The Burn Journals

The Burn Journals

by Brent Runyon


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Fans of Thirteen Reasons Why, Running with Scissors and  Girl, Interrupted will be entranced by this remarkable true story of teenage despair and recovery

In 1991, fourteen-year-old Brent Runyon came home from school, doused his bathrobe in gasoline, put it on, and lit a match.

He suffered third-degree burns over 85% of his body and spent the next year recovering in hospitals and rehab facilities. During that year of physical recovery, Runyon began to question what he’d done, undertaking the complicated journey from near-death back to high school, and from suicide back to the emotional mainstream of life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400096428
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/11/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 154,930
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.75(d)
Age Range: 14 Years

About the Author

Brent Runyon is a writer and regular contributor to public radio programs, including This American Life, where portions of his award-winning memoir, The Burn Journals, first aired. Booklist praised The Burn Journals as “the defining book of a new genre, one that gazes unflinchingly at boys on the emotional edge.” In his novels Maybe and Surface Tension, he retains that raw honesty. Mr. Runyon lives on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt

When seventh period is finally over, I run to my locker and put all my books inside. I won’t need them anymore. I grab my lock-picking set and a spare Ace of Spades that I have lying around.
At the end of the hallway, I can see Stephen talking to Megan, the girl we both have a crush on. I walk up to them and say hi. She smiles at me and I try to smile back. He looks a little suspicious.
I don’t really want to say anything, I don’t want to tell them what I’m going to do. I hand him the Ace of Spades and say, “Good-bye,” and I walk away. I hope they’ll be happy together.
I see my friend Jake at his locker and give him the lock-picking set. “Use them wisely,” I say, and head toward the bus.
Laura walks with me down D hall. She says, “Hey, I heard you set that fire in gym class.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to set myself on fire.” She stops at her locker, and I keep walking.

On the bus ride home, I sit by myself. I lean my head against the cold glass window and try not to think about all the stupid things I’ve done, all the bad things I’ve done, and all the pain I’ve caused everyone.

My brother is playing basketball outside the house when I get home. He’s shooting free throws.
I rebound the ball for him and throw it back. I don’t want to take any shots. I tell him the whole story, about what I did and what they’re going to do to me. I don’t tell him what I’m going to do to myself.
When I’m done talking, he says, “That sucks,” and I go inside the house. I don’t have to write a note anymore. Craig knows everything.
I walk out to the shed to get the gas can. I bring it inside to the bathroom at the top of the stairs because that’s the room with the most locks. I go back downstairs and get the matches from the kitchen.

I take off all my clothes and put on the pair of red boxers with glow-in-the-dark lips that my mom bought for me at the mall last weekend. I bring my bathrobe into the shower and I pour the gasoline all over it. The gas can is only about a quarter full, but it seems like enough.
I step into the bathtub and I put the bathrobe over my shoulders. It’s wet and heavy, but there’s something kind of comforting about the smell, like going on a long car trip. I hold the box of matches out in front of me in my left hand.
I take out a strike-anywhere match and hold it against the box.
Should I do it?
Yes. Do it.
I strike the match, but it doesn’t light. Try again.
I light the match. Nothing happens. I bring it closer to my wrist and then it goes up, all over me, eating through me everywhere. I can’t breathe. I’m screaming, “Craig! Craig!”
I fall down. I’m going to die. I’m going to find out what death is like. I’m going to know. But nothing’s happening.
This hurts too much. I need to stop it. I need to get up. I stand. I don’t know how I stand, but I do, and I turn on the shower. I’m breathing water and smoke. I unlock the door and open it. My hand is all black. I walk out. There’s Craig with Rusty, our dog, next to him. They have the same expression on their faces.
Craig yells something and runs downstairs. I think he’s calling 911. I’m following him. He hands me the phone and runs off. There’s a woman on the phone asking me questions. I try to tell her what’s happened, but my voice sounds choked and brittle. There’s something wrong with my voice.
The woman on the phone says the fire trucks and ambulances are on their way. Somehow she knows my address. Craig is gone now, gone to get Mom, and Rusty is hiding somewhere. Smoke is coming from the bathroom upstairs and I can see that the whole room has turned black. I look down and see my flesh is charred and flaking and the glow-in-the-dark boxer shorts are burnt into my skin.
The woman on the phone says everything is going to be all right, and I believe her. She has a nice voice. She keeps asking me if I’m still on fire and I say, “I don’t think so.”
I’m walking around the kitchen, waiting for the ambulance to come. I can see my reflection in the microwave. Where’s my hair? Where did my hair go? Is that my face?
We used to put marshmallows in the microwave. We used to watch them get bigger and bigger and then shrink down.
“Oh God, just tell them to get here, just tell them to get here, okay?”
She says, “It’s okay. They’re coming. They’re almost there.”
“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay, that’s okay.”
I can hear the sirens in the distance now.
I say, “I want to lie down. I’m going to lie down.” It hurts to talk. I think there’s something wrong in my throat.
“You can’t lie down.”
“But I have to.”
“Okay, you can lie down.”
The men are here. The firemen are here. They’re putting me on a plastic sheet. They say I’m going to be okay. One of them puts something over my face. That feels good. That feels so good. The cold air feels so good going into my lungs.
What are they talking about? What are they saying? They’re giving me a shot. They say it’s going to make the pain go away. Make the pain go away.
I’m looking at the faces of all the men who are gathered around me. Their eyes are so blue and so clear.
I turn my head and see Craig in the front hall. He’s yelling and punching the walls. He’s angry.
And my mom is here, and she’s smiling and saying she loves me, and her eyes, which are green like my eyes, are the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

Reading Group Guide

The Burn Journals describes a particular kind of youthful male desolation better than it has ever been described before, by anyone.” –Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon

The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading and discussion of Brent Runyon’s The Burn Journals, the provocative, raw, and unsparing account of Runyon’s long journey back to teenage life after a botched suicide attempt leaves him physically and emotionally shattered.

1. This memoir is unique in that Runyon chooses not to annotate his account from an adult perspective but rather to let his fourteen-year-old voice stand alone. How does this lack of analysis and retrospective insight shape the narrative? What effect does the detached, primitive, sometimes belligerent nature of this teenage voice have on the story?

2. Brent’s description of his mother’s eyes moments after the disaster–“her eyes . . . are the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen” [p. 18]–echoes studies on newborns’ reactions to their mothers’ eyes moments after birth. To what extent is Brent’s suicide an attempt to revert to an infantile state in which he will be unconditionally loved? Are all suicides overtures toward rebirth?

3. How does Brent’s nebulous adolescent understanding of his own sexuality play into his depression? Do his thwarted attempts at intimacy with women and girls read as comical or disturbing? Does he mature in this area over the course of the memoir?

4. Brent recounts several episodes that seem to suggest a lack of sensitivity on the part of his parents to his violent tendencies, even after his release from rehab. In one, his father employs Brent’s reluctant help in bludgeoning a possum to death. In another, his father buys Brent boxing gloves and allows Brent to knock him to the ground. In a third, Brent ponders his childhood practice of mutilating toys, a habit obviously unnoticed by his parents: “Poor Papa Smurf. . . . Sometimes we used to light a can of Lysol and spray him with fire. . . . We also tore the arms off of Cobra Commander and put his head in a vise. We took Duke, from G.I. Joe, and twisted him around until his spine snapped. . . . And then we set them on fire too. Why did we do that?” [p. 288] Are these passages intended to impugn Brent’s parents on some level? Or are they meant simply to pinpoint Brent’s growing awareness of violence and its ramifications? Why do you think he includes them?

5. Brent struggles to find a means to articulate his sorrow and regret over the disaster to his family. Yet when presented with family therapy specifically tailored to facilitating this kind of dialogue, Brent becomes reticent, unyielding, and sarcastic. Why?

6. Brent writes of his burn treatments: “There are two kinds of people in this world. People that have to lie on their stomachs for ten days straight and people that don’t. And the lucky bastards that don’t have to lie on their stomachs for ten motherfucking days are the ones that get to skate through life like they have their own personal Zamboni smoothing the way for them” [p. 82]. How much responsibility does Brent accept for his injury? To what extent does he blame fate?

7. Brent’s mantra, “I hate myself,” continues well after the fire. How much of this can be attributed to the normal pains of adolescence? What are the signs that his self-loathing is abating or shifting by the time he returns to school?

8. Some of the memoir’s most excruciating dialogues occur in the context of psychological evaluation. In the presence of a family therapist, Brent has a bizarre argument with his mother over whether five or ten minutes of silence have passed [p. 136]. During a session with two psychologists, Brent accuses one of the doctors of saying “scarcastic” instead of “sarcastic” [p. 216]. Do these episodes suggest true madness, or does Brent purposefully warp his ostensible grasp on reality in order to get attention? What sort of agony do you think therapy sessions like those Brent describes can invoke for a teenage boy?

9. In Darkness Visible, his memoir of mental illness, William Styron writes, “Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self–to the mediating intellect–as to verge close to being beyond description. It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode.” Does The Burn Journals succeed in rendering Runyon’s depression comprehensible to readers? Is this book an appropriate cautionary or helpful tale for depressed teenagers to read?

10. One reviewer wrote of The Burn Journals: “[Brent] isn’t spared the sight of the pain felt by his family and friends, as he would have been had he died. In accepting the burden of the anguish he caused them, he finds healing and a new depth to his relationships” [“The Burn Journals A Gripping Must-Read” by Karyn Saemann, The Capital Times, November 5, 2004]. Is this an accurate assessment? If so, what evidence is there of Brent’s healing? Which relationships are deepened and renewed?

11. When Brent’s parents ask him if he is involved in the occult, Brent is overwhelmed and hurt by their ignorance of him. “They know nothing about me. Nothing at all. . . . Why don’t they love me? Why don’t they take care of me? Why don’t they act like I’m their son? . . . I can’t believe how little they know me” [p. 192]. Does Brent ever convey this sense of betrayal to them? Does this issue of misinterpretation reach a denouement?

12. When Brent is given permission to forgo his plastic face mask when he goes back to school, why does he hesitate?

13. Which of Brent’s caregivers makes the most lasting difference in his recovery process? Why?

14. The passages that describe Brent’s burn care routine in the hospital are graphic, even grisly. What role do they play in the memoir?

15. When a nurse suggests that Brent ought to be grateful for his lapses in memory after the fire, Brent’s mental response is, “I don’t want to forget anything. I don’t care if they are terrible memories. They’re mine” [p. 86]. To what extent is Brent’s journey out of darkness a process of reclamation? What societal forces could cause an upper-middle-class white teenager to feel disenfranchised or in need of reclaiming what is rightfully his?

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The Burn Journals 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 215 reviews.
Igordova More than 1 year ago
The Burn Journals by Brent Runyon was an incredible book. All 325 pages of the book were so important, they were bits of his life. This book is unique, I feel like it gives people an inside to what people with depression go through and how they deal with it. I really enjoyed that the author told it as it is, he didn't try and cover it with frosting. He told the true story and that takes a lot of courage. I don't think the author did anything to stray from the subject. I liked this book a lot, it opened up my eyes to I guess something that most people judge on, and I think it made me understand and be more open minded. I would say this book is appropriate for reading to people who are mature, it's not a light matter and you have to be ready for that. Parts of the book get a bit gruesome, so be prepared for that, but overall it's great!
Teresa Millmore More than 1 year ago
if anyone is struggling with their self confidence just reading this book made me realize how everyhing we live for is more than meets the eye. this great book covered every aspect and was a true eyeopener
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was on my nook under the heading "teen "angst". I had not seen that particular selection before and decided to check out tge selectiohs. I'm glad i did. This book is written in the first person and follows a teenage boy who tries to kill himself with fire. What a frightening thought! I can't imagine the pain of the fire and the pain of reliving it in the words written on these pages. As a mom, it scares me to think that such a thing is possible. That such a talented child would think that death was the only option. It was heartbreaking to feel the pain in Brent's words; to imagine the pain his parents suffered watching him go through recovery. My only reason for not giving this book 5 stars is because of the frequent f-bombs. This book was both easy to read and hard to read at the same time. Sad, scary.....impossible to put down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Burn Journals is an amazing read. Brent takes you through every emotion from extreme sadness and depression, and the desire to just be loved. The Burn Journals is heart wrenching,true,funny,and amazingly written!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I love this book! The Burn Journals is a very moving story about Brent, a fourteen year-old who tries to commit suicide by setting himself on fire. The book reveals what he was feeling before, during and after the incident. It also describes his recovery for the following year. Some of the details make me cringe, but they are important to the story because they help me understand what Brent had to endure. This story is fascinating because it is written from Brent¿s point of view. His comments make you realize that it could happen to almost anybody. Before the fire, nobody suspected that Brent was unhappy. He seemed like a completely normal teenager. This is why teachers and parents need to read this book: You can never know for sure how a person is feeling. Teenagers will love this book because it is a moving story about someone just like them.
Sierra_0001 More than 1 year ago
This book is a firsthand look into a teenage boy's head. There is a lot of thought and emotion put into this book, such as going through all the hospitals and theripists and puberty and the feeling of being left behind because of a bad "mistake". I would read this book again any day, and reccomend it to tons of people!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Brianna Elder January 28, 2016 Brown K- H9 Period 5 Fifteen year old Brent Runyon is a high school delinquent who causes much problems on his Middle School campus. One day he accidentally sets a locker on fire at gym, and decides to kill himself the same day. When he sets himself on fire in his own shower, he immediately regrets it and runs downstairs to his parents for help. When the ambulance arrives Runyon is diagnosed with third degree burns, and haves to go to a burn unit where he has to recover all his skin. Runyon takes the readers through his recovery emotionally and physically at the burn unit, and with his parents; meeting new people and facing new challenges. I don’t recommend this book, because it is very bland and doesn’t really give deep details on Runyon’s thoughts. It is a great story overall, but the way the author wrote it made many parts of the book awkward. On the other hand I do recommend that you should read the book, because it shows you the process of what it is like to heal in a burn unit. Runyon problems gives people an idea of what people face with after their whole life changing before them, and how they conquer it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I agree with u person under me. Im a seventh grader and i approve this message lol ^.^
KonekoVampire More than 1 year ago
I absolutely adore this book. I only have four top favorite books of all time, and this is one of them. It made me cry at some times, and I feel such a connection with the author. It amazes me how this is a true story, and Brent lived through all of that. This book made me think, because of all the emotion Brent poured into it, which is why I cried sometimes. I loved the writing style too. Deffinetly something to read. But it's NOT for younger readers. It's one of the most perverted, suicidal, and bad-word filled books I've ever read. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't read it.
BookwormShel More than 1 year ago
An absolute must-read that is gripping from page 1 to page 374. This book is packed with emotions and angst that apply to not only teens and adolescents but adults as well. The lessons Brent learns in the hospital and out of the hospital are applicable to many aspects of life. The Burn Journals is a true representation of what it's like to be depressed, and what it's like to realize how you've hurt other people. I highly recommend this book. And to the teacher who said the book is too mature for junior high-ers...this all happened to Brent Runyon as a junior high school student, so it's obviously not too mature.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I bought this not expecting much, but there was a difference in this book that seperated it from others- I realized that is was because this book is totally HONEST. I could relate to the emotions and I really felt like I was inside Runyon's head. This was a unique topic and I enjoyed it more than I have with many books- and I read a TON. I wouldn't pass this up.
taletreader on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I liked the book, I did. But. I found it hard to emotionally connect with. As a trauma survivor, I wanted something that expressed how psychologically demanding recovery can be and how the author got over it (I wanted a happy ending). What I found however, was a different story. I will say I'm glad I read the afterward, though, because Runyon himself says that basically, recovery didn't necessarily happen. I can relate to that. But he doesn't give us an answer into exactly what he was thinking--which I believe to be one of the best things for YA to read. The writing style is that stream of consciousness but at times, it feels like the author maybe didn't want to write exactly what he was thinking? For fear of being hailed as crazy, or scared to give others the same ideas, or maybe just not knowing exactly what he was feeling...I don't know. Either way, I think it's a good book for teenagers to read. I was extremely depressed when I first went to high school and I never had an exact reason as to why. Most books centered toward YA seem to have a specific reason. This one doesn't, and I think it made it easier to relate to. If you're expecting a "happy ending" though, this one may not be exactly what you're thinking or wishing for.
kaionvin on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Author chronicles his one year of recovery after he sets himself on fire in a suicide attempt in the eighth grade. What makes it work is that Runyon chooses to write it in the present tense- moment to moment. We are seeing his portraits of initial reactions, not a retconned 'message' or the rationalization we humans are so prone to adding.Self-destruction is never easy to understand, and Runyon lovingly recreates the disbelief and struggle of his family members around the edges of his internal struggles.Where it fails, I think, is in treading old cliche male coming-of-age ground. Girls, brothers, hot nurses... it seems like there would be more ground to follow in continuing the further exploration of his emotional recovery - to bring full circle the story- and to offer, finally, what insight time has unfolded.
callmecayce on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An extraordinarily moving book about a young man trying to come to terms with depression, first with attempted suicide and then with the aftermath. I also appreciated Runyon's afterward, giving us a glimpse into the live he's living now. Excellent.
Omrythea on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
When a teen (or anyone, for that matter) commits suicide the big question that everyone is left wondering is ¿Why?¿ In this autobiography, The Burn Journals, by Brent Runyon, we are given a rare glimpse into the mind of a teenager who survives a horrific suicide attempt. Short Plot Summary: In 1991, fourteen year old Brent Runyon is in a heap of trouble at school for lighting someone¿s gym locker on fire. Distressed by this and many other issues, he decides that the way to end this pain is to catch himself on fire so that he can¿t change his mind and save himself at the last minute. He ends up with third-degree burns over 85% of his body and a long, hard recovery¿both physically and mentally. The following passage shows Brent¿s thinking during the moments right his suicide attempt. The passage is shocking and honest and pulls the reader into Brent¿s world. "I walk out to the shed to get the gas can. I bring it inside to the bathroom at the top of the stairs because that¿s the room with the most locks. I go back downstairs and get the matches from the kitchen. I take off all my clothes and put on the pair of red boxers with glow-in-the-dark lips that my mom bought for me at the mall last weekend. I bring my bathrobe into the shower and I pour the gasoline all over it. The gas can is only about a quarter full, but it seems like enough.I step into the bathtub and I put the bathrobe over my shoulders. It¿s wet and heavy, but there¿s something kind of comforting about the smell, like going on a long car trip. I hold the box of matches out in front of me in my left hand. I take a strike-anywhere match and hold it against the box.Should I do it?Yes. Do it.I strike the match, but it doesn¿t light. Try again.I light the match. Nothing happens. I bring it closer to my wrist and then it goes up, all over me, eating through me everywhere. I can¿t breathe. I¿m screaming, ¿Craig! Craig!¿
emcnellis16 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
There were times that this book was difficult to read, simply because I have a fifteen-year old son. The teenage years are tough - I've been there. But, I hate to think that anyone could feel as hopeless as Brent Runyon did on that February afternoon.After the debrieding treatments, skin grafts, and surgeries, Runyon begins healing emotionally. When he is asked why he attempted suicide, he answers honestly, "I don't remember anything about myself back then." It's heartbreaking to think that those feelings that drove him to hurt himself were so transitory.Eventually Runyon makes it through rehab, the treatment center, and to high school. Once there, his friends welcome him with open arms. At this point, any thoughts of suicide seem far away. However, Runyon points out that the depression that haunted him as a fourteen-year old does return. As an adult, he realizes that he must ask for help. He is now in therapy, taking medication, and living a productive life.Runyon's voice come through very clearly in this memoir - one of the main reason I enjoyed this book so much. His style is clear, honest, and no-nonsense. He tackles the difficult topics of self-worth, sexual activity, pain, and uncertainty - all without playing the victim.I would highly recommend this book for older teens. The lessons Runyon has to teach are vital - and often not discussed.
Djupstrom on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
One of the most haunting and real memoirs I have ever read. A great teaching story for high school aged kids.
WittyreaderLI on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book was an amazing page turner. Meet Brent Runyon, a 14 year old who decides to kill himself one day by setting his entire body on fire. But he survives. Brent takes you through his journey to recovery, both mentally and physically. He teaches the importance of communication and the value of family. This book was extremely moving and made me pleased to have obtained a copy of it. I have been extremely happy as of late; the last 3 books I read were all excellent!
NWADEL on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is about a teenage boy (the author) who is depressed and tries to commit suicide by lighting his robe on fire. He goes into detail about how he feels during the fire and after. He tells about his time in the hospital, how he feels about his suicide and the impact it had on his family. Despite the very seriousness of the subject he adds in some lightness and joking which makes it a very interesting read. There is some profanity and sexual talk.
mzonderm on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It takes a lot of courage to write a book like this. Most people can not write so openly and honestly about their feelings, especially when they know they've done something to grievously hurt their family. But Brent Runyon can, and does.As an eighth grader, Brent set fire to himself in a suicide attempt. He suffered sever burns over 85% of his body, but, obviously, did not die. Brent's story takes us from the events immediately preceding his attempt and through the many months of his recovery.Much of the narrative is taken up with the details and routines that anyone suffering such severe burns must endure, no matter how they occurred. But in Brent's case there is the ever-present knowledge that he brought this on himself.Although I wish we could have learned more about why Brent attempted suicide in the first place, he says very plainly (through recounted sessions with assorted psychologists) that he doesn't really know why he did it, can't remember what could have made him so sad and desperate, and certainly isn't going to do anything like it again. A cautionary tale indeed for any teens thinking of committing suicide.
JLCasanova on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book tells the story of a boy who attempted suicide by lighting himself on fire. It tells of the painful process he must undergo to heal his physical wounds, as well as the mental therapy he must go through too. This book is based on actual events that the author, Brent Runyon has experienced. While I am sure there are many people who will find this book interesting and not want to put it down, I found it very difficult to read. Many parts were too descriptive in explaining the treatment that was given to his skin. There were also numerous curse words and a few other topics that would only be appropriate for mature students. While this book does a great job of painting a true picture of what a person may experience when suffering burns or attempting suicide, this would not be a book that I would recommend for teachers to use in their lessons. While this book would be an acceptable book for the library, it is not a book for everyone and would not be a good book for mandatory reading. This book does not contain any pictures and is written in the form of a journal. The reading level is not very difficult, but because of the subject matter it is best suited for older and more mature students.
meggyweg on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
When Brent Runyon was 14 years old, he deliberately set himself on fire. He survived despite being burned over 85% of his body, and spent months in recovery and therapy. I found this book a disappointment. The details about the burn recovery were interesting, but Runyon never really explained why he tried to commit suicide or how he recovered his mental health. People seeking to learn about depression and suicide would do well to look elsewhere.
fromula on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is an absolutely devestating, and in the end viscerally refreshing, anatomy of a suicide. The author writes with so much honestly and openness, with a level of clarity and bravery that few people acheive. For me, it answered the question "What were they thinking?"
mattsya on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This true tale is extremely moving and funny. Runyon leaves nothing unsaid in this honest and open memoir, He is neither a great hero overcoming odds, nor a tragic victim of depression. The book is longer than most others in this database, but the narrative is entertaining and fast moving, even through the most difficult, emotional parts.
4sarad on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was one of the hardest books I've ever read. It was so difficult reading about him lighting himself on fire and all of the pain and surgeries he had to go through afterwards. Very disturbing. The ending of the book seemed to drag on as he brought up things and events that didn't seem relevant, but still a good read.