Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

12262741Blurb:

At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life: to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State—and to do it alone. She had no experience as a long-distance hiker, and the trail was little more than “an idea, vague and outlandish and full of promise.” But it was a promise of piecing back together a life that had come undone.

Strayed faces down rattlesnakes and black bears, intense heat and record snowfalls, and both the beauty and loneliness of the trail. Told with great suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild vividly captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.

Review:

For someone who only walks to work and back home, to the grocery store then back home, to a friend’s place and once again back home, I really do love books about people hiking thousands of miles in the wilderness. Where a friend is someone you happen to pass on the trail, the grocery store is whatever dried food you can carry on your back, and home is nothing more than a tent perched on bumpy tree roots. I enjoyed Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, a more academic yet still autobiographical account of his months-long jaunt along the Appalachian Trail. In Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, she recounts her adventure along the Pacific Crest Trail but in an altogether more emotive fashion. Her story is less guidebook or school report and more so the confessions of the innermost pieces of her soul, a highly polished personal journal of sorts.

That’s why sometimes it can, unfortunately, read like a literary afterschool special that warns not against the dangers of bullying or taking candy from strangers but the dangers of doing too much heroin after your mother dies tragically young or, um, deciding to hike a 2,000 mile trail through deserts and mountains with no preparation. I say afterschool special because that’s what Strayed’s style occasionally reminded me of. U-rah-rah-ing alongside self-evident morals and platitudes. But I hesitate to excessively fault her for this because that’s what recovering from depression requires: indomitable positivity cloaked with endless truisms. Clichés are, after all, cliché because they are so universally true.

But what I’m really here for in Wild (or any book describing a feat of human physical and mental strength, honestly…) is the triumph of the human spirit. In my daily life there are very few things, if any, that are truly hard. Backbreaking or braincrushing. So I find stories where people choose to flee from their comforts for a life that is decidedly uncomfortable hypnotic and intoxicating. I brim with questions and pride and awe. People often expostulate about the transformative power of reading but I found Wild transportative. For a few hours I left my living radius of 5 city blocks for a snow covered ridge in the Sierra Nevada or a solemn forest of trees standing like sentinels. It was a nice trip.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

24Blurb: Every time Bill Bryson walks out the door, memorable travel literature threatens to break out. His previous excursion along the Appalachian Trail resulted in the sublime national bestseller A Walk in the Woods. In A Sunburned Country is his report on what he found in an entirely different place: Australia, the country that doubles as a continent, and a place with the friendliest inhabitants, the hottest, driest weather, and the most peculiar and lethal wildlife to be found on the planet. The result is a deliciously funny, fact-filled, and adventurous performance by a writer who combines humor, wonder, and unflagging curiousity.

Despite the fact that Australia harbors more things that can kill you in extremely nasty ways than anywhere else, including sharks, crocodiles, snakes, even riptides and deserts, Bill Bryson adores the place, and he takes his readers on a rollicking ride far beyond that beaten tourist path. Wherever he goes he finds Australians who are cheerful, extroverted, and unfailingly obliging, and these beaming products of land with clean, safe cities, cold beer, and constant sunshine fill the pages of this wonderful book. Australia is an immense and fortunate land, and it has found in Bill Bryson its perfect guide.

Review: Bryson himself admits that he has no other goal in writing this book than to show everyone that Australia is strangely awesome. And how strangely awesome it is. A short list of wonderful things I learned:

1. the Aborigine people have the oldest culture on Earth, probably dating to at least 40,000 years. They crossed the sea to Australia using god-knows what maritime technology at a time when Neanderthals still existed. Yet no one remembers this remarkable accomplishment. Indeed, not remembering the Aborigines is an Australian pastime and a dark spot on their otherwise congenial culture.

2. the flora and fauna found there are abundant and diverse. Stromatolites, platypi, “only” fourteen species of venomous snakes, cute and cuddly wallabies, and tons of species that will likely never be recorded because…

3. Australia is HUGE. Astoundingly large. And in addition to being a hulking continent/country/island hybrid land mass, it is empty. An immense void in the Pacific.

4. many explorers have gotten lost in the Outback, and desperately thirsty, have deigned to drink their own urine and the urine of their companions. Important lesson for any potential explorers: the salt in the urine will actually exacerbate your thirst.

5. Australia is the least wooded continent aside from Antarctica yet it is the world’s largest exporter of woodchips.

Being a Bryson book, it has hilarious moments. I envy this man’s ability to collect the most ridiculous true stories and encounter the most interesting real people. I have so many highlighted bits, but here’s a funny paragraph where Bryson, obsessed with the plethora of lethal creatures out to kill him in Oz, discusses the Australians’ attitudes toward them:

Australians are very unfair in this way. They spend half of any conversation insisting that the country’s dangers are vastly overrated and that there’s nothing to worry about, and the other half telling you how six months ago their Uncle Bob was driving to Mudgee when a tiger snake slid out from under the dashboard and bit him on the groin, but that it’s okay now because he’s off the life support machine and they’ve discovered he can communicate with eye blinks.

Reading one of Bill Bryson’s travelogues is always a fantastic time. You laugh, you learn, you marvel. He stuffs your head with useless trivia and reminds you how valuable our world and our fellow people are. I need to stop reading his books because I always finish and make haste to airline sites, researching plane prices for impossible journeys, adding another place to my lengthy Must-See-Before-Dead list. But I can’t stop. He’s perfect at what he does.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson

9791Blurb:

The Appalachian Trail trail stretches from Georgia to Maine and covers some of the most breathtaking terrain in America–majestic mountains, silent forests, sparking lakes. If you’re going to take a hike, it’s probably the place to go. And Bill Bryson is surely the most entertaing guide you’ll find. He introduces us to the history and ecology of the trail and to some of the other hardy (or just foolhardy) folks he meets along the way–and a couple of bears. Already a classic, A Walk in the Woods will make you long for the great outdoors (or at least a comfortable chair to sit and read in).

Review:

This is what I learned from my trimester of British Literature in high school: Don’t go in the woods.

My teacher legitimately held that statement as the thesis of the course. That speaks to the inadequacy of the American public school system, but that’s neither here nor there. In Brit Lit, we started with Beowulf. I barely remember anything about it aside from it beginning with the word HWAET but I think bad stuff happened in the woods. Then we read some Canterbury Tales, which featured equally forgotten evil happenings in the woods. Seven centuries and sundry poems, plays, and novels later, it was obvious that there was a marked trend correlating the woods and wickedness.

I’m not a Comparative Literature major, but I’d bet that this is a running theme throughout world literature, or at least literature from forested parts of the world. There’s something distinctly inhuman about the woods. You can get lost in them. People can hide in them. They’re unknowable in a way, both enticing and frightening, a paradox Bryson captures perfectly as he attempts to walk the 2,000 plus miles of the Appalachian Trail.

My introduction has made this book sound dreadfully serious. It’s really not. The author discusses lighter topics too. Disclaimer: I love Bill Bryson. There are few writers in the world who can captivate me when writing about a subject I have no interest in. His success derives from his relatability. He tends to approach subjects as a layman so that the reader, a fellow layman, can connect. It’s also probably because he’s hilarious.

Evidence for previous statement:

“She’s pretty ugly, isn’t she” he said with a big, incongruous beam. I sought for tact. “Well, only compared with other women.”

and

After reading this description of bear attacks in a field guide—“The typical black bear inflicted injury is minor and usually involves only a few scratches or light bites.”—Bryson responds, “Pardon me, but what exactly is a light bite? Are we talking a playful wrestle and gummy nips? I think not.”

Bryson has this delightful American-British hybrid style. He’s a genius with adverbs and adjectives—take this description of America’s most famous “outdoorsman”: “the inestimably priggish and tiresome Henry David Thoreau.” My only complaint is his humor can be a tad too biting at times. I think some Southerners might take offense to his estimations of them.

A Walk in the Woods inspired me to try hiking and to get over my ingrained fear of the woods. It’s part memoir, part humor, part trail guide, and part investigative reporting.* It plays on the innate human fear of the woods and the unknown but the equally innate human ambition to conquer that unknown. And it’s fascinating.

*As for investigative reporting, I’m thinking of Bryson’s exposé on the Forest Service Rangers. Apparently the purpose of the Forest Service isn’t to host happy family picnics but to accommodate forest destruction for private business interests. Bryson includes another story about how the Park Service “discovered and eradicated in the same instant a new species of fish.” Classic.

4 out of 5 stars