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Lost in a good book
on 19 October 2012
In nearly every article of the book, journalist Jon Ronson is able to pick an extraordinary subject to write about in an interesting and engaging way. I loved reading about real life "superhero" Phoenix Jones as he patrols the streets of Chicago, trying to make drunk drivers eat tacos before getting behind the wheel, or discovering that the rap duo Insane Clown Posse have been covert Christians their entire careers, believing they were making converts of their listeners subliminally for 20 years. Other subjects are equally fascinating such as finding out pop star Robbie Williams is a UFO enthusiast and that Stanley Kubrick was a hoarder of everything related to his film career.
There are some really funny pieces included such as Ronson's recreation of James Bond's car journey from Ian Fleming's "Goldfinger", eating and drinking everything Bond did on the journey and making himself very sick (Bond, it turns out, was a glutton alcoholic chain smoker who rarely exercised). Ronson also goes on a cruise to meet psychic Sylvia Browne, a woman who goes on TV to tell parents of missing children (often incorrectly) their kids are dead, and finds out, surprise surprise, she's not just a fake but an unpleasant old bag as well.
Religion and pseudo-religious beliefs play a big part in the articles where Ronson meets the Jesus Christians, a fringe Christian group with a membership of 24 people worldwide, most of whom have decided that as well as giving away most of their possessions that they will give away a kidney as well! He meets the UK's biggest atheist-converter Nicky Gumbel, meets TV hypnotist Paul McKenna and his colleague Richard Bandler who admits to being a sociopath and has a sketchy past involving murder but who now makes millions teaching people something called neurolinguistic programming (NLP) which promises to make you a better salesperson.
The other side of the book take a sobering look at the dark side of humanity. They include a couple of murder/suicide cases, the economic class issues in America, and the sad story of Richard Cullen who committed suicide after becoming hopelessly in debt. Richard Cullen took out numerous credit cards which gave him money with crippling interest rates and was approved for various loans different banks approved, leaving Richard with a six figure debt and no way out. From this one man, Ronson follows the trail back to the banks and exposes the fiasco that was the sub-prime market. This article came out 2 years before the sub-prime crash of 2007.
My favourite piece in the book, "Santa's Little Conspirators", is the story of a group of 13 year old high-school students in the town of North Pole, Alaska, accused of conspiring to commit a Columbine-style massacre at their school (they were stopped before anyone was hurt). North Pole is unique as a town where it is Christmas 365 days of the year and everything in the town is Christmas themed. The would-be killers, like all students in North Pole high school, answered letters from children all over the world addressed to "Santa, North Pole" under elfish pseudonyms. Some of the letters written by small children and given to them to answer are heart breaking like "please make mummy and daddy stop fighting" and "I would like to wear more clothes this year".
While parts of "Lost at Sea" have been published in Ronson's other books - more than half have been printed in "Out of the Ordinary" and all but one have been printed in "What I Do" - and numerous other articles have appeared in GQ magazine and the Guardian newspaper, for those who've not read Jon Ronson extensively, this is an excellent collection of his journalism in one handy volume. Like most of Ronson's journalism, the articles feel too strange to be real, this mixture of strangeness and truth adding to the readability of the articles and lending them an air of surreal-ness. "Lost at Sea" is a fascinating collection of oddball human stories that offers hours of riveting reading pleasure and is a must-read for all readers looking for extraordinary and entertaining non-fiction stories written in an accessible and compelling style.