Reposted book review: My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth

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Here’s a book review about a woman’s exotic trip to North Korea. I wrote this August 27, 2017, so I am reposting it as I did on that day.

Lately, my reading material has been kind of heavy.  I read several books about the Holocaust a few months ago, as well as The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel about women who are forced to breed for the state.  I also just re-read Alex: The Life of a Child, a beautiful memoir about a little girl my age who died at eight years old due to Cystic Fibrosis.  Although I had read that book several times, I decided to look at it again in honor of her father, Frank Deford, who recently died.  After all of those sad reads, I was ready for something funny.  So I picked up Wendy E. Simmons’ My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth, which was published in May 2016.

For the life of me, I can’t understand why anyone would willingly visit North Korea, which is probably one of the most hostile places on the planet, especially toward Americans.  It’s not easy to get permission to visit North Korea and, once you’re there, you will be guided by “handlers”, who watch your every move.  You also run the risk of being accused of committing a crime and getting detained.  It’s not exactly cheap to get to North Korea and I’m not one to spend money on something I’m certain I won’t enjoy.  A few days from now, Americans will be banned from visiting North Korea by our own government, anyway.  While I am certainly no fan of Donald Trump’s, I do think that when it comes to North Korea, most Americans ought to stay away.

Nevertheless, despite warnings from the government, Wendy Simmons prides herself on traveling to far flung places.  North Korea was on her bucket list.  She decided to go and has written a rather irreverent book about her trip.  Simmons is a good writer and she’s a bit snarky, which I enjoy to an extent.  She includes a number of photos with references to Alice in Wonderland.  I suppose the Alice in Wonderland references would be my first critique of Simmons’ book.  I didn’t enjoy the references because, believe it or not, I’m only vaguely acquainted with Alice in Wonderland.  I don’t think I’ve ever read that book.  I’m certain that other readers haven’t, either.  Yes, I have been exposed to plenty of references to Alice in Wonderland, enough to recognize that was what Simmons was referencing.  But I think I would have preferred it if she’d simply labeled the photos in a straightforward way.

Anyway, Simmons writes about what it was like to visit North Korea.  She has a male driver and two female handlers, whom she refers to as “Old Handler” and “Fresh Handler”.  When Wendy is not locked in her dingy hotel, she is always flanked by her handlers.  She can’t even sit outside for fresh air without them by her side.  The hotel is pretty much empty, save for a few other brave tourists from other countries.  As a matter of fact, Pyongang, North Korea’s capital, seems pretty empty.  It’s as if it’s just a showplace intended for tourists.  I got the impression that no one actually lives there.


Here’s a speech given by Yeonmi Park, a North Korean woman who managed to get out of the country in 2014.  Wendy Simmons can laugh about North Korea, but I have a hard time laughing after hearing this woman’s harrowing story.

Simmons seems to develop a love/hate relationship with her handlers.  Old Handler is described as kind of passive aggressive, as if she loves hearing about the outside world, yet hates the people she has to guide.  It’s as if she’s extremely jealous of Simmons’ freedom, so she does all she can to curtail it when Simmons is in North Korea.  Fresh Handler is described as being much less jaded and somewhat more friendly.  The driver is gruff, though Simmons seems to develop a superficial rapport with him.  These three are charged with looking after Simmons, yet North Koreans as a whole have been trained to hate Americans.  I’m sure it was interesting to witness the cognitive dissonance between what North Koreans had been taught about the United States and Americans and what they experienced actually interacting with an American.

A lot of Simmons’ descriptions of North Korea are snarky and borderline disrespectful.  She sometimes seems a little too happy to laugh at North Koreans and the fact that they have been so sheltered from the rest of the world.  Yes, it’s funny in a flabbergasted kind of way… but it’s also very sad.  It’s not until the very end of the book that Simmons reveals some sensitivity toward the plight of North Koreans.  She actually acknowledges that she was fortunate to be born somewhere other than North Korea.  But then… perhaps most North Koreans are happy enough.  Can you miss something you have no concept of?   

I wondered about Simmons’ handlers and if they got in trouble for what Wendy wrote.  She doesn’t identify them by name, but she does include a photo of their legs.  My guess is that it wouldn’t be hard to figure out who they were, even just based on photos of their legs.  There were times when it seems Simmons was miserable on her trip.  However, I would be lying if I said I didn’t think some of her descriptions were funny.  I enjoyed Simmons’ writing style, which was witty and conversational, and I didn’t find her book a chore to read.  I do think she was a little mean spirited at times, though. 

Those who are looking for descriptions about what it’s like to actually live in North Korea are bound to be disappointed.  Wendy Simmons would probably like to know herself.  Remember, she was given a very sanitized look at the country.  She recognizes that she wasn’t allowed to interact with North Koreans, see their living quarters, or venture anywhere without her guides, who made she didn’t see or photograph anything that wasn’t government approved.  Even so, Simmons describes seeing brand new factories that had never operated and were watched over by guards who sleep on the job.  She describes sitting in on classes in school that are full of cherry picked students.  She attends a football (soccer) match that is clearly put on for her benefit.  She dines alone in the hotel restaurant, eating food that sounds very unappetizing and ice cream that kind of looks like a Creamsicle, but tastes bland.

All in all, it sounds like Simmons didn’t have a good time over her nine days in North Korea, but she did at least get to see it and write a book about her visit.  It’s lucky she has such a good sense of humor and can laugh about some of the sad things she saw there.  It’s even luckier that she managed to get out of there without being detained.

As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission on sales made through my site.

A couple of reposted book reviews…

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I have decided to repost some of the content on my old Google version of The Overeducated Housewife. Some of the book reviews are about travel subjects, so I’m going to put them over here instead of the new version of The Overeducated Housewife. Here’s one of them, posted as/is, to get things started… At least that will give us something to read while we wait for society to reopen and we can travel again.

The Gloves Come Off—and the Secrets Come Out! Tales from the Man Who Serves Millionaires, Moguls, and Madmen

As an average American of average means, I have never really considered how a hotel concierge’s services might benefit me.  The most I’ve ever asked of any hotel concierge is directions, or perhaps to order me a taxi.  But hotel concierges do a lot more than give directions or make reservations.  The best ones can pull off logistical feats that would dazzle the average person.  And if you’re in a place like New York City, a good concierge can mean the difference between eating in a hot restaurant at 8:00pm or eating at Sbarro’s.  I never considered any of these things until I read Concierge Confidential: The Gloves Come Off—and the Secrets Come Out! Tales from the Man Who Serves Millionaires, Moguls, and Madmen (2011), a book written by concierge extraordinaire Michael Fazio and co-author, Michael Malice.

The book’s premise

Michael Fazio is the co-founder of Abigail Michaels, Manhattan’s premiere concierge service.  But before he helped found Abigail Michaels, Fazio worked in Hollywood for famous actors and as a concierge at New York City’s InterContinental Hotel.  He admits to having the “service bug”, which I would think one would have to have in his job.  After all, he was routinely asked to do things like get tickets to sold out Broadway shows and score tables at hot restaurants for people who were “nobodies”. 

But aside from helping unknowns who were staying at the hotel, Fazio also had to arrange for some exotic requests from people with more money than they could possibly spend.  Fazio arranged for a bathtub full of chocolate for one client, who was hoping to impress a ladyfriend.  He arranged for a last minute helicopter ride to Atlantic City for a mysterious Russian with a suitcase full of cash.  And when the same people kept coming back to him for help, Fazio and his former co-worker, Abbie, started their own concierge business catering to the rich and famous.

My thoughts

I really enjoyed this book and probably would have gotten through it in a matter of hours had I not been trying to read it on a very small cruise ship.  I have a tendency to get motion sickness, so every time I tried to make progress in this book, I started to feel sick!  Once I was off the boat, I whizzed through it in record time.  I really enjoyed Fazio’s anecdotes and the enthusiastic tone of his writing.  I felt excited as I read about some of his more dramatic exploits in the concierge business.  Aside from telling stories, Fazio also includes some handy tips on how to get what you want from a concierge, book the best restaurants and hotels, and even how (and how much) to tip.

I definitely have a new perspective on the value of a good concierge.  Now that I’ve read Fazio’s book, I might even venture to the concierge desk during my next hotel stay!  Who knows?  I might end up with a completely different experience than I might have otherwise had!

Overall

If you’ve ever wondered what your concierge can do for you, you should definitely read Fazio’s book Concierge Confidential.

As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon on sales made through my site. And just between you and me, you can find this book cheaper than this link advertises it.

A review of Adam Fletcher’s Don’t Go There: From Chernobyl to North Korea—one man’s quest to lose himself and find everyone else in the world’s strangest places

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If you’ve ever read my main blog, you might know that I enjoy reading and reviewing books.  Every once in awhile, I read a book that I think should be reviewed on my travel blog.  Yesterday, during a particularly obnoxious bout of Internet non-connectivity, I decided to finish reading my latest book, Adam Fletcher’s Don’t Go There: From Chernobyl to North Korea—one man’s quest to lose himself and find everyone else in the world’s strangest places.

I’m pretty sure I purchased this book during a booze and boredom fueled buying binge.  I have a tendency to get carried away with downloads sometimes, especially if I’ve been drinking or am just feeling idle.  Consequently, I have loads of books and albums waiting to be read and heard for the first time.  In the case of Mr. Fletcher’s book, I actually got around to reading soon after purchasing.  His book was just published in February of this year; I bought it on April Fool’s Day, and now I am ready to review it.  Meanwhile, I bought Tony Danza’s book four years ago and it’s still gathering dust on my Kindle app.

I’m sure Fletcher’s title was what intrigued me.  I love reading about exotic travel locations, particularly if they are to places I’d rather not go myself.  North Korea fascinates me, but you won’t see me hopping a plane to visit there.  I might be tempted to visit Chernobyl, although I’m sure the idea of it would make me nervous.  I have never wanted to visit China, but I love reading about other people who have done it.  Nope…  despite my two years in the Peace Corps, I think I’m pretty much a comfort traveler.  I’ve squatted over enough shitholes and experienced enough traveler’s diarrhea to last me the rest of my life.

Adam Fletcher grew up in Thetford, which is a small hamlet in East Anglia, England.  That was another thing about him that intrigued me.  My earliest memories are of Mildenhall Air Force Base, which is where my father had his final Air Force assignment before he retired in 1978.  Thetford is not that far from Mildenhall.  I’ve actually visited Thetford.  In fact, I visited the area just two years ago, having not been there since 1978.  It seems Fletcher had similar feelings about his hometown that I do about mine.

From age eight, I grew up in Gloucester, Virginia.  During my most recent visit to England, I visited the Mildenhall area and noticed that Gloucester looks a whole lot like it.  I couldn’t wait to leave Gloucester when I was growing up; likewise, Fletcher was keen to leave Thetford and visit strange and dangerous places around the world.  Also like me, Fletcher found out that going back “home” can be a worthwhile and illuminating experience.  I haven’t been back to Gloucester in almost eight years, but Fletcher’s tales of visiting Thetford after many years away make me think it may be time to visit my old stomping grounds.

Adam Fletcher and I have one more thing in common.  We both live in Germany.  He lives in Berlin with his girlfriend, Annett, and I live near Stuttgart with my long suffering husband, Bill.  Adam and Annett are apparently confirmed significant others.  Annett doesn’t want to get married because her parents got divorced.  And Adam is apparently one of those guys who doesn’t want to commit, but isn’t averse to presenting his significant other with a big rock.  That’s probably why he likes to visit odd places like Transnistria, a strip of land between Moldova and Ukraine that considers itself its own country, even if no one else recognizes it.  I’m sure I had heard of Transnistria before I read Adam Fletcher’s book, but I know I’d never read about anyone who’d actually been there.

Don’t Go There is full of witty stories about Fletcher’s travels, first with Annett, and then by himself when Annett finally had enough of his odd tastes in travel destinations.  He braves Israel and Palestine, subjecting himself to intense security screenings.  He attempts to visit the world’s “newest” country, Liberland, which is basically a swamp in the middle of a river between Serbia and Croatia, only to be headed off by police in boats.  He’s also been to Istanbul.

Actually, I really enjoyed reading about Adam’s time in Turkey’s most popular city.  I went there myself in 1996, having spent three non-stop days traveling on a bus from Armenia.  I have been on the street where Adam and Annett found themselves confronted by rioting crowds.  While my visit wasn’t quite as dramatic as Adam’s was, I did end up clocking one guy who brazenly grabbed my boob while I was at the bus station, waiting for a bus to Bulgaria.

Adam Fletcher’s Don’t Go There was mostly a very enjoyable read for me.  I found myself vicariously traveling along with Adam and thanking God that I’m not broke and in my 20s anymore.  Adam is himself in his mid 30s, but clearly enjoys going to strange places so the rest of us don’t have to.  He also seems like a likable fellow, even if he admits that when it comes to his friends, he isn’t exactly “committed”.  That seems to be a theme in his life– he embraces the odd and unappealing and rejects the safe and familiar.  By the end of the book, he seems slightly more settled.

If you like travel books and good stories, especially ones that only cost $4 on Kindle, I would highly recommend Adam Fletcher’s Don’t Go There.  I think it’s well worth the price of admission.

As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon when purchases are made through my site.

Don’t Go There: From Chernobyl to North Korea—one man’s quest to lose himself and find everyone else in the world’s strangest places (Weird Travel Book 1)

A review of German Men Sit Down To Pee And Other Insights Into German Culture

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In this case, you can judge the book by its cover.

I love to read books about other cultures, especially when they are about countries where I have lived.  Although Bill and I have spent years in Germany (and Bill has spent more years here than I have), there are still a lot of things I don’t know about German culture.  One thing I learned when we lived here the first time is that German men usually sit down when they pee.

I initially learned about German men’s toilet habits by frequenting Toytown Germany, a forum for English speakers that predates any of the Facebook groups in our area.  Suddenly, the little sign in our bathroom, probably posted by our old landlord’s ex wife, made perfect sense.  I was so tickled about this phenomenon that I decided to write about it on my main blog.

Now it makes sense!

When I spotted a book on Amazon called German Men Sit Down To Pee And Other Insights Into German Culture, I knew I had to read it.  This little book, available in printed and online versions, was published in 2015 and written by Niklas Frank and James Cave.  Niklas Frank is from Germany, although he’s lived in Sweden and China.  Frank noticed his friends and colleagues were amused by his quirky “Germanness” and decided to take notes, which later served as the basis of this book.  James Cave is Irish and a writer.  He has lived in Germany, France, Spain, the United Kingdom, and Portugal.  Cave does not follow all of the German rules, but as an “Auslander“, was no doubt in a unique position to help Frank decide what to include in their book.

German Men Sit Down to Pee is a delightfully fun and quick read.  It’s full of information about many of the mysteries of living in Germany.  Not only is there discussion about German men sitting down to pee; there are also explanations and anecdotes about other German customs that may seem obscure to people who aren’t German.  For instance, did you know that if it’s your birthday in Germany, you’re supposed to bring a cake to work for your colleagues to enjoy?  And if you go out for drinks, you’re supposed to pay the check?

Anyone who spends any time in Germany will quickly notice that Germans like to follow the rules.  That means you don’t walk until you see the green man at the crosswalk.  You don’t make noise or expect to go grocery shopping in German supermarkets on Sundays.  You don’t drink Kolsch in Düsseldorf or Altbier in Cologne (or vice versa).  However, if you want to get naked in a park, especially in Munich or Berlin, you’re more than welcome to.  Germans dig nudity.

Germans are often wrongly described as “humorless”, but this book helps dispel that rumor.  I wouldn’t say Germans are humorless.  They just enjoy a different kind of humor.  For instance, as I read this book, I learned that German parents can and will hire a guy to play Krampus at Christmas if their kids have been naughty.  For about 50 euros, a guy will dress up as a Christmas themed satan, show up at the children’s houses, and put the fear of God in them!  I had heard of Krampus in a vague sense.  I thought it was more of an Austrian thing to do, but no… apparently German parents are not above using Krampus to get their kids to behave.  Too funny!

The authors include discussions and rationales behind a number of different German idiosyncrasies.  For instance, cash is still a very popular way to pay for things in Germany.  Germans are often frugal and prefer not to spend money they don’t have.  Always paying cash makes that habit easier to maintain, even if it’s a pain for non-Germans.

I really enjoyed the lighthearted tone of this book.  I think Cave and Frank make a good team.  I could sort of tell Cave was the one who made the book flow, since it has sort of an Irish feel to it– lots of wit and humor.  And Frank no doubt provided all of the context and oddities that Cave would have missed, since he’s not from Germany.  There are also a lot of funny little comics included.

I wish I could have read this book before we moved here the first time; however, I must admit that reading about German men sitting to pee on an Internet forum was an entertaining way to blow an afternoon back in 2008.  I would recommend this book to anyone who is going to be living in Germany or even just planning a visit.  It’s well-written and accurate and would probably make for a fun family discussion… and, who knows?  Maybe you might even want to adopt some German idiosyncratic habits yourself.  I know Bill and I are now a lot more conscious about waiting for the green man when we want to cross the street.  That’s a habit that will probably never go away, even years after we’ve left here.

I give German Men Sit Down to Pee a solid 4.5 stars out of five.  Not only is it an enjoyable book, it’s also a bargain at just $4.50 if you download it.

Want to know what it’s like to work at a hotel? Read Heads in Beds…

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It’s time for my first new book review of 2018.  If you follow this blog, you probably already know that I am a follower of certain pages on Facebook.  I like to read The Bitchy Waiter (who also has a book that I haven’t yet read) and The Angry Bartender.  I read Sanctimommy and STFU Parents, too.  In fact, all of those pages have served as inspiration for some of my blog posts.  It only stands to reason that I like to read books about people who work in the service industry.  When you work in service, you work with people.  People are interesting in so many ways.I’m not exactly sure how I found Jacob Tomsky’s 2012 book Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality.  I think I saw the book mentioned in a news article about hotels.  I have to admit I was attracted by the title, too.  I love a good salacious tell all.  I bought Tomsky’s book in November, but didn’t start reading it until last month, when we were in a hotel in Berlin.  Because I’ve been busy with holiday stuff, another book, and frankly too much wine at dinner, it’s taken me awhile to get through Heads in Beds.  Honestly, I think reading on an iPad also slows me down.  There was a time when I would have zipped right through this, had I only not been distracted by Facebook.

Author Jacob Tomsky, who calls himself “Thomas” in his book, never intended to get into the hotel industry. He grew up a military brat and endured its nomadic lifestyle.  Perhaps the chaos of being a child of a servicemember left him with an attraction to more chaos.  Tomsky got his start in the hospitality business in valet parking, but soon moved onward and upward.  He had a degree in philosophy and a lack of direction… and apparently, lots of people like that end up working for hotels.   Starting at a large establishment in New Orleans, Tomsky learned all of the tricks of the trade.  He’s done everything from supervising housekeeping to parking your car.  Along the way, he’s picked up a lot of colorful stories about co-workers and customers.

Tomsky’s writing has a bit of a smart-assed edge that works well as he describes being berated by hotel guests and “trained” by doormen and bellhops who survive on tips.  From New Orleans, Tomsky worked his way north to New York City, where apparently being called obscene nicknames by a co-worker is a term of endearment.

I have to admit I enjoyed Tomsky’s irreverent tone, especially as he passes along tips on how to get more out of a hotel stay.  I can’t say I’ll be employing many of his tips, mainly because I’m not that shameless or demanding.  But I did find his suggestions interesting.  For instance, I never knew that minibar charges are among the most disputed on a hotel bill.  Apparently, all you have to do is ask and many hotels will remove the charges, even if you did succumb to temptation.  Same thing goes for movie charges.  Just claim you made a mistake or the movie quit halfway through.  According to Tomsky, you’ll probably be watching for free.

I was intrigued by Tomsky’s housekeeping tips.  I never knew that furniture polish does a great job cleaning mirrors.  I suppose next time I visit a hotel, I’ll check to see if there’s a lemony fresh essence in the bathroom.  Also, people who bring their own pillows to a hotel, which I have done on more than one occasion, are apparently frowned upon.  Good thing I mostly grew out of that habit.

Tips are everything in the hotel biz.  A well-timed tip can help you get whatever you want.  Need a late checkout?  Fork over some cash.  Ever wonder why the bellman grabs your bags even if you don’t need help?  They work for tips.  According to Tomsky, there’s even a special cue to summon them.  A lot of people don’t carry cash anymore, which is a real bummer for elevator operators, doormen, and bellmen.  Tomsky reminds readers that those guys are supporting families on their tips. Don’t have cash for a tip?  Just be really nice.  Being pleasant can pay dividends when you’re dealing with hotel workers, although cash is definitely preferable.  Personally, I don’t like the tipping system, but that’s simply the way things are in America.  Money talks, and when you’re dealing with people who are in the service industry, it’s often the best way to make a statement.

Tomsky liberally swears in his writing, which is okay with me as long as the swearing doesn’t make the writing boring.  Like, if every other word is an “f” bomb, I would consider that bad writing.  In Tomsky’s case, the “f” bomb works.  If you’ve ever spent any time working in the service industry, you know that a lot of those jobs really can drive a person to some bad habits like smoking, drinking, snorting cocaine, and yes, swearing.  I figure a few well-placed “fucks” lend some authenticity to Tomsky’s stories.  Let’s face it.  A lot of people are assholes.  That’s why I no longer work in the service industry and won’t unless I have to do it to survive.  And even then, I might consider something drastic before I’d willingly wait tables again.

Now that I’ve read Tomsky’s book, any illusions I had that hotel clerks have an easy job have all but dissipated.  However, Tomsky reveals that there are some nice rewards that come with the job.  For instance, Tomsky got to meet Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys.  He was a regular guest at the New York City hotel where Tomsky worked.  Tomsky also ran into his fair share of prostitutes and sleazy businessmen cheating on their wives.  The job gave Tomsky, clearly a natural storyteller, a huge trove of entertaining stories for his book.  Those stories have propelled Tomsky into a vocation for which he is clearly suited.

I really enjoyed Heads in Beds.  Jacob Tomsky is funny and I appreciated how he humanizes the hard working folks in the hotel biz.  Tomsky seems like the kind of person I’d enjoy knowing.  And so, because I like Tomsky and his book, I will recommend it with a solid five out of five star rating.  However, if liberal swearing offends you, I would recommend proceeding with caution.

 

Ever wondered what it would be like to be a doctor who travels?

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For about eleven years, I wrote reviews on a Web site called Epinions.  It was a great place to write.  I made a lot of friends who are still friends today, some of whom I actually met at Epinions hosted parties.  I also made some money.  Unfortunately, Epinions croaked a few years ago.  Every once in awhile, when I look on Facebook’s On This Day feature, I run across links to some of my old reviews.  Although I saved my old reviews, they are on my old computer which has a broken hard drive.

Anyway, I try to preserve the book reviews on my blogs if I am able to access them.  Sometimes I click the link and don’t find the review.  Sometimes, I get lucky and it’s still there.  I put most of my old reviews on my main blog, but I put my reviews about travel subjects on this one.  So, if you need a break from politics and want to do some light reading, have a look at the reviews I am reposting today.  British physician Ben MacFarlane was a doctor on a cruise ship and has also worked for insurance companies, traveling to people who have gotten sick or injured while on vacation.  He arranges for their care as they transit back home (to England).

I found both of MacFarlane’s books very entertaining.  In fact, I may need to re-read them.  They may be just what the doctor ordered to chase away the winter blues.

  • Being a doctor on a cruise ship…

    Review by knotheadusc
     in Books, Music, Hotels & Travel
      January, 16 2012
  • Pros: Very entertaining book.  Makes being a cruise doctor seem glamourous and fun.
    Cons: Perhaps a little too upbeat?  Doesn’t tackle issues like burnout.
    Over the past couple of years, I have become a fan of cruising.  My husband Bill and I have so far cruised three times, once on a large Royal Caribbean ship and twice on the comparatively tiny SeaDream I.  We had a great time on all three of our cruises and every time we’ve cruised, we’ve met some amazing people.  Many of those friendly people were working on the ships.  Knowing so many fine folks work for cruise lines has made me want to learn more about the cruising business.  I have been doing a lot of Amazon searches, looking for tell-all books from former cruiseline employees.  I have found several titles, all written by people who once worked for Carnival Cruise Lines.  My most recent find is Ben MacFarlane’s (a pseudonym) 2010 book, Cruise Ship SOS: The Life-Saving Adventures of a Doctor at Sea.  I just spent a very entertaining few days reading Dr. MacFarlane’s story of being a cruise ship doctor on a world cruise.

    It’s interesting that I picked this past week to read Dr. MacFarlane’s story.  If you’ve been watching the news over this holiday weekend, you probably know that the Costa Concordia, a mega cruise ship, ran aground off the coast of Italy, resulting in at least six deaths and twenty injuries.  The Costa Concordia was carrying thousands of people when it hit the rocky coast of Italy’s tiny island of Giglio.  I was shocked when I saw the dramatic photos on Saturday morning. I wondered if the ship’s doctors had sprung into action to help people.  By the media’s account, it doesn’t seem so.  However, having read Ben MacFarlane’s book, I know that huge cruise ships are typically staffed with medical personnel who must always be ready to tend to the vast array of medical ailments and injuries that can strike cruise passengers, crew, and officers at any given time.

    Ben MacFarlane hails from the United Kingdom and his writing definitely reflects that origin.  In conversational prose peppered with lots of dialogue, Dr. MacFarlane describes how he came to land a job tending to people on cruise ships.  It was a natural fit for the author.  Before he sailed the high seas, Ben MacFarlane was an emergency doctor whose job it was to escort Britons who had medical emergencies abroad back to the U.K.  His job had required him to jet off to exotic locations around the world at a moment’s notice.  He loved the work, though he also longed for a job in London, where his girlfriend, Cassie, was living.  It seems Dr. MacFarlane took the cruise ship gig as a means of filling a brief amount of time between two major career defining jobs.  Like all cruise ship employees, he worked on a contract that only lasted several months.  But those months were filled with drama, adventure, friendship, and amazing travel opportunities.  By the time I had finished his book, I was almost wishing I could be a cruise ship doctor or nurse.  Too bad I hate the sight of blood!

    Dr. MacFarlane is careful to mention that he must protect the privacy of his patients; consequently, has has obscured the identifying details of the people who inspired his stories.  He has also fictionalized some accounts.  This book is offered in both electronic and print formats.

    My thoughts

    Cruise Ship SOS is a very entertaining and educational read.  Dr. MacFarlane is a gifted storyteller who has a knack for giving life to his characters.  He makes the medical center on his cruise ship sound like a good place to be, even if you happen to be a patient.  Not all of his stories have happy endings, but they are all uniformly touching and memorable in some way.  He really makes the medical staff on his ship sound wonderful, even as they deal with challenging medical issues and occasionally difficult or eccentric patients.

    It is important to remember that these stories are somewhat fabricated for privacy reasons.  Moreover, Dr. MacFarlane keeps his stories overwhelmingly upbeat, even the ones involving death.  By his account, everyone in his job got along beautifully and never once suffered burnout.  Maybe that’s how it really was on his ship, but somehow I doubt it.  Also, Dr. MacFarlane really sticks to medical and human stories.  He doesn’t dish too much about some of the places he got to see, except to mention them a bit in passing.  You also won’t read about how much those onboard medical treatments cost, which is one area that I know some readers would find interesting.

    Despite those minor criticisms, I really did enjoy Cruise Ship SOS and even found myself wanting to meet the good doctor in person.  His writing made him seem very personable and charming.  He comes off as a great doctor and gives his co-workers equally flattering descriptions.  Again, I’m not sure Dr. MacFarlane’s somewhat rosy account is entirely accurate, but it was fun to read in a Love Boat kind of way.

    Overall

    If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be a cruise ship doctor, Ben MacFarlane’s Cruise Ship SOS is worth reading.  I’m not a big fan of mega cruise ships, but this book makes me appreciate all medical staffers do on those floating hotels.

The second book is about MacFarlane’s experiences traveling to people who have become sick while on vacation.  He accompanies them back to their home and arranges for their care.

  • Ben MacFarlane’s adventures of a traveling doctor…

    Review by knotheadusc
     in Books, Music, Hotels & Travel
      January, 19 2012
  • Pros: Fascinating stories about a traveling doctor.
    Cons: Sometimes incongruously chipper.
    Have you ever wondered what would happen if you were on vacation and suddenly had a serious accident?  How about if, while visiting an exotic location somewhere, you suddenly became deathly ill.  If you’re smart, you have travel insurance.  If you’re lucky, there is someone who knows to call someone at home on your behalf.  And if you’re even more fortunate, you’ll have a medical professional like Dr. Ben MacFarlane (a pseudonym) travel to your location to bring you home, safe and sound.

    A couple of days ago, I read and reviewed Dr. Ben MacFarlane’s book, Cruise Ship SOS: The Life-Saving Adventures of a Doctor at Sea.  I liked Dr. MacFarlane’s writing style and traveling medical stories so much that I decided to read and review his earlier book, Holiday SOS: The Life-Saving Adventures of a Travelling Doctor.  This book, offered in print and e-book forms, was published in 2009.  This earlier book consists of Ben MacFarlane’s fascinating and entertaining stories about his adventures as a traveling doctor who repatriates people who have gotten hurt or sick on vacation.

    Dr. MacFarlane is British and his company, which mostly does a lot of work with insurance companies, is based in London.  It’s MacFarlane’s job to travel the world in search of Britons who have had mishaps while on holiday.  MacFarlane explains that most of the jobs are relatively easy and involve “hand-holding”.  Sometimes, however, Dr. MacFarlane runs into challenging medical situations that test his abilities as a physician.  Occasionally, MacFarlane and his colleagues become ensnared in the typical red tape that can develop in the course of traveling abroad.  And from what I read in his book, Dr. MacFarlane often gets to know his patients, whose stories touch and enrich him.

    This is not a job for the faint of heart or the committed homebody.  Dr. MacFarlane and his colleagues often have to travel at a moment’s notice, jetting off to any of the corners of the world.  But the rewards can be amazing, especially for those who love travel and adventure.  And if you’re not qualified to be a medical professional, Holiday SOS might give you just a glimpse of what it’s like to rescue people abroad.

    My thoughts

    This book excited me on several levels.  First of all, I love to travel and I love reading about other peoples’ travels.  Secondly, I have a professional background in public health and social work.  I’m not qualified to do what MacFarlane does, but I am interested in the medical aspects of his stories.  And finally, I am very intrigued by the concept of medical care abroad.  Dr. MacFarlane’s adventures put in contact with plenty of medical facilities abroad.

    Interspersed withing MacFarlane’s travel tales are anecdotes about his personal life.  For instance, he explains how he met his girlfriend, Cassie, who is herself working in an occupation that requires her to travel a lot.  He also writes about his colleagues, whom he makes sound absolutely wonderful to work with.  We should all enjoy work environments as positive and rewarding as the one described in this book.  Of course, MacFarlane also had to deal with doubts.  As a doctor, he has been trained to want to have a “proper” job in a hospital, where he can build prestige and a pension fund.  And, as it turns out, MacFarlane did eventually quit working as a traveling doctor full-time, though as of 2009, he was still doing freelance gigs.

    Naturally, the job isn’t always rosy.  Sometimes he has to deal with very difficult cases under challenging conditions.  Occasionally, his patients are unpleasant people who are demanding or ungrateful.  He’s dealt with his share of dirty airports, inedible airline food, and bad airport coffee.  He’s experienced chronic jetlag.  But consider this.  MacFarlane’s travel expenses are all paid.  He usually flies in business class or better, so he can properly attend to his patients.  He usually stays in decent hotels.  He gets plenty of time off to see the sights, too.  In exchange, he deals with sick or injured patients, the vast majority of whom are happy to see him.

    I really enjoyed reading this book, though I did notice that just as he did in his other book, MacFarlane keeps his tone very chipper.  He writes of one time flying in a private Lear jet to pick up a patient who had broken his neck.  MacFarlane and a colleague snacked on scones and champagne and very much enjoyed themselves.  Though I could hardly blame them for doing so, I also wondered about the poor chap with the broken neck.  I think MacFarlane is mostly very empathetic,  though sometimes his stories about catastrophic injuries and illnesses don’t mesh with his upbeat attitude.

    Overall

    If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to travel the world for a living, this is a good book to read.  If you’re a medical professional with wanderlust in need of ideas for places to visit, Holiday SOS is right up your alley.  If you are inclined to read both of Dr. MacFarlane’s books, I recommend reading Holiday SOS first.

Reposted review of Mousetrapped: A Year and a Bit in Orlando, Florida– Irish lass works near Disney

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Here’s a reposted book review from my Epinions days about an Irish woman who traveled to Orlando, Florida to work at the Swan and Dolphin resort.  I’m reposting it to keep it from being lost to the Internet hinterlands.  Since this book is somewhat about travel, I’m posting it here instead of on my main blog.

 
  • Irish girl meets life in Orlando, Florida…

    Review by knotheadusc
     in Books, Music, Hotels & Travel
      October, 23 2011
Pros: Basically entertaining and interesting.  I like Howard’s writing style.
    • Cons: Somewhat misleading title.  Long-winded beginning.
      God bless the Kindle.  It’s introduced me to all sorts of new writers, including one Catherine Ryan Howard, an Irish lass who decided to ditch her homeland for a year in sunny Orlando, Florida and then chronicle her time in an e-book called Mousetrapped: A Year and a Bit in Orlando, Florida.  Howard published her book in January of 2011 and I read it over the course of a very pleasant Sunday spent in bed.

      The premise 

      Catherine Ryan Howard writes that she had always fancied herself a famous virologist, in part, owing to the books and movies that came out about biological terrorism in the 1990s.  Alas, she lacked the grades and the tenacity to pursue her dreams of scientific glory.  As a young woman in Ireland, she was attempting to launch into adulthood in fits and starts that included a very brief stint in university and some time in the Netherlands.  When she realized she wasn’t getting anywhere in her quest for independence, Howard did what so many others before her have done.  She went to Disney World.

      Okay… so actually, Howard did not go to Disney World.  She went to the Swan and Dolphin resort in Orlando, which is supposedly very close to Mickey Mouse’s fabled empire.  Curiously, Howard refers to the resort as the Duck and Tuna, which I’m guessing she does to avoid litigation.  In any case, Mousetrapped is somewhat misleadingly titled, since Howard doesn’t actually work for Disney on her J-1 visa.  Since I don’t care that much about Disney, I wasn’t too upset about the slightly misnamed book.  I got caught up in her story, anyway.  I could sort of relate to it on several levels.

      Life in the USA

      In witty prose, Catherine Ryan Howard explains how she turned up at her new place of employment, hoping to meet the very eager recruiter who had been corresponding with her about her new job.  In true American corporate style, Howard’s recruiter turned out to be far less enthusiastic than she seemed to be in writing.  Howard describes how she is given a free hotel room for the first few days while she finds a new place to live, applies for a Social Security card, and figures out the logistics of living without benefit of a car.

      Howard takes an overpriced apartment at a complex within walking distance of her place of employment.  She writes of having to do two hour walking commutes to her job in Florida heat until she finally makes friends with a German who has a car.  Howard also writes of temporarily sharing her apartment with other women from Kazakhstan and the Philippines with varying levels of success.  Before too long, it becomes clear that Howard needs to get a car.  A car would allow her to run errands, take cheaper housing, and hang out with a different crowd.  But first, she has to learn how to drive.  Coming from Ireland, where public transportation is apparently plentiful, the author has never needed to drive before.  So readers get to learn how an Irish woman learns how to drive, buys a car, and gets an American driver’s license… not necessarily in that order.

      And then there’s work.  Curiously, Howard doesn’t write a lot of funny stories about the guests she meets or cross-cultural miscommunications.  In fact, she doesn’t have that much at all to say about her actual job, except that she manages to be “promoted” to a job in laundry.  Howard implies that the promotion, which came with a minimal pay raise, was actually intended to get her out of some manager’s hair.  She doesn’t have much to say about working in laundry, except to share a rather gross vomit story and tell her readers that she’s not cut out to work in a laundry.

      My thoughts

      For the most part, I enjoyed this book.  Catherine Ryan Howard seems very likeable and is often funny and witty.  I identified with her story, since when I was in my 20s, I went to Armenia to be a Peace Corps Volunteer.  It’s not quite the same.  The Peace Corps gave me a place to live and a job to do and I wasn’t allowed to drive.  On the other hand, as time went on, I found myself having to arrange things to my liking.  That included finding other things to do, making friends, and yes, finding better housing.  And those were things I had to do on my own in a foreign country.  I could relate to Howard’s plight, trying to make things work somewhere new.  In fact, knowing how dismal many American public transportation systems are, especially when compared to Europe’s, I kind of empathized with her.  I can’t imagine trying to get by without a car in so many places in the United States.

      My only quibbles about this book have to do with its beginning.  Howard is a bit long-winded in her description of how she ended up in Florida.  The back story really needs to be edited a bit.  When an author writes “bear with me” on more than one occasion, that’s a sign that a story is too long.  I also wasn’t all that interested in Howard’s anecdotes about visiting the Kennedy Space Center.  In my opinion, one story about satisfying her interest in the U.S. space program would have sufficed.  But that’s just me.

      Overall  

      This book is not really that much about Disney, though Howard did visit there a couple of times (and paid full admission because she was not an employee).  Don’t be misled into thinking you’ll get any cute Disney stories.  What this book is really about is a young woman trying to launch and getting to know a new place.  If you like that kind of story, this book might be worth your while.

      http://www.catherineryanhoward.com

Flying with the rich and famous…

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Every once in awhile, I read a travel related book.  I review most of the books I read.  The travel books get reviewed on my travel blog.  The music books get reviewed on my music blog and everything else ends up on my original blog.  Since I’m alone this week, I anticipate doing a lot of reading.

I just finished Patricia Reid’s book, Flying with the Rich and Famous: True Stories from the Flight Attendant Who Flew with them.  Reid is a very experienced corporate flight attendant.  A corporate flight attendant works for charter airlines and on private planes.  Though I have never experienced flying that way, I gather that it’s a totally different experience than your usual flight on a regular mass market airline.  Reid was responsible for making sure her passengers and the pilots were safe and comfortable.  According to Reid’s book, sometimes, that proved to be a formidable job.

I generally enjoy books about what it’s like to work in certain unusual occupations.  Having done my share of service oriented jobs, I can definitely appreciate tell all anecdotes, even if it could be argued that they’re in poor taste.  Patricia Reid’s book is, at times, entertaining enough.  The writing is mostly passable, though somewhat amateur.  However, I didn’t find Reid to be a particularly likable narrator.  For one thing, she comes across as a bit of a braggart.  At the very beginning of the book, she basically tells her readers that her job is very rare and implies that it’s “special”.  She may be right about that.  The fact that she blatantly states it is more than a little off putting.

For another thing, Reid’s tone is rather gushy, which makes her seem vapid and shallow.  Sometimes her writing reminded me of something I’d read from a lovesick teenaged girl.  At times, Reid comes across as immature and starstruck rather than professional.  I was left thinking that she totally lucked into her job and didn’t get it because she has superior skills in the friendly skies.

Most of Reid’s stories about celebrities are very brief and somewhat generic.  A lot of the stars she writes about are also long dead, which makes me think she’s been in the business for a lot longer than 25 years.  She writes about serving Dean Martin, Johnny Carson, Michael Landon, Esther Williams, and Elizabeth Taylor, among other very famous people who haven’t drawn a breath in decades.  With all of those years of experience, you’d think she’d explain exactly when she got in the business, but I got the sense that she didn’t want to come off as old as she very likely is.  It’s not that I think she should be hiding her age; on the contrary, I enjoy reading about how air travel has changed.  Someone who has been in the business as long as Reid has would be able to offer a great perspective on that.  Unfortunately, she doesn’t really delve into that aspect of aviation.

For someone in the service industry, Reid seems very fake, self-centered, and immature.  Granted, having worked in the service industry myself, I know that it’s not unusual for service industry professionals to be fake toward the more difficult people and smile at them when they feel more like wringing their necks.  Sometimes, being fake is a survival mechanism.  However, flight attendants are not just servers in the sky; they are responsible for their passengers’ safety.  For that reason, it’s a little concerning that the author seemed so insincere and unpleasant.  I’m not sure I’d voluntarily trust her with my life.

I see that a lot of reviewers on Amazon.com gave this book a single star.  I would probably be a little more generous.  To me, a one star book would be barely readable or extremely offensive.  I don’t think Flying with the Rich and Famous is barely readable or extremely offensive.  To me, the author simply comes across as narcissistic and lacking in empathy.  That doesn’t mean she can’t write a book, but it does make the book less compelling and interesting, at least in my opinion.  Reading this book was kind of like having a conversation with someone I find unlikable.  I just wanted to get through it and put it in the past.

I think I would award Flying with the Rich and Famous two-and-a-half stars.  Some of the stories are somewhat interesting and, perhaps with some editing, this book could have even been pretty good.  However, I do think Reid could have used the services of an editor and maybe an honest friend who would tell her how her boasting comes across to the masses.  Patricia Reid may very well be great at her job as well as a genuinely nice person, but I sure didn’t get that impression when I read her book.

A repost of my review of the book, Waiter Rant…

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I just found this old review I wrote on Epinions.com.  Since this is a travel blog and eating out is a big part of traveling, I’ve decided to repost it here.  If you’ve ever waited tables, this book will make you feel vindicated.  If you haven’t waited tables, maybe reading it will give you some empathy for what American servers deal with.

  • Confessions of a real live waiter…

    Review by knotheadusc
     in Books, Music, Hotels & Travel
      October, 19 2009
  • Pros: Funny, well-written, and relevant to anyone who has either dined out or waited tables.
    Cons: None for me.
    I have developed a special empathy for those who wait tables. About eleven years ago, I was struggling to get myself launched into some kind of career and decided to take a job waiting tables at The Trellis restaurant in Williamsburg, Virginia. I had never waited tables before, but I had watched my three older sisters do it successfully. I figured I could handle it. After 18 stressful months, I eventually got the hang of waiting tables and the job did help me move on to bigger and better things. However, the experience definitely left an indelible impression on me and made me realize that I’m not cut out for service industry work. Nevertheless, after my stint waiting tables, I’m still left remembering the experience and feeling like I can commiserate with others as to what the job is like. That’s pretty much why I decided to read Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip- Confessions of a Cynical Waiter, written by Steve Dublanica.

    I found out about Waiter Rant by cruising around the Internet. Someone had mentioned Dublanica’s wildly popular blog by the same name and I went to read it. In the course of reading Dublanica’s blog, I learned that he had started the blog anonymously back in 2004 and went to great pains to protect his identity as well as that of the place where he was working. He referred to the place as The Bistro and related all kinds of hilarious and poignant anecdotes about his bosses, co-workers, and customers. Impressed with Dublanica’s witty writing style, I ended up reading his blog for several hours and then ordered his book, which had pretty much forced him to give up his anonymity.

    I was hoping the book, Waiter Rant, would be as good as the blog was. Dublanica didn’t disappoint me, as he explained how it was that he had gotten into waiting tables as a guy in his thirties. Dublanica explains that people who wait tables generally fall into three different categories: those who don’t know what they want to do, those who are learning to do something, and those who are professionals. I found myself really relating to Dublanica’s observations about why he was waiting tables. The money can be fairly good and it’s mostly paid in cash at the end of every shift. The hours are generally pretty flexible. And the work, while definitely hard at times, is often interesting… or, at least it’s often busy, which makes the time go faster.

    The trouble is, waiting tables is the kind of job where one can get stuck for years. I have a hunch that was what had happened to Dublanica. He had a real desire to be a writer, but like so many other people, he was afraid of failure. So he settled for waiting tables for awhile and eventually became a manager at “The Bistro”, where he ended up mining plenty of “food for thought” for his blog, which later turned into his very entertaining book.

    As I read Waiter Rant, I found myself remembering some of my own experiences as a restaurant server. For instance, Dublanica writes about how waiters who work in fine restaurants find themselves thinking they should be eating what their patrons eat. They often develop and broaden their culinary palates to a point that goes beyond their budgets. I know I developed more of an appreciation for fine foods and liquors after I worked at The Trellis. Unfortunately, my love for good food now shows a lot more than it did when I waited tables. I also found myself nodding in agreement when Dublanica writes about waiters who work when they’re sick, waiters who have substance abuse problems, and waiters and other restaurant workers who are working illegally.  He also outlines the different types of customers one runs into while waiting tables.  It’s amazing how some people behave when they’re out to eat.  Some people are wonderful, friendly, and generous… and some people, well, are generous only with attitude and grief.  Frankly, I think the way a person treats a waiter is often a good reflection of the type of person they are.

    Dublanica has a way of communicating with his readers as if he’s in a room, talking to them one on one. His writing has a definite conversational style that is engaging and unabashed. I think it will appeal to fellow waiters and ex-waiters because they will recognize Dublanica’s experiences in the trenches. I think it will appeal to those who haven’t waited tables because besides being entertaining, it’s very informative. At the end of the book, Dublanica adds several irreverent appendices on subjects ranging from how to order wine without looking like a twit, to things that every waiter would love to tell their customers, to signs that the restaurant you’re working in is dysfunctional. I think I liked the dysfunctional list the best, since I related to so much of it.

    Anyway, I highly recommend Waiter Rant to anyone who wants to know what it’s like to be in the trenches, serving fine food at a busy restaurant. I would also recommend it to those who are now going down that road or have been there before.

    For those who want a little taste of Waiter Rant, here’s the address for Steve Dublanica’s blog: www.waiterrant.net

Albert Podell… A man who has seen every single country on Earth

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I suppose I could write another depressing post about canine mast cell tumors or local restaurants and fests.  But today, I think it would be better to write a book review.  There was a time in my life when I wrote book reviews all the time, at least once or twice a week.  Now I write them as I finish books, which take me a lot longer to read than they used to.  I started Albert Podell’s book Around the World in 50 Years: My Adventure to Every Country on Earth over a month ago, when Bill and I were in The Netherlands.  I just finished it this morning.

It didn’t take such a long time to finish Mr. Podell’s book because it wasn’t good or interesting.  On the contrary, I found Around the World in 50 Years a fascinating and entertaining read.  Podell is one of those rare, adventurous characters who had a burning need to achieve his goals, no matter how difficult or even impossible they seem.  A lawyer and writer by trade, he has also been an editor at Playboy, as well as three national outdoor magazines.  He has also written over 250 freelance articles.  I found his writing witty, engaging, and informative, as he outlined his adventures at some of the more obscure and dangerous countries around the world.

Although Podell has the distinction of having been to every official country on the books (at this point in history, anyway), he can’t write about every place he’s ever seen.  Enough people have been to France, England, and Brazil that he could safely leave his experiences in those countries out of his manuscript.  He does, however, offer tales about Nauru, a little known island nation in Micronesia.  How many people have even heard of Nauru, let alone visited it?  As Podell explains, it’s not exactly on the top tier of most traveler’s bucket lists.  If you read about his experiences in Nauru, you might come to understand why it’s a country that may not exist for much longer.  Same with Tuvalu, another little known country out there in the world.  Podell writes about these far flung places with humor, compassion, and insight.  I almost wanted to see them for myself, were it not for the extreme difficulty in even reaching them.

Aside from seeing fascinating and obscure countries, Podell has also met some amazing people.  He writes of one of his first expeditions to Africa, where he and a friend had taken along a couple of European nurses.  The nurses were seen as potential wife material by a local tribal leader, who took a particular liking to the heavier set blonde one.  Podell and his friend had to do some fancy talking and cultural finessing to avoid bartering their friends to the Africans.

Another fascinating man Podell met in Africa was a guide who called himself God.  God was quite the character and Podell’s stories about him explain why meeting God was yet another enriching experience in his travels around the world.

Podell ran into danger, impossible bureaucracy and red tape, beautiful women, dangerous men, bad weather, bad food, and near death experiences.  He manages to write about all of this with a game sense of fun and enthusiasm.  I think Around the World in 50 Years is a great read for those who are adventurous and love a good story, as well as those who are less adventurous and would prefer to get their information about the world from people who don’t mind doing the legwork to experience it.  Podell also went back to countries after they’d changed.  For instance, 25 years ago, the Soviet Union still existed and Podell had been there.  When it broke up, he visited all 15 former republics, some of which are more rustic and exotic than others.  I wish he’d written more about his times in those countries.  Much of this book is about Podell’s visits to African countries.  South America and Europe barely get a mention.

This book may be less appealing to those who don’t enjoy stories that are told in a “fish story” fashion.  Remember, Podell is a writer who used to work for Playboy and he has a colorful vocabulary.  Some of his stories may seem a bit embellished.  Some might also take offense to his rather strong inclination toward bedding younger women; again, remember, he did used to work for Playboy.  Personally, I enjoyed reading about his experiences and feel like I learned something new while I was entertained.  At the back of the book, there is a comprehensive list of all of the countries Podell has seen and the year of his visit.  I’m proud to say I went to Armenia before he did.