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.
Before sharing my thoughts of this book, I'll share my background and experience to illustrate my expertise, ignorance, and bias.
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...
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.
My 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.
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.
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.
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....
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).
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:
Math geniuses will note that when compared to HYOH, The 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.
I'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.