A Book Saved My Life (And My Oreos)

Lost At SeaThere are few more terrifying ways to awake—in the developed world, at least—than because a possum is ferreting about on your bedside table. As melodramatic as it sounds, I have a book to thank for rescuing me. Or at least for waking me up before who knows what befell me.

Suffice to say, I’ve added the incident and its outcome to my list of reasons I love books with an arguably unnatural and illegal affection. (Just in case you’re interested, the book was Jon Ronson’s Lost At Sea, something I find coincidentally interesting, given his habit and penchant for encountering the quirky sides of like.)

It was one of those moments when you awake in the deepest, darkest, most slumberly part of the night and your sleep cycle. A book I’d had on my bedside table had hit my wooden floor with a comprehensive thud and in my eyelid-snapping-open, body-frozen response, my sleep-addled senses and mind raced through the fall-inducing possibilities.

For once, I knew that I didn’t have a near-ceiling-high tower of books on my bedside table (I’ve just started back at uni and, as a combination of knowing I didn’t have time to read ‘fun’ books anymore and because I was cleaning up as part of my I-don’t-know-where-to-start procrastination, I’d shelved all but one or two books).

Fearing—sort of sensing—that something was in my room, I realised I had to turn the light on. I started to move, still unable to see anything in my room because it was dark, because I’m not night a creature of the night, and because my eyes hadn’t yet adjusted to what little light there was.

It was at this precise moment that my friendly neighbourhood possum, who’d clearly been sitting, tableauxed, less than half a metre from me on my bedside table, decided: I need to run now [insert high-pitched possumy voice of your choice].

Cue him (I’m not sure if it’s a him or a her and any attempts to google ‘how to tell the sex of a possum’ invariably lead to ridiculous conversations about good luck flipping a possum over to check out its genitalia and then to the slippery slope of possum porn. But that’s another story entirely …) Cue me screaming louder, more wee-inducingly than I’ve ever screamed before.

I know my friendly neighbourhood possum (I really need to come up with a shorter name for him/her/yo—see this blog about Grammar Girl’s explanation of the emergence of the use of gender-neutral ‘yo’) meant me no harm.

If I’m honest, I’ll admit that yo was likely heading towards the empty packet of entirely vegan Oreos on my table. If I’m also honest, I’ll say that it was a whole lot of excitement caused by the possum for nothing, because as any self-respecting girl, once I’d decided I was going to eat cookies in bed, I’d decided to finish them all. The possum might have smelt Oreos, but there was nary a crumb left to ingest or greedily inhale.\

Instead he was forced to head back into my yard to eat the wild bird seed bell I hang out weekly, but which should really be re-named domestic possum seed bell (I’m yet to see a wild bird have so much as a peck at it, but regularly hear and see the possum giving it a red-hot crunching go).

Still, it’s another installment in the entertaining night raids conducted by my just-about-resident possum and it’s another reminder of why I owe my life, my one or two Oreo crumbs, and my gratitude to early-warning-alarm books.

Lost At Sea

Lost At SeaThere are two authors in my reading life whose work is best read after having heard them read it themselves. They are also two authors whose restrained, understated, off-the-wall approach to observation and storytelling continues to blow my mind.

Both of those authors also happen to contribute to one of my—if not the—favourite podcasts of all time, This American Life. One of those authors (Jon Ronson) is the feature of this blog (the other, David Sedaris, will no doubt be profiled when he next, eminently brilliantly titled book, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, is released in a few months’ time).

I wasn’t, despite being an insatiable Ronson reader, aware that he had released a new book until my brother returned from five weeks in Europe. I knew my brother had spent five weeks in Europe primarily because his opening words to me upon his return were: ‘I carried this book through Europe for five weeks for you.’

The book in question was a clearly heavy hardcover copy of Ronson’s Lost At Sea. Its rather ragged dustcover hinted at the multi-country, tumble-drier-effect travel it had endured on its way to me. No matter. I was so excited and touched that my brother had gone to the trouble, I nearly sat down on the floor and commenced reading then and there.

I definitely didn’t have the heart to burst my brotherly love bubble to tell my sibling that I really appreciated the effort but the book had been released here—in paperback, no less—while he’d been away. Besides, as I wrote before, I hadn’t been aware of the book’s forthcoming nature, much less its release.

Lost At Sea is unlike Ronson’s breakout book, Them, which follows conspiracy theorists, including those who believe the world’s leaders are in fact giant, shape-shifting lizards, and is instead more like his What I Do book of columns.

Lost At Sea is a compilation of a diverse and arguably disparate series of articles published by such places as The Guardian. The articles are linked, of course, through Ronson’s peculiar talent for seeking out the quirky in that which at first appears entirely normal or mundane. They’re characterised by his uncanny knack for helping us readers see the story in an entirely fresh, perspective-changing way.

I’ll not deny that I was a little disappointed to discover that this was piecemeal book—I loved Them and The Men Who Stare At Goats far more than What I Do. Indeed, as you’d expect, some stories in this latest release are undeniably stronger than others. But for the most part Lost At Sea was like a Ronson version of a caffeine hit first thing in the morning—something you’ve been craving and that leaves you sated and able to cope with the daily, grinding, life and work hurdles.

Let's Explore Diabetes With OwlsIn the first, hooking story, Ronson goes behind the scenes on the UK’s Deal or No Deal game show to learn about the contestants, the host, and the various game play methods and conspiracy theories. What he uncovers, in his distinct, distilled, restrained way will ensure you never look at Deal or No Deal in the same way. His other stories include:

  • finding out what inspires an experienced broadcaster to confess—falsely—to the mercy killing of a lover 16 years earlier
  • foraging through Stanley Kubrick’s house and uncovering his love for typography (he was a san-serif man)
  • hiring an Aston Martin and retracing James Bond’s London-to-Geneva journey in Goldfinger
  • trying to get to the bottom of a plot by 13-year-olds to kill their classmates at the North Pole
  • and following the trial of the couple accused of cheating Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, via the rather rudimentary and obvious method of coughing at the correct answer, out of its major prize.

The articles are peppered with such pared-back exchanges as the following (best read assuming Ronson’s voice in your mind):

The flight attendant was there to meet us as their airstrip.

‘Welcome to your plane,’ she said to us. ‘I just want to tell you that Snooop Dogg uses this plane a lot. What I’m saying is,’ she added in a lower voice. ‘You can do anything.’ We all looked at each other. We’re middle-aged now. None of us could really imagine what ‘anything’ might mean anymore.

‘Are we allowed to stand up as the plane lands?’ asked Brandon.

I’m not sure when Ronson’s next book is coming out (or what he’s even working on), but I’m hoping I’ll know its on its way and be able to save my brother some back-breaking trans-continent carrying. In the interim, Sedaris’ forthcoming Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls , which is coincidentally going to be released as a less-favoured-by-me hardcover, should tide me over for a few days.

The Psychopath Test

The Psychopath TestI’m acutely aware that the excitement I expressed and the enthusiasm with which I sought out a review copy of Jon Ronson’s forthcoming book about psychopaths might have made me appear a little, well, mentally unhinged.

So I want to say a massive thank you to the Pan Macmillan publicity team, who agreed to send me a copy and then followed up to check where said copy was when it didn’t arrive quite as quickly as I’d hoped.

I also want to say a massive thank you to those of you who dutifully received and responded to my text messages:

  • first that I’d just found out that Ronson had a new book coming out
  • second that a review copy was on its way to me
  • third that the review copy had, after days of me checking the letterbox as if it were Christmas, finally arrived, and my review reading was underway.

I first discovered Ronson via Radio National’s The Book Show, when he was in Australia to talk about his simply titled (and by simply, I mean that its one main word doesn’t often sound like a title and you have to repeat it, explain it, make sure you include the subtitle of the book) Them: Adventures With Extremists. As in extremists who believe in conspiracy theories such as that shape-shifting giant lizards rule the world. For. Real.

The Men Who Stare At GoatsIn it, and with a mix of suspended cynicism and a frank interviewing and writing style, Ronson gives the interviewees enough rope to hang themselves and us a sly wink to know that we’re in on the joke.

He also surprises us by taking the tales in unexpected directions and you find yourself not sniggering at peoples’ naïve and off-the-wall beliefs, but instead understanding how and why they believe them and how sometimes those beliefs aren’t so far-fetched at all.

I’ve blogged previously about how much I enjoyed Ronson’s books—so much so, that I’ve even broken my no re-read rule for them. I still muck up the order of his name—Jon Ronson doesn’t seem to roll off my tongue quite the same way Ron Jonson does—but his distinct, waspish English voice is embedded in my brain courtesy of his stories on Chicago Public Radio’s This American Life (if you haven’t subscribed to this podcast, stop reading immediately and go do it. Do it.).

Which is, coincidentally, where I heard the story seed of what became his forthcoming book, The Psychopath Test. Long story short, ‘Tony’ faked mental illness to avoid a prison sentence for grievous bodily harm. The plan backfired when he was determined to be a psychopath and was imprisoned in Broadmoor, a mental asylum for the baddest, most infamous psychopaths.

ThemTony quickly realised he’d made a mistake, but found that while it was easy to convince others that you’re mad, the more you try to convince them that you’re actually, in fact, sane, the madder they think you are.

Throw in some friendly local scientologists, some mysterious, cryptic packages that are being delivered to experts, interviews with Al ‘Chainsaw’ Dunlap, famed for his slash-and-burn firing techniques to bring companies back into the black and who may or may not be a corporate psychopath, as well as a training course with the doctor who created the widely used psychopath test and, well, you’ve got a great book on your hands.

I loved The Psychopath Test—the way Ronson looks at the world both makes sense to me and turns my sense of the world on its head. So, with that in mind I won’t apologise for my overexcitement at its imminent and then subsequent arrival. Instead I’ll say read it (and read Ronson‘s back catalogue).

The Man Who Stares At Goats And Them

Jon RonsonSome weeks ago I asked about the merit or otherwise of re-reading books, but have since realised that I’ve forgotten one key reason for re-reading: excellent authors who have released few books.

It starts with a book recommendation or a simple stumbling across a writer whose fabulousness you can scarcely believe and whose writing you wonder how you previously existed without. It finishes with a mad dash to find and devour their back catalogue of books. Which is great, until you exhaust the supply.

Then begins the trawling of the internet and the author’s and publisher’s websites to find out if or when the next book will be released. When there isn’t the promise of a forthcoming fix, you’re left with the option of either re-reading the published works or reading nothing (ok, or reading something someone else wrote, but bear with me here).

In spite of my reluctance to revisit books—largely because I worry that re-reading one book means potentially never reading another in this lifetime—after writing the blog about it I found myself lured back to Jon Ronson’s works.

He’s best known for The Men Who Stare At Goats, which was recently made into a film that I haven’t yet seen. But my favourite of his books is the simply titled Them: Adventures with Extremists.

The Men Who Stare At GoatsRonson (whose name I constantly have to check in my head as I can never remember if it’s Jon Ronson or Ron Jonson; and even though it’s the former, it’s the latter that always springs to mind) is a creative non-fiction writer and journalist with a knack for finding the interesting in the apparently ordinary.

I spend half my time marvelling at how and where he finds his subjects and stories and the other half at how powerfully he conveys them through understated writing.

For example, in The Men Who Stare At Goats, Ronson investigates a secret, unacknowledged arm of the American army dedicated to researching how mind power can give them the upper edge.

These are the super-educated, super-intelligent men who try to walk through walls or who stare at goats in an attempt to will them to drop dead (for the record for other animal lovers out there, they weren’t overly successful—one goat fell over once).

In Them, Ronson seeks out and embeds himself in the daily lives of the people we’d label ‘extremists’ and who are, given that he’s Jewish, unlikely to let him in. There’s Omar Bakri Mohammed, who’s living on social welfare in London and who’s both applying for British citizenship and openly plotting to overthrow the UK and turn it into an Islamic country.

There’s the media savvy Ku Klux Klan leader who’s trying to preach love for white people rather than hate for black people, and who discourages his followers from wearing the famed hooded outfits or use the N-word.

There’s the people who believe that the world is controlled by the Bilderberg Group, which comprises of a small, select group of all-powerful people who meet annually in secret locations. Then there’s David Icke, who actively believes that the world is actually being run by extraterrestrial, shape-shifting giant lizards. For real.

Part bumbling Bill Bryson, part David Sedaris, Ronson is a writer and speaker with whom I’ve fallen in love. Which is a problem, because his books take an eternity to research and write. Which means that he doesn’t release them all that regularly. Which means that in the absence of new Ronson releases, I need to revisit his books to get my quota of his writing.