Note: information about next month’s book are at the bottom of this post.
Welcome back to the Skepchick Book Club! This month, we read Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries by Jon Ronson. The book is basically a collection of articles that he has written for The Guardian, but since I don’t really read that too much, it was mostly new to me! And I’m a huge Jon Ronson fan, so I expected this book to be a fun read, even though it was a bit long (~450 pages, longer than our typical book).
Jon’s style is both biting and sympathetic. He can empathize with nearly anyone he writes about (to the point where it gets absurd sometimes), but he doesn’t hold his tongue when he writes his articles. I get the impression that people think that he likes them, and a lot of them are shocked to read what he was actually thinking in his articles. In a few articles, it was clear that someone was trying to manipulate him.
The book has an equal amount of humorous and dark stories and is divided up into five sections:
- The Strange Things We’re Willing to Believe: This section covered superstition and people who want to believe in something so hard that it might come true. The first story was a profile of ICP (the Insane Clown Posse)–look them up if you don’t know anything about Juggalo culture (I’ll just assume that you do). Turns out, the rappers in ICP are Evangelical Christians and they’ve been giving “clues” in their songs all this time (and if you know their music, you will laugh at that part). There is another article about current advancements in AI technology, with a section on Martine Rothblatt, one of the most fascinating CEO’s I’ve read about. Also, there is a bit about Indigo Children (which I didn’t even know about but now that I do, UGH).
- High Flying Lives: Jon wrote about celebrities for this section–James Bond, Paul Davies (of SETI), Robbie Williams (UK pop singer), Stanley Kubrick, among others. I knew who Robbie Williams was before reading Jon’s article, but I didn’t know he was so into aliens and UFO culture. At one point, Robbie goes to a UFO convention to hear a woman talk about her son’s abduction experience, and he has a conversation with her where he said that he knows what her son has been through. And she goes, “Oh really?” and he says something like, “Yeah, being in a boy band was really similar to being abducted by aliens.” The most interesting article in this section is about Stanley Kubrick and his house, which was full of boxes of research material. At one point, Jon goes into what used to be the cinema and finds that it is full of books. Upon further inspection, he sees that all of the books are about Napoleon. Also, Stanley never replied to fan mail, but he did file it away by location, and then by tone (Positive, Negative, Crazy).
- Everyday Difficulty: This section was about ordinary people who got caught up in extraordinary situations. One of the creepiest articles, “Santa’s Little Conspirator’s,” is about the town of North Pole, Alaska, which celebrates Christmas all year. To the point where the mayor tries to get all the shopkeepers to wear elf costumes (that doesn’t go over well). This town is the backdrop to a thwarted (thankfully) school shooting, so Jon is interviewing the townsfolk about that. Other articles have profiles on the people who tried to cheat Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, the subprime mortgage loan crisis (before people even knew there was a crisis), and an artist who does self-portraits while on different drugs.
- Stepping Over the Line: This section was about people who are manipulative and bad. There is an article about Sylvia Browne, of course, which I found both sad and funny. Sad, obviously, because she clearly doesn’t believe her own bullshit and she is taking advantage of vulnerable people. Funny because by the end of the story, a lot of her believers have come to realize that she is not the person they thought she was. There is another article about a cult (the Jesus Christians) whose purpose is for their members to give kidneys to people who need them.
- Justice: This section has stories of people who are being punished somehow. The most notable story is probably the one about Phoenix Jones, a man who calls himself a “superhero” who patrols the streets at night trying to catch criminals. (This was the same guy who was in the news a few years ago for pepper-spraying a crowd of people.)
So, if you’re the type of person who likes Jon Ronson’s style (or This American Life) then you will like this book. The good thing about reading a book that is split up into independent articles is that it’s easy to pick up whenever you need a quick read. The only thing I didn’t really like about this book was the fact that Jon tries to find something good about every person he writes about, including pedophiles, murderers, psychic charlatans, etc. But, if he didn’t have that reputation, they probably wouldn’t work with him, and we wouldn’t be able to get these deep profiles about them.
Next Month’s Book: What If?
Next month, we are reading What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. Join me on Sunday, October 26th for the discussion! (Or if you’re in Boston on the 25th, come join our live discussion. Comment for more details!)