Lost at Sea

By Jon Ronson

Book Cover: Lost at SeaChrist. I don’t know how Jon Ronson does it, but he made me feel sympathy for the goddamn Insane Clown Posse in the very first chapter.

After my last review on a book that I discovered through an article by Jon Ronson, I remembered that I hadn’t checked up on his works for a few years, and he had published twice since then. Lost at Sea is made up of dozens of short chapters, each a standalone essay describing Ronson’s interaction with a wide variety of people and groups. (I believe they were actually originally articles for the London Guardian.) It made me laugh several times, but it also made me kind of sad, as each group seemed to be simply looking for connection and meaning in life, and having to go to some extreme lengths to find it.

It took me far to long to realize this, but the title is actually very apt – these are all stories about people who have lost their way in one way or another. The stories get progressively grimmer, too, starting with stories of roboticists attempting to create artificial intelligence and parents raising “indigo children,” thought to be the next evolutionary stage with psychic abilities, to a planned school massacre in Christmas, Alaska, and suicides over mounting credit card debt.

One of the more powerful essays for me, though, was one where he takes the general income disparity in the United States, and divides it into 6 sections, each one five times the income of the previous one. So, the first he talks with a dishwasher earning $10,000; then a family that lives paycheck-to-paycheck on $50,000; then Ronson himself is $250,000 (this is also the briefest section); a high-level executive in the entertainment business who wished to remain anonymous and earns roughly $1.25 million; one of the first investors in Amazon, who earns roughly $6 million, and finally at the top, a man who helped establish the storage unit industry and is worth billions at this point (at this point it is almost impossible to establish an annual income). I have read a lot of articles on income disparity and what it means for our society and economy as a whole, but this was the first that broke down what it means for day-to-day living and helps explain why it is so difficult to understand the lives of people that make significantly different amounts of money.

Several of the stories included the subjects expressing anger at Ronson’s writing style, saying that he including snarky lines like “I’m met with silence” in order to connote something underhanded without actually state it outright. And while I enjoy his style and his snark, I could see their point, that he does offer his own interpretation of pauses and body language in ways that certainly influence readers’ views. I’d mentioned before that one thing I like is how much his own presence is included in his writing, which is unusual in journalism, but after the third or fourth subject lashes out at him, I began to wonder about it. While he is often self-deprecating, he does vary how much he is present in writing in ways that are complimentary to him, so I could certainly see how his subjects felt manipulated and their personal crises used simply to showcase Ronson in one way or another.

So, I guess by the end of the book, I remain a big fan of Ronson’s writing, but perhaps not quite such a fan of Ronson himself.


I’m Not A Terrorist, But I’ve Played One On TV

By Maz Jobrani

Book Cover: I'm Not A Terrorist, But I've Played One on TVI first read an article in GQ by Jon Ronson (who I love) about Maz Jobrani and other actors of Middle Eastern descent, and about how they are only offered roles as terrorists. The actors describe all the different ways they are killed by the heroes, over and and over again, and how frustrating it is to get no other roles, not to mention feeding into negative stereotypes of your culture in order to make a living. Because it is Jon Ronson, too, it is depressing, but also a bit funny.

I thought it was a really interesting piece on something I had literally given zero thought to before, so when the article mentioned Jobrani’s memoir, I checked it out from the library that day. Jobrani, an Iranian-American, started as an actor, but turned to stand-up comedy when he decided that he didn’t want to play terrorists any more, which I think was a good move since his book made me laugh out loud several times.

Jobrani is an extremely positive person, disappointed by the anti-Middle-East sentiment in the US, but focused on creating a more positive presence. For my own part, I like humor that is a bit angrier and more biting, especially when it comes to social justice issues. However, even his light-hearted jokes revealed how little I know about Iran and the rest of the Middle East and this is a very easy way to learn some very basic truths about Middle Eastern culture. Jobrani has a lot of videos up on YouTube and is a semi-regular on Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, so check him out!


The Men Who Stare at Goats

men-who-stare-at-goatsThe Men Who Stare at Goats
by Jon Ronson
read by Sean Mangan

This book is awesomely hilarious. Hilarious, if, you know, you can get past the very real horror that is mixed in with the craziness. Apparently, I can. In many ways, the book as a whole reminded me of Keller’s Catch-22, an awesomely hilarious comedy all about the inhumanity of war.

And unfortunately, I once more have to warn for animal harm. Given the intent (by the men who stare at goats) of doing harm, I shouldn’t be surprised, but given the proposed method (i.e., staring), I found I was surprised after all. (It hadn’t occurred to me to ask: where are these goats coming from?) Plus, once we’re past the animal harm, we then move on to torture of prisoners.

Somehow it still manages to be super funny.

Jon Stewart on the Daily Show called Jon Ronson’s writing “investigative satire” and that’s pretty much what it is. This book is also an illustration of the phrase: “Truth is stranger than fiction, (because fiction has to make sense.)” In the final chapter of this book, Ronson sums it up by explaining that this is the story of how, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the discouraged and demoralized U.S. army attempted to incorporate some of the “New Age” culture that was developing, but in true military style, rather than seeking new ways to find peace, they looked for new ways to make war.

Ronson himself is also quite the character: a soft-spoken, somewhat nebbish guy. He’s gone on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, twice, so you can see him for yourself. It’s worth seeing him for yourself, especially if you’re planning on listening to the audiobook version of this book, because, in stark contrast to Ronson, Sean Mangan reads the text with a deep intent and melodrama that just adds an extra layer of hilarity to it all.

There are a lot of conversations in which the various interviewees are saying something either crazy or horrifying or both, and Ronson is recounting the conversation:

So-and-so said: some crazy and/or horrifying thing

I said, “hmm.”

Now imagine that spoken in a deeply melodramatic fashion.

“I said,” Mangan intones, “hmm.”

I, the listener, can’t help but giggle.

To use Kinsey’s practice of a Three Word Review: funny, informative, disturbing

Them: Adventures with Extremists

By Jon Ronson

I am very much a believer of Occam’s Razor—that the simplest answer is usually the correct one—which makes me pretty much anti-conspiracies. I have to admit, though, that Jon Ronson’s Them gave me pause.

The front cover has this description:

Is there really, as the extremists claim, a secret room from which a tiny elite secretly rule the world? This book is a journey into the heart of darkness involving twelve-foot lizard-men, PR-savvy Ku Klux Klansmen, Hollywood limousines, the story of Ruby Ridge, Noam Chomsky, a harem of kidnapped sex slaves, and Nicolae Ceausescu’s shoes. While Jon Ronson attempts to locate the secret room he is chased by men in dark glasses, unmasked as a Jew in the middle of a Jihad training camp, and witnesses CEOs and leading politicians undertake a bizarre pagan owl ritual in the forests of northern California. He learns some alarming things about the looking-glass world of them and us. Are the extremists onto something? Or has he become one of Them?

Book Cover: ThemI had previously discovered Jon Ronson when he was on a hilarious episode of NPR’s This American Life, talking about his most recent book, The Psychopath Test. (If you haven’t heard the episode, you definitely should—they bring in a psychologist to administer the “psychopath test” to the NPR staff.)

I promptly picked up the book at the library and realized that I had experienced Jon Ronson before—he wrote the book Men Who Stare At Goats, which was made into a movie a few years ago with Ewan McGregor and George Clooney. Several things became clear all at once: Ronson has a writing style unlike anything I’ve read before. He describes himself as a humorous journalist, but he writes in a kind of nonfiction stream-of consciousness. I enjoyed the movie “Men Who Stare At Goats,” but the characters just seemed to sort of float along and kind of accidentally run into important people or pivotal events. It didn’t seem very realistic in the movie, but it now seems very much how Ronson operates, and once you get used to it, it is pretty awesome being along for the ride.

Ronson just seems like the most pleasant, unassuming, agreeable person, and he must be because he gets interviews I wouldn’t have believed possible. In “The Psychopath Test,” he meets with CEOs, even after telling them he wants to see if they are psychopaths! It is unbelievable—they are just sort of amused. I think he must have some superpower of not giving offence. Them starts off with him spending a year off and on with Britain’s self-proclaimed right-hand man of Bin Laden, even though Ronson himself is Jewish.

Ronson has a very active voice in his books, unlike most journalists, and that is very much part of the charm. The reader gets a much clearer sense of the full interactions, and I started to notice that Ronson asks lots of questions but only very rarely disagrees or confronts people. Even his questions are very inviting, sort of “I’m sure I’m being very stupid about this, but what about….” People seem usually pretty delighted to speak with him. (Although if I recall, The Psychopath Test begins with one of his subjects from Them being very unhappy with his treatment in the book and threatening him.)

In the book’s preface, he explains how he came up with the title Them. While in the middle of researching the book, he describes his research to a friend, and the friend replies, “You are sounding like one of THEM.” And I have to warn that after reading this book, not all the extremists will seem so extreme to you, either.

It reminded me of watching a tv program on the Society of Masons with Tom. They had lots of conspiracists describing various farfetched theories about the Masons, and Tom and I had a good time laughing at how ridiculous it all was. Then, the program interviewed a representative from the Masons, and he was so slick with complete non-answers (“why, we are just a normal fraternal order, how could you possibly think otherwise?”) that for the first time I had some momentary doubt.