Tag Archives: Nonfiction

LitBeetle’s Top 5: Man v. Nature Books

27 Mar

A few recent reads inspired me to make a list of some great survival stories. Many writers attempt to capture the age-old struggle against Nature’s tempests, but only a few succeed. The list below are some favorites of mine–new and old–that I hope you will enjoy! In the comments, let me know your own favorite books of humanity’s battle for survival!


Serena [2008] by Ron Rash

Serena by Ron Rash

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There’s something about my cozy urban life and redundant desk job that makes me want to read books of perilous adventure. In Ron Rash’s Serena, I found a title character who is in almost every way my opposite. Serena Pemberton and her husband are lumber barons in 1920’s North Carolina. They battle nature’s lethal touch and their partners’ unfaithfulness with equal fervor, doling out their cold-eyed vengeance left and right. Serena is the story of a character more like a force of nature than a woman, and like with any natural disaster coverage, it’s impossible for witnesses to tear their eyes away.


The Revenant (2002) by Michael Punke was re-released January 6, 2015 to coincide with the upcoming film adaptation.

The Revenant by Michael Punke

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Nothing you could possibly do will be as cool as an early 19th Century trapper extraordinaire/pirate/Pawnee hunter/frontiersman demigod surviving a bear mauling for the sole purpose of seeking revenge on those who wronged him. Get ready to feel entirely depressed and inferior while reading Michael Punke’s 2002 historical fiction The Revenant. The story of Hugh Glass’s battle against a grizzly, nearly mortal wounds, and extreme odds is actually a true one. With a few embellishments from Michael Punke, author of a handful of historical nonfiction books, the story practically writes itself.


The Martian Book Cover

The Martian by Andy Weir

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In The Martian, Mark Watney is the only human being on an unforgiving, primarily dead planet and must use every ounce of his human ingenuity and resilience to find a way to survive with limited amounts of Earth’s luxuries. Nothing fancy, you know. Just the usual food, water, and air. Silly stuff like that. As NASA scrambles to send a rescue mission to a stranded astronaut, Mark Watney uses his scrappy resourcefulness, will to live, and dark humor to guide him through one of the most entertaining survival novels of our time. Andy Weir’s debut shines as a thrilling, accessible science fiction story.


To Build a Fire Cover

To Build a Fire and Other Stories by Jack London

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The title story to this collection of Jack London’s classic short stories is as dark and robust as any of the full novels on this list. A nameless man travels through the Yukon with his wolf-dog. When the dog falls through the ice, the man dives in to save his companion. Now, wet and freezing in temperatures of fifty below, the man is focused on a single, life-saving task: building a fire. London’s steady, descriptive prose mirrors the Nature’s indifferent temperament in the face of a human being’s impending doom. Sounds fun, right? Don’t forget to pack those weatherproof matches the next time you go camping, is all I have to say.


In the Heart of the Sea [2000] by Nathaniel Philbrick (Photo from Wikipedia)

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

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Certain events in human history become something more than just a popular story or a factoid in a text book. Some events become growing, breathing, pulsing legends that inspire a nation, a world, a host of writers and filmmakers. This is the story of a whale that rejected its role as the prey of men, and the story of men who refused to sink under the brutal forces of the elements. In the nonfiction history In the Heart of the Sea, Nathaniel Philbrick tells the true and epic tale of the survivors of the Essex and their battle against an angry whale and the deadly indifference of nature. Frail humanity versus the open and indifferent sea? No thank you, but this–the most harrowing fight for survival–puts In the Heart of the Sea at the top of this list.

What are your favorite survival books? Leave me recommendations in the comments below!


On Nathaniel Philbrick’s “In the Heart of the Sea”

24 Feb

In the Heart of the Sea [2000] by Nathaniel Philbrick (Photo from Wikipedia)

In the Heart of the Sea [2000] by Nathaniel Philbrick (Photo from Wikipedia)

Certain events in human history become something more than just a popular story or a factoid in a text book. Some events become growing, breathing, pulsing legends that inspire a nation, a world, a host of writers and filmmakers. This is the story of a whale that rejected its role as the prey of men, and the story of men who refused to sink under the brutal forces of the elements. In the nonfiction history In the Heart of the Sea, Nathaniel Philbrick tells the true and epic tale of the survivors of the Essex and their battle against an angry whale and the deadly indifference of nature.

Everyone has heard of Moby-Dick. Whether or not everyone has attempted to read Herman Melville’s 700-page book is another matter, but the story of the ship-killing white whale and the Ahab, captain of the Pequod, maddened by his hunt for revenge is as well-known in American lore as George Washington and the cherry tree or Rosa Parks at the front of a Montgomery bus. Few people, though, know about the story that inspired Melville’s literary classic. The story of the Nantucket ship Essex, its destruction at the proverbial hands of a whale, and the struggle for survival of its sailors is told at length in Philbrick’s book, mostly through the two pointedly differing memoirs of the ship’s first mate Owen Chase and the cabin boy Thomas Nickerson.

Philbrick builds the context of our main cast through lengthy descriptions of Nantucket’s singular culture and history. An island off the south coast of Cape Cod and east of Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket is geographically isolated and therefore culturally detached from the mainland, and from early on in the history of its of white settlers, developed its living on a foundation of whaling.

The island of Nantucket didn't need to be large to sustain one of the most formidable fleets of whaleships American had ever seen. (Photo from http://maps.bpl.org)

The island of Nantucket didn’t need to be large to sustain one of the most formidable fleets of whaleships American had ever seen. (Photo from http://maps.bpl.org)

In the 19th Century, Nantucket’s “living” became an empire in the whaling industry–a veritable force of nature–that put all other whaling towns to shame through a combination of Quaker-based business sense and Spartan-like cultural indoctrination that idolized its whalers above all other professions. A famous Nantucket drinking toast tells all there is about the place of whaling in daily life:

“Death to the living, long life to the killers, success to sailors’ wives, and greasy luck to sailors.”

Not only does the toast speak to the bravado of the sailing profession but also to the conflict that lived within each Nantucketer, especially those of the Quaker religion. Philbrick subtly sets the stage for a whole story about paradoxes: the Quakers’ religion versus their livelihoods (“pacifist killers, plain-dressed millionaires”), and the predatory role of the whalers in stark relief against their utter helplessness at the hands of heartless sea.

When the Essex left Nantucket in 1820, no one was expecting a Disney cruise with an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet, but the sailors expected a normal, if rigorous, voyage out into the whaling grounds of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The ship, though, was under command of an easygoing, new captain and therefore crewed by the leftover sailors more experienced and entitled captains didn’t want, and from the outset, the Essex found itself under duress, whether from fluke weather or poor leadership or the combination thereof. Life on a whaleship was nothing close to easy, and the sailors who crewed such a ship put their lives at risk on a regular basis, but the Essex, at the hands of its rookie captain, seemed doomed from the start. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 3,000 miles from the nearest continent, the 240-ton ship fell victim to the very animal on which it was built to prey: a male sperm whale. A single act by this bull whale–colliding head first into the Essex and sinking it–shook the whalers to their collective core, not only because it left them stranded in a handful of smaller vessels in the middle of the ocean, but also because it was a reversal in nature: in one haunting moment, the prey becomes hunter, and the men of the Essex become helpless victims at the cold hands of nature.

Cutting in (Photo by Marion Smith, 1902, from "Curious Expeditions")

Several decades after the Essex occurrence, whalers are here seen “cutting in.” Whale ships were floating factories, always on the move to find their next victims, on which the valuable blubber and spermaceti were rendered. (Photo by Marion Smith, 1902, from “Curious Expeditions”)

In Philbrick’s methodical, nearly scientific tone, he recounts the events after the Essex collapses into so much flotsam. Twenty men in three boats and enough provisions for 60 days set sail for land. The men attempt to stay together against all odds, finding comfort in the company of other human bodies in the horrific vastness of the sea–suddenly much vaster without the shelter of their well-provisioned whaleship. Eventually, though, the ships are separated, and each lonely island of men is on their own with dwindling supplies of bread and water and no GPS to guide them toward safety. The paths they take and the methods they use to survive fall under Philbrick’s careful, balanced scrutiny, but the direction of this story of harrowing survival can only end in one way. It’s inevitable. There’s a reason Philbrick titled it a tragedy, and he certainly doesn’t shy away from one of the greatest and most universal of taboos: cannibalism. All I have to say is make sure you’re not sitting down to a dinner of rare steak while you’re reading this, because you might need to go vegetarian for a while.

Listening to ItHotS on audio book felt a little like listening to a long Radiolab episode. Philbrick makes a commendable effort to integrate the story line of the Essex‘s crew members and their survival story with interesting factoids on the toll of starvation on the human body, or the customs of islanders in the region of ocean through which the Nantucketers sailed, or the speculation of “what could have been” if only one pivotal choice or another had been made.

Later this year, when the Ron Howard film adaptation is released, we will see how much of this graphic and tragic story is shown on screen. Philbrick’s retelling of the Essex story seems to do justice to a history where so much detail may have been lost, edited, or redacted, but he continued throughout the book to ask questions and pry at the story’s chinks and holes. Undoubtedly, with blockbuster names like Chris Hemsworth and Cillian Murphy on the marquee, the film version of In the Heart of the Sea will be much more valiant and much less grotesque.

Read It: In the Heart of the Sea combines the most entertaining elements of Nantucket whalers’ contextual history, the documented events from Essex‘s sailors, and speculation. The book still doesn’t include the artistry of a novel, but most readers will be caught up in this thrilling plot to notice. Readers interested in this era of American history will be totally engrossed and, since the story of the Essex is at heart the story of the human will to survive and the transformation of “civilized” people in the face of an indifferent Nature, most anyone will find something to love in this tale.

Don’t Read It: You should know to steer clear if you’re not a fan of nonfiction or of history books, but you may not know that ItHotS is no jolly cruise or an episode of Gilligan’s Island. The story itself is brutal and Philbrick doesn’t pull many punches when it comes to the graphic detail involved with the sailors’ methods of survival. The prospect of a slow, painful death by starvation and exposure does frightening things to the human body and the human moral code. This book is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.

Similar Books: I feel like I recommend this book a lot, and that may be due to my limited list of nonfiction books under my reading belt, but it could also be due to the fact that it’s an awesome book, but David Grann’s The Lost City of Z is a great example of an adventurous nonfiction book that unfolds the mystery of a city of gold and the myth of a legendary explorer. It is a little heavier on the anthropology, and it won’t leave you with Philbrick’s sense of closure. The Revenant by Michael Punke is a novel but is based heavily on actual events. In this story of survival, Hugh Glass survives the impossible in a battle that pitches a fragile human against the ferocity of the American frontier.

Nathaniel Philbrick

Nathaniel Philbrick (Photo from Wikipedia)


Leaving on a Jet Plane (and What to Bring Along to Read)

13 Sep


Today, I’m jumping on a plane again, heading to Boston to celebrate the marriage of some dear friends. (Congratulations, Lindsey and Kell!) But I relish any excuse to find myself in the airport. (After all, I spent a lot of my childhood in airports, because this is what happens when your grandparents live in another state.) Airports are bizarre places. If I believed in magic, I would say airports are one of the most magical places in the human world right now. They are portals to other places, but they’re also strangely permanent and homey–with their restaurants and shops, the way people settle in with blankets and pillows while wearing their sweatpants or pajamas. I mean, you don’t see me snuggling with my favorite stuffed dog Spot down at the pub (but if you ever do, please cut me off). Airports are at once all displacing–filled with strangers and strange air–and all the same. It’s in these weird flux environments that I most love to read and write. I made a list of my favorite books to read while traveling. Let me know what your favorite travel books are!

10. Bleak House by Charles Dickens

I have a soft spot for Dickens–for all Victorian literature, really–and Bleak House is my favorite of them all. I won’t go gushing about this fantastically sinister, dirty, creepy book (I mean, human combustion! Come on!), but Dickens is a great read at the airport for one obvious reason: he writes super, big honking novels. You could start reading Bleak House right out of the security gate, straight through all your delays, slogging through the six-hour flight and you’ll barely be halfway through that sucker. (Just wait until you get to the 8.5-hour Masterpiece Theatre TV adaptation!)


9. The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

Watch out! This bad boy won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, so you’re not allowed to dislike it or say anything detrimental. But really, The Shipping News is the perfect book for a plane ride: it balances the loftiness and changeability of air travel with its stark setting of Newfoundland; and it also exemplifies the feeling of alienation as its main character Quoyle adjusts to a foreign, tight-knit community. Quoyle and his non-traditional family unit strive to make a safe space for themselves and discover Newfoundland, even at its most tempestuous, isn’t frightening at all, but a beautiful land of beautiful characters.


8. Mao II by Don DeLillo

This isn’t my favorite of DeLillo’s, but the champion of postmodern pop-culture takes it to town in Mao II, which makes it a chilling read in a place that’s plastered with logos, newspapers, and duty-free commercial everything. The novel follows a reclusive writer as he navigates a conflict of motivations: does he publish his newest book and dilute himself with the masses, or does he refrain to protect himself in and his ideas and ultimately recede entirely from the public’s eye? DeLillo’s protagonist faces what most of DeLillo’s protagonist faces, but Mao II takes him across the globe in a series of painful and sometimes horrifying enlightenment.


7. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Sometimes I feel like I just need a good laugh. Sometimes I feel like I need a Babel fish to decipher the Bostonian accent. All the times I should have a towel handy, and maybe especially on a cross-country flight. Douglas Adams’s classic sci-fi novel rejuvenated a genre that was traditionally cradled in pulp or overly serious political metaphors. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is irreverent, subversive, and above all wildly entertaining. Join Arthur Dent–the last living human after Earth is destroyed to make way for a hyperspatial express route–and his unlikely companions in a journey to just stay alive in a violent galaxy, and maybe find the answer to everything along the way.


6. Away by Amy Bloom

Away is a novel about traveling across America in pursuit of family. Enough said. ( But no, really, this beautiful, heart-wrenching novel will fulfill any reader’s need for the epic. Lillian Leyb, a refugee in 1920s America, has survived the Russian pogrom, but she’s separated from her daughter Sophie. Now, having heard word that Sophie still lives and is being cared for by a family in Siberia, Lillian must traverse all of America, including the barely civilized hinterlands of Seattle and Alaska, to try and reach her only child. Bloom doesn’t write a long novel, and it isn’t saturated with swords and dragons and damsels, but Away is a gigantic story. It fills your imagination and heart as your read it. And you might cry. Just saying.)


5. The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Millay’s poetry is imbued with her sense of constant transition. She was fluid in her art and life and love. Poems like “Assault,” “Travel,” and “Spring” speak to her obsession with the goings and returnings in this life. I can think of no better poet to carry with me while on my way “from one house to another!”


4. Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski

I read this while traveling through England, as a bright-eyed college student finally stretching her wings (meaning drinking while under the age of 21). But Kapuscinski’s own discoveries and introspection of reading Herodotus’s Histories while journeying through the Mediterranean captivated me. His journalistic training combined with his sense for the magical made me fall even more in love with travel.


3. Brave New World by Alduous Huxley

The first time I read this book, I was stranded for five hours in the Sea-Tac airport. Mind you, it’s a beautiful airport. I was by myself and this was before smartphones were thing. I had the most glorious time binge-reading Huxley’s classic, and I can’t step foot in an airport without being haunted by that final image of the novel.


2. The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

Would you like to talk travel? Nothing quite says it like fatal expeditions through the wildest jungle on a our planet–a jungle filled to the brim with animals and native tribes willing to protect their own with tooth and claw (and poisoned arrows), and enchanted with the hopes of a lost city of gold. David Grann’s entertaining, journalistic writing will carry you through the true story of aging Colonel Percy Fawcett, the last of his kind of gentlemen explorers, and his quest to make his name legendary by finding said lost city. The book is filled with mystery, danger, and death. What better book to take with you on your perfectly safe, adventureless plane ride?


1. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

No, I didn’t pick this one just because it has the world “traveler” in the title. Honestly, this is my favorite book right now. MY FAVORITE BOOK. Calvino doesn’t explore travel in the literal way Kapuscinski does, or the fantastical way Adams does, or the epic way Bloom does. Calvino’s is an exploration of the journey of reading. His experimental work of fiction imitates and examines the process of the reader as we travel with the protagonist on his quest to find the book he’s looking for. A mosaic of story lines and settings begins to form the larger work of art that is the experience of reading, and Calvino’s exceptional writing (yep, I cried in this book, too) makes it possible.

What books do you bring with you on plane trips? Or train trips? Or long, epic car rides? Which are the best companions to your travels?

On Erik Larson’s “The Devil in the White City”

13 Aug
Pick yourself up a copy. If you can't find it at your local book store, get it here!

Pick yourself up a copy. If you can’t find it at your local book store, get it here!

My recent phase of reading outside my comfy box (which is made mostly of Victorian novels and 14-book fantasy series these days) has now extended to non-fiction! Specifically, non-fiction about Chicago. I finally picked up a copy of Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, upon strong recommendations from a good friend, and I’m glad I did! (I also picked up Sin in the Second City, so look out for Chicago non-fiction installation #2!)

This is the story of two architects, tested on the sooty, soiled grounds of late-19th Century Chicago: Daniel Burnham, an architect of buildings in the age of steel and the director of works of the great World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893; and H.H. Holmes, an architect of manipulation, murder, and the macabre who killed dozens of people while staying hidden from the police, just blocks away from the fair’s entrances–both were equally ambitious and worked incessantly toward their respective goals. At the World’s Fair, they represented the city’s two faces: the White City and the hell hole, the symbol of hope and the harbinger of horror.

The beginning of the book may seem a bit disjointed–jumping from Burnham’s story line to Holmes’s and some seemingly disconnected players–but this simply adds to the fascinating coincidences that summed up to those fateful months in 1893. Larson manages to make me feel that fascination, that awe, Chicagoans must have felt during this time. Out of all the events, in all the cities, in all the world, Holmes has to walk into this one and use it as his murdering grounds.

The fair was a city unto itself. (Image from haygenealogy.com)

Holmes found the bustle of this world microcosm to be the perfect hunting ground. No one would notice if a girl or two disappeared out of the teeming crowd of hundreds of thousands of tourists. (Image from haygenealogy.com)

The Chicago of the late 19th Century was the breeding ground of innovation. Specifically, the World’s Columbian Exposition was the setting for numerous debuts of human ingenuity: Ferris Wheels, spray paint, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Shredded Wheat, and the Dewey Decimal System, to name a few. But first, Burnham and his team of planners and builders had to overcome waves of harrowing obstacles. Everything from rainstorms to unexpected, tragic deaths to funding trouble came close to keeping Chicago’s World’s Fair from being built. After it was built, everything from fires and economic collapse and skepticism came close to keeping the fair from succeeding. The evidence of Larson’s loving research is astounding. The detail he uses in building the reader’s image of the fair is what makes TDitWC worth your while.

The man himself: Daniel Burnham, Director of Works and creator of the impossible. He had his flaws, too, but we don't need to bother with them too much.

The man himself: Daniel Burnham, Director of Works and creator of the impossible. He had his flaws, too, but we don’t need to bother with them too much.

Of course, if you’re a crime fiend like me, it may be the details of Holmes’s blooming psychopathy that makes you fall in love with this book. H.H. Holmes, born as Herman Webster Mudgett, comes to Chicago already an accomplished swindler. In this new city, growing like a weed, Holmes finds room to stretch his wings. Holmes conned his way into accruing wealth and eventually building a three-story monstrosity that many called “the castle.” This gloomy building with haphazard hallways, windowless rooms, and hidden air ducts became the center of Holmes’s web of deceit. He began extending his feelers, laying his traps–his quest to conquer human lives–just as Burnham begins his to conquer the hearts of Americans with the nascent Columbian Fair. It’s strange to see the parallels. Both men want to gain utter control over their prey. They want to enrapture people, gain power over them, control their hopes and quell their doubts. Burnham wants to accomplish this through the artistry of architecture, throwing millions into reverie at what humankind can accomplish in an impossibly short amount of time. Holmes wants to seduce people with his charm and control their lives, and eventually control their deaths.

The man himself: H.H. Holmes. To look at him, you wouldn't suspect him, but that was the point.

The man himself: H.H. Holmes. To look at him, you wouldn’t suspect him, but that was the point.

Holmes finds his perfect setting in seedy Chicago. Larson quotes a madam of the time as saying, “I think Rome at its worst had nothing on Chicago during those lurid days,” and if anyone knows the real meaning of lurid, it would be a woman of the industry. In this younger, nastier Rome, Holmes drew in dozens of women into his confidences (and sometimes into his bed) only to catch him in his web. He luxuriated in his victims’ utter trust and then utter panic at the moment they realized their doom. All this in stark contrast to the game-changing, awe-inspiring fair just a couple of hundred yards away.

The great Ferris Wheel  towers over the White City. In just a single week, tickets to ride the wheel made over $400,00 in today's equivalent. (Image from explorepahistory.com)

The great Ferris Wheel towers over the White City. In just a single week, tickets to ride the wheel made over $400,00 in today’s equivalent. (Image from explorepahistory.com)

The Fair was more than a spectacle of industry or even the spawning ground for innovation, but it truly was a magical land–despite the grime of millions (pre-filtered water! pre-modern hygienic practices!). The White City was a place where people of all classes and ilk could mingle, where the world leaders could stand in awe at the same sights with the poorest of the poor. Holmes himself attended multiple times, bringing some of his victims, and it’s possible he may have run into any number of the era’s sainted inventors, like Nikola Tesla or Thomas Edison or maybe Daniel Burnham himself. I wouldn’t want to give spoilers, but some of the miraculous byproducts of the World’s Fair brought me to tears, and Larson’s incredible juxtaposition of Holmes’s darkness with the Fair’s efforts toward hope and the future just emphasizes where humanity’s true beauty shines through. This isn’t to say Larson is some kind of Humanist or throws an unfair, positive spin on this epic tale, and there were countless negative repercussions of something so grandiose. I know only that I didn’t come away from this reading experience feeling bogged by the fear of serial killers or disgust at heartless capitalism; I have come away satiated, more knowledgeable, and thrilled at reading more Chicago history.

Then I was like, "Oh, I want to see it, too!" And then I was like, "Aw, they burned it to the ground." Goodbye, ethereal beauty. But thank goodness for photography and Erik Larson!

Then I was like, “Oh, I want to see it, too!” And then I was like, “Aw, they burned it to the ground.” Goodbye, ethereal beauty. But thank goodness for photography and Erik Larson!

On Olsher’s “From Square One”

10 Dec

from_square_one.largeI don’t always read non-fiction.

But when I do, I read about a topic I love and it’s written by a former correspondent for NPR.

“From Square One” is a lovely, quick read. It’s more an interesting memoir about a personal relationship with crosswords than an historical account or a philosophical explication of crossword puzzles. Olsher writes like any good radio personality speaks: never overbearing and when humorous is wittily so–those kinds of punchlines that hit you two sentences later and make you chortle to yourself even when you’re in public.

Everyone goes to crossword puzzles for different reasons, the way everyone goes to alcohol for different reasons, but we all have overlapping habits to some extent (for example, Olsher and I both make a personal rule for easier Monday/Tuesday puzzles: we only allow ourselves to solve words attached to the Across-1), the way lots of alcoholics have overlapping extraneous habits (for example, always following one drink with a second drink, or whatever alcoholics do). In any case, Olsher’s personal anecdotes and his interviews/encounters with other crossword enthusiasts comforted me with a feeling of solidarity. They also challenged me to exercise my mind more. They also depressed me with a reminder that there are people like 20-year-old Tyler Hinman who can finish a Saturday “Times” puzzle in just over four minutes. (I think my personal record is thirteen words on Saturday.)

“FSO” reads easily, and if it does anything for you, it will surely make you want to go out and buy a newspaper.