don't want to hear about the math details or about the obscure history of randomness.

All highly accomplished people ought to read this book for an ego-check. Successful people (and their fans) think they're brilliance made them successful. Reality: luck played a much larger role than you realize. That's a humbling thought.

The book's biggest weakness is that it's a bit short on solutions. Mlodinow advises us to "be aware" and "conscious" of how important randomness is.

That's nice, but should I even try writing a brilliant review for his damn book? Is it pointless to try to write such an insightful review that it will land on Obama's desk? Then Obama learns about me, buys my book, and puts me on Oprah. Or not. So why bother trying if life is so random?

He does give one bit of useful advice in the end: "Have more at-bats." In other words, since randomness is so important, those who eventually do well often just rolled the dice more often. If you keep pulling the proverbial gambling lever, you will hit a jackpot eventually. If you keep swinging at baseballs, you'll eventually score a base-hit. Even untalented people will get lucky if they try enough. So step up to the plate today and swing away. Keep doing that and even a drunk guy will hit a homerun.

BOTTOM LINE: 4 out 5 stars.

P.S. Although I've never purposely drunken an alcoholic drink in my life, I did get drunk when I was eight years old. My mom put rum on strawberries and I secretly ate them all. How's that for random?

This article was first published as Book Review: The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow on Blogcritics. I've expanded it slightly for the WanderLearn readers.

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