‘A Walk in the Woods’ by Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods by Bill BrysonHow does it feel to cross more than 2,000 miles of trail by foot over fourteen states? What would it take to live in the wilderness and carry all of your necessities on your back? Why undergo such an expedition? What would you find about yourself?

These are the questions that Bill Bryson asks himself at the outset of A Walk in the Woods, an autobiographical account of Bryson’s trek across the Appalachian Trail. In the beginning of the book, Bryson is a naïve and, by many standards, amateur hiker who decides that he is going to hike the 2,000+ mile Appalachian Trail by himself. With guidance, he sets out to procure the gear and expertise that he needs to make it to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Bryson quickly becomes overwhelmed by the prospect of hiking, sleeping, camping, cooking, and travelling entirely alone and is relieved when an old acquaintance, Stephen Katz, calls up to ask if he can join the excursion. Though as Bryson’s wife reminds him, he and the alcoholic Katz do not get along very well, Bryson is nonetheless willing and eager to have anybody join him on his long and trying adventure.

The two men, not in the best shape, and with minimal backpacking experience, head out into the wild of Georgia with an aim to make their way to Maine. Encountering all types of characters that you would think could only exist in fiction; Bryson and Katz spend their days trekking along the famed trail. The reader grasps snippets of their often vulgar (especially on Katz’s end) conversations, as well as Bryson’s musings about life, nature, commercialism, and the hardships of the trail. Intermixed among the action of their travels is history of the areas through which they are passing, as well as facts of ecology, zoology and other interesting topics.

More than just a book about hiking, A Walk in the Woods shows the often ambiguous and contradictory nature of people and life in general. Often vacillating between joy and despair, Katz and Bryson experience a range of emotions and desires as they encounter trials and tribulations far beyond any they could have imagined. At times Bryson talks of the eerie and demonic nature of the forest, while at other points he laments the overpowering hold of commercialism in the modern day.

At its utmost core, A Walk in the Woods is about living life, taking chances, and knowing your limits; it is about finding successes even in the face of seemingly certain failure and about accepting an unexpected outcome as something more than defeat. Not at all what the reader anticipates in the beginning, A Walk in the Woods ends with a twist that reflects the uncertainty and ambiguity of human nature itself.

Now a major motion picture starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, released on September 2, 2015, A Walk in the Woods  was also re-released by Broadway Books in 2015.

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FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘Spinster’ by Kate Bolick

Spinster by Kate BolickA book with the title Spinster immediately evokes images of bag ladies, cat ladies, and posh, man-hating ladies with better things to do than marry someone of the opposite sex. At first Kate Bolick’s Spinster, an autobiographical look into the author’s own life as well as that of five prominent female writers who impacted Bolick, seemed to be a book filled with such characters of the above described demeanor and mindset. This wasn’t quite the case though.

Within the first page, Bolick claims that ideas and questions of marriage “define every woman’s existence.” I have to admit that I was a little put off about the direction Spinster seemed to be taking off in. Sure, I understand that the idea of and questions surrounding marriage effect a large population of women; however, I wholly disagree that these ideas or questions define every woman. It seemed that Bolick was taking it upon herself to determine universal truths for women regarding men, relationships, and marriage. This was aggravating to me as a woman who does not personally align with these thoughts and ideas.

Nonetheless, the book proved unavoidably engaging. Bolick’s interweaving of the lives of Maeve Brennan, Neith Boyce, Edna Millay, Edith Wharton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman with her own made the narrative read more like a novel, creating a cadence that sped the book along at an almost non-stop pace. Not only does Bolick draw on historical experiences from her own life and those of her “influencers,” but she also examines situations from psychological and sociological viewpoints compelling the reader to use these same lenses to examine similar situations in her own life.

Bolick also discusses the hatred of time that single people experience. “You hate it, rail against it, do whatever you can to get rid of it-” This is again an assumption that can’t be made universal. As someone who has been single nearly all of my life and who loves my alone time both when single and even now when I am not single, I can confidentially say that I’ve never wished away time out of loneliness or any other reason for that matter. To me, the issues mentioned above seem more seated in a lack of fundamental contentment with the self rather than with being single.

As the narrative progressed, I began to see that Spinster is not necessarily about being single or about men at all. Rather, the central idea of the book focuses on self-awareness and self-confidence. Bolick admits that in her past, her own self-perception was often informed and molded by the men whom she shared her life with, and thus her adventure into spinsterhood began a much needed journey of self-discovery. In the end, Bolick advocates for self-fulfillment through independence, and not necessarily physical independence from a significant other, but rather independence for yourself before you even engage with that other.

Spinster isn’t about men, or a man, or a woman’s relationship to a man, it is about a woman’s relationship with, and discovery of, herself. And in that, it is a fantastic and introspective work.

Read more nonfiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

“Black Sabbath: Symptom of the Universe” by Mick Wall

Black Sabbath biography by Mick WallBlack Sabbath: Symptom of the Universe (St. Martin’s Press) by Mick Wall is a fully comprehensive biography of not only the legendary self-same titled metal band but of each of the core band members of the group.

The 320 page book spans the entire career of the band and its diverging members up through their reunion tour in 2013. Perhaps the most interesting time periods portrayed, though, cover the lesser known years of the band’s youth before they were Black Sabbath. To learn that guitarist Tony Iommi bullied Ozzy Osbourne in primary school or that when Ozzy first joined the band he had a shaved head were interesting, odd facts that made the narrative more fully engaging, especially for a Sabbath fan who might know a good deal about the band to begin with. Though fans might be aware of the fact that Iommi lost the tips of two fingers in a factory accident, they are less likely to know that he made substitute fingers out of a melted down bottle so that he could continue to play guitar.

At first the reader is drawn into the emotional pull of the band’s inception and the excitement of their finally being recognized for their obscure and novel style of music. However, since the book covers such a large expanse of time, reading about the continual rise and fall of the band can become a bit burdensome and repetitive. This though, a fact of the band’s existence, was something that couldn’t be avoided by Wall.

Wall, a writer, editor, and press agent, writes Black Sabbath: Symptom of the Universe almost as if it were a novel. His descriptive language and storytelling style, though, does err to the side of grandiose and can be rather overbearing. There is a sense of hyperbolic animation that at times detracts from the pure sentiment that could have been conveyed in merely telling the story rather than interposing adjectival descriptions in a scene where the emotion and verve are obvious to the reader.  Wall does his best to tell the band’s history from as many viewpoints as possible, lending a level of intrigue to the text in the dissimilarities portrayed. Though he clearly shows bias in terms of which perspective he favors, he still strives to include multiple viewpoints that the reader is able to interpret on her own.

The story of Black Sabbath, of Ozzy Osbourne, of Ronnie James Dio, and of the numerous other band members who played a part in the history of both Black Sabbath’s success and demise is told in a complete and linear manner that leaves little left to be imagined.

Slated to be released by St. Martin’s Press April 14, 2015, you can preorder Black Sabbath: Symptom of the Universe by Mick Wall at your local bookstore.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me by the publisher in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

Read more nonfiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

“Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania” by Erik Larson

Dead Wake by Erik LarsonDead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson tells the story of the famed Lusitania, the passenger vessel sunk by a German submarine on May 7, 1915. Aside from the tragedy and horror of the event, the ship’s demise became solidified in history because it became one of the turning points in America’s involvement in World War I. Larson, best-selling author of Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts, is known for his unique ability to retell historical events with a literary quality paralleled only by novels of fiction.

Reading Dead Wake feels like reading a history textbook that’s far more interesting and accessible than your average 600+ page academic compilation of events. A large part of this intrigue is owed to Larson’s profile of individuals whose lives were bound up in the Lusitania’s last voyage. Larson zeros in on the Lusitania’s captain William Thomas Turner, the U-20 submarine’s captain who sunk the Lusitania Walther Schwieger, as well as a number of passengers aboard the vessel. While some of the information provided can falter to the side of dry or disinteresting, for the most part Larson provides a strong platform for the reader to build empathy and connection with the “characters.”

We meet Charles Lauriat, a bookseller and collector who was travelling across the Atlantic with a rare copy of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Other notable figures included Theodate Pope, “the first female architect licensed in Connecticut,” through who Larson shows the gross injustices done to women in the early 1900’s. Perhaps the most memorable and intimate though is the portrait Larson paints of the then United States President Woodrow Wilson. Larson not only shows the figure known to the public, but delves into the intimate life of Wilson’s pining love for Edith Galt.

Larson’s sources ranged from letters to diaries to news reports and beyond, and by far the most engaging aspect of the novel is the number of quotes that he includes. Not only are these snippets of discourse and dialogue fascinating in and of themselves, but they are also a window into the hearts and nature of their speakers.  Admiral Scheer of the German fleet was quoted as saying:

“Does it really make any difference, purely from the human point of view, whether those thousands of men who drown wear naval uniforms or belong to a merchant ship bringing food and munitions to the enemy, thus prolonging the war and augmenting the number of women and children who suffer during the war?”

Juxtaposed by this statement is that of Austrian U-boat commander Georg von Trapp who said “we [U-boat soldiers] are like highway men, sneaking up on an unsuspecting ship in such a cowardly fashion.” von Trapp envied those in the trenches and aboard ships for their closeness and intimacy with war that he felt gave them the moral advantage of actin on rage, fear and out of self-defense.

This and other statements by German, British, American and other country’s prominent naval and political figures provide insight into the general attitude of each country’s militaristic force. These quotes and notes though are not meant to act as general blanket statements for whole nations. Larson points out “that while on distant patrol the [U-boat] captain received no orders from superiors” and was thereby empowered to sink any vessel he saw fit. Because of this, Larson points out that not all U-boats and not all captains were the same: “there were cruel boats and chivalrous boats, lazy boats and energetic boats.”

Schwieger’s boat was a notably cruel boat, though as Larson points out Schwieger claimed he did not know before launching his torpedo at the Lusitania which vessel he was attacking. Larson also notes that this claim was highly unlikely. However, true to his objective telling of historical facts, Larson makes no accusations or assumptions; rather he presents the facts for the reader to decide how to interpret them. That’s not to say that Larson’s tone doesn’t sometimes betray his own feelings toward a person, nation, etc. but it does reflect the author’s intent on telling an historical accurate account.

These concrete facts extend to the survivors’ accounts of the ship’s wreck as well, as Larson explores the realities of what it means to face death and come out on the other side alive. Many passengers noted their pervasive sense of calm during the whole ordeal, and a number commented on the beauty and serenity of the sky as they floated on their backs in the 55 degree water.  These passages are what imbues Larson’s novel with the sentiment and verdure of a truly human experience that lifts the “characters” from their places on the page and makes them even more tangible and relatable and empathetic way.

Larson’s historical accuracy as well as the coupling of his statistical reporting and human profiling makes for a thoroughly engaging novel that though it may at times teeter at the edge of tedium, comes out as a strong and informative piece from which readers have much to learn.

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania was released by Crown Publishing on March 10, 2015 and can be found at your local bookstore.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me by the publisher in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

“Bad Feminist” by Roxane Gay

Bad Feminist by Roxane GayBad Feminist by Roxane Gay is a collection of essays that explores topics of race, gender, politics, feminism and the ambiguities inherent in the world despite these categorizations. Perhaps most importantly, though, Bad Feminist is the amassed thoughts of one self-proclaimed “bad feminist:” an influential and conscientious woman provoking her readers to think differently about any number of uncomfortable subject matters.

Gay talks about what many people ignore, bury, or flat out deny in a way that is not only engaging but also relatable. She discusses and problematizes issues surrounding rape, what it means to be overweight, and women’s reproductive rights all while tying in examples from her personal life as well as from popular culture. Gay also addresses the preconceived notions of feminism and disputes the long standing idea that all women who are feminists are militant man haters.

Despite the fact that some of Gay’s attributes may seem to conflict with common conceptions of feminism, she still loves the color pink, dreams of love, and freely admits that she “enjoy[s] fairy tales.” This does not mean that she is ignorant to the complicated issues bound up in the traditional fairy tale model. The overly confident Prince Charming and the often complicit and inert female characters are still problematic, and Gay recognizes and addresses these issues in her own work.

Gay explains how in her novel An Untamed State, she endeavors to tell the typical fairy tale story in reverse, going from a state of happiness to a state of terror, to some sort of return. Gay has “no problem with darkness, sorrow, pain, or unhappiness,” but she strives to “complicate these themes…[to] achieve a more complete, complex understanding of happiness ” even in a story involving kidnapping, rape and the shaking of human morality.

Perhaps the most rattling of Gay’s musings revolves around sexual violence. Gay acknowledges that “we talk about rape, but” she notes “we don’t carefully talk about rape.” Rape victims are often further victimized by others besides the perpetrator, terms like “rape culture” are thrown around carelessly, and society engages in humor associated with rape and sexual violence. Gay confesses, that she is exhausted even talking about the topic. However, she “consider[s] her responsibility as a writer…to critique rape culture intelligently and illuminate the realities of sexual violence without exploiting the subject.”

In moments of raw humanity, Gay questions whether she is in fact “contributing to the cultural numbness” that allows, invites and encourages the ignorant ideologies about race, women, rape and other topics to flourish. But as Gay notes, she “would rather be a bad feminist, than no feminist at all.” Taking action is vital, but Gay suggest that accepting ambiguity and allowing for imperfections in one’s self and in one’s culture is perhaps even more vital. With Bad Feminist, Gay makes clear that nothing is clean cut, few things are unambiguous, and everything is complicated.

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‘Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen’ by Mary Norris

Cover of April 2015 release Between You & MeBetween You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen is copy editor Mary Norris’ autobiographical style manual of sorts detailing her own voyage to The New Yorker’s copy desk and her encounters with the god- awful grammar she’s had to face at her job and in her everyday life. Not in any way diminutive or overbearing, Norris’ stern but open-minded perspective offers rules more as suggestions based on context rather than mandates required by grammatical law. Constantly throwing out expletives (not to mention an entire chapter on the inclusion of obscenities in print) and always roping in an air of comedy, Norris’ book is much more than just a style guide or grammar book: it’s a fun and inspirational glimpse into the success of a hardworking, resilient, language-loving woman.

Between You & Me features lessons on who vs whom, the correct usage of colons and dashes, as well as issues concerning apostrophes in our contemporary, digital, sales-driven age. Aside from these, though, are chapters delving into the history of the pencil, Norris’ relationship with her transgender sister (which she uses to illustrate the issues surrounding pronouns), and snippets of linguistic history. The author never fails to tie her personal life back to the didactic center of the book in a way that both enhances the lesson being taught and provides a tether of empathy to Norris so that the reader cares about her as the book’s author and not just the narrative voice.

For any English major who has doubted her choices in education, Norris’s story is divinely motivating as she details her early years working in a cheese factory and her journey  to The New Yorker offices. For any writer, editor, or human being who has ever felt an ounce of doubt concerning the work that she creates, Norris stands as an archetypal model for making mistakes and moving past them. She constantly refers to grammatical blunders she’s made herself or missed in editing, and she often questions her own grammatical judgment. But wait, she’s a copy editor at The New Yorker! Shouldn’t she know everything? Shouldn’t she be perfect? Norris makes very clear that she’s human, just like every other person in the world who experiences self-doubt. She not only admits her mistakes, but she embraces them and explains to the reader what she’s learned from them.

Aside from purely grammatical insights, Norris also breaks into the philosophy and ethics of grammar with the advent of feminism and other cultural shifts related to gender, technology, social media and more. She brings to light issues and conversations that are very much alive in the cannon today, and offers insight, perspective and opinion, though she often admits that there is no easy answer to the grammatical wonders of our world. As she states, particularly in relation to the comma, but as a metaphor for grammar and the book as a whole: “…follow some rules, sure, but in the end what you’re after is clarity of meaning.”

Norris may be adamant about certain grammatical rules, like pronouns matching their antecedents, but there are others that, as she points out, are subject to the particular style manual of the publication a person is writing for – and then of course there is the issue of personal preference, and then there’s also the necessity for clarity. She drives home that making yourself crazy over a single misplaced apostrophe is not worth extreme anxiety: recognize it, pick up, and move on.

Overall, Norris provides goddess-like insight into common yet difficult grammatical issues with clarity and ease of understanding while keeping readers engaged with humor, history and a sense of humanity.

Scheduled for release from W.W Norton & Company in April 2015, Between You & Me Adventures of a Comma Queen is the perfect book for any literary lover and a superb choice for any reader interested in language. Pre-order the book from your local bookstore today!

Read more nonfiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

Disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of this book for a fair and honest review of the text.