nonfiction

Book Review: 100 Side Hustles: Ideas for Making Extra Money by Chris Guillebeau

I’m a pretty determined person, and when I set a goal, I’m quite often so single-mindedly focused on it that I rarely step off the path toward crushing it. I’m absolutely that way with my TBR; I stick to reading the books I added to it and don’t often wander the library looking for new reads (especially these days. The less time spent indoors anywhere, the better). But on a trip to the library to grab things from my TBR, I spotted 100 Side Hustles: Ideas for Making Extra Money by Chris Guillebeau (Ten Speed Press, 2019) just hanging out on a shelf, and I was intrigued. “I’ve got some wiggle room,” I told myself as I shoved the book in my bag. “I can be flexible and read other things.” And I can! And it’s fun!

Chris Guillebeau is the creator of the Side Hustle School podcast (which I haven’t listened to, but it sounds fun). This book seems a likely companion read, or maybe more like the podcast in book form. Each chapter focuses on a certain type of side-hustle business- services, products sold that the seller doesn’t need to make or store themselves, etc- and provides multiple examples of someone who created a successful side hustle that fits these parameters. Some hustlers make a few hundred bucks per month; others pull in millions of dollars per year. Each side business started off as something distinct from the creator’s day job.

This was a really fun and interesting read. I’m not a particularly creative person, I don’t think, so being able to delve into the thinking processes of people who are was insightful. Some people turned their hobbies and passions into a business; others identified a need and set up a business that provided a solution. Still others brought a sense of humor to the whole thing and let it rip. I think my favorite business in the entire book was Troll Cakes, a bakery that will send a small cake with their mean internet comment on top to the commenter. Click on the link to see examples of their hilarious work. I laughed and laughed and laughed at that section. I would have never thought of anything like that!

I’m a bit of an anti-consumerist at heart- even more so now, after reading Made in China by Amelia Pang, so I have no desire to provide people with products that are merely wants and not absolute needs (I mean, everyone needs clothing, but don’t most of us already have more than enough? A business selling t-shirts with witty sayings on them would be fun, but I’d have some serious guilt over cluttering up the earth with even more unnecessary junk and contributing more to climate change and likely unfair labor practices, given that the product would most likely come from China). I’d love to have a side business that pulled in serious cash, but a lot of what was featured here- while absolutely fun to read about- wouldn’t quite mesh with my own personal sense of ethics.

However, I really did enjoy reading about others’ creativity. I wish my brain worked like the people featured in this book. Sometimes stepping off the path is a little fun, and I’m glad I grabbed this from the library, instead of just sticking to my list.

Visit Chris Guillebeau’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis

Obviously, I love nonfiction. If you’ve hung out in these parts for any length of time, you know that I’m a huge, huge fan of that whole section of the library. (I do enjoy fiction as well! I promise!) And I really love nonfiction that reads like a novel. The Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis (WW Norton Company, 2021) is exactly that. I learned about it from another one of those best-of-the-year book lists and added it, but I was a little worried about reading it at first. Haven’t we all had enough pandemic at this point? Was my brain too full for this? Yes, and no, respectively. This is an amazing, fabulously-written, rage-inducing explanation of how we got here and why it’s so disgustingly bad out there.

Years ago, a father who worked for Sandia National Laboratories was fiddling with a new work program when his daughter, who had been learning about the Black Death, came in and saw it, and, after realizing that program might be used to predict disease, began working with her father to learn more. They eventually developed a whole project that they managed to get in front of some important people, people who were tasked (mostly self-assigned; kudos to George W. Bush for actually understanding how terrible a pandemic could be and putting together a team to work towards formatting a response. I hadn’t known about this) with working out a nationwide response to a potential pandemic.

This pandemic team saw what was coming. They understood what could happen and began working to put in place a plan to save not just American lives, but lives around the world. The one thing they didn’t expect: that the leadership at the top wouldn’t care. That there was no leadership, that no one cared about saving lives if it meant their egos may take a hit and if the economy might struggle and so, basically, every American would be entirely on their own.

This is a truly remarkable book about a group of wildly intelligent people who understood the dangers of communicable disease and did everything they could to prepare the country, only to be ignored, mocked, and treated as though they were hysterical nutjobs. We could have cut COVID-19 off at the start, could have led the world in the response and saved millions of lives. Instead, we went with the strategy of protecting Donald Trump’s already over-inflated ego and stroking the egos of the people at the CDC (who had little interest in stopping the pandemic, only seeing what happened as it rolled out and protecting the economy instead of lives). We decided to protect the economy instead of people. Michael Lewis has thrown the curtains wide open on how there’s really no such thing as leadership when it comes to public health in the United States.

I’ve pretty much lost all respect for and trust in the CDC after reading this; it’s explained so much to me about why they’re so desperate to get kids into schools with a virus variant that has an R-naught of TWELVE. I’m completely, utterly disgusted, and I’m grateful to Michael Lewis because this book was the perfect read for right now. I understand what’s going on so, so much better now.

If you can’t figure out why the US has made these decisions (or why your country has looked to the US for leadership and has made similar decisions that have resulted in so much death and suffering), if you need to make sense out of why we’re here at this moment in history and absolutely no one gives a shit about the body count, about the trauma being foisted upon healthcare workers (who are leaving in droves because of it), about why the people in charge are insisting that you get back to work even if you’re still sick, this is the book that will grant you some insight into the dearth of empathy and leadership in the top echelons of the United States. We’re all on our own; there’s no one coming to save us.

If I could’ve given this book ten stars, I would have. It was incredible.

Visit Michael Lewis’s website here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Rad Girls Can: Stories of Bold, Brave, and Brilliant Young Women by Kate Schatz

I don’t often review the books I read out loud to my daughter (though I do count them on Goodreads), but once in a while, a really great one comes up. I’m always on the lookout for great reads about strong, motivated girls and women for my daughter. She’s a bit of a spitfire and I’d like to ensure that one day, when she’s ready, she’ll use her powers for good, because there’s so much in this world that needs fixing. So when I stumbled across Rad Girls Can: Stories of Bold, Brave, and Brilliant Young Women by Kate Schatz (Ten Speed Press, 2018) on a library trip, I knew that was one that needed to go into her brain. And it was a great one.

In brief columns and write-ups, Rad Girls Can shares stories of young girls and young women who made a difference in the world, spotting a problem and taking action to solving it, or who persevered with remarkable courage when times were tough. Some of the girls featured come out of history, like Anne Frank, Elizabeth Cotton, and Maria Mitchell; others are modern-day rad girls, like Jazz Jennings, Egypt “Ify” Ufele, and Memory Banda. The girls come from many different countries and societies; they fight for an end to discrimination, racism, and misogyny; they work for fair wages, better opportunities, and more access to education. They start companies, forge global movements, compete, and perform. They’re the kind of girls we want our daughters to take courage from, and the kind of girls we look at in amazement and come away inspired.

This is a seriously great book. The writeups are short enough that if one doesn’t necessarily interest a reader (hey, not everyone is into rock climbing or stories about warriors), the next one very well may. The girls portrayed are varied and interesting, and there are enough topics covered that at least one should stand out to a reader and intrigue them enough to make them want to learn more. This would be a great jumping-off point for a larger project on an inspiring woman, and a great parent-child read. Heads up for some mentions of forced marriage and periods (this sparked a good discussion with my daughter).

Excellent book. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this to my daughter.

Visit Kate Schatz’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America’s Cheap Goods by Amelia Pang

So much of my reading centers on learning about the world and figuring out ways to do better- to be a kinder person, to learn more about injustices around the world and what part I can play in ending them, to discover ways I can be friendlier to the earth. The global supply chain has been constantly in the news throughout the pandemic, and that’s had me thinking a lot about supply and demand and what exactly it is that we’ve all been demanding so much of. That’s how Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America’s Cheap Goods by Amelia Pang (Algonquin Books, 2021) ended up on my TBR. I knew very little about how so many products are produced in China before; this book opened my eyes in a major, major way.

Back in 2012, a woman opened a package of Halloween decorations that had been sitting in her shed, unopened, for two years, only to be shocked to find a letter begging for help, detailing the gruesome conditions under which the decorations were produced. The woman hadn’t known too much about China’s forced labor system, sentencing political dissidents and ethnic and religious minorities to long sentences of slavery under hideous conditions, all to fulfill the relentless demands of global corporations, but after reading the letter, she began contacting human rights organizations in order to make them aware of what was in the letter.

Amelia Pang tells the story of Sun Yi, a Falun Gong practitioner imprisoned multiple times for dissent and the injustices he and so many others suffered and continue to suffer under China’s system of forced labor. Inmates are forced to work with little food, little sleep, no adequate medical care (unless they’re being examined as a possible forced organ donor; I wish that were an exaggeration), suffering beatings and torture, working until they drop dead. What China is running is essentially a system of concentration camps, and Amelia Pang has written a scathing exposé on the true cost of our consumerism.

This book is soul-crushing, and if you’re not reading it and thinking of all the absolutely unnecessary junk you’ve bought over the years that were likely manufactured with Chinese prison labor, I question your humanity. My husband owned one of the products specifically mentioned in the book, which completely and utterly horrified me. To be honest, I’m not sure how I’m going to buy much of anything ever again after reading this book- but that’s the whole point. I’m responsible for feeding into this system of demand. You are, took, if you’ve ever bought cheap products manufactured in China. We all are. And this needs to stop.

The problem is that there’s almost no way to tell which products are made using forced labor, a point which Amelia Pang stresses and outlines multiple times throughout the book. Often, because Chinese manufacturers will subcontract their labor out to these prisons, companies aren’t even fully aware of how or where their goods are produced. All they know is that demand is high, so they need to put pressure on their manufacturers to produce more and more at lower and lower prices. And what can be better for lower prices than not having to pay your ‘employees’ and forcing them to work 22 hours per day, beating them if they don’t produce as much as you want them to?

This is a book everyone needs to read. America isn’t the only country that feeds into this filthy system, though we are one of the biggest. I’m devastated to learn exactly how much torture and starvation and pain and death has gone into the products that fill my house, but I’m grateful that my eyes have been opened by this riveting book. I’ve never been that much of a thoughtless consumer, but I’m definitely going to be scrutinizing every single purchase I make from hereon out. No one should suffer or die for cheap goods.

Visit Amelia Pang’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Gory Details: Adventures from the Dark Side of Science by Erika Engelhaupt

Who doesn’t love gross stuff?

Okay, so, like…lots of people. I’m not one of them, though. I love gross stuff. The grosser, the better, and so when I learned about the existence of Gory Details: Adventures from the Dark Side of Science by Erika Engelhaupt (National Geographic Society, 2021), it went right on my list. What better way to gain more knowledge about gross things and how they affect our lives? Life is weird and squishy and pretty much just all-around disgusting, so I knew this book would be a perfect fit. And it was!

Human bodies are disgusting, when they’re alive and in death. Animals are pretty foul themselves. Insects? EW. And in Gory Details, science reporter Erika Engelhaupt answers all those weird questions that you’ve wondered but maybe haven’t felt brave enough to ask. Will my dog eat me if I die alone in the house? What happens if a cockroach climbs in my ear- and what’s the deal with earwax, anyway? Some of the gross things covered in this book might qualify as things you could have lived without knowing- eye worms, anyone?- but others will fascinate you endlessly.

So if you’re curious about crispy, sautéed grasshoppers (mmm), bacteria in your dog’s mouth, floating feet that wash ashore on the beach, and how, even in an empty building, you’re never, ever alone (so. many. facial. mites), you NEED this book. Embrace the morbid curiosity you had as a child and dig deep into this book. You won’t be disappointed- a little squeamish, maybe, and you may never want to eat seafood again (trust me on this one), but you’ll have so much fun learning these bizarre facts.

MAN, this was a fun book! What a great way to start off what will surely be a fabulous year of reading. I loved every page of this and didn’t want the disgusting facts to stop flowing, even as I squirmed and my stomach rolled. If you’ve ever enjoyed Mary Roach’s science writing, Erika Engelhaupt is of the same school, with that same snarky, accessible style that makes for a fun read the whole way through. I truly hope she comes out with an entire shelf of books in the future, because this was seriously great. Entertaining, informative, and a brilliant example of how much fun science writing can be.

Five stars, two thumbs up, and three cheers for this excellent book!

Visit Erika Engelhaupt’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration by Reuben Jonathan Miller

My last read of 2021 was one from my list, and ended up being about one of my pet subjects: prison reform, or, more accurately for this book, life-after-prison reform. I learned about Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration by Reuben Jonathan Miller (Little, Brown and Company, 2021) because it appeared on one of those best-of-the-year book lists. I added it and grabbed it on my next library trip. And it didn’t disappoint.

Scores of Americans are affected in one way or the other by our heinous system of mass incarceration. Whether it’s because they’ve done time themselves, a family member or loved one has been inside, or they or someone they know work for the system, few of us escape the burden of what mass incarceration has done to American society as a whole. Reuben Jonathan Miller knows this well. As a Black man, he’s fortunate to have grown to adulthood without having served time (since we imprison Black folks at a much, much higher rate than white, along with imposing longer sentences for the same crimes), but he hasn’t escaped the affects; his brother has served multiple sentences, and Professor Miller deals with the system constantly because of this.

Part memoir and all condemnation of the mass incarceration system that wrecks lives and wreaks havoc on the people tangled up in it, Halfway Home shows the difficulty formerly incarcerated people face in the afterlife of their sentences. How do they find a job when no one wants to take a chance on someone who has done time? How do they find a place to live when so many places have rules and laws against allowing people with criminal records to live there? How is it possible to survive when all the odds are stacked against you and society as a whole is determined to throw you away?

Halfway Home will open your eyes to the devastating effects of American mass incarceration. The punishment doesn’t stop when the sentence is served; the punishment never stops, and we keep punishing people until they die, with laws, regulations, and rules that limit where they live, where they can work, who they can spend time with, and the list goes on and on. And as for rehabilitation? No such thing in our system. Bootstraps only, and then we faux-wring our hands and are shocked, shocked, at the high recidivism rate.

Halfway Home will frustrate and likely depress you, but it will also open your eyes to what life is like for incarcerated people after the sentences end- and the frustrations that exist for the people who love them.

Follow Reuben Jonathan Miller on Instagram.

nonfiction

Book Review: American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption by Gabrielle Glaser

I’ve always been fascinated by adoption; a lot of the books I read when I was younger featured characters who had been adopted or spoke about adoption in some way (looking back, it’s likely that adoption was finally becoming more normalized in the culture at that time and that this was likely the start of representation for people touched by adoption in kid lit). I’ve continued reading about it as an adult, delving into a lot of memoirs that focus on the different sides of adoption and the many emotions behind it. I was shocked when I read The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption by Barbara Bisantz Raymond, and depressed and full of rage after reading The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe V. Wade by Ann Fessler. Those two book are why I knew immediately that I wanted to read American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption by Gabrielle Glaser (Viking, 2021) the second I learned about it.

Margaret Erle was an average Jewish Baby Boomer teenager, in love with her boyfriend George in the early 1960s. When Margaret became unexpectedly pregnant, however, she fell prey to the societal shame of the time, shame that told her she was a sexual deviant, that she wasn’t capable of raising a child, that girls who had sex before marriage were the scourge of the earth and their babies deserved better than to be raised by them. Despite she and George wanting to get married, Margaret was sent to a home for unwed mothers to wait out her pregnancy. When she gave birth, her baby was taken from her and placed into foster care. Margaret never lost hope that she and George could get him back, but when the agency told her that if she didn’t sign papers relinquishing her son for adoption, they would send her to prison (a threat that, thanks to the wayward girl laws at the time, they could have legally followed through with. But hey, who needs feminism, right???), and Margaret knew she was out of luck.

Despite the agency’s demand that she forget this ever happened, Margaret unsurprisingly never forgot her son, never stopped looking for him or wondering where he was…or worrying if he was okay. Not when she and George got married just a few months after the baby’s birth. Not when she gave birth to her son’s full siblings. Not when they grew to adults and she became a grandmother. And thanks to a series of both fortunate and unfortunate events, her son eventually began looking for her, too.

Interspersed with the story of Margaret and her son are the history of those homes for unwed girls in the United States, where young girls who fell pregnant outside of marriage were sent so that they didn’t bring shame to their families and instead were forced into a lifetime of depression, rage, and trauma. The homes ranged from adequate to treating the young women like chattel slaves. Their babies were a product in high demand; the mothers were given all the respect of a wrapper stuck to one’s shoe.

This is an amazing book, highly emotional and disturbing in what our country did (and what a disturbing amount of people want to go back to). It bears a lot of resemblance to The Girls Who Went Away, but with one family (as it is) at the forefront, with history being the background. The Girls Who Went Away is more history, with various interviewees scattered around to illustrate the damage the history caused. Both are utterly incredible books; I can’t recommend either highly enough.

American Baby is the story of an unnecessary tragedy, of pain that never had to happen and a family that never needed to be separated. While the agency responsible for separating Margaret from her son no longer exists, but there are still homes like this, and while the coercion may not be entirely the same, I’m looking at the website for the home for pregnant girls in my hometown, and…they seem like they heavily push adoption. And adoption can be a great thing, but it’s not without its own trauma for both birthmother and child, and shouldn’t be something entered into lightly (and I’m deeply uncomfortable with the forced-religious aspect of this particular home. “Girls MUST go to church and participate in weekly Bible study.” Sigh) Anyway, beware of places like these and vet them before giving them your money. There’s no need to support places that give adoption a bad name and further the trauma that mothers and children already endure.

Visit Gabrielle Glaser’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

graphic memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: When I Grow Up: The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teens by Ken Krimstein

I should never be trusted in the library alone.

I ran my son over there this week; he had lost his wallet earlier this year and hadn’t yet replaced his library card, plus there was a book he wanted to check out, so we stopped in. “I don’t need anything,” I told him. “Don’t let me look at books. I have two library books to read right now, plus two from NetGalley waiting for me. I don’t need to bring home another book.”

Friends, I brought home another book.

But how could I not??? I’d heard of When I Grow Up: The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teens by Ken Krimstein (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021). I hadn’t added it to my TBR, but it remained lodged in my brain, and as soon as I saw it standing on top of a shelf in the New Books section, I gasped and grabbed it (and then mentally yelled at myself, and then yelled at myself for yelling at myself). And then I checked it out and took it home, being sure to keep my eyes off all the other tempting books before we left the library.

I didn’t realize until I was at home that Mr. Krimstein is the same author of The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt, which I read and enjoyed right before the beginning of the pandemic (I’m going to assume the stress of that time erased his name from my brain, because I’ve thought of that book often since reading it). Always nice to spend more time with an author I’d previously enjoyed!

Just before Poland was invaded, writing competitions were held for Yiddish-speaking young adults in eastern Europe. Because of the invasion, the winners were never announced, and the manuscripts were hidden away from the book-burning bonfires of the Nazis. They were discovered again in 2017, painting a vivid picture of what life was like for young people standing on the edge of likely destruction.

As the competitions required anonymity, only one of the author’s identities has been discovered (and fortunately, she survived), lending the book a haunting feel when you read with the hindsight and clarity of knowing what was to come for these optimistic teenagers. The illustrations add to this feel, and the overall book is at once tragic and wistful, optimistic and with an overarching sense of doom. It’s a miracle that these writings survived at all; that they’ve been illustrated and published is an amazing testament to our strength and our ongoing fascination with this subject and our determination to not let these voices be silenced.

Because of the nature of this book- it’s graphic nonfiction- it’s a quick read, but the wonder and the unanswered questions will stay with you.

Visit Ken Krimstein’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Children Under Fire: An American Crisis by John Woodrow Cox

Boy, what a timely read. If you’re a parent in the US, you likely heard of Friday’s security threat to schools around the country, which stemmed from a TikTok video. While there were no specific schools named, every parent I know of received emails from their school systems reassuring them that schools were taking this seriously, ramping up security, and urging them to talk to their kids about speaking up if they heard anything. What a nightmare. This happened just after I’d finished reading Children Under Fire: An American Crisis by John Woodrow Cox (Ecco, 2021), so you can imagine how I was shaking my head at all of it.

When news articles discuss school shootings in the United States (because where else does this happen with such regularity?), they tend to focus on the casualties (which includes both deaths and those wounded) and the survivors. The survivors are the lucky ones, but having survived doesn’t mean having escaped without harm. John Woodrow Cox has written an excellent book that documents the trauma of two young victims of America’s fascination with guns. Neither were shot, but both were harmed in life-changing ways. Ava’s elementary school in Townville, South Carolina, was attacked a fourteen-year-old shooter; her best friend, six-year-old Jacob, was shot and died three days later. Ava developed C-PTSD and was unable to return to school even two years later. She rarely left the house, was heavily medicated, and had to wear headphones everywhere she went because loud noises took her back to the shooting and Jacob’s death and furthered her trauma. She struck up a pen-pal- and later video chat-based relationship with Tyshaun, a child living in Washington, DC, whose father had died after being shot. His trauma affected everything about his life as well, including his behavior and performance at school. Life for the two children suddenly became nothing they could trust, and the two developed a close bond based on the dual nightmares they suffered.

Interspersed with Ava and Tyshaun’s stories are stories from the teachers and family members affected by the violence (including Ava’s younger brother, who was feeling the brunt of so much of their parents’ attention and resources going to his big sister), statistics and data, and how we got here to a place where we’re entirely dismissive about our regular sacrifice of human lives, including babies, on the altar of the Second Amendment. (And if you don’t think we’re casual about it, let me know everything you remembered about the Townville, SC school shooting in the comments before reading this. This is an issue I care deeply about and follow closely, and it’s just at the point where I can’t even remember or keep straight all the incidents of murder at our country’s schools.)

Mr. Cox’s writing flows like a novel, but the story he writes is one of horror and despair, so while it’s an easy read in terms of style, the picture he paints makes it tough to get through. Many times, I had to pause and look out the window, and take a deep breath because of the information he shared. But truly, this is one of the best books I’ve read this year. What we’re doing to our children even by having them practice lockdowns traumatizes them and keeps them living in a constant state of anxiety that they’re going to die at one of the places they should be safest- the place where they’re mandated to be 180 days out of the year. This is going to have ramifications for generations, and we’re creating a society of traumatized children who will grow into traumatized adults. This isn’t healthy, and John Woodrow Cox proves over and over again how badly American society needs to take a hard look at itself and stop being so disgustingly selfish.

If you’re American, you need to pick up this book when you have the mental space for it, and join the fight to stop allowing our society forcing our kids bear the cost of the Second Amendment. Our future depends on it.

Visit John Woodrow Cox’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

memoir

Book Review: Ant Egg Soup: The Adventures of a Food Tourist in Laos by Natacha Du Pont de Bie

I think Ant Egg Soup: The Adventures of a Food Tourist in Laos by Natacha Du Pont de Bie (Hodder & Stoughton, 2005) originally ended up on my TBR as part of a reading challenge that fell to the wayside when the pandemic hit, but I was still looking forward to reading it. No matter how hard we try, we all have gaps in our education and knowledge, and I realized that I knew almost nothing about Laos, other than…it was a country in Asia? (Southeast Asia, to be exact, which I thought, but wasn’t entirely certain of.) So this was definitely something I needed to read!

Natacha Du Pont de Bie is a lifelong foodie, and around the turn of the millennium, she became interested in Laotian cuisine and decided to take off to Laos, travel around the country, and do her best to eat like a native. While her travels occasionally led to unsafe situations (heads up for a brief attempted sexual assault; she fights him off), the vast majority of her time was spent getting to know the warm, generous, welcoming people of Laos, their beautiful green country, and their fascinating food.

She had barely stepped off the plane before she was sitting in a restaurant eating raw water buffalo. She learned that various forms of salad are served with most meals in Laos, that most families grow their own vegetables or at least their own herbs, and fish is eaten in some form at almost every meal. She ate frogs (not just the legs!), drank turkey blood, and finally, finally, after ages of searching, was able to consume ant egg soup (apparently, ant eggs taste kind of nutty). Along the way, she learned about the politics and history of this one-party Communist nation and experienced its natural beauty.

What a neat book! I had known almost nothing about Laos, and I knew even less about the food eaten there (more noodles than I thought. If pressed, I would’ve thought that rice would have been more common, but it turns out a lot of people can’t afford rice. So many people in Laos live in fairly dire poverty and there’s almost no infrastructure at all- almost no roads, and most of the country didn’t have electricity when Natacha was there. I can’t speak to conditions nowadays, almost twenty years later). Accidents, including plane crashes and bombs and landmines from what Americans refer to as the Vietnam war finally detonating, were common, and Natacha had a few near-misses. Western policy has badly affected and still continues to affect living conditions in Laos, something I had read about briefly before, but was deeply sobering to read about again and in more detail.

It struck me again while reading this how lovely it is for someone like me to read travel memoirs. Laos, with its lack of infrastructure, is likely someplace I could never go, what with my terrible back and my occasional difficulty getting around. I could never hike the trails Natacha hiked or visit the sites she did. Traveling for more than six hours on terrain that gave her problems and caused her pain would do me in. It’s not a chance I could take. So I very much appreciate being able to armchair travel via accounts like this one. It’s not quite the same, but it’s the next best thing for me. It’s nice to tag along, even in literary fashion.

Visit Natacha Du Pont de Bie’s website here.