Book review: ‘A Walk in the Woods’ by Bill Bryson

A Walk in the WoodsBill Bryson thinks he knows what to expect when he embarks on a journey to hike the Appalachian Trail — some 2,000 miles, stretching from Georgia to Maine. He knows about the wildlife, the heat, the inevitable exhaustion. He’s aware of the dangers posed by being alone in isolated areas, as well as the potential medical risks. But he’s also in need of something . . . reflection, reconnection, fresh challenges. And in the company of Katz, an old friend, Bryson sets off on a life-changing adventure.

First published in 1998, Billy Bryson’s seminal A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail is a book I’ve had on my radar for ages — but one I wasn’t eager to pick up. Surprisingly, I had once convinced myself I wasn’t “into” non-fiction, preferring Jane Austen or Emily Giffin to someone like Bryson, but that started to evolve years ago. After loving Cheryl Strayed’s Wild last fall, Bryson’s name kept popping up as a recommendation.

And so at the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite National Park, where it’s literally impossible not to be awed by nature, I picked up a copy of A Walk in the Woods to keep me company on our plane ride home.

Excellent choice.

Appalachian Trail by Frank Kehren

Appalachian Trail by Frank Kehren, via Flickr

Known colloquially as the bestselling “bear book” in my family, Bryson’s saga of attempting to hike the entirety of the Appalachian Trial — or the A.T. — is a wonderful one. Filled with just enough history and facts to make the story both informative and entertaining, the trademark Bryson wit and style I’ve heard so many describe are on full display.

Bryson never claims to be a great hiker . . . and in fact, he begins his journey a middle-aged man carrying extra weight and more than a little trepidation. Though American, Bryson has spent 20 years in England — and walking the A.T. seems like a great chance to reconnect with his homeland after returning to the U.S. with his family. He’s not afraid to make fun of himself, and he’s certainly not embarrassed to admit his doubts. Bill knows he doesn’t have all the answers and he’s made mistakes, and that’s what makes him such an enjoyable — and trustworthy — narrator.

Bill’s friend Stephen Katz provides much — but certainly not all — of the comic relief in the story, occasionally dragging Bill down but often propelling him forward. Though his identity has come into question in the years since publication, he was a thoughtful friend (and occasional foil) during their joint trek. The story without Katz wouldn’t have been nearly as compelling, and certainly not as funny.

There are blisters. There are bugs. There are hungry days and lonely nights and sweat, sweat, sweat. The driving force of A Walk in the Woodswill they make it? can they really do this? — kept me turning the pages, and it was absolutely the perfect story to read coming back from a national park.

Does the story stand the test of time? Sixteen years have passed since publication, and even longer since the journey itself occurred. Aside from obvious technological changes (finding pay phones in small towns, say, and no mention of the Internet), A Walk in the Woods is pretty evergreen (pun quite intended). Taking a walk then is similar to taking a walk now, though routes can now be carefully planned online or with the help of a GPS in the wild, maybe. Such features weren’t available then.

I breezed through this book in a few hours, wanting so much to stretch my time with two friends on the A.T. Though I’m not outdoorsy in the least, I couldn’t help but finish wanting to dive into the woods myself. Bryson’s enthusiasm for nature is completely contagious. And even if the travel bug bit me long ago, I finished his tale with the overwhelming feeling that there are so many lessons — so much to see — out in our beautiful world.

Thanks, Bill.

4.5 out of 5!

Pub: 1998 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

Non-fiction to take you away (even if you want to stay put)


With heat pulling my tender strands into frizzy curls already, it’s high time we talk about summer reading.

As a kid, I was the book geek already tearing through her assigned books before the current school year was over. I have fond memories of Dad taking my sister and me to Crown Books, the bookstore that sat where a Panera now resides, to thumb through their children’s and young adult section for the classics. We spent hours wandering the aisles — the first place I remember my parents giving us a tiny bit of independence. (Don’t worry: they were just around the corner, Dad in sports and Mom usually in magazines.)

I miss summer reading. That might be why I love reading review copies: it feels like I’m back in my English program in college, perhaps? With a stack of books I must read? At heart, I can be fairly indecisive about novels — and it often helps if I’m on a schedule. Who doesn’t benefit from a good deadline now and then?

I’ll admit that, you know, going rogue with my reading was definitely exciting post-college; I loved choosing books at random, especially when I worked at Borders, because it felt almost . . . illicit. After being handed a syllabus for so many years, doing what I wanted was exhilarating.

Now I’m tired and often cranky and don’t know what I want. I want someone to tell me what I want. Isn’t it funny how that works?

Anyway. Summer reading. Traveling! Adventure! With no one telling you what you must read, here I go giving you a list of sorts. But it’s a short one. Whether you’re readying for a plane ride or staying perched in your air-conditioned living room through September, don’t we all love a little escape through reading?

Flip-flops and sunscreen optional.

Awesome Non-Fiction
That Takes You Away
(Even If You Want to Stay Put)

Paris LettersParis Letters by Janice MacLeod — Bored by a humdrum advertising gig, Janice scrimps and saves enough to leave her desk job and book a flight for Europe. Falling hopelessly in love with Paris wasn’t part of her plan — and this artist’s journey was just beginning. Enchanting, romantic and fun, I’ve thought of this story often since finishing in the winter. It’s the perfect book in which to lose yourself — and live vicariously through another. (And then you can check out her blog to continue the fun.)

Walk in the WoodsA Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson — Though I’m late to the Bryson fan club, he certainly has a new member. I inhaled most of this book coming back from California and wanted to don hiking boots by the time we touched down. The story of Bryson’s epic journey hiking the Appalachian Trail, A Walk in the Woods manages to weave history, environmental issues and self-discovery into one moving, humorous package. Bryson’s language is evocative; you can almost feel the mosquitoes. (Better him than us.) Full review of this one to come once I’ve collected my thoughts!

The Lost GirlsThe Lost Girls by Jennifer Baggett, Holly Corbett and Amanda Pressner — All at a crossroads, three friends climb off the corporate ladder to go and explore the world. Their year-long journey takes them to Brazil, Kenya, Australia and more, and their story of friendship and living for today was inspirational. A heavy dose of armchair travel with this one: you’re all over the place!

Bank of BobThe International Bank of Bob by Bob Harris — Featured in my reading honors for 2013, Harris’ account of traveling to meet those he has assisted with microfinance loans bears mentioning again. A travel writer, Harris has an open mind when he begins making $25 loans through — and his story is heartwarming without drifting into condescension. Funds are paid back by small business owners: hardworking men and women whose lives are changed forever by the money Harris once spent on coffee. We journey with him to Nepal and Morocco, Cambodia and India. The lessons reach far beyond the page.

Any favorite travel reads to recommend?
Just summer books you love?

Book review: ‘Paris Letters’ by Janice MacLeod

Paris LettersIf ever there were a book I’d love to climb inside, an author through whom I could live vicariously, it’s Janice MacLeod. And Paris Letters.

After climbing the metaphorical advertising ladder in Los Angeles, Janice realizes her “dream job” — and dream life — aren’t quite what she imagined. Worn out by her 9-to-5 and dreaming of so much more than a dull commute and another birthday cake for a coworker, she begins to fantasize about a life beyond the square walls of her office. Encouraged to journal her thoughts and think about something more, a question rises to the surface: How much money does it take to change your life?

The answer is roughly 60K, actually — enough to quit her job, sell most of her worldly possessions and leave California for a walkabout in Europe. By scrimping wherever possible, she amasses enough to arrive in Paris and walk sip creamy lattes in the sidewalk cafes just as she imagined. Though she speaks no French, her arrival in the City of Light isn’t burdened by language barriers. She soon meets Christophe, a handsome butcher, and begins her French education rather romantically.

When she considered her talents back in America, one passion kept returning to her: art. Painting. With the time and freedom to now explore those dreams, she sets to work cultivating and fashioning an entirely new life for herself. And the results are pretty extraordinary.

Oh, friends. How to describe my love for Paris Letters? Picture me in my pajamas sipping coffee on a snowy day, imagining what it must feel like to step off a plane with only a tiny suitcase in a foreign city — unburdened, untethered, totally free. Though I love my own work, I know the constraints of a desk job all too well. The idea of abandoning it all to chase your passions — in Paris! — holds an allure I can’t deny.

For Janice, shedding her old skin and finding love in France is revelatory. Who among us can’t relate to holding that holy grail of professional accomplishment — that “I did it!” cup declaring you finally met a longstanding goal — only to realize . . . you’re not happy? It isn’t what you wanted after all? If the joy is in the journey, reaching the end of that journey — job stability; boring routines — isn’t actually so joyous in the end.

And that’s okay.

Janice’s experiences in Europe are absolutely enchanting — and I’m going to be honest here. It’s been a long time since I read a Paris- or London-themed book that didn’t make me green and rage-y with jealousy. Usually when I read a memoir about an American/Canadian upending their lives to eat macarons, write and paint abroad with a seemingly unending pile of cash, I think, Oh, golly — must be freakin’ nice.

Snidely. Like, in a really mean voice.

But here? All I felt about Janice’s story was complete enchantment. She’s down-to-earth, friendly, funny, interesting. Writing honestly about both her feelings on leaving behind her old life and the stress of beginning a new one (and with a new man), I bonded with Janice immediately — and that’s all to say nothing of her actual Paris letters, which she paints, writes and addresses to subscribers through Etsy. When I finished Paris Letters, I made a mad scramble to see if her work is still available online — and it is! My first letter is en route.

If you need me, I’ll be lingering around my mailbox.

4.5 out of 5!

Pub: Feb. 4, 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

P.S. As Janice works to save enough cash to explore her wanderlust abroad, she makes many financial sacrifices and decisions (both big, like selling her car, and small). I was thrilled to see some of her tips at the end of the book! A few of my easily-attainable favorites:

1. Used up her beauty samples and creams that were just “so-so” before buying her favorites.
2. Stopped buying things just because they were on sale and a “good deal.”
3. Stopped buying decorative things for her apartment.
4. Invited friends out for hikes, coffee, or frozen yogurt, rather than wait until they invited her to pricey dinners.
5. Drank all the tea in her house before buying more. (And hey, sound familiar?)
6. Had car-free weekends, using her bike instead and saving gas. (Not feasible for all, but an interesting idea.)
7. Said no to dinners at restaurants, choosing to cook at home instead.
8. Did her own nails with already-purchased nail polish.
9. Got a cheaper phone plan — and a cheaper phone.
10. Stopped believing in storage solutions. The solution is to clean out closets.

Book review: ‘My Korean Deli’ by Ben Ryder Howe

My Korean DeliWhen Ben Ryder Howe’s Korean-American wife suggests purchasing a deli as an investment — and means of employment — for her hardworking immigrant parents, he’s not as horrified at the idea of plopping his savings into the Brooklyn establishment as you might think.

An editor at The Paris Review by day and exhausted store clerk by night, Howe sets about making his wife and in-laws happy — which translates to long hours with oddball characters at their family business. The store flounders from the very beginning, creating tension as Gab and Ben move into her parents’ basement, but they must come together to find a way through.

My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store was just the sort of random story I love discovering at the library. What I found was this memoir that was, by turns, hilarious and heartbreaking and maybe a little condescending — sometimes many things at once. But what it definitely was? Fun. And insightful.

Depending on the type of reader you are (and the humor you enjoy), I could see how Ben’s attitude and general demeanor could come across as holier-than-thou and annoying. As a well-to-do white man who marries a first-generation Korean-American, there are stark differences between his culture and that of his extended family. Much of the humor stems from misunderstandings between Ben and his mother-in-law, a woman who barely sits still, and just the idea of a condescending editor slicing deli meat after work is pretty hilarious.

In fact, most of the humor came from picturing uptight, sophisticated Ben doing the tasks associated with running a convenience store: getting yelled at by drunk customers; unloading heavy shipments of merchandise; trying to figure out the fearful lottery machine. He just comes across as such a well-meaning snob — but a snob all the same — that you can’t help but laugh at his antics . . . and that’s what I liked about My Korean Deli: I don’t think Ben takes himself that seriously.

I mean, he likes his job at the Review — most of the time. And he prides himself on his literary bent and knowledge. But does he think he’s “too good” to work at the store? Too important to mop floors or befriend his coworkers, especially the always-hilarious Dwayne? Absolutely not. And that’s what made this such a fun read.

Nothing major happens in My Korean Deli . . . the Pak family buys the store, they pour themselves into its upkeep, they ultimately face great struggles. But it’s as entertaining as a tale of running a family business as it is a glimpse into the life of a literary magazine, too: Paris Review editor George Plimpton plays a major role in the narrative as Ben’s boss and friend, and those behind-the-scenes looks were interesting to a book nerd like me.

Overall, it was just a story I really enjoyed . . . for no reason other than it was enjoyable. You know what I mean? It didn’t change my life, but it was memorable and rather touching, actually. If you’re a fan of memoirs, non-fiction or tales of the American Dream, My Korean Deli is a good time.

3.5 out of 5!

Pub: March 1, 2011 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Bio
Audio copy borrowed from my local library

Book review: ‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed

WildI read Wild when I was feeling wild myself.

Isn’t it funny how that often works? A book seems to find you at precisely the point when its pages would bear something you really need to know.

For me, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of embarking solo to hike the Pacific Crest Trail so topical and enthralling . . . though I listened to the audio nonstop the weekend I moved to Spencer’s, feeling a little bit lost and anxious and uncertain. With Strayed’s soul sprawled bare on the pages, I felt like a warrior alongside her — a compatriot, a comrade. We were in this together.

Whatever “this” happened to be — for her, for me.

For Strayed, it was battling through grief after her mother is quickly taken from cancer. At 24, she’s very recently divorced, a recovering addict — a broken young woman wondering what and where her next move will take her.

On a whim waiting in line one day, she picks up a book that will change her life: The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California. Orphaned and bereft, the idea of leaving it all to hike is pretty appealing. She sells most of her possessions, buys a pack she will affectionately dub “Monster,” creates care packages to be delivered to herself at various post offices along the PCT and sets off.

The adventure is just beginning.

Before I randomly picked up Wild at the library after reading a post from Kim, I had no experience with Strayed. She’s the voice behind Dear Sugar, a popular online advice column — and reading through her backlog is pretty stunning. Many of her essays were recently compiled into Tiny Beautiful Things (and I plan to look for that soon).

PCTSo I came into Strayed’s memoir clean. No preconceived notions; no real plans or expectations. And while Wild could be a bit meandering at points, unruly and fierce but occasionally tedious, I really fell in love with the story. I fell in love with Cheryl, so crazed and raw and unsteady on her feet.

Because who hasn’t felt that way? Who hasn’t dreamed of chucking it all, selling off our crap and taking to the woods? I certainly have — and trust that I’m no nature girl. But the idea of living on the land, breathing the fresh air, wandering free with no plans or expectations save finding a clean water source (an important mission) . . . well, it really appeals to me on some deep, visceral level. The same way that traveling the world to “find ourselves” has become so synonymous with Eat, Pray, Love, you know?

The PCT itself is a central character in Strayed’s story, threatening to freeze her to death in one moment while barbequing her alive in the next. All told, Strayed hikes from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State, stopping along the way to chat with new friends, pine for Snapple, bum a meal from a kindly shopkeeper or bandage her damaged feet. Before she sets off to California, she has no real hiking experience; she’s an everyday person, a “regular” woman, and Cheryl wants only to stay one step ahead of her demons.

More than anything, Wild is a walk through grief. Her mother’s death changes everything. Nothing feels certain; everything is a gamble, a mess. And though Strayed takes this journey in 1995, the pain and confusion still feel very much on the surface. Because of this, many passages were very hard to get through.

There were places Cheryl walked that I couldn’t follow. The brutal final days at her mother’s side; the sickness of a beloved horse. A cold and brutal winter that finds her having to make an awful, terrifying decision. Strayed’s prose is so vivid, so gut-wrenching, that my stomach churned and my hands trembled until I had to move forward. I simply couldn’t take it.

It’s hard to capture in words the way this book made me feel. Perhaps because I was listening to it on audio, I was so lost in the woods with Cheryl that I felt bereft when our journey together was over. Though she doesn’t have that one major epiphany we expect from a memoir like this (and perhaps that’s a good thing), her transformation en route to Portland is sincere. Physically, she’s lean and muscular and bitten and bruised; emotionally, she’s fragile but stronger every day. Though nothing truly terrible befalls her, she has a few frightening experiences but lives to tell the tale.

And lives well. Strayed is now a New York Times bestselling author, a wife, a mother. A film adaptation of Wild starring Reese Witherspoon is in the works. She’s come a long way from the frightened but determined twenty-something taking on the PCT . . . and I feel fortunate to have found her.

Highly recommended to fans of memoirs, transformational or inspirational stories, or anyone looking for a riveting non-fic read. Wild is a truly memorable experience.

4.5 out of 5!

Pub: March 20, 2012 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio copy borrowed from my local library

Book review: ‘Very Recent History’ by Choire Sicha

Very Recent HistoryThis is a strange story told in an unusual way.

Good strange? Bad strange? Or just strange strange?

Well. I’m still not sure.

So Choire Sicha has penned Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City, which is a true-life exploration of the life of John and his group of friends. Described as “an idiosyncratic and elegant narrative” by the publisher, Sicha’s writing style is so unique — like we’re all animals behind glass, analyzed and explained and broken into pieces — that it took me a while to engage with the text. Everything just felt so clinical.

I’m struggling to articulate what this book is about — or even centering on — without assistance, so let’s pop in the publisher’s summary, shall we?

“What will the future make of us?

After the Wall Street crash of 2008, the richest man in town is the mayor. Billionaires shed apartments like last season’s fashions, even as the country’s economy turns inside out. The young and careless go on as they always have, getting laid and getting laid off, falling in and out of love, and trying to navigate the strange world they traffic in: the Internet, complex financial markets, credit cards, pop stars, micro-plane cheese graters, and sex apps.

A true-life fable of money, sex, and politics, Choire Sicha’s Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City turns our focus to a year in the life of a great city.”

Very Recent History assumes we are aliens (or maybe humans?) from a century or so in the future (or longer?), where we’re examining young men in an American economy grappling with the early tentacles of a recession. As we’re not too far removed from economic collapse at the present moment, it was interesting to read a narrative detailing something you just lived through. Though the titular City is never named, it’s clearly New York — and we don’t have to live in New York to feel where Sicha is coming from. His writing is descriptive and very readable.

But before we get any deeper, you have to understand what a unique reading experience this. A Goodreads reviewer described its style as “anthropological,” and it’s such a precise and perfect description that I have to borrow it myself. Sicha lets readers into the world of John and New York as a whole without judgment, merely presenting the facts. The best way to understand what I mean is, I hope, through Sicha’s own snippets:

“The idea of a distinct unit of money was, at that time, a little more than 5,000 years old, as near as could be told. … So for a long time, money had been an object that promised a value, such as a piece of paper that said, with words, that it conveyed a certain amount. … Where there was money, some would hoard it. Some would never get much of it. Some who had much of it would use it to get more. This was a sensible reaction to there being money.”

“John worked, as did many people in the City, in the office of a corporate entity that was privately owned. Some companies were owned ‘publicly.’ This meant that, to one extent or another, individuals or companies could buy ‘shares’ — little pieces — in the company and therefore become its owner, or one of its many owners. … Some of these companies were profitable — earning more than they spent. This one was not.”

“Sex was a very unsatisfying practice at this time, considered animal and messy, and also dangerous. It had been dangerous for a long time, but now most nonlethal diseases were treatable, and also women could largely control whether they became pregnant. Pregnancy was the most lethal byproduct of sex.”

“All told, at the end of this year, John’s debt added up to about 15,000 dollars for college, 40,000 for professional school and about 14,000 in credit card debt during school, almost 70,000 dollars all in, a small percentage of which was paid down. Who could even begin to start worrying about a thing like this? That was what desk drawers were for.”

Despite the fact that I regularly enjoy literary fiction, I found Very Recent History to be a slog — for me. It’s funny because, as a reader, I can clearly see why others would enjoy this story . . . and can’t deny its power and relevance. It felt fresh and current, but I just knew rather quickly that it wouldn’t be a winner for me. I want to be savvy and high-brow enough to enjoy such a book, but I just felt so removed. Emotionally, physically. I never bonded with John, never took to his cobbled-together group of friends and coworkers. I just . . . didn’t quite get it.

I commend Sicha for coming up with an innovative work and appreciated his grander message: examining our present lives and culture long enough to wonder, “Is this worth it?” The Mayor plays a significant role in the work, too, working to make us question the role of government, power and leadership, but it was all just . . . over my head. While I didn’t feel cool enough for Very Recent History, I hope it lands with the right reader. Maybe it’s you.

3 out of 5!

Pub: August 6, 2013 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

The books I hadn’t read

Book I have not readOne of the best parts of blogging — and blogging books, especially — has been expanding my reading horizons to include all sorts of stories I wouldn’t “normally” read. Once subsisting on a diet of only chick lit and young adult, friends’ reviews of all sorts of books have really pushed me to grow as a reader . . . and a person.

As Kim enjoys a well-deserved vacation, I’m guest-posting today over at Sophisticated Dorkiness on female-driven memoirs that make really great stories. Once upon a time, wrinkled-nose Meg was afraid to branch into non-fiction because so much of what I’d been exposed to could be easily classified as mind-numbingly boring. Giving memoirs a chance as an adult has changed all that.

Pop over and check out the post — and happy Monday!