Category Archives: Book Review

The Longest Way Home by Andrew McCarthy

About a year and a half ago I read Rob Lowe’s autobiography, Stories I Only Tell My Friends. I enjoyed it and wrote up a review on this site. About two months ago, I got an email from a publishing company asking if I would be interested in reading Andrew McCarthy’s new book, The Longest Way Home. Being a big fan of free stuff, I gladly accepted the offer of a complimentary copy. A part of me is hoping I can continue this trend and maybe get books by the rest of the people who populated my favorite movies in the 1980s.

Here’s what I knew about Andrew McCarthy before I read the book: He’d been in a few movies I really liked and I honestly couldn’t remember anything he’d done that I didn’t enjoy. He was part of what was called ‘The Brat Pack’ back in the day, though I also knew they didn’t actually hang around each other much and that it was largely a media-created thing. That was about all I knew.

Unlike Rob Lowe’s book, The Longest Way home is not the origin of a famous guy and his famous friends because it turns out that when Andrew McCarthy isn’t acting or directing, he’s writing travel articles for publications like National Geographic. So while the book is deeply personal, it’s also a travel journal.

When watching McCarthy in a movie, I usually instantly identify with his character. He’s tends to play these aloof caring people who don’t quite fit in. That’s easy for me to relate to. Strangely though he seems to have those qualities in his writing as well, I found identifying with him in his book much more difficult.

This isn’t the fault of the writing. It just turns out that I personally don’t have a lot in common with Andrew McCarthy. When the book begins, we find that he’s planning on getting married to his long-time girlfriend, D. He is so excited about this that he instantly plans a series of solo trips all over the world before the wedding. Some people want to run to the ends of the Earth rather than get married. Andrew McCarthy does just that.

Early on we discover that while McCarthy has a deep love for his fiancé and his children, more than anything, he wants to be alone. This is a man who would have no problem living alone in a shed on the side of a mountain for the next fifty years. During his journeys, he talks about the family he grew up in and in so many ways it seems that he was practically brought up to be a loner. There is love in his family but it is always distant.

His trips rarely involve places you’d think to go. He goes to Patagonia, the Amazon, the Osa, and Baltimore among others. Each trip involves him meeting interesting people and exploring these locations with a curiosity and sensitivity that is easy to feel when reading it. And as he travels, he continues to work through his personal demons that are keeping him from fully committing to his fiancé.

While the path he takes to becoming the person he needs to be in order to marry his fiancé is predictable, it’s the personal nature of the story that keeps it from being uninteresting. And it doesn’t hurt that most of the time, he’s writing about some of the most interesting places on earth.

It should also be noted that McCarthy writes at least as well as he acts. The talent is clear. His descriptions of his surroundings coupled with his reactions to them give the reader a real feel for the journeys he undertakes.

The Longest Way Home isn’t a famous person’s autobiography. It’s a book about a world traveler becoming someone who can be fully committed to the woman he loves. The fact that he’s also a famous actor doesn’t really enter into it beyond the fact that he likely wouldn’t be able to afford such trips without the money his first career has gained him.

If you’re looking for some sort of famous person tell-all, this isn’t it and really I think that’s a good thing. Word is that McCarthy is now working on a novel and he’ll be starring in a Hallmark Christmas movie this December. Andrew McCarthy may enjoy solitude, but I’m glad he shares his journeys with us.

– Jack Cameron

Book Review: The End of Faith By Sam Harris

I discovered Sam Harris when I found a link to an excellent article he wrote about violence and self-defense. It was well written and incredibly practical. However, the thing that got me most was that it actually gave me a new idea about violence:

“This is the core principle of self-defense: Do whatever you can to avoid a physical confrontation, but the moment avoidance fails, attack explosively for the purposes of escape—not to mete out justice, or to teach a bully a lesson, or to apprehend a criminal. Your goal is to get away with minimum trauma (to you), while harming your attacker in any way that seems necessary to ensure your escape.”

This was a new concept to me. It wasn’t that I didn’t agree with it. It was that I’d never really thought of it like that before. I read a few more of his posts on his site and then decided I would read one of his books. When I get interested in an author, I like to start with his first book whenever I can. So I got The End of Faith.

The End of Faith is about faith, religion, and the incredible dangers posed in the modern world by people who believe things with no evidence. As an atheist, I was a bit concerned that I’d read the book and my only reward would be that I’d have a few more points to make when I debate someone about the existence or non-existence of God. Surprisingly Sam Harris’ book is much more than that.

One thing that struck me about Harris’ writing is that he isn’t nice. He doesn’t try to bend the reader to his way of thinking. He hacks at the weakest points of some of the longest held beliefs in history. And he’s exceptional at it. He attacks blind faith with reason, practicality, and logic.

I’m sure it’s no surprised that in this first part, I was in complete agreement with him. I also thought how this first part of the book was so brutal that many Believers probably wouldn’t read further. This is unfortunate on many levels. Sam Harris is clearly a well educated smart man and he has something important to say here. I’d like to think that anyone, regardless of their faith would be interested in what a man like him has to say about religion and faith. Ultimately, if you read it and think he’s wrong, nothing has been done to your faith. If you read it and think he’s right, then your beliefs will have changed. Either way, it’s not damaging.

After clearly explaining why religion and blind faith don’t make a lot of sense in the modern world, Harris starts talking about the consequences of religion in the modern world. He touches on everything from missionaries not passing out contraception to suicide bombers whose actions are celebrated by the faithful. The picture he paints of the horrible things that happen because of what different people think happens after we die is startling.

This isn’t a new problem. Harris goes into detail about how history is full of atrocities and tragedies that are the result of religion. He acknowledges that religion has also contributed a great many good things to our society but not one of them would have been impossible without religion. Unlike things such as the Spanish Inquisition which required faith to happen.

With technology continuing to shrink our world and weapons of mass destruction being easier and easier to produce, the existence of groups of people who believe in things that cannot be proven and want to kill people who do not believe those things make religion and faith one of the most obvious dangers to our civilization. Harris goes into details on why this is true and what we should do about it. It’s here that he almost loses me. While I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, I can find no fault in his logic. In many ways, I think that perhaps I just don’t want to agree.

After pointing out the fallacy of faith and the dangers of religion, Harris takes some time to talk about ethics. He does a reasonable job of pointing out that ethics do not need to be grounded in religion and that we don’t need a God or an old book to tell us what is right or wrong. I agree with this, but his thoughts on torture disturb me:

“Whenever we consent to drop bombs, we do so with the knowledge that some number of children will be blinded, disemboweled, paralyzed, orphaned, and killed by them. It is curious that while the torture of Osama bin Laden himself could be expected to provoke convulsions of conscience among our leaders, the unintended (thought perfectly foreseeable, and therefore accepted) slaughter of children does not.”

Personally, when it comes to torture, I’m against it in all cases. If for no other reason than it rarely produces good results. Torture to me is a failure of the interrogator. Then again, I’m not the biggest fan of bombs either. However, as he points out, regardless of the outcome of the torture, from a purely ethical standpoint, he has a good point.

Finally, Harris talks about spirituality. This was the last thing I expected on a book basically dedicated to the absurdity and horrendous consequences of religion. His thoughts here are lucid. He argues that in many cases religion gets in the way of spirituality and our objective study of it. I entirely agree with him. The most spiritual moments of my life had nothing to do with Jesus or church.

Often books like this will not have sources. They’ll read like manifestos. Harris’ book does not suffer from this. Almost a third of the entire book is full of notes about his sources and references. Clearly, he did his research.

The End of Faith is a book I’d love to share with my father and with any Believer I know. It’s challenging. It’s thought provoking. And it’s accessible. There’s not much more I ask for in a non-fiction book. I’m looking forward to reading more Sam Harris soon.

– Jack Cameron

Book Review: The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic Living By Mark Boyle

What would you do if you had no money? The obvious answer is ‘get money’. But what if you couldn’t get money or more specifically didn’t want to get money. Welcome to the world of Mark Boyle. In The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic Living, Mark Boyle puts his mouth where his money used to be.

It’s easy to think of life without enough money. For most of us, that life IS our life. But trying to think of life without money at all is actually somewhat difficult. If you need food, you can go to the store or you can go to McDonalds. If you need food but you have no money and refuse to take charity in the form of money or friends giving you stuff, this simple need becomes a bit of an adventure. What do you do? You can grow some of your own food if there is a community garden they’ll let you use. You can go dumpster diving or ask local businesses if they’re throwing anything out. You can forage in the forest. The thing that this book illustrates time and again is that there are options without money.

It begins with a fantastic and simple description of finances, banking and debt. He explains clearly how he’s not against the concept of money exactly. He’s against debt. He’s against what world currencies have created. He’s against financial institutions that only exist to make rich people richer. Some protest these people who seem to have rigged the system. Mark Boyle makes an interesting choice by walking away from the game entirely.

It would be easy to pick this book apart if I wanted to. I could point out how much stuff he got simply because he was lucky. (Not everyone who reads the book is going to be able to put a donated trailer on a community garden and live rent free.) Or I could say that he violates his own rules again and again. I mean he goes on about how he doesn’t like to eat animals and doesn’t want to use cars because of big oil companies and whatnot, but he still has a cell phone and a laptop. However, none of that really matters. This isn’t a book about living like a monk. It’s about what’s possible even without money.

This isn’t new thinking. In fact it’s very old thinking. The idea of trading and bartering for goods and services is as old as humanity. I think that’s why it’s so appealing.

For me, the problem is that I am really nothing like Mark Boyle. Towards the end he says, “We cannot have fast cars, computers the size of credit cards, and modern conveniences, while simultaneously having clean air, abundant rainforests, fresh drinking water, and a stable climate.” I disagree with this. I think that science and technology are the problem and the solution. I think that technology can make things easier and better. The problem isn’t so much the technology and science as it is the profit.

There was an interview with a record executive that I can’t find now. In it, the executive talked about how it used to be that you’d find a band. You’d help them create a voice. You’d help them create an album and a sound. You’d help them tour. And you’d help them work on their next album. You’d let their career be your career. Now though, most record executives don’t care. They find someone they can make one number one hit with, they push that as hard as they can and make a million damn dollars and they’re done. It’s fine for business to be about money. It should be. But it should be about more than just money. It’s the WalMart-ization of the world. Price and profit over quality and innovation. This is where our real problem lies.

– Jack Cameron

So Much Pretty By Cara Hoffman – A Review

I’ve never been one for feminism. This probably has something to do with the fact that I’m a white heterosexual male. In most feminist philosophies, people like me are the bad guys. We’re the ones who do these horrible things to women. What I’d like to tell most feminists is that there are all sorts of bad guys (and bad girls) and just maybe, a bad thing is a bad thing regardless of what genders are involved. However, there’s a problem with that. The problem is that the feminists aren’t entirely wrong.

I picked up ‘So Much Pretty’ knowing it was about men brutalizing women, knowing it was written by a woman, and knowing that someone like me was probably the bad guy. While there’s truth to all of that, Cara Hoffman’s novel goes far beyond my preconceptions. She takes us into a small town in upstate New York and by the time she’s through, you feel like you’ve walked these streets and know this town far better than you want to. It’s the creepy uncle of America and what’s more disturbing is that you know that there are a lot of creepy uncles out there.

So Much Pretty is told in fragments. It’s as if you’ve been given a folder of relevant information that you have to put together in your head. This sort of narrative is difficult to pull off, but very rewarding when it works, like putting together a puzzle without knowing the picture.

There are invisible lines drawn in this novel. It talks about how the brutalizing and dehumanizing of women has become entertainment. Yet, it’s a novel that involves the brutalizing and dehumanizing of women. This is something I touched on a few months ago about the TV show Criminal Minds. Dead pretty girls have been the focus of both entertainment and news stories for a very long time. From the Black Dahlia to AMC’s The Killing to Cara Hoffman’s own beautiful and doomed Wendy White.

You’d be mistaken though if you thought that all Cara Hoffman was going for here was entertainment. She’s trying to show you something. And yes, you’ve seen the small town with the dark underbelly. And you’ve seen the spoiled rich boys who can do anything they want. And you’ve seen so much of these elements play out before in novels, comics, movies and television. That’s what makes So Much Pretty so impressive because you haven’t seen these elements handled like this before. The third act of this novel plays out the way all great storytelling does; it’s unexpected and inevitable. So Much Pretty is the first novel in years that I’ve read and was unable to put down. If you read novels, you should read this one.

– Jack Cameron

Stories I Only Tell My Friends By Rob Lowe – A Review

It took me a long time to be a fan of Rob Lowe. I would see him from time to time in movies, but he was never the reason I was watching the movie. And even when he was playing charming fuck-ups like in St. Elmo’s Fire, I still didn’t like him because ultimately he looked like the guy who went out with your girlfriend after she dumped you. A bit too sharp. A bit too good looking. He rarely played the guy I wanted to be. Then I started watching West Wing. On West Wing, he played Sam Seaborn. He was a writer. He worked at the White House. And thanks to West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, he was very smart and said amazing things.

So I grew to appreciate Rob Lowe, but I didn’t know much about him. I knew somewhere in his past he had inadvertently pioneered the celebrity sex-tape scandal, but I didn’t know anything beyond that. My point here is that while I liked Rob Lowe well enough, I didn’t read his autobiography because I was a Rob Lowe super-fan. I read it because he titled it ‘Stories I Only Tell My Friends’ which I thought was a great name for an autobiography.

It turns out one of the many things Rob Lowe has in common with his West Wing character is that he too is a writer. This book sounds like him, which is really the best you can hope for in an autobiography. He writes with potential. There is something inspirational in his tone even when he’s talking about bad things. There are times it sounds like the writing of a politician, but I mean that in a good way.

If you take the time to read ‘Stories I Only Tell My Friends’, you’ll find two things:

1. That Rob Lowe has always wanted to be an actor and worked hard at it.

2. That Rob Lowe was phenomenally lucky.

He gives example after example of both of these things. He starts out as a kid in Dayton, Ohio doing children’s theater. He goes after every opportunity he can find to get on stage. Then after a fairly devastating divorce, his mother moves him out to California where he just happens to go the same Junior High School as Sean Penn and his brother Chris, and Charlie Sheen and his brother Emilio. This is what I’m talking about. He does work at it, but he gets these breaks that are one in a million. What makes it work is that he doesn’t seem to take any of them for granted.

Rob Lowe may have had some incredible luck, but he’s earned his place in Hollywood. Reading his autobiography, I was amazed by great people he’s had populate his life. And yes, the whole, work hard-get famous-go on a bender-go to rehab-come back better than ever thing can be seen on every single episode of VH1’s Behind The Music. But the reason that show works and the reason this book works is that each of those stories is personal. Lowe’s descent is entirely due to the unique circumstances he found himself in. What makes Lowe’s journey worth reading is that he’s a good storyteller and he never comes off as the pompous ass I originally thought he was. He’s not that guy. He’s one of us…or at least he tries to be.

One other note. It has occurred to me that every autobiography published in the next thirty years is going to have a chapter on 9/11. I think we should take all of these chapters and put them into one book.

–          Jack Cameron

King of Methlehem – Book Review

Most novelists, even successful ones have day jobs. This is just an economic fact. If you’re a resident of Western Washington, you’re probably at least remotely familiar with the name Mark Lindquist, but there’s a good chance that you don’t know him from his novels. You know him as a Pierce County Prosecutor. Just last night he was on the local news prosecuting someone who killed three-year-old. While his actions in the court room are admirable, that’s just his day job. When he’s not prosecuting criminals, Mark Lindquist is a novelist and after reading his latest book, ‘King of Methlehem’, I’m happy to report he’s a good one.

As you’ve probably guessed by the title, ‘King of Methlehem’ hangs its plot around the significant problem of meth amphetamine use and the damage it does. This problem is personified in Howard Shultz, a Tweeker with an obsession for cooking up meth subsidized by identity theft scams. The mentality of a hardcore meth user and cook is so well captured in ‘King of Methlehem’ that if Mark Lindquist were anyone else, you’d ask him how long he had been on it.

Pursuing Howard is Tacoma Police Detective Wyatt James. From the beginning, James is almost as addicted to finding Howard as Howard is addicted to meth. The dialog is quick and fun. You can tell that Lindquist used to write screenplays. The whole thing is written in present tense which gives it a feeling of urgency.

Aiding Detective James is his friend and prosecutor, Mike. While Wyatt is the cowboy, Mike is the guy who tries to keep Wyatt grounded. When Mike gets going in the court room, you can really see Lindquist’s day job influencing his writing. You get the feeling Mike’s frustration echoes his own.

If you’re a Tacoma native, you’re going to feel right at home with ‘King of Methlehem’ . Lindquist uses real bars, businesses, streets, people, and history. In fact, there are times when I think he overdoes it. In one chapter where two characters are driving down Tacoma’s 6th Ave., he manages to mention seven businesses on one page.  So while the book is seasoned with local color, I’d have to say sometimes it’s ‘over-seasoned’. This is as close as I can come to a criticism of ‘King of Methlehem’.

Ultimately, if you’re a fan of crime fiction, and definitely if you’re a local, ‘King of Methlehem’ is well worth your time. It’s like a local version of The Wire. And as anyone who knows how I feel about The Wire, that’s high praise indeed. I look forward to his next book and may check out his other books.

– Jack Cameron

Review – Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life

There are only a handful of books that I’ve read that really changed my life. One of those books was The Game by Neil Strauss. It’s a book I liked so much I even mentioned it in my book. While those who have not read it may think it’s just a book on how to pick up girls, it’s really a lot more than that. Neil Strauss uses that premise to hang an entertaining and informative narrative, and then goes one step further by not just showing various pick up techniques but showing where the limits are on that sort of thing. After reading The Game, I instantly had more confidence when it came to women and for the first time in my life really felt comfortable in any given social setting. The Game changed things for me.

It’s because of the effect The Game had on me that I picked up Neil’s latest book: Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life. Instead of Pick Up Artists, this time around Neil submerged himself in Survivalists. Like a lot of people, the past eight years has scared the hell out of Neil Strauss, but he’s not the sort to just be scared. Instead, he started looking into ways to assuage his fears. Nowhere else are you going to find a book that talks about everything from living in the forest to cryonics and the benefits of owning goats.
Like The Game, Emergency is told in an entertaining narrative format. At first this didn’t seem like it was going to work as well as it did in The Game. The first hundred pages or so have less to do with survival techniques and more to do with the reasons for his various fears. Luckily, all of that was just laying the groundwork for the rest of the book.

Once the book gets rolling, it’s a lot of fun. The cast of characters may not be as colorful and crazy as his friends in The Game, but they’re a hell of a lot more dangerous. One of the things that makes Neil Strauss’ books so damn readable is that he approaches these ‘experts’ with the same sort of wary eye that most of us would. When he goes to Tom Brown’s infamous boot camp, he thinks most of the people there are crazy. He pitches his tent wrong and it floods. He hates it. And yet, he’s learning. He takes what he can from the camp without drinking the Kool-Aid. That’s what makes Emergency such a good read. Unlike most Survivalists, he’s not trying to brainwash anyone. He’s just talking about what happened to him and what he went through.

About two-thirds into Emergency, Neil Strauss has turned himself into a force to be reckoned with. He can live off the land indefinitely. He’s trained to use various forms of firearms. He can build a shelter out of just about anything. He can track and identify an animal by its prints. He is prepared for the shit to hit the fan. That would be enough there to recommend this book, but then something else happens.

The last third of the book surprised me. He goes from being a survivalist to being something else. Something better. I don’t want to say too much because I think it’s better that you read it for yourself, but yet again, like The Game, he turns out to be a better person than you’d think. Even if he did kill a goat.

Whatever Neil does next, I’m looking forward to it. He’s one of the best Stunt Non-Fiction writers* out there.
-Jack Cameron

* Stunt Non-Fiction: A term I made up to describe non-fiction books where the author essentially takes a subject, throws himself into it, and then writes about it. Other Stunt Non-Fiction writers include AJ Jacobs and me, among others.