It was... ok, for an atheist book. As others have said, its no Hitchens or Dawkins and its not supposed to be. Its really supposed to be funny. It oft...moreIt was... ok, for an atheist book. As others have said, its no Hitchens or Dawkins and its not supposed to be. Its really supposed to be funny. It often is, and just as often seems to miss the mark.
First of all, some pretty interesting reasoning on Penn's definition of atheism vs agnosticism. One might say its petty semantics. I think of it as the difference between saying "I don't believe in God" and "I believe there is no God." Suffice to say, Penn strongly argues that if you're answer to The Question is 'I dunno' then you have to be an atheist.
There is quite a lot of celebrity name-dropping, and a lot of what seems to be vulgarity for vulgarity's sake. Enough with the shock value, we get it you like to be naked! Sometimes these sorts of stories are great, hilarious inside stories of pop culture and his nutty life. And often times they come off as just plain bragging.
The parts about family and death and friendship are surprisingly touching. Then he immediately cuts to some story about underwater fucking and zero gravity nudity and how much he fucking hates c-list celebrities at strip clubs.
On libertarianism. I used to be a card-carrying member of that, and I understand all the arguments. They are pretty much right. However, it gets a bit dogmatic and libertarianists tend to put themselves in tinier and tinier boxes of ideological purity. He masks a lot of this passion/knowitall-smug as humility, as his self-deprecating/attention-seeking ego tends to do, but in the end its more of the same. A truly limited government that leaves people alone to be deviants would indeed be nice, but just give in and let the social contract do its work. No taxes and no social programs just isn't going to happen, I wish it would, but while we're in the real world perhaps a more efficient 'big government' would be better to work towards than endlessly arguing why its irrational and then doing nothing to change it. Perhaps I'm getting cynical, but talk radio brand libertarinism just bores me at this point.
Lastly, as a vegetarian atheist I was torn on the story about former jews eating pork. Seafood I don't mind, but I don't want to hear about cheeseburgers and bacon as so awesome. Blasphemy is one thing, and I guess if you're going to eat meat anyway might as well up the system. But I couldn't help cringing at that story. And ex-hasid stories are usually very heart-warming to me! Perhaps I'm the one being too ideological here.
(Also I'd argue that judiaism can be an ethnic group - as arbitrary as those terms are, its what we do and its not that bad to say "he's scottish" "she's han chinese" "they are ashkenazim jewish" et al. - without a jew necessarily being a member of a religion. They overlap to be sure, but can't I say fine I'm jewish by ethnicity but its not my religion??)
Its not mostly a political book, don't get me wrong. Its part atheism, part biography, a lot of comedy. Mostly its just Penn Jillette ranting and he is sincerely good at that. Whether you agree or disagree with him, grossed out or not, you will surely be entertained. (less)
If you happen to be a China expat, no doubt you have a crazy story to tell. I may feel like an old China hand myself at this point, but I came in 2008...moreIf you happen to be a China expat, no doubt you have a crazy story to tell. I may feel like an old China hand myself at this point, but I came in 2008 just as the last of the real wildness was getting homogenized. I have my own stories, but nothing like the best of these. Somehow editor Tom Carter has captured the cream of the crazy China experiences, and what a read it is.
Like any anthology, it can be hit or miss. However, there are no great misses, only adequate stories lost among the truly memorable. From famed “Oracle Bones” author Peter Hessler’s story of refugee thieves at the North Korean border in “View from the Bridge”, to Michael Levy’s opening “Selling Hope” about crooked English teachers (a theme very familiar to anyone living here), every account is solid and interesting and the consistent quality is impressive. But it seems to get darker as the book reaches its conclusion, and I for one appreciated that. Charming expat family stories – such as Aminta Arington’s “Communal Parenting” and Susan Conley’s “Where There Are Crowds” – give way to tales of extremely illegal activity detailing the underbelly of Chinese society – of which I will list my favorites below. Thing about China though, is the dark underbelly is never that well-hidden and we all knew it was there the entire time...
My personal favorites: “Stowaway by Pete Spurrier, about hardcore backpacking and sneaking through trains and living on the edge of running out of money and visas; “Diplomacy on Ice” by Rudy Kong details the world of Northern hockey with a healthy does of extreme bloody violence; “You Buy Me Drink?” by Nury Vittachi details easily-impressed gangsters and scammers; “One of the People” by Bruce Humes might be the most terrifying of all, about being mugged and his time in a Shenzhen hospital almost getting his hand amputated, and yet horrifying though may be it’s always written with lighthearted humor; “Thinking Reports” by Dominic Stevenson is another downer, an excerpt from the hash-smuggling author’s time in a Shanghai prison writing propaganda reports, and as serious a situation as it is he never wants any pity only to tell his story; and “Empty from the Outside” by Susie Gordon covers more drugs and call girls all while living the highlife.
Finally, the namesake story “Unsavory Elements” by the infamous Tom Carter. If you haven’t heard, he goes to a brothel. It’s really not as offensive as I was expecting, it’s one of the funniest pieces and gives an important yet irreverent insight into what’s really goes on after late nights of partying in this country.
A unique book with a unique take on China, with none of the standard journalistic flair and dull economic theories. This is about real life and a real window into the emerging soul of the rising Middle Kingdom. There is something for everyone in the midst of all these talented storytellers. While it was very entertaining to me as an expat, I would recommend this book most of all to people who have never even been to China. The world should know, these are the real stories of this insanely fascinating land.(less)