Review: A Journey to the Dark Heart of Nameless Unspeakable Evil by Jane Bussmann

18264396Blurb:

After scriptwriter Jane Bussmann moves to Hollywood, she realizes her day job interviewing celebrities sucks. She goes to Africa in search of a dreamy activist and ends up uncovering Joseph Kony’s crimes.

Review:

This is an occasionally laugh-out-loud hilarious book about genocide and the mass kidnappings and rape of tens of thousands of Ugandan children. If you’re still with me after that description, know that it’s also about well-intentioned but misguided Western governmental interference in African affairs, a Useless Person learning how to become Useful, and Ashton Kutcher.

Clearly it’s a bit piecemeal, a collage of assorted ideas with ragged edges sewn together. But its main conceit is Jane Bussmann, celebrity journalist, can barely stop herself from committing suicide mid-interview with Ashton Kutcher, immensely idiotic but almost universally praised actor, and thus decides to pursue real journalism. She tricks her way to Uganda by pretending to be a foreign correspondent and not the author of “Nicole Richie’s Sexy Summer Bikini Bod!” and tries to blow the whistle on Joseph Kony, the leader of a militant Ugandan rebel group that kidnaps children to serve as wives and soldiers, before discovering that the situation is much more complex than simply painting Kony as the “Most Evil Man in the World.”

Here’s the thing: Jane’s background in humor writing and celebrity journalism both makes and breaks this story. Jane is a self-deprecating reader stand-in. She’s just as unknowing as most of us on these topics, just as shocked, and just as horrified that she, as well as nobody else, is doing anything about it. Her affable ignorance excuses our own ignorance while her visceral reaction against what she learns prods us to learn more too. But I think this book was also intended to be read as a decent exposé of Kony and what the Ugandan government may or may not be doing to help prop his rebel regime up. And as far as that goes, Jane fails. She lacks the geopolitical background to tell a cohesive narrative about how Kony came to power and how he’s managed to stay in power so long. She’s able to identify a problem and say, “Hey, hey! That’s not right!” (more than most people in the world, who, willfully or will-lessly, are content to be blind) but she can’t explain how it came to be problematic and possible solutions for it to no longer be problematic.

But honestly if reading about dreadful war crimes and the inefficient meddling of Western charities and governments combatting them was always this fun, I think the general human population would be much more informed about various atrocities occurring throughout the world. And yeah yeah, I hear ya, being “informed” doesn’t necessarily lead to meaningful change, but it’s a start. We may live in what Jane calls “The Golden Age of Stupid,” but I still believe that most of us are compassionate people. Often things that are entertaining are considered unworthy of serious attention. Yet Jane has written an entertaining book about a serious subject, and it’s an approach I’d like to see more of.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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Review: Confessions of a Paris Party Girl by Vicki Lesage

20521413Blurb:

Wine, romance, and French bureaucracy – the ups and downs of an American’s life in Paris. This laugh-out-loud memoir is almost too funny to be true!

Drinking too much bubbly. Meeting sappy Frenchmen who have girlfriends or are creeps or both. Encountering problème after problème with French bureaucracy. When newly-single party girl Vicki moved to Paris, she was hoping to taste wine, stuff her face with croissants, and maybe fall in love.

In her first book, this long-time blogger and semi-professional drinker recounts the ups and downs of her life in Paris. Full of sass, shamefully honest admissions, and situations that seem too absurd to be true, Vicki makes you feel as if you’re stumbling along the cobblestones with her.

Will she find love? Will she learn to consume reasonable amounts of alcohol? Will the French administration ever cut her a break?

Review:

Oh how I wish the author’s trials and tribulations in France didn’t ring so true! But France is France–one of the most impossibly frustrating and impossibly lovely countries in the world–and life here is never simple but never boring.

This is a fun memoir that I gulped down in two hours. Vicki has a wonderfully chatty voice, though at times it veered a bit too informal for my taste. Reading this book was like talking with another expat friend over a pint of Kronenbourg. Miserable appointments to the immigration office followed by “Strip! and take a lung selfie!”? Been there. French people wrinkling their noses asking, “Vous préférez que je parle en anglais, Mademoiselle?” Been there. Charming, self-assured Frenchies with zero knowledge of American geography who become your new BFFs over the course of a Friday night and numerous bottles of wine? Been there.

Alongside her fantastically recounted stories of French life, Vicki gave me encouragement that this whole France thing works out even in the darkest moments. This is a terrific ode to an exasperating country. For any expat, it will remind you why you persist on living here even when the Sécurité Sociale asks you to submit your birth certificate (apostilled, officially translated, and no less than 6 months old, of course!) for the fourth time in four months. For any Francophile considering a séjour in France, it will convince you to give it a try, but caution you about the inevitable struggles you’ll encounter. A funny, happy, and informative read!

4 out of 5 stars

Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

15790857Blurb: Bernadette Fox has vanished.

When her daughter Bee claims a family trip to Antarctica as a reward for perfect grades, Bernadette, a fiercely intelligent shut-in, throws herself into preparations for the trip. But worn down by years of trying to live the Seattle life she never wanted, Ms. Fox is on the brink of a meltdown. And after a school fundraiser goes disastrously awry at her hands, she disappears, leaving her family to pick up the pieces.

Which is exactly what Bee does, weaving together an elaborate web of emails, invoices, and school memos that reveals a secret past Bernadette has been hiding for decades. Where’d You Go Bernadette is an ingenious and unabashedly entertaining novel about a family coming to terms with who they are, and the power of a daughter’s love for her mother.

Review:My younger cousin used to have a game called Story Cubes. It was a set of dice with various images on each side. You rolled them, collected six images, and then constructed a narrative that referenced each image. With only 20 seconds to weave a bee, a skyscraper, a cauldron, a train crash, a door, and an eye into a comprehensive story, the tales were always zany.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette seems inspired by an adult supersize set of Story Cubes. Semple throws together a trip to Antarctica, environmental architecture, expensive prep school helicopter parents, Microsoft company dynamics, Seattle stereotypes, and family dysfunction, adds a pinch of (attempted) humor, and expects a decent story to emerge. But none ever does. It’s simply scattered.

Adding to the book’s scattered feeling is the way it’s constructed. Bernadette disappears and her daughter Bee recounts the events leading up to the event. But Bee doesn’t tell a straight narrative. Instead she reconstructs Bernadette’s life using emails, newspaper articles, police records, and handwritten notes. It jumps from character to character, from plotline to plotline, so I never found my place in the text. Reading this novel was like crossing the Drake Passage during especially stormy weather: I was violently thrown back and forth until I just wanted it to end.

Bernadette is a humor novel. My writing professor says that comedic writing is all about exaggeration. You must take a funny element and stretch it to its limits. These characters are certainly exaggerated, but I don’t think Semple pushed them far enough. She redeems a previously awful character and at the end, she tries to make her main characters sympathetic. It can’t be both ways. They must be either horrible, extreme caricatures or fully realized characters—never both. I read Where’d You Go, Bernadette to laugh, but it only made me cringe.

2 out of 5 stars

Review: In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

24Blurb: Every time Bill Bryson walks out the door, memorable travel literature threatens to break out. His previous excursion along the Appalachian Trail resulted in the sublime national bestseller A Walk in the Woods. In A Sunburned Country is his report on what he found in an entirely different place: Australia, the country that doubles as a continent, and a place with the friendliest inhabitants, the hottest, driest weather, and the most peculiar and lethal wildlife to be found on the planet. The result is a deliciously funny, fact-filled, and adventurous performance by a writer who combines humor, wonder, and unflagging curiousity.

Despite the fact that Australia harbors more things that can kill you in extremely nasty ways than anywhere else, including sharks, crocodiles, snakes, even riptides and deserts, Bill Bryson adores the place, and he takes his readers on a rollicking ride far beyond that beaten tourist path. Wherever he goes he finds Australians who are cheerful, extroverted, and unfailingly obliging, and these beaming products of land with clean, safe cities, cold beer, and constant sunshine fill the pages of this wonderful book. Australia is an immense and fortunate land, and it has found in Bill Bryson its perfect guide.

Review: Bryson himself admits that he has no other goal in writing this book than to show everyone that Australia is strangely awesome. And how strangely awesome it is. A short list of wonderful things I learned:

1. the Aborigine people have the oldest culture on Earth, probably dating to at least 40,000 years. They crossed the sea to Australia using god-knows what maritime technology at a time when Neanderthals still existed. Yet no one remembers this remarkable accomplishment. Indeed, not remembering the Aborigines is an Australian pastime and a dark spot on their otherwise congenial culture.

2. the flora and fauna found there are abundant and diverse. Stromatolites, platypi, “only” fourteen species of venomous snakes, cute and cuddly wallabies, and tons of species that will likely never be recorded because…

3. Australia is HUGE. Astoundingly large. And in addition to being a hulking continent/country/island hybrid land mass, it is empty. An immense void in the Pacific.

4. many explorers have gotten lost in the Outback, and desperately thirsty, have deigned to drink their own urine and the urine of their companions. Important lesson for any potential explorers: the salt in the urine will actually exacerbate your thirst.

5. Australia is the least wooded continent aside from Antarctica yet it is the world’s largest exporter of woodchips.

Being a Bryson book, it has hilarious moments. I envy this man’s ability to collect the most ridiculous true stories and encounter the most interesting real people. I have so many highlighted bits, but here’s a funny paragraph where Bryson, obsessed with the plethora of lethal creatures out to kill him in Oz, discusses the Australians’ attitudes toward them:

Australians are very unfair in this way. They spend half of any conversation insisting that the country’s dangers are vastly overrated and that there’s nothing to worry about, and the other half telling you how six months ago their Uncle Bob was driving to Mudgee when a tiger snake slid out from under the dashboard and bit him on the groin, but that it’s okay now because he’s off the life support machine and they’ve discovered he can communicate with eye blinks.

Reading one of Bill Bryson’s travelogues is always a fantastic time. You laugh, you learn, you marvel. He stuffs your head with useless trivia and reminds you how valuable our world and our fellow people are. I need to stop reading his books because I always finish and make haste to airline sites, researching plane prices for impossible journeys, adding another place to my lengthy Must-See-Before-Dead list. But I can’t stop. He’s perfect at what he does.

4 out of 5 stars