Review: Tomlisin’s Elephant in the Room

The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man’s Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America

Tommy Tomlinson

Tomlisin is a lifelong reporter. It shows in this memoir of eating (and over-eating), love (and loss), and what it means to try to wrestle back a healthy life with a body that is fighting you, in a world that is trying to get you to hit the drive-through just one more time.

Tomlinsin brings the crisp, direct, prose of someone who has written thousands of words on deadline. He couples that with the brutal, heartrending honesty of someone who has looked deep into himself and decided to make some changes. I’ve read my fair share of diet memoirs, but rarely are they delivered with this level of honesty and real deal writing chops. I devoured this in a couple days, seeing myself in many of Tomlinsin’s struggles and deeply impressed with his honesty.


Book Review: Westover’s Educated

Tara Westover

The injuries in this book, the real bloody, life changing injuries. I wasn’t ready for that. I was ready for the story on the cover, of a woman raised by Mormon survivalists in the remote west, the story of a woman who didn’t know what the Holocaust was until she went to college, but who would, eventually work her way all the way to Oxford.

That story, I was ready for. But I wasn’t ready for the junk yard, and the accidents that left Westover’s brother violent and unhinged, and her father horribly disfigured. That flabbergasted me. I expected guns and conspiracies and a story of finding one’s self, but I didn’t expect children routinely put in harms way. Nor did I expect Westover’s relationship with her family to be so complex into adult hood.

This book is a bestseller, and it has the bestseller qualities, both good (compelling narrative) and bad (a bit on the “oh look at these weirdos” side) but its also much more moving than I expected. If seeing up close how precarious it can be to live “off the grid” and “close the land” than this is worth a read.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Tara Westover

Ward’s Men We Reaped

Men We Reaped: A Memoir 
Jesmyn Ward

There may be other American writers working today who are as gifted as Ward, but I have a hard time believing there are any more gifted. From fiction to memoir, Ward consistently leaves me at the edge of tears at the raw emotion of what she is sharing, and the technical brilliance with which she does it.
This is a memoir. It is the story memorializing the dead men from her hometown in rural Louisiana. All the men here were young, all died unnatural deaths, and all were black. None of that should surprise you, young black men in our country die at shameful rates. How this comes about is what Ward is struggling to explore.

The story focuses on the untimely death of Ward’s brother, but it comes to his death last, as a sort of culmination of a series of events, all related in one way of another, that hit Ward’s community over the span of a few short years. The book is pitch perfect in balancing reportage with anguish, making us feel the loses Ward suffered, personally, with every death, while also not losing sight of the larger story here – that our society sends young black men to the grave with alarming regularity.

All of Ward’s books are worth reading. She is truly among the best living American authors, but this one feels the most necessary, the most urgent, of what she has done so far. If you’re going to start anywhere with Ward’s work, I suggest you start here. But keep going, she has much to share.


Gurdjieff, Work, and the Dark Side of Hidden Truths — A review of some books about a now largely forgotten mystic that is really more of a memoir about me and a story about a guy I used to know.

Meetings with Remarkable Men, G.I. Gurdjieff

Luba Gurdjieff: A Memoir with Recipes, Luba Gurdjieff Everitt

Gurdjieff: A Biography, James Moore

Our Life With Mr. Gurdjieff, Thomas and Olga De Hartmann

Boyhood with Gurdjieff, Fritz Peters

The Unknowable Gurdjieff, Margaret Anderson

When I moved to New York City, I was 18 and clueless. I was deeply curious about art, philosophy, literature and spirituality, but I knew next to nothing. In those pre-internet days, if you were a kid like me, you tended to come across things in a haphazard manner. Someone you knew lent you a book about zen; the zine you bought at the punk show referenced Jack Kerouac; some book you’re reading mentioned a mystic dude who sounds interesting and, it just so happens, a bunch of books about him are being stocked at the bookstore where you work.

That, in a nutshell, is how I fell into a short lived, but intense, interest in the mystic and charlatan known as G.I. Gurdjieff.

Gurdjieff was a Blavatsky type, who borrowed heavily from various religion traditions, wrapped them up in mythology of a “hidden truth” to which he held the key, and then sold this package as a unique path to an awakened life. He was a contradictory, self aggrandizing, innovative, interesting, and full of shit. He wrote three books, only one of which I read. It claimed to be a memoir of sorts of his interactions with various sages and mystics.

It was, I knew even then, total bullshit.

But as the memoirs cited above show, he had a profound and positive impact on many people. He also had a huge impact on me. His ideas of work strangely shaped my world view and the ideas of some of his followers showed me, first hand, the trouble one can find oneself in when you go looking for hidden truths.


Gurdjieff looking suitably creepy

In a nutshell* Gurdjieff taught a form of self actualization that was achieved through self discipline and work on one’s spiritual and physical self.  There were dances (yep, dances), and specific techniques one was supposed to use. But what resonated with me was the importance of self mastery and of work for its own sake — that the act of doing, be it physical labor, or creative endeavor, regardless of its outcome, was worthwhile I found this inspiring and helpful for getting me off my ass and moving.

This isn’t groundbreaking, and of course, Gurdjieff wasn’t the only one to advocate this. But to a kid floundering around trying to figure out who he was and what he wanted out of life, the admonition to create, and to labor, to figure it out by doing it, was very grounding. I’ve taken that lesson with me throughout my life. My life long fascination with stoicism probably starts here because whether he knew it or not, Gurdjieff cribbed heavily from Aurelius and co.

There were darker lessons from my interest in Gurdjieff as well. When I was getting into the dude, so was someone else I worked with at Tower Books. We’ll call him L. L was a bookstore lifer. In his forties, he’d been working in bookstores for twenty years. He was a kind of awkward, neurotic, hippie that seems to have all but disappeared from the New York of today. We weren’t really friends, but he did invite me join him in checking out a local group that was meeting to discuss their “work” in the Gurdjieff method. I went once to a meeting in a plant filled loft deep in Chelsea. I was 18 and the youngest person there by at least twenty years. There was a lot of vague spiritual talk, someone played some of Gurdjieff’s music, and a woman talked about how she was encouraging her mother to go off her chemotherapy and trust in a more spiritual cure to her cancer.

I was completely turned off by the group and never returned. But L kept going, encouraging me to give it another try. Soon, he stopped coming to work. No one knew why.  Eventually, he was fired. Weeks later, he walked in to collect his final pay check and we spoke for a couple of minutes. He was paranoid and confused. He’d gone off his meds (whatever they were) to better see his true self, and his true self was telling him the world was going to end in blood. I didn’t know what to say, and I regret that I didn’t follow him when he wandered out, lost in his own world.

I should have offered help.

I did take that brief conversation with me, however, and used it to build my deep skepticism about anyone claiming answers to the mysteries of the world.

I randomly ran into L again almost ten years later in a diner on Broadway and 12th. He’d gotten married, was working in another book store, and seemed well. We didn’t mention the end of the world thing, or Gurdjieff.

* and as I remember it twenty years after having read the books above

Review: Jornet’s Run of Die

Run or Die

Kilian Jornet

This memoir, written while he was still a very young man, is the story of the world’s greatest mountain runner.

Jornet is the perfect storm of mountain athlete. Slight of stature, he was born at altitude, to parents who routinely went on epic adventures with him and his sister. As is chronicled here, the lifestyle his parent’s choose set him up to love the mountains deeply and have a world class aerobic base by the time her was a teenager. From there, passion, and genetics, took over and he would go on to win every major ski mountaineering and mountain ultra-race in the world.

He is a one of a kind athlete and we’re lucky to be alive at the same time he is.

This book chronicles Jornet’s childhood and adventures in the mountains as an ultra-runner and ski mountaineer. It isn’t a great book. The writing is fair to middling, and the structure is, at times, poor. Jornet doesn’t spend much time talking about the things I’m interested in (his training, his diet, his routines) but he does chronicle many of his major accomplishments and what a passion for the mountains has given him, and taken away. It is an honest, if modest book. If you want to read about the journey of a man who is not only supremely gifted, but deeply passionate about the mountains, you could do worse.  Runners and wannabe mountaineers will likely enjoy this, others will be bored.


Recommended for the enthusiasts.

Review: Carr’s Bad

Bad: The Autobiography of James Carr

James Carr

I’ve read scores of memoirs from radical political activists. This one, by James Carr, is among the best.

Carr was a career criminal, in and out of jail until he ended up in Soledad prison and befriended George Jackson, became politicized, and became one of Jackson’s top lieutenants inside. After his release, Carr joined the Black Panther Party, but left soon after to pursue other political work influenced by his growing interested in situationist theory.

This book doesn’t discuss it, but he was killed soon after publication of this book by members of the Black Panther party. The exact reason for the murder remains unknown, I believe. Some have charged he was stealing others from Angela Davis’s defense fund. Others that he was viewed as a threat to Huey Newton.

I read this book over ten years ago, but as I remember it’s the style is easy going and conversational, while there’s a fair amount of braggadocio, it avoids most of the clichéd language of the era. It isn’t a straight forward life of crime, followed by life of righteous political work. Its more complex than that. There’s frank talk here about the violence that brought Carr to prison, and the violence he saw inside. Its tragic that at a time when it appeared Carr was getting a second chance at life, it was cut short so violently.

If you’re a student of this period, or appreciate a well done memoir, there’s much to gain from checking this out.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Wellington’s A Life Without Limits

A Life Without Limits: A World Champion’s Journey
Chrissie Wellington

Chrissie Wellington is one of the most successful triathletes of all time. But she’s more than that. She’s an activist for environmental issues, a legit player in the world of international development, and a survivor of a serious eating disorder and more.
She covers all of this in her much better than I expected memoir.
Honestly, I figured I’d get the usual – plucky athlete trains hard, gains success, remains humble. What I got instead was plucky girl battles eating disorder, becomes mid-level political operative in the world of international development, travels the world, starts doing triathlon, getting really good, works with controversial coach, becomes best in the world. It’s a good story, competently told.

Wellington has had a fascinating life. But perhaps most fascinating to triathletes and fans of endurance sports is her relationship with the very controversial Brett Sutton. Sutton, who was once convicted of having a relationship with an underage athlete, is legendary for how hard he is on his athletes, and how unorthodox his training regime can be. Wellington documents some of that. She tells of how he pitted her against other athletes, how he put them through incredibly punishing sessions, how he would lock himself in his room for days at a time, emailing the athletes their work outs. It’s fascinating stuff. I’m left with the opinion that while Sutton did create Wellington, one of the top five greatest female triathletes of all time, he also has created a lot of wreckage in others athletes who trained with him. I’d be curious to read a memoir of one of his athletes who ended up not being as successful.

Anyway, worth the read if this is your thing.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Baer’s See No Evil

See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism
Robert Baer

Did you see Syriana? Well, Clooney’s character is allegedly based on Baer. If that’s true, it doesn’t seem to be a very accurate portrayal. What I got out of this book was not the story of a good solider who believed in democracy and was thwarted by dark forces in Washington. I got the story of a C.I.A. cowboy who most likely did more harm than good in the region and was thwarted in his attempts at further meddling in the Middle East by the incompetence of the suits at Langley.

This books isn’t Syriana. It’s a memoir of one operative’s time in the Middle East, and is more about bragging and settling scores than anything else.*

However, I still think it’s worth reading. Baer’s recollections of Lebanon during the civil war and his story of getting knifed at the end of his career in Washington is probably a pretty accurate story of how forces in Washington move against each other. This is a quick read, and worth it I think if you’re interested in the region or the C.I.A.
Recommended for the enthusiast

*and it is a little beyond me why Sy Hersh wrote the introduction, but whatever.

Review: Kurosawa’s Something Like An Autobiography

Something Like An Autobiography
Akira Kurosawa

Its funny what you remember about books. When I started thinking about writing this review the first thing I remember from this book (I read it about two and a half years ago now) was that Kurosawa sure did drink a lot.

Besides that, I remember this one as being surprisingly honest about Kurosawa’s flaws and his struggles throughout his career, both personally and creatively, with a lot of new (to me) insights into his earlier films. Kurosawa was the first film director whose works I sought out as a young film buff. I remember to this day the first time I saw Seven Samarai on PBS midnight movie when I was fifteen. I’d read about, but its importance didn’t stick with me then. It does now, and this book provides further context into the genius behind it and so many other important films. Worth a read if you’re into the man.

Recommended for the enthusiast. 

Review: Johnson’s To The Edge

To the Edge: A Man Death Valley and the Mystery of Endurance
Kirk Johnson

An early example of what has become a bit of a mini-genre – the middle age man with little athletic background who goes on to compete in a profoundly grueling endurance event along the way learning about himself, and the chosen sport.
In this case, the middle aged man is a New York Times reporter, so the writing is top notch, and the event is the Badwater 135, the ultramarathon through California’s Death Valley which many people think is one of the hardest ultra-endurance events in the world.

All of this is to say, while this isn’t a particularly profound or important book, it’s a good read and won’t let down those who, like me, love this genre.

Recommended for the enthusiast.